Just The Way You Are
Take a romantic journey with Barbara Freethy to Tucker’s Landing, Oregon, where Sam and Alli Tucker have made a life together … a life about to be tested by the return of the only woman who can break them up … Alli’s sister, Tessa.” A baby brought them together — and even though Alli has always loved her strong, sexy husband Sam and the life they’ve built together, she has decided to set him free to follow his youthful dreams. It is no longer enough for her to be wife and lover when she knows she holds so little of his heart. Sam has always dreamed of a life away from the close-knit world of Tucker’s Landing, but marriage and fatherhood ended all that. Now Sam is torn between what was and what was meant to be. He must decide if it’s time to rekindle the dreams of the past … or accept Alli, and her love, just the way she is. Don’t miss this heartwrenching tale of a man torn between two sisters , the one he loved, the one he married.
“If there is one author who knows how to deliver vivid stories that tug on your emotions, it’s Barbara Freethy. JUST THE WAY YOU ARE deftly explores the drama of first loves and second chances.”
Romantic Times Magazine
“Freethy is a strong storyteller with an unerring ear for dialogue.”
The Romance Reader
“JUST THE WAY YOU ARE is a romantic, emotional journey through dreams and choices to love. Contemporary romance readers will adore this poignant, heart-tugging tale!”
AOL Fiction Forum
“Are you ready to go for a sail?” John MacGuire asked his wife. A young, handsome man, he stood on the edge of a wide sandy beach, wearing summer shorts and his favorite T-shirt. He pointed toward the water behind him, to the sailboat that bobbed gently in the quiet bay. “It’s the perfect day.”
“I can’t sail. I’m sick. I don’t know what happened, but I can’t seem to open my eyes.” Phoebe MacGuire took a quick breath as panic filled her soul and the sounds and smells of the hospital threatened to pull her out of her dream. “I’m seventy-six years old now, John. How did I get to be so old? I’m scared.”
“No need to be scared, my darling, not when I’m here.”
“But you’re not really here,” she whispered, knowing his image was nothing but a memory, and her love had been gone for a very long time.
“I miss you, Phoebe,” he said softly, his voice as gentle as the morning breeze.
“I miss you, too. Nothing has been the same since you died. You were the one who kept the family together. It was you, your strength, your vision. Without you, we fell apart. Alli and Tessa are strangers now, and I don’t know how to bring them back together.”
“Do you still have the pearls, Phoebe?”
“Of course I do.”
“Do you remember the one we found on our first anniversary? That’s when we discovered you were pregnant. Then we had a son, and later granddaughters, and we taught them to love the sea, to cherish the family, and to treasure the pearls for the strength that they gave us each year to go on, to live life to its fullest, to complete the circle.”
“But we didn’t complete it,” she said in despair. “Because you died. You left me.”
“It was my time, Phoebe, but you must finish the necklace now. The pearls weren’t meant to just be a symbol of our love, but of our family, our strength, our unity. The pearls are nothing on their own. But together in a strand, they are everything. It is the lesson we must teach Alli and Tessa.” He paused, his expression as tender as a sweet blooming rose. “I wish for our girls a love as deep and as satisfying as the one we share.”
“I want the same thing.” But as his image faded away, Phoebe wondered if even the last pearl could save Alli and Tessa from themselves.
“Daddy, did you ever love Mommy?”
Allison Tucker caught her breath at the simple, heartfelt question that had come from her eight-year-old daughter’s lips. She took a step back from the doorway and leaned against the wall, her heart racing in anticipation of her husband’s answer. She’d thought she’d explained the separation to her daughter, but Megan still had questions, and this time it was up to Sam to answer.
Sam cleared his throat, obviously stalling for time. For the life of her, Alli couldn’t move away. She hadn’t intended to eavesdrop, but when she’d arrived to pick up Megan after her weekend with her father, she had been caught by the cozy scene in the family room.
Sam sat in the brown leather reclining chair looking endearingly handsome in his faded blue jeans and navy-blue rugby shirt. Megan was on his lap, her blond hair a mess in mismatched braids, her clothes almost exactly the same as Sam’s, faded blue jeans and a navy-blue T-shirt. Megan adored dressing like her father.
“Did I show you the picture of Mommy when she dressed up like a giant pumpkin for the Halloween dance?” Sam asked, obviously trying to change the subject.
They were looking at a yearbook, Alli realized with dismay. There weren’t just pictures of Sam and Alli in the yearbook, there were other people in there, too. People she didn’t want Megan to know.
“Did you, Daddy? Did you ever love Mommy?” Megan persisted.
Answer the question, Sam. Tell her you never really loved me, that you only married me because I was pregnant, that your heart still belongs to — my sister.
Alli held her breath, waiting for Sam’s answer, knowing the bitter truth but wondering, hopelessly, impossibly wondering…
“I love your mother very much — for giving me you,” Sam replied.
Alli closed her eyes against a rush of emotion. It wasn’t an answer, but an evasion. She didn’t know why she felt even the tiniest bit of surprise. Sam would never admit to loving her. She couldn’t remember ever hearing those three simple words cross his lips, not even after Megan’s birth. Or after, in the days and weeks and years that followed, not even when they made love, when they shared a passion that was perhaps the only honest part of their relationship. Sam always held a part of himself back, a portion of his heart and his soul that he would never give to her. He could tell her that he cared about her, that she was important to him, that they were family, but he could never bring himself to say I love you.
Alli clenched her fists, wanting to feel anger, not pain. She’d spent more than half of her twenty-seven years in love with Sam Tucker, but he didn’t love her, and he never would.
She’d lived in a dream, wanting to believe that one day things would change, that Sam would change, that he would suddenly see her for who she was, that he would want another baby. Even now, a deep ache echoed through her soul at the thought of never having another child with the man she loved, but she could no longer live in a fantasy world. He’d married her because she was pregnant. She’d been his duty, not his love, and though they’d built a life together, shared some wonderful moments, deep down Sam had always wanted someone else.
The last straw came three months ago when it had become startlingly clear that Sam still held hopes of being with her sister. The realization that, despite years of trying to be the best wife, the best mother, the best woman she could be, Sam still loved Tessa had driven Alli to do the unthinkable — to ask for a separation.
Sam had been shocked, and no wonder. She’d chased after him forever. But no more. She couldn’t keep loving someone who didn’t love her back. Could she?
The niggling doubt ran through Alli’s mind, her heart still battling her brain. She’d always acted on her emotions, forgetting about logic. Even her seduction of Sam all those years ago hadn’t come from a master plan. It had been more like a crime of opportunity. And she’d paid for it a thousand times over.
Alli let out a sigh. She’d done so many things wrong, taking forever to grow up, as her grandmother was fond of telling her. Her biggest guilt came from putting Megan in the middle of her battle with Sam, but there was no way to avoid it. Megan had always been in the middle. And she always would be.
“Damn,” Alli muttered as tears filled her eyes. She ruthlessly rubbed them away. She had to let go of the past and focus on the future. Making sure her daughter had a wonderful loving relationship with her father was her main concern. In the long run, Alli could only hope that it would be better for Megan to grow up in two peaceful homes than in one unhappy one.
Taking a deep breath, Alli smoothed down the sides of her short-sleeve emerald-green dress, the first new outfit she’d bought in years. It was tighter than she would have liked, but married life and childbirth had only encouraged her naturally curvy tendencies. She took solace in the fact that she still looked better than she had in ages, and there was a small part of her, make that a big part of her, that couldn’t help hoping Sam would be floored by her new look.
Clearing her throat with purpose and determination, she entered the family room and said, “Hello.”
Sam looked at her, his light blue eyes filled with annoyance. “You’re early. You said seven-thirty, and it’s only six. Megan and I were planning to have a pizza.”
“I’m sorry.” She knew his frustration covered pain. Sam might not miss her at all, but he did miss his daughter.
“This is our time together,” Sam reminded her.
“I know.” Alli tried not to feel anything for the man, but his physical presence had always overwhelmed her. A rugged, outdoor man, Sam had sun-streaked brown hair that was always windswept, never styled. His face was perpetually sunburned. His body was lean and fit, his fingers and palms callused from working his boats. She could still remember the way his fingers felt drifting down the side of her cheeks, her breasts…
She drew in a quick breath and looked out the window at the storm clouds about to descend on Tucker’s Landing, one of the small seaside towns along the southern Oregon coast. Although it was late June, the weather was still unpredictable, and on days like today, summer seemed far away.
“It’s starting to rain,” she said. “The forecast said maybe an inch or more. I didn’t want to get caught in the storm. You know I hate to drive in the rain.”
Sam tightened his hold on Megan, as if Alli were attempting to steal his dearest possession. But she wasn’t a thief; she was Megan’s mother. Turning her attention to Megan, Alli could see that her daughter felt torn between them. Megan’s blue eyes were worried, her mouth slightly pouty as she chewed nervously on the end of her braid. The last thing Alli wanted to do was make Megan feel like a wishbone, but sometimes it seemed impossible to avoid. They both loved Megan so very much.
“I’ll bring her home at seven-thirty,” Sam said.
“That’s in an hour and a half.”
“Exactly. And it’s my hour and a half.”
She sighed. “Come on, Sam. It’s been a long day.”
“Maybe Mommy could have pizza with us,” Megan suggested. She put her small hands on Sam’s face so he couldn’t look away from her and gazed at him with bright, eager blue eyes. “Please.”
Sam’s mouth set into a hard line. “I suppose. If she wants to.”
Megan looked at Alli, drilling her with the same relentless gaze.
Alli hesitated, knowing the last thing Sam wanted her to do was stick around. But she hated to disappoint Megan over something so small.
“I could stay, I guess.” She glanced at Sam. “Are you sure it’s all right with you?”
“Does it matter?” He didn’t look her in the eye. Sometimes she thought he went out of his way to avoid looking at her. Maybe she did the same thing. It was easier to keep the distance between them.
Sam gently urged Megan out of his lap and rose to his feet. “I’ll call Nina’s. The usual?”
Why was it always the simple words, the familiar memories that hurt the most?
“The usual,” she agreed.
Sam walked over to the desk and picked up the phone. While he dialed the number for the pizza parlor, Megan handed Alli the high school yearbook.
“Daddy showed me your picture,” Megan said. “You were really pretty, Mommy.”
Alli stared down at her sophomore photograph. She’d been trying to grow her hair out, to be more like Tessa. But where her sister’s thick, wavy blond hair grew like a weed, Alli’s own copper-colored hair never quite made it past her shoulders, and was so thin and fine it almost seemed to disappear.
Once, a very long time ago, Sam had told her that her hair was like silk, and she’d thought, foolishly of course, that he’d found something about her that he liked better than Tessa.
Alli slammed the book shut. Megan looked at her in surprise.
“What’s wrong, Mommy?”
“Nothing.” She forced a smile on her face. “What did you do today?”
“We waxed the hot rod.”
“Of course,” Alli said. Because next to his business, waxing his 1955 red Thunderbird was Sam’s favorite pastime. She wouldn’t have minded so much if the damn car hadn’t been just another reminder of Sam and Tessa. In her mind’s eye she could still see the two of them tooling around town in it.
“Do you want to see it?” Megan asked.
“The car?” Alli asked in confusion.
“No, the thing I made you. Weren’t you listening, Mommy?”
“I’d love to, honey.”
“I’ll get it.” Megan ran out of the room, and Alli walked over to the bookcase and stuck the yearbook in a dark corner where she hoped it wouldn’t be discovered for another decade.
As her gaze traveled around the familiar room, she realized that Sam had done some cleaning, made some changes since he’d moved back into his family home and his parents had retired to Arizona. His father’s pipe no longer sat in the ashtray on the desk. The three-foot-high pile of fishing magazines had been tossed in a large open box along with some other knickknacks — obviously destined for storage.
The changes made her feel uncomfortable. The thought that Sam was finally accepting that this was his home bothered her more than she cared to admit. That he was changing the house to fit him as a man instead of a child was odd, too. This house had been a part of her own childhood, because she’d grown up next door.
When she was nine, and Tessa eleven, they’d lost their parents in a car crash and come to live with their grandmother, Phoebe MacGuire. They’d traveled between houses as kids do, and Alli had come to know this one almost as well as her own. Although she had usually been the one tagging behind, trying to catch up to Sam and Tessa, and somehow the door always seemed to slam in her face.
Sam hung up the phone. “The pizza will be here in fifteen minutes.”
She nodded. “Great. So, how did the weekend go?”
“Megan starts summer school tomorrow. We’ll have to redo our visitation schedule.”
“I hate that word,” he said with a fierceness that startled her. “Megan is my daughter. We should all be living together, not visiting each other.”
Alli didn’t know what to say. So much for thinking that Sam had accepted things. “I’m sorry; that was the wrong word to use. You know you can see Megan as often as you want, Sam. I would never keep you apart.”
“Then why ask for a divorce? Why break up our family? Why the hell do you have to be so selfish, Alli?”
His words hit her like bullets, each one hurting more than the last, and her only defense was to hit back.
“Don’t blame it all on me, Sam. I wasn’t the only one who wanted out, just the one who had the guts to ask.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“The hell I don’t,” she said sharply. “When I found that box of clippings and photographs of Tessa, I felt like I’d just stumbled upon you in bed with another woman.”
“I was never unfaithful to you.”
“Maybe not in body, but in mind you certainly were. How do you think it feels to know the man who is touching you is thinking about someone else?” Her voice shook with the depth of her pain. She could still see herself sneaking into Sam’s office to surprise him with an intimate anniversary dinner, only to find a box of Tessa’s photos hidden away in the bottom drawer of his desk. She’d been looking for the corkscrew he kept there so she could open the wine she’d brought to celebrate nine years together. What a fool she’d been.
“It was never like that,” Sam said.
“It was always like that. And it wasn’t just the box of photos. It’s been so much more, and you know it. I wanted more children, Sam, and you refused over and over again. Because having another child with me, making a deliberate choice to add to the family, would mean you were planning to stay with me. But you couldn’t make that commitment, could you? You couldn’t cross that line, because you weren’t planning to stay forever. Well, I just cut the time short.”
Before Sam could reply, Megan returned to the room.
“Look, Mommy, I made you a candleholder out of a wine bottle, see?” Megan held up the paper-mache-covered bottle with a proud smile. “Daddy helped me. Can we light a candle for dinner?”
“No,” Sam said abruptly. “We don’t need a candle.”
Megan’s smile vanished. “Why not, Daddy?”
“Candles are for special occasions, honey,” he said more gently as he headed for the door. “I’ll get some drinks.”
* * *
Sam walked into the hallway and leaned against the wall, stopping to catch his breath, to steady his pulse. Candles are for special occasions. What a stupid thing to say. But the thought of a candlelight dinner with Alli… No, he couldn’t do it.
Alli put his stomach in a knot every time she walked through the door, every time she opened her mouth. She’d destroyed his life not once but twice, for when he’d finally come to terms with being a father and a husband — after he’d struggled so hard to make it all work, she’d bailed on him.
A twinge of guilt poked at his conscience. Okay, so maybe he’d kept up with Tessa’s life, stored a few photographs. They were harmless pictures. Half the world owned magazines with Tessa’s face on the cover. And how could he tell Alli that her grandmother had given him most of the clippings? It would only destroy their relationship, because she’d think her grandmother was favoring her sister.
And what did it all matter anyway? He’d married Alli as soon as he’d found out she was pregnant. He’d been twenty years old, Alli only eighteen. But they’d had to grow up overnight. He’d thrown aside all of his plans of traveling and seeing the world and gone to work for his father, eventually taking over the business and working his ass off to provide for his family.
Damn it all. He felt as unsettled as the weather outside. He didn’t know whether to be furious or relieved it was all over. He didn’t know why he couldn’t look at Alli anymore, why her voice made him so nervous, why he was so afraid that the merest touch of her hands would be the death of him. They’d lived together for a long time, but he’d never been as aware of her as he was right now.
Alli walked out of the family room and bumped into him, not expecting to find him still standing there. He automatically reached out to steady her, his hands coming to rest on her waist, his fingers burning as the warmth of her body seeped through the thin material of her dress.
She sucked in a short breath, and his pulse quickened. He didn’t want to look into her eyes. It was bad enough that he could smell her favorite perfume — that he could feel her body under his hands, that he could hear her breathing.
He couldn’t look into her eyes. He couldn’t take that risk. He didn’t know what he would see there.
He wasn’t sure he wanted to know. She’d confused him since the day she’d moved in next door as a bossy little girl, changing personalities as often as a chameleon changed color. Just when he thought he knew who she was, she turned into someone else.
“Sam?” she questioned, her voice turning husky.
It almost undid him. He’d loved her voice in the dark of the night, whispering, promising… He drew in a breath and dropped his hands from her waist. “I’ll get those drinks.”
She stopped him with a hand on his arm. “Look at me.”
He sent her a brief glance that barely grazed her face, then turned away. “I’m thirsty.”
“Sam–” The ringing phone cut off her words, and Sam felt a great relief. He brushed past her, returning to the family room to find Megan on the phone.
“Oh, hi, Mr. Beckett,” Megan said. “Yes, he’s here.”
Sam took the phone from her hand. “William? How are you?”
“Not too good, Sam.” William’s usually brisk seventy-six-year-old voice trembled. “It’s Phoebe. I don’t know how to tell you this, but she’s — she’s had a stroke.”
“No!” Sam couldn’t stop the word from bursting out of his mouth. He sat down on the edge of the desk, grateful for the support. Not Phoebe. Alli’s grandmother was strong, vital and energetic, and he couldn’t imagine the world without her. “How bad is she?”
“I don’t know yet. We were walking along the pier and all of a sudden she stopped making sense and she couldn’t walk. I got help as soon as I could,” he said helplessly. “We’re at the hospital now. They said to call the family. I couldn’t find Allison. She’s not home.”
“Then you’ll tell her?”
“Yes. I’ll tell her.” Sam looked at Alli standing in the doorway and saw the fear draw sharp lines in her face.
“And Sam…” William hesitated. “I know there’s bad blood and all, but I’ve called Tessa and asked her to come home. She agreed. She’ll be here tomorrow.”
Sam’s entire body tightened, a knee-jerk reaction impossible to stop. He hadn’t seen Tessa since the night he’d told her he was marrying her sister. And now she was coming home.
Because Phoebe was sick, he told himself. It had nothing to do with him.
“Sam?” Alli asked after he’d said good-bye to William and hung up the phone. She’d wrapped her arms around her waist, as if she could protect herself from whatever was coming.
“Your grandmother has had a stroke. She’s in the hospital.”
Alli’s eyes searched his. “Is she–”
“No one knows anything yet,” he said quickly.
“I don’t understand. Grams never gets sick. She’s strong. I just spoke to her a few hours ago. I have to go. I have to see her.” Alli looked wildly around the room, searching for something. Sam reached out and closed her fingers over the keys she still held in her hand.
“Easy,” he said. “I’ll take you.”
She looked into his eyes with desperation. “She has to be all right. She has to be.”
“She’s a fighter, All.”
“But she’s seventy-six years old.”
“Mommy, is Grams going to die?” Megan asked.
Alli turned and opened her arms as Megan ran into a tight hug. “I hope not, honey. I really hope not.”
They clung together for a long minute, and Sam itched to join them, but he couldn’t. Alli had made it clear that she didn’t want him in her life.
Finally, Alli set Megan aside. “Go get your things, honey. We need to leave.”
Megan ran out of the room, and Alli slowly straightened. Sam dug his hands into his pockets to stop himself from doing anything foolish, like hugging her.
“I can’t lose Grams,” Alli whispered, her eyes filled with fear. “She’s all I have left of my family.”
Sam didn’t say a word. It wasn’t true, because Alli wasn’t alone. She had a sister — a sister who was coming home. He couldn’t stop the sudden quickening of his pulse.
Alli’s eyes suddenly changed, and he wondered if she could read his mind.
“Oh, my God! William called Tessa, didn’t he?” she asked.
Apparently she could read his mind, or she’d simply added up the equation. Despite the animosity between the two sisters, Phoebe MacGuire adored both of her granddaughters.
“Yes, he called Tessa.” It felt strange to say her name out loud. And stranger still to think of seeing Tessa again, her blond hair, her blue eyes, her generous smile. Not that she’d be smiling at him.
“Is she coming back?” Alli asked, her face so tense she could barely get out the words.
“Then those divorce papers can’t come a minute too soon.”
Sam touched her arm, but she shrugged him away.
“Don’t touch me, Sam. You don’t have to pretend you care about me anymore. We both know it isn’t true.”
“I married you, didn’t I?”
“There it is again, your favorite refrain — you married me. That was your gift to me. And I’m divorcing you. That’s my gift to you. Now I guess it’s Tessa’s turn.”
It was nine hours from Milan to New York, another six to Portland, and then a couple of hours more in a plush black stretch limousine to the southern Oregon coast. As a supermodel, Tessa MacGuire was used to waking up in one city when she’d gone to sleep in another, to living on black coffee, lemon water, and lettuce. She’d become accustomed to calling her post office box home, spending the holidays with strangers, and smiling no matter how tired or unhappy or lonely she felt.
Most people thought she acted only in front of the camera, but deep down inside Tessa knew she acted almost every day of her life. And no one suspected. No one saw through the smile or the laugh or the cheerful wave. And that’s the way she liked it, easy, impersonal, safe.
As Tessa looked out the window at the passing scenery, she knew she’d long ago passed safe. The meadows and dairy farms had given way to the thick forested hills, the last barrier between the valley and the coastline, her new life and her old one. Even the rivers and streams had gone from lazy and peaceful to wild and reckless, the weather changing just as quickly, the clear blue sky suddenly taken over by gray, threatening clouds. She’d heard on the news that it had rained most of the night. Maybe it would storm again. Maybe she wouldn’t be able to get home.
Home. The word slipped into her mind unbidden. Tessa didn’t want to think of Tucker’s Landing as home, but the familiar scenery had begun to awaken her dusty, musty memories from their almost decade-long cocoon.
On impulse, Tessa lowered the window and took in a deep breath of cold, crisp air that smelled of wet pine and fresh grass. A mile or two later, her breath caught in her throat as the forest gave way to sharp rocky bluffs, and as they turned south, the right side of the road fell away in a sheer drop to the blue-green ocean below.
The sea was magnificent — tall, booming waves hitting the rocky shore, spraying a fine mist over the rocks and a few sea lions basking in the sunlight. The coastline wove in and out, the tides pushing and pulling at the beaches below with a relentless beat. She’d forgotten how overwhelming the ocean could be, consuming everything within its reach.
It was all too familiar — and all too much. Tessa rolled up the window and leaned against the leather seat, closing her eyes against the view, steeling her heart against the memories, the hurt that went right down to her bones whenever she thought about Sam and Alli.
God, how she’d once loved Sam Tucker! He’d been her best friend, her boyfriend, and now the last man she ever wanted to see again. And Alli — how could she look at her sister and not think of her betrayal? How could she face either of them?
Sam and Alli were married now. They had a daughter together, a daughter who was eight years old. Tessa shook her head, unable to believe how much time had gone by. It seemed like only yesterday they had all been teenagers, young, restless, in love, with their lives stretched out before them. The future had been filled with possibilities; now there was only uncertainty and fear.
Tessa’s thoughts turned to her grandmother. She hoped and prayed that the news wasn’t as bad as Mr. Beckett had implied. Perhaps by the time she arrived in Tucker’s Landing her grandmother would be awake and smiling and telling them it was all right. “I can’t die yet,” she’d say, “because I’m not through living.”
It had been Grams’s favorite expression, Tessa remembered fondly, words meant to reassure her that unlike her parents, who had died in a car accident, her grandmother wasn’t going anywhere. Every night before bed, they would look out at the stars and her grandmother would point out two that appeared to be winking at them and tell Tessa to blow a kiss to her parents. Then Grams would tuck her into bed and say, “I can’t die yet, honey. I haven’t finished counting the stars, and don’t you know, my darling girl, that you will never be alone, because there is always love, and love lives forever.”
But Grams was wrong. Love didn’t always live forever. And there was a good chance Tessa would end up alone.
“Miss MacGuire?” the chauffeur said over the intercom.
Tessa opened her eyes, grateful to have her disturbing thoughts interrupted. “Yes?”
“I’m not clear on the turnoff after First Street.”
“Left on Bayberry Drive, a mile down the road to the end. The house is the last one on the edge of the bluff. It has a widow’s walk.”
“A long balcony that winds around the front and side of the house overlooking the ocean.” The place where her grandmother had once paced incessantly, watching and waiting for her husband’s boat to sail into the harbor. How scared she must have been that last time when his boat hadn’t come back after the storm — maybe as scared as she must be now.
“Do you want to go to your grandmother’s house now or the hospital?” the chauffeur asked.
Tessa hesitated. She was hours earlier than planned, having flown all night. It was only seven o’clock in the morning, too early to go to the hospital. She needed a few moments to pull herself together, to get her emotions in check so she wouldn’t fall apart when she saw Grams — or Alli or Sam.
“The house,” she decided.
Tessa pulled out a brush from her purse and ran it through her hair, taking peace in the reassuring movements. She could do this. She could go to the hospital, make sure that Phoebe was being well cared for. She could be cool, polite, and impersonal when she saw Sam and Alli again. She’d mastered those traits over the years and no one ever suspected anything was wrong — why should it be any different now?
A tiny voice reminded her that there had been a time when she and Alli could read each other’s thoughts, when she and Sam could finish each other’s sentences. But it wouldn’t be like that anymore. Sam and Alli were together, and she was on her own.
Tessa straightened as the limo turned into the main streets leading into downtown. Tucker’s Landing certainly appeared to be flourishing. Flowers were bursting out of window boxes, freshly painted signs proclaimed antiques, books, cafés, and other touristy Kindles. A huge banner hung over the main intersection announcing the upcoming Fourth of July celebration, complete with kite festival, clam chowder bake-off, fireworks, and live music.
The Fourth of July had always been a special holiday, because it was also her grandparents’ anniversary. Every year they would trek down to O’Meara’s Oyster Farm to shuck wild oysters until they found a pearl. It didn’t matter that the pearls didn’t match in size or color or shape; they were making a necklace, a circle of love to last for all time.
It had been John MacGuire’s idea to make the necklace for his beloved Phoebe. A man of the sea, Tessa’s grandfather believed that the wild pearls symbolized hope, beauty, strength, and love, everything he wanted for the family.
Nostalgia ripped through Tessa as she thought about the times she and Alli had waded through low tide to find what they were sure would be the oyster that held the perfect pearl. They hadn’t known then that perfection was impossible — or that the necklace would never be completed because John MacGuire would die just before his fiftieth wedding anniversary. The forty-nine-pearl strand remained one pearl short of completion.
Tessa sighed as each turn of the limousine brought new sights but old memories. The heart of the town was still the harbor, filled with fishing boats, small yachts, and sailboats. A long pier stretched out to the sea, a wooden strip filled with shops and restaurants, a place where fresh crabs and lobsters made friends with the tourists.
Down the road, next to the pier, was the sign for Tucker’s Charter Boats, offering fishing, whale watching, and ocean tours. Her heart skipped a beat as she remembered running down to the harbor late on a Saturday afternoon to meet Sam after he finished helping his father for the day.
Finally, thankfully, the stores turned to houses and the sidewalks turned to grass, and the quiet, sleepy neighborhoods reminded her that she didn’t have to face everything yet, not quite yet.
But she felt jittery, and the sudden ringing of her cell phone made her jump. She told herself that no one had this number besides professional associates. It was safe to answer.
“Hello?” she said.
“Where the hell are you, babe?”
Tessa couldn’t help the smile that crossed her lips at the sound of her favorite photographer’s voice. “You won’t believe me if I tell you, Jimmy.”
“I guess that means you’re not on your way to L.A. for our meeting today.”
“I left you a message.”
“A very cryptic one,” Jimmy Duggan said. “Something about a family emergency. I didn’t even know you had a family. So what happened?”
“My grandmother had a stroke.”
Jimmy’s simple words brought a lump into her throat. “I’m sorry, too. We were supposed to get together a few months ago, and I canceled on her. Now I might never have a chance to talk to her again.”
“Hey, you gotta have some faith there, babe. You gotta believe in what you want to happen. Then it happens.”
Her lips curved into a reluctant smile. Jimmy was an incurable optimist. She’d watched him sit out a potential hurricane to get the perfect shot for a magazine cover. And damn if he hadn’t gotten the shot. But then Jimmy was used to getting what he wanted. With his dark Irish good looks, he could have been a model instead of a photographer. Instead he’d opted to make a career and a fortune for himself with photographs that were always so much better than anyone expected.
Jimmy was almost too good at capturing her face, her eyes, in ways that seemed far too revealing. Sometimes, Tessa wasn’t sure if it wouldn’t be safer to work with someone else, someone who didn’t see nearly as much as Jimmy did.
“You still there?” Jimmy asked. “Or have I once again bored you to sleep?”
“That’s you, the ultimate in boring.”
“Ouch. So, when do you think we can reschedule?”
“I don’t know. I’ll have to call you.”
“My schedule is free right now. Just let me know.”
“Thanks. You’re a pal.”
There was a momentary hesitation on the other end of the line. “Yeah, you’re a pal, too, babe. See ya.”
Tessa shut off the phone as the limousine pulled up in front of her grandmother’s house. It was too soon. She wasn’t ready. She wanted to tell the driver to keep going, to take her somewhere else, but he had already turned off the engine and come around to open the door.
She automatically smiled, but she couldn’t move. Her gaze drifted past the chauffeur to the Tucker house next door. She remembered her grandmother telling her that Sam’s parents had moved to Arizona, but the house looked the same. Whoever lived there now hadn’t even put on a new coat of paint, hadn’t taken down the basketball hoop over the garage or trimmed the rosebushes by the front windows.
Her heart caught again on the memories. How could she do this? How could she smell the flowers blooming with the scent of summers past? Even the breeze sang of long-forgotten songs and childish words from their neighborhood ball games. If she closed her eyes for just a moment, she could be right back there in the days of innocence, no problems, no betrayals, no fears.
“Miss MacGuire? Are you all right?” the chauffeur asked.
Tessa shook her head. She wasn’t all right. Maybe it would be better to leave now, before anyone knew she was here. She could go back to the airport and call Mr. Beckett, make up a story, something. She’d been gone so long. Who really needed her now?
* * *
Sam walked into his childhood bedroom and smiled at the sight of his daughter lying in twisted covers on the same twin bed he’d slept on as a child. Megan’s curls were as tangled as the sheets, her face as pink as a blooming rose, her dark lashes sweeping against her cheeks in the gentle motion of sleep.
At least one of them was at peace, he thought, remembering the night before. For long, tense hours he and Alli had been at the hospital, watching Phoebe MacGuire struggle to come back from a stroke, the damage from which they still had yet to determine.
It wasn’t fair. Phoebe shouldn’t be in the hospital and Megan shouldn’t be asleep on his old bed. She should be at home, in the house he and Alli had bought together, and so should he. At least Alli had let him keep Megan for the night, instead of fighting to take her home.
It was funny, but whenever he thought of Alli, he saw a lioness, fighting for what she wanted, for those she loved. She’d fought for him, tooth and nail, down and dirty, willing to risk everything and everyone. So why wasn’t she fighting now? Had she really stopped loving him after so many years? Had she really stopped caring?
He should be glad, he told himself. Hadn’t he felt smothered by her never-ending crush on him? Hadn’t he paid the price of his freedom, his future, because of her reckless, relentless love?
He knew it wasn’t fair to blame it all on Alli. He’d been there that night all those years ago. He’d drunk too much that Christmas, realizing for the first time in his life that he was nowhere near as important to Tessa as she was to him. If he had been, she would have come home with him instead of going to Aspen for a modeling job. The realization had scared the shit out of him. Without Tessa, he didn’t know who he was, and stupidly he’d thought he’d somehow figure it all out by having sex with Alli.
He regretted a lot of things about that night, but the one thing he wouldn’t regret was this child sleeping before him. Leaning over, Sam pulled a stray curl off her cheek and tucked it behind her ear. Megan’s breathing didn’t even catch. She was fast asleep. She didn’t have to be at summer school for another hour, and he’d already asked Gary to take his early morning fishing trip out, so they had some time.
Sam walked downstairs and into the kitchen, stopping short at the sight of the dirty dishes. The counter was as messy as his life. Megan was upstairs, sleeping in the wrong bed. Phoebe was in the hospital, Alli was paralyzed with worry, and Tessa was coming home. Nothing was normal, and he had a feeling it wouldn’t be for some time. But his father had once told him that a man took care of his family first and himself second, and that’s what Sam intended to do.
* * *
Tessa walked onto the back deck and stared at her grandmother’s gardens and the wide green lawn that spread across the rest of the yard, sheltered by the branches of a massive oak tree. As she stared at the gnarly old trunk, Tessa felt a smile tug at the corner of her mouth. Could it be? Was it possible?
She bounded down the steps, suddenly filled with energy, with wonder. She stopped at the base of the tree and looked up. It was still there, battered, weathered wood tucked into the branches. A haven. A refuge. A treehouse.
The steps were pieces of board hammered into the trunk of the tree. She could remember handing Sam the nails while he flexed his thirteen-year-old muscles and tried to impress her with every swing of the hammer. At the time, she’d been far more interested in getting to the top of that tree.
On impulse she stepped closer. It would be silly to climb the tree. She knew that. She was a twenty-nine-year-old woman, for heaven’s sake, but as she looked up at the shimmer of sunshine peeking through the branches, she knew she had to go up if for no other reason than to reassure herself there was nothing there she wanted to see.
It took her only a few seconds to climb the ladder. It had seemed so much higher before, so much bigger. As her head came through the opening in the floor, she saw that the huge treehouse was just a small cramped space. Tessa climbed all the way into the house and sat on the floor. She felt like a teenager again, hiding away in her mansion in the sky, as Sam had called it.
Tessa’s gaze was caught by the carving on the floor. It was a crooked heart with an arrow through it, and the words Tessa and Sam carved into the middle. She reached out to trace the heart with her finger, then frowned as she realized that someone had tried to cross out Tessa. On closer inspection, she saw that her name had been replaced with Alli’s.
She wasn’t surprised. Alli had been desperate to be part of the treehouse club. Never mind that she was two years younger and always an annoying little pest. She never stopped trying to be one of them. Maybe that was the problem. Alli had always tried a little too hard.
Tessa leaned back against the wall, but as she did so she knocked a loose board with her hand and winced as it clattered through the branches to the ground. Apparently, the treehouse wasn’t quite as solid as it used to be.
It was then she heard the voice, his voice. Oh, Lord! Her toes curled into her shoes. How long had it been since she’d heard his voice? Was she simply imagining it now? Taken back to the past by a memory?
“I said, who’s up there,” Sam yelled with irritation. “If that’s you, Tommy Hecklemeier, there’s going to be hell to pay. You know your mother said you couldn’t keep climbing up there. Last time you broke your arm.”
Tessa held her breath, realizing he couldn’t see her from the ground. Maybe if she stayed really quiet, if she didn’t say a word, he’d go away. She didn’t want to see Sam here. She couldn’t meet him again after all these years — not now, stuck in a treehouse with her hair a mess and her eyes all puffy from crying and…
“Come on down, or I’m coming up. And if I come up, believe me, you will be sorry.”
Sam’s voice had deepened, matured. She wondered what the rest of him looked like, if his legs were still long and lean, if he’d filled in the hollow spaces of youth, if his blond hair had gone darker, or if his blue eyes could still see into her soul.
Tessa closed her eyes, willing him to go away as much as she willed him to come closer. She wanted to see him and yet she didn’t. She wanted to talk to him and yet she had nothing to say. She wanted to feel his comforting arms around her, to rest her head on his shoulder, to have him tell her everything would be all right, but he was married, married to her sister, as unattainable as the man in the moon.
“Go away, Sam,” she whispered. “For both our sakes, just go away.”