From the author of Don’t Die, My Love comes this young adult novel that intertwines a family saga with a grand love story. This novel stands alone or can be read as the companion to The Year of Luminous Love and Wishes and Dreams. For fans of Sarah Dessen’s The Moon and More and Ann Brashares’s Forever in Blue.
Ciana Beauchamp hasn’t seen or heard from Jon Mercer in months. Until now. He’s back in Windemere to see her. Deep down Ciana is filled with joy and relief. She has never stopped loving him. It’s proof of Jon’s love that he has returned, but what will their future be?
When tragedy strikes, almost no one in town is left unscathed. Tragedy has a way of bringing people together, but it can also tear them apart. Ciana can hardly face her choices, but she knows she must, and there are now people who she can turn to if only she is willing.
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A lone horse and rider stood at the top of Bellmeade’s long tree-lined driveway. Ciana Beauchamp had noticed the duo as she passed a window inside her house but hadn’t paid them much mind. Horseback riders often passed her property on the road fronting her land. Yet this pair had been motionless at the entrance for a while.
She couldn’t see them clearly. Gloom from the darkening sky had gathered from the west, promising autumn rain. Plus she’d been in a funk all day. It was October twenty-fourth. It would have been Arie Winslow’s twentieth birthday. If she had lived.
Her friend, Eden McLauren, had gone into town, and her mother, Alice Faye, was banging around in the kitchen. The final harvest was completed, and Ciana should have felt peaceful satisfaction, but she didn’t. She was sad, on edge, with the horse and rider adding to her tension.
She’d thought about Arie all day, remembering the trip to Italy with Arie and Eden the summer before, remembering the good times, glossing over the hurts. She missed Arie sometimes as much now as she had on the day she fled her earthly life. What she wouldn’t give to see her, talk to her one more time.
Through the window, Ciana saw the horse stamp, growing restless. She squinted, trying to see the rider more clearly. Exasperated, she stepped out onto the wraparound veranda of the old Victorian house. The rider urged his mount forward and the horse came up the drive under tight rein, almost as if it knew where it was going. The rider, a man, sat tall in the saddle, and as he drew nearer, she saw that the horse was a buckskin, toffee tan with a black mane and tail. Ciana’s heartbeat quickened, and her breath pressed like a weight inside her breast.
At the front steps, the cowboy removed his hat and hung it on the horn of the saddle. He slid off the horse, grabbed a leather bag, and laid it on the top step. Ripe red apples rolled from the pouch, stopping at her feet. “Here’s a gift,” Jon Mercer said.
Ciana’s chin trembled. She was almost overwhelmed by the sight of him and the gesture, but she kept her composure, squared her shoulders, and asked, “Who told you about the apples?”
“Arie. It was one of her favorite stories about your grandparents. She said it was how Charles came to court Olivia. Fresh apples were all he had to offer.”
Ciana saw instantly that Arie had shared the story in a final act of kindness, when she had realized the truth about Ciana and Jon. “Arie died in April,” Ciana said stoically, feeling old resentments toward Jon rise.
“Abbie let me know. I had asked her to call when . . . after it was over.”
Ciana felt slighted that Jon had asked Eric’s wife and Arie’s brother. “She was my best friend. I would have let you know if you’d asked me.”
“I know. But I asked her instead. Thought we needed the space.” His horse, Caramel, once Arie’s horse, wandered to the grassy lawn and began to graze. “How’s Eden?”
Ciana needed space, all right. “She lives here now with me and Mom. Some changes around here too. I’ve taken in horses to board for their owners. I don’t have an empty stall for Caramel.” She added the last to let him know he couldn’t just walk back into her life or her heart without explanations, and certainly not without permission.
“I talked to Bill on my way from Texas. He’ll let me crash at his bunkhouse and board Caramel.”
Ciana glanced up at the sky and the gathering rain-filled clouds. “Well, you might want to head back before the rains come. They look to be gully-washers.”
Jon propped his boot against the bottom porch step. “Not until you tell me if you meant it.”
“That last kiss you gave me. Did you mean it? Did it matter?”
She blinked, conjuring up the heat from that cold March day when he’d loaded his horse and driven away. “Why now? Suddenly you have to know?”
His jaw muscle tightened. “Yes. I need to know. Why did you kiss me like that when I was walking away and leaving this place? I don’t get it.”
She felt a ripple of irritation. “And I don’t get you. Seven months and not one word from you.”
His expression tightened. “I didn’t know what to say.”
His answer annoyed her further. “How about a phone call saying, ‘Hi. I’m fine. How are you? I miss you.’ What’s wrong with saying that?”
He swept her face with his green eyes, recited, “ ‘Hi. I’m fine. How are you? I miss you’ . . . every minute of every day and night,” he added softly.
She purposefully steeled herself from the effect he was having on her. “Why have you come back?”
“Because everything I want in my life is right here.”
Just then the screen door opened and Alice Faye stepped out. “Eden’s on her way and supper is” She stared. Her face broke into a smile. “Why, Jon Mercer! You’ve come back to us!”
Alice Faye beamed at him. “A sight for sore eyes, you are. How’s your daddy?”
“Settled in at the county facility. Safe.”
“Any recovery from his stroke?”
“Not much progress. Doctors say this is the best he’ll ever be.”
Alice Faye shook her head, perked up, and said, “Stay for supper.”
His gaze found Ciana’s. “I couldn’t”
“Tie your horse up in the barn before the rain starts.” She glanced at Ciana, and the older woman’s expression was challenging. “You’re invited. I’ll go set another place.” The door slammed behind her.
“Mother’s flexing her muscle,” Ciana said, with a note of bitterness. Jon’s look was questioning, but she wouldn’t elaborate. Why had he intruded into her life now, when she’d almost put him behind her? She had missed him, but she had no idea what lay ahead for her . . . the fate of Bellmeade, perhaps the fight of her life to keep it from financial ruin, a possible permanent riff between herself and her mother about selling the land. And what of the things he’d said he wanted, a spread of his own to breed and train horses? How would they fit into the picture?
“What do we do now?” she asked.
“I don’t know. I was hoping we could figure it out together.”
On the lawn, Caramel grew restless, sensing the approaching bad weather. “You’d better tend to your horse,” Ciana said.
Jon searched her face, nodded brusquely. “This isn’t over between us, Ciana.”
She wasn’t sure if he meant the discussion or the relationship. She folded her arms, the past returning in a flood of painful memories. “Today was Arie’s . . . would have been . . . Arie’s birthday.”
Jon’s eyes saddened. “I didn’t forget. Is there a statute of limitations on your forgiveness?”
Ciana winced. His question hit her psyche hard and she was ashamed. Her simple words were packed with emotional dynamite, and it was unkind of her to have reminded him of what had almost torn them apart. “Eat with us,” she said, offering an olive branch.
He nodded again, turned, and walked to Caramel, then picked up her reins, and led her toward the barn.
“Sorry,” Ciana whispered, knowing he couldn’t hear her but knowing she needed to say it. She fidgeted, waiting for him to return to the house, watched the rolling clouds, heard the low rumble of distant thunder. The smell of dampness lay heavy in the air, and dead leaves danced in eddies of swirling wind. The day, once bright and calm, had turned darker, cooler. The winds of change were blowing. An omen? Ciana shivered.
A storm was coming. . . .
“Ciana? This is Pat Winslow. How have you been?”
Ciana’s throat tightened with Arie’s mother’s voice on her cell phone. Swallowing down emotion, she said, “All right, Pat. How about you?”
“Oh . . . you know, some days are better than others.”
Since Arie’s funeral, Ciana had talked to Patricia twice and run into her once in town. Patricia had looked wan and too thin. “How’s Mr. Winslow?” she asked. Swede, Arie’s father, was in the cabinetry business in town. “How’s he doing?”
“Busy. He’s buried in work, but it’s seeing him through his worst days.”
“That’s good,” Ciana said, knowing that hard work had helped her through her first few grief-filled months after Arie’s death. “What can I do for you?”
“Could you and Eden come by the house this week?”
Ciana’s heart squeezed. She hadn’t been to Arie’s home since the night Arie had said her final goodbye to her and Eden. The memory was almost too much to bear. “Iwe’ll come,” she said. “Any special time?”
“How about Saturday around one?”
“We’ll be there,” Ciana promised, confident Eden would drop everything to accompany her. Death could not bury the lifelong friendship among the former threesome. What mattered now was homage to the living.
Pat opened the front door before Ciana took her finger off the doorbell. She smiled, pulling Ciana and Eden into the foyer. “Oh my, you two look beautiful! Eden, country life really agrees with you!” Ciana almost unraveled seeing Pat’s eyes tear up. “You were way too skinny. I’m glad to see some meat on your bones.”
“All this fresh air and country cooking.” Eden thrust out the large basket she held. “From our garden. Plus Alice Faye’s fresh-baked bread.”
Pat raised the dish towel covering the top and peeked at the contents. “Looks luscious.”
“Well, this time of year only the squash is fresh picked, and I canned the beans and tomatoes in the summer,” she said proudly. Her eyes darted to Ciana. “With Alice Faye’s help, of course. She a pro. I’m a wannabe cook.”
It wasn’t a secret that Eden had become the helping hands Ciana had never been to her mother. The outdoors suited her, the hard work and farm chores. Ciana didn’t begrudge Eden one minute of time she spent with Alice Faye after the neglect Eden had faced from Gwen, her bipolar mother. The added benefit was that it kept Ciana and her mom from fighting about Bellmeade’s future.
Pat linked her arms with Ciana’s and Eden’s. “Come into the living room. Sit. Let me take good long looks at you.”
The formal room where Arie had spent her last days had been cleared of the hospital bed and sickroom equipment and returned to its visitors-only status, but Ciana felt Arie’s ghostly presence everywhere. She eased onto the sofa beside Eden, and Patricia took the chair across from the coffee table where Arie had sat the night she’d told her friends she was quitting chemo treatments.
Pat asked, “Want some sweet tea?” Both girls declined. “Relax,” Pat said with a smile. “I asked you here to tell you good news.” Her eyes glowed. “Eric and Abbie are having a baby.”
“Awesome!” Eden blurted out.
Ciana whooped. “That’s wonderful! When?”
“Next spring. In early May, her doctor says, but babies come when they feel like it. Eric came two weeks early, and Arie was so late, I thought I’d be pregnant until Christmas.” Her expression softened as she talked about Arie, then clouded. “Oh, I’m babbling. Forgive me.”
“No, no. It’s fine. Really,” Eden said.
Pat stood abruptly. “Follow me. I’ll show you what I’m doing with her old bedroom.” She led them down the hall of the ranch-style house, paused at the closed door that had once been Arie’s room. When she’d turned twelve, when she’d been told her cancer had returned and that she’d have to go back onto chemo, she’d wanted her whole room painted bright pink to help her feel happy during the expected difficult weeks ahead of her.
“We’re changing it into a nursery for the baby.” Pat opened the freshly painted white door and led Ciana and Eden into the room. “I could hardly come in here for a long time after . . . well, afterward. But when Eric and Abbie told us about the baby, I knew it was time to make changes. I think Arie would have loved it.”
The now empty room under renovation smelled of paint and new lumber. Three walls were the color of rich vanilla ice cream, the fourth wall a sizzling lime green, and Arie’s pink carpet was replaced by smooth, dark, wood plank flooring. “We donated all her furniture to charity,” Pat said, as if apologizing. “I realized after a time that the room was turning into a shrine and it wasn’t right. It wasn’t what Arie would have wanted. I’ve already picked out a crib and a Nana rocking chair.” Pat embraced her new status with a smile. “And Swede’s built cabinetry to grow with the baby.” A bank of white cabinets, bookshelves, and a desk surface lined one wall. “He’s building a toy box at his shop.”
“The room looks great,” Ciana said, relieved that it was true.
“We worked on a lot of class projects in here,” Eden said, glancing around fondly. “Any idea if it’ll be a boy or girl?”
“Not yet. But the kids will find out on a sonogram visit. Do you want me to tell you when we know?”
“Yes,” Ciana and Eden said in unison.
They followed Pat out of the room. “Which brings me to another reason for asking the two of you over.” She paused at a small hall table. “Cleaning out Arie’s dresser and desk and all her drawers was hard. But I did it.”
“We would have helped,” Eden offered.
Pat shook her head. “It was a project only I could do. I created a memory box. I figure someday her little niece or nephew might want to know more about Aunt Arie.” Pat’s gaze drifted to an imagined future, then snapped back to the present. “Anyway, in her bedside table she left letters addressed to each of you. Still sealed,” she said, handing each a long white envelope.
Immediately, tears stung Ciana’s eyes.
“I’m sorry I didn’t do the clean-out project sooner. If I had, you’d have gotten these sooner. Not sure when she wrote the letters, but it’s on me that they’re arriving so late.”
Eden pressed the letter to her breast. “I’m just happy to have mine, and believe me, I’ll treasure it.”
Ciana nodded, not trusting her voice. She’d read it when she was alone and able to wallow in a good cry.
Eden sat on the bed in Olivia’s former bedroom, a room she’d begun to think of as her own, even though it wasn’t, even though it never would be. In truth she had no home. She held Arie’s letter in her lap, already twice read, and considered what her deceased friend had written.
March, Before I Sleep Forever!
Guilt is a cruel taskmaster, and my guilty feelings are yelling at me. I know what you’re thinking . . . “Why do you feel guilty, Arie?” Think about it. If not for me getting sick in Italy, you’d be on a walkabout with Garret, or at the very least somewhere on planet earth with him. Don’t shake your head! You know I’m right. That guy’s crazy about you. I know because he told me so, and how could I doubt an Aussie with a smile like his?
So now that it’s established (Garret wants Eden), I’m betting you’re crazy about him too. It might not be LOVE just yet, but it is love waiting to happen. . . . I see the signs. Trust me. After what you went through with Tony, don’t shy away from love. Garret is in a whole different category from dirtbag Tony.
But I’m wandering off purpose. With guilt weighing on me and with nothing but time on my hands between drugnaps, plus a computer and the Internet, I decided to try and find Garret for you! I knowMYOB. But I can’t. So humor me. Let me tell you what I found.
Except for his magazine articles, he’s invisible. No social websites, no links to his name in Australia. Surprising, but I guess the world’s full of people with no Internet profile. So, I confess, I haven’t found him. (I’ll bet your heart sank to your knees when you read that sentence!) BUT don’t despair. I have found the next best thing: Colleen Galen, the Irish girl in Garret’s group. Who can forget her? Her email address is at the bottom of this letter in red ink, ensuring that you can’t miss it. I would have emailed her myself and pretended to be you, but thought I’d best leave it to you to chase your own dreams. So, dear friend, contact her ASAP. You owe it to yourself to find happiness. Never a guarantee when you catch up with it, but always an adventure looking for it. Be happy!
I love you, Eden!