Will Broughton rolled into his hometown on a Friday evening with a sad country song on the radio and everything he owned in the back of his black 1992 Ford F-150 pickup.
The town had the dreary look common around New Hampshire in the second week of November. The leaves had already gone out in a blaze of color, leaving the trees bare. And snow hadn’t arrived yet to give everything a New England winter postcard flair.
There was a new gas station since the last time he’d been home, one of those national chains, and the car dealership had put on a fancy new addition with a lot of glass. Even the neighborhood where he’d grown up had changed over the years. Many of the larger homes had been broken into apartments and there were a lot more cars in the driveways.
But when he pulled onto his street, nothing had really changed. The cars were newer and a lot of clapboards had given way to vinyl siding, but it still looked like the stomping grounds of his childhood. When he’d been home a few months before, he’d noticed the big oak tree in the Anders’ yard was gone, and his mom had told him it had fallen prey to a heavy snow load the winter before.
He pulled the truck into his mom’s driveway and killed the engine. The big New Englander his parents had bought shortly after Will was born still had clapboards painted a creamy vanilla color, with deep blue shutters framing each window. The porch was painted the same blue, and the attached, three-bay garage matched the house.
Leaving everything in the truck for the time being, Will walked the flagstone path to the front steps as his mother stepped out onto the porch, a shawl she’d knit herself pulled around her shoulders and her feet shoved into sheepskin-lined suede slippers. Only when he was halfway up the stairs did he see the way her brows were drawn together, causing worry lines across her forehead. He should have let her know he was coming.
“What happened, Will? What are you doing here?”
“I got sick of wandering around and decided to come home.”
When she opened her arms, he bent forward slightly so she could hug him. The shawl draped around his shoulders along with her arms, and he breathed in the scent of Mom. As a child, he’d wrapped himself in the soft yarn whenever he needed comfort and his mother wasn’t available for a hug.
Being enveloped in it now brought a surge of emotion and nostalgia to the surface. He squeezed her tightly, not sure if he was giving or receiving the comfort this time. Probably a little bit of both.
He’d flown home in June to bury his dad. The heart attack was so unexpected, it was all Will could do to get his mom and sister through the funeral and burial. They’d put off ordering the granite headstone until later, so Will had flown home again in September. They’d gathered at the cemetery on his dad’s birthday for the stone’s placement. It had been almost as hard a day as the actual funeral, and he’d stayed close to a week before leaving again.
“You didn’t have to come home, Will,” she said, releasing him and stepping back so she could look up at his face. “I know I was a little emotional when you left, but I was just…having a moment.”
Having a moment? She’d cried when he left and the memory of those tears had haunted him all the way back to Ohio. Then they’d kept right on haunting him for weeks until he told his boss he was done, threw his crap in the truck and started driving east.
“Thanksgiving’s coming. And Christmas.” Their first without his dad. He knew from experience how hard that was going to be for her.
“Why didn’t you call me and tell me you were coming?”
“Because I knew you’d tell me you were fine and try to talk me out of it.” And because she might have succeeded since flying back and forth for holidays was a hell of a lot easier on him than coming back to his hometown for good. “I would have spent the entire winter worrying about you.”
“You don’t have to worry about me. We have good neighbors and Erin stops by when she gets a chance.”
And with a husband and two young daughters, his sister probably didn’t get the chance very often. Not that he blamed her or held it against her. She had a busy life and it was a forty-minute drive one way if there was no traffic. Their home was just far enough away so stopping in for coffee required advanced planning and the drive threw off her kids’ nap times.
“Even with the extended handle on the roof rake, Erin’s too short to clean the snow off the roof.”
His mom smiled, which is what he’d been going for. “You’ve been driving a long time. Come inside and I’ll get you a drink. Relax a bit before we get your stuff out of the truck.”
He followed her into the house and hung his coat on the same hook he’d been using for as long as he could remember. He’d hit the bathroom first, and then have a cup of coffee at the kitchen table, where all the best visiting was done.
The laughter of a small child echoed through the downstairs and Will stopped dead in his tracks. It sounded like it had come from the living room, but he couldn’t bring himself to walk through the doorway and look.
I can’t wait until this old house is full of babies’ laughter.
His mom had said that the day he and Emily had spilled the news she was pregnant. They’d been sitting at the dining room table with his parents, having just demolished his mom’s legendary peach cobbler, and seeing the joy light up their faces had been one of the happiest days of his life.
It wasn’t too long after he left town that Erin had called to tell him, almost apologetically, that she was pregnant. Now his mom had two granddaughters to spoil rotten, but Will did video chats with his nieces frequently and that laugh didn’t belong to either of them.
“Come meet Nathaniel,” his mother said.
Nathaniel? Will followed her into the living room and saw a blond boy stretched on the couch with his chin propped in his hands so he could see the cartoon on the television. Whoever the kid was, he felt at home in the living room.
“Nathaniel, come meet my son, Will.”
The boy sprang to his feet and walked over to extend his hand. Surprised by the gesture, Will shook it. “It’s nice to meet you, Nathaniel.”
“It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Mr. Broughton.” The little hand had a surprisingly strong and confident grip.
“You can call me Will.” Freakishly good manners for a boy that was probably six or seven, he thought. “Unless it’s against the rules for you to use my first name.”
The boy smiled. “Grammy Gail says I should call people what they like to be called.”
Grammy Gail? Will watched his mom speak to the boy for a moment before letting him go back to his show, and then he followed her into the kitchen.
She shrugged. “Christina—his mother—wasn’t comfortable with Nathaniel using just my first name, but Mrs. Broughton was too much and Miss Gail sounded ridiculous, so he calls me Grammy Gail.”
“And who is Christina?” He vaguely remembered his mom mentioning a new neighbor during one of their phone calls, but he’d been on his way out and hadn’t really paid attention to the local gossip portion of the conversation.
“She’s renting the Porters’ house. They wanted to move to Florida, but they didn’t want to sell their house, just in case they don’t like it there as much as they thought they would, so they’re renting it to Christina and Nathaniel. She’s a single mother, so Nathaniel comes and visits me after school. His mom should be here any minute. She must be running late tonight, but you’ll get to meet her.”
Oh, he’d definitely be meeting her. When he’d come home to be with his mom when they placed his dad’s headstone, there had been no mention of a Christina across the street. Now all of a sudden the woman’s kid was calling his mother Grammy Gail?
There were a lot of people in the world who wouldn’t hesitate to take advantage of a new widow’s loneliness and generosity. He intended to make damn sure this Christina person wasn’t one of them.
Christina Forrester sank into the driver’s seat of her 1996 Subaru and dropped her forehead to the steering wheel. What a day.
If anybody had ever told her that someday she’d work in a gas station convenience store and live in a rented Cape-style house in a small New Hampshire town, she would have given that somebody a polite laugh while inwardly dismissing him or her as deranged.
And if that somebody had also told her that her husband would lose literally everything they owned and end up in prison due to a financial scandal, leaving her divorced and essentially broke, she wouldn’t have believed it.
But it had happened and she’d learned very quickly she had no real friends and, having gone from the home of her wealthy father to the home of her wealthy husband, no discernible job skills. She had so few real life skills, she’d had to look up how to balance a checkbook on the computer. With the employment market still struggling, she’d lost out on job after job to people who had even a bare minimum of work experience. Until the convenience store.
She lifted her head and turned the key in the ignition. It was too cold to sit in the car feeling sorry for herself. And she was taking care of things. Her son was happy, they had a home, and Christina had a job at the QuickStop.
It was almost six-thirty by the time she pulled up her driveway and parked under the carport. She was supposed to work from ten in the morning until six o’clock, so she was home by ten after six, but her replacement had been running late. It looked like another hot dog and macaroni night at the Forrester house.
First, she had to run across the street and grab Nathaniel from Gail’s house. This was the second time Christina had run a few minutes late in the last week and she hoped the older woman wouldn’t think she was taking advantage of her. Nathaniel having a safe and loving place to be after school was everything to Christina.
Gail Broughton walking into the QuickStop had been the best thing to happen to Christina in a very long time. It had been the end of September and Christina had been working at the store for a little over a week. She and Nathaniel were living at a weekly motel and the after-school care for him was eating a bigger chunk of her paycheck than she could spare.
Gail popped into the QuickStop almost daily to get her lottery tickets and she was the sort to chat up a friendly stranger. Before the calendar had ticked into October, Christina was living across the street from Gail, in a house owned by a couple who’d wanted to live in Florida, but weren’t ready to give up their home. Nathaniel got off the bus at Gail’s house after school now and everybody was happier, especially her son.
A black pickup truck she didn’t recognize was parked in Gail’s driveway now, and Christina hoped her running late wasn’t interfering with company. She hurried across the street and up the porch steps into Gail’s house.
She went straight to the kitchen, since that’s usually where she found Gail, and almost ran smack into a solid wall of man. Stopping short, she put her hands up, just shy of putting them on the expanse of chest covered by a heather-blue Henley shirt. He had dark eyes, dark hair that curled over his ears and a frown that backed her up a step.
He was the man from the family photo hanging in the living room, she realized, which meant he was Gail’s son. According to her, Will had taken off a few months after his pregnant wife was killed by a drunk driver and had been most recently living in Ohio.
Christina had spent a few minutes looking at the framed photo once. Gail had told her it was an older picture, taken before either of her children had gotten married, and it hadn’t escaped Christina’s notice that Will Broughton was a very attractive young man.
Time certainly hadn’t done him any disservice. He’d filled out and was more rugged now, and he’d obviously spent a lot of time outdoors lately, judging by his tan. Faint lines framed his mouth and eyes, and she blushed when he raised one eyebrow as if to question why she was staring at him.
“I’m Will,” he said. “Gail’s son.”
“Christina Forrester,” she said, extending her hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
His hand closed around hers, enveloping it in tough, callused skin. “You and your son are big on manners.”
She wasn’t sure if that was meant to be a compliment or an insult, so she withdrew her hand and gave him a polite smile. “Manners are the foundation of a civilized society.”
That eyebrow rose a little bit higher. “If you say so.”
He made her nervous, though she couldn’t put her finger on why. The frown, maybe. He certainly wasn’t as smoothly sophisticated as the men she’d known in her life. He should have moved out of her way immediately, for one thing, and he shouldn’t be looking at her in a way that made her feel self-conscious about her blond ponytail and slightly coffee-stained QuickStop polo shirt. She hadn’t yet gotten the hang of managing the coffee station without spilling some on herself.
Christina turned in time to catch Nathaniel, who came running out of the living room to launch himself at her. “Hey, how was school today?”
“Good. It was pizza day!”
Christina laughed and squeezed him. “Definitely a good day.”
Since losing their personal chef—who Christina had to admit had been an arrogant food snob—and starting first grade, Nathaniel had discovered school pizza and had declared it to be the best thing he’d ever eaten.
“What’s for supper? You’re late.”
“I know I’m late. We’ll have hot dogs because they’re quick.”
“You are not having hot dogs,” Gail said from behind her son.
Christina was grateful when Will finally moved out of her way. The look he’d given her had been disconcerting and she moved forward until he was no longer in her line of vision. “I apologize for being late tonight, Gail. It seemed like everything and everybody ran behind today.”
“Those days happen, hon, which is why I keep my famous spaghetti sauce in the freezer. When Will showed up, I put the water on to boil and we’re all going to have spaghetti for supper.”
“You want to spend time with your son while he’s home. Nathaniel and I will get out of the way.”
“It’s not while I’m home this time,” Will said from behind her. “I’m just home now. For good.”
“Isn’t that wonderful?” Gail asked, happiness seeming to radiate from her.
Christina nodded and glanced over her shoulder. “Welcome home, then.”
He didn’t smile, but only gave a short nod of his head, so Christina turned away. It was hard to tell if he was an unfriendly sort in general or if he didn’t like her in particular.
“I love Grammy Gail’s basghetti,” Nathaniel said, tugging at her hand. “Please, Mommy?”
She didn’t want to sit at a table and share a meal with Will, but she knew Gail and Nathaniel well enough to know she wasn’t getting out of it. “I love her spaghetti, too. Only if you’re sure you don’t mind, Gail.”
The older woman scoffed. “I never mind having this rascal at my dinner table. Especially since he does such a good job setting it.”
Nathaniel grinned and grabbed his special stool out of the corner so he could reach the counter. Napkins first. He carried them to the table and folded each so they were rectangles instead of squares. Then he took the plates Gail handed him and set them around the kitchen table. There was a formal dining room, but Gail preferred eating in her kitchen. It was more homey, which was a sentiment Christina agreed with. She watched her son put silverware at each place setting, each item placed precisely as their staff had done back when they had staff. It made her proud and sad at the same time.
“He obviously feels at home here,” Will said.
Christina turned to face him, once again unable to interpret his tone. Was it a simple pleasantry or was it a criticism of his mother watching her son? “He loves spending time with your mom.”
She refused to give him more of the story, especially with Nathaniel in the room. There was no doubt the minute she left, Will would grill Gail about their relationship with her, if he hadn’t already. She didn’t know how long he’d been there, of course. But she was coming to the realization his somewhat intimidating manner probably stemmed from a suspicion she’d somehow latched on to his mother and was taking advantage of her.
All she could do was hope Gail would set him straight on that because after all Christina and Nathaniel had been through, losing her friendship would be a hard blow.
By the end of the meal, Will found himself relaxing and he even enjoyed listening to the chitchat at the table between the women and the boy. He still wasn’t sure what Christina’s story was, but the honest affection between her and his mother was obvious.
He figured Christina was pushing thirty, which meant she was only a couple of years younger than him, though most of the time he felt older than thirty-two. Her bangs tended to obscure her blue eyes and the hair at the end of her ponytail was a paler blond than the rest of it. A polo shirt with the QuickStop logo and jeans emphasized her slim figure and, though her fingernails were short and bare, they were perfectly shaped and filed.
When Christina caught him staring at her and gave him a questioning look, he turned his attention back to twirling spaghetti onto his fork. He much preferred listening to conversations to being part of them.
He hadn’t missed that flash of sympathy in her eyes when she first arrived and realized who he was. The guy whose pregnant wife was killed by a drunk driver and just two weeks before Christmas, poor guy. As if losing his wife and unborn child would have been so much less tragic in March.
For months after the funeral, that look and the murmurs of poor guy had followed him everywhere, until he’d thrown his stuff in his truck and headed to places where nobody knew he was that guy. Virginia. Alabama. A rough spot in Daytona Beach, where he learned he couldn’t drink and party the pain away. Texas. Missouri. He worked odd jobs in diners and garages and for landscapers to earn just enough money to keep him going.
Then he landed in Ohio. It would never feel like home, but at least it looked like home, and he was starting to admit to himself he missed New Hampshire. Then his sister had called him at six-thirty one morning to tell him their father had gotten out of bed and just collapsed onto the braided throw rug. Will had just been home to visit the family for Easter and he’d always be grateful he’d so recently sat on the porch with his dad to share a six-pack and some stories.
The trip home for the funeral had been brutal, though. The grief of his mother and sister only heightened his own, and the sympathy from friends had been nothing short of suffocating. It had dredged up the pain of losing Emily and their baby, mixed it up with the pain of losing his dad, and sent him back to Ohio. It was only when he’d come back in the fall to be there when they placed the headstone that his mother’s loss had punched through his walls and he’d realized she was alone and winter was coming.
Sure, she could hire somebody to plow her driveway and rake the snow from the roof, but would she? She’d never liked driving in the snow all that much, letting her husband run her around to do errands in the winter, so a stretch of storms could leave her with no groceries. Her tears when he left had been the last straw.
It didn’t seem she had been alone, though. His mother practically lit up when Nathaniel was in the room and taking care of the boy not only gave her something to do, but something to look forward to each day. If Christina and her son made his mother happy, that was enough for him.
“Will, you’re being awfully quiet,” his mother said, and all eyes turned to him.
“You taught me not to talk with my mouth full, so you can’t serve me the best spaghetti in three counties and then expect me to have a conversation.”
They all laughed, but it was Christina’s laughter that caught his attention. It was light, almost musical, and he liked it. Her gaze met his, full of warmth, and he felt the first stirring of physical attraction.
It was hard not to respond to the amusement on her face, so he found himself smiling at her before yanking his attention back to the spaghetti on his plate. He was supposed to be attracted to long-legged women with the promise of one night of fun in their eyes, not single moms who lived across the street and made for good company at his mother’s kitchen table. He hadn’t had an emotional response to a woman since Emily died and he had no intention of starting now.
Throw in the facts his mother was attached to Christina and she had a child, and the neighbor was totally off limits.
“Only three counties?” Christina shook her head. “I can’t believe there’s better spaghetti anywhere in the state.”
“It’s hard enough to keep her humble about her cooking,” Will said. “And I’ve heard there’s an Italian restaurant in Salem that’s amazing.”
His mother scoffed. “Ugly rumors.”
Christina laughed and, once again, Will felt that pull of attraction and tried to ignore it by stuffing a forkful of pasta in his mouth. As soon as his plate was clean, he was on his feet. He rinsed his plate before putting it and his silverware in the dishwasher.
“I should start getting settled in,” he said. “Thanks for dinner, Mom. And it was nice to meet you, Christina and Nathaniel.”
Then he got the hell out of there. But as he walked into the garage and faced the steps to his apartment, his steps slowed until he was barely moving.
Shortly after Will had proposed to Emily, he and his dad had remodeled the storage space over the three-car garage into a one-bedroom apartment for the newlyweds. It was understood that when they started a family, the living arrangement would switch. Will and Emily would take over the care and expense of the main house, freeing his parents to start wintering in Florida while keeping the apartment for summers in New Hampshire.
Emily hadn’t wanted to take on a project like that while expecting, though, so they’d decided to wait until the baby was about a year old and would start needing more space to switch the households.
Needless to say, it hadn’t happened that way and Will went up the stairs to what was supposed to be his family’s starter home. His mom went in every few weeks to dust and vacuum and generally freshen the place up, so he knew he wouldn’t have to do anything but carry his stuff up and put it away.
The staircase opened into a narrow hallway. To the right was the bathroom and bedroom. Straight ahead was the small kitchen, and to the left was the living room, which had a door to the exterior stairs.
There was very little of Emily left in the apartment. Their wedding portrait hung in the living room, and there were a few framed photographs on the shelf over the sofa. Almost everything in the kitchen had come from their wedding gift registry, which she’d definitely been in charge of. Most of the decorative choices were hers, though she’d stuck with Will’s preference for neutral tones.
With the exception of a few special things in her hope chest at the foot of their bed, most of her personal belongings were gone. Her parents had driven over from Vermont and helped him choose what to keep, what they wanted to keep, and what they’d donate. It had been too soon and he hadn’t been ready, but his mother-in-law’s grief had been awful and she’d needed to do it. So he’d done it, spent a few nights in an apartment that felt stripped of what little he’d had left of his wife, and then hit the road.
It didn’t smell like her anymore, he realized. Years and his mother’s cleaning products had given the place a generic smell, like a hotel. Taking a deep breath of the bland air, he walked across the living room and twisted the deadbolt to unlock the exterior door.
It was time to move back into the life he’d run away from.