It was just a summer. One summer. I repeated the words to myself as I pulled away from the only home my kids had ever known. Pittsburgh was a great city, but it no longer held anything that made me want to stay. My marriage was over, my family was gone, and there was no reason to stick around.
But it was just a summer. One summer I could give my kids that was full of fun and family instead of fighting. A summer where I would help my brother and his soon-to-be wife finish a few projects on MacKellar Cove Inn, the inn my aunt ran until recently when my brother and his girlfriend took over. At the end of summer, Gavin and Piper were getting married, if my brother ever got up the nerve to ask her. Then I’d pack my kids up and go back to Pittsburgh and back to the life I had there.
Because I had nowhere else to go.
The tinny sounds of the iPads that kept my kids entertained reached my ears and told me they would be fine for the drive through New York to MacKellar Cove in the Thousand Islands. That was home to me, and it always had been, but I ruined that chance years ago. That was why going back could only be for the summer. And why I’d go back to my sad, lonely rental in Pittsburgh at the end of it.
I crossed the border into New York and breathed just a little sigh of relief. So far, the kids hadn’t said a word. No fights, no bathroom breaks, nothing. I knew it wouldn’t last long, but with a six-and-a-half hour drive, I’d take what I could get.
Less than an hour later, my luck ran out. Thirty miles south of Buffalo, my daughter announced she had to pee.
“Really bad, Mommy. Now!”
I swallowed my groan and told her I’d get her to a bathroom as soon as possible. It had been a few miles since I passed an exit, and I was fairly sure a sign said there wasn’t another one for nearly twenty miles.
Minute by minute, the miles ticked by. The video played through her headphones, but I knew the end of the line was coming quickly.
A service exit sign told me five miles. I stepped on the gas just a little bit more and prayed I’d make it those five miles without an accident in the backseat.
“Mommy, I really need to go,” Alexis whimpered a minute later.
“We’re almost there,” I promised, stepping just a little harder. Twelve over the speed limit wasn’t going to be a problem, right?
I finally saw the exit sign and breathed a sigh of relief. Until I heard the siren.
“Shit,” I breathed.
“Mommy, you’re not supposed to stay that!” Cameron said.
“I know, honey. I’m sorry.” I pulled to the side at the exit, hoping it would be a quick stop when he saw the kids and heard the pleas from Alexis about the bathroom.
“I really need to go, Mommy,” Alexis said, almost as if on cue.
The officer came to the window and knocked. I was paying attention to the kids and had forgotten about him and startled when he knocked. I rolled down the window and plastered a smile on my face. “Hello.”
“License and registration, please.”
“I’m sorry, officer. I know I was going a little fast, but my daughter really needed to use the restroom and I was trying to get her here.”
“License and registration, ma’am.”
I sighed and accepted that I’d be pulling in to clean up pee after she had an accident in her seat. He was not willing to let me go with a warning. I handed over the documents and he carried them back to his vehicle.
“Mommy, I don’t think I can hold it anymore,” Alexis whined, sounding pained. She was good. She hadn’t had an accident in months. She knew having one was bad, but I was fairly sure the streak was over.
“I know, baby. I’m sorry. I tried. Hopefully he’s fast and we can get you to the bathroom. Do you see that building right there?”
“That’s where we need to go. If you can hold on just a few minutes longer, we’ll run, run, run over there and you can use the bathroom. Okay?”
“Sounds good, baby girl.”
I stared at the officer still in his car. I wanted to get out and yell at him to hurry the hell up, but that would have only made the stop longer. When he finally returned with my license, registration, and a ticket, I had to stop myself from laying into him.
“Mommy, I couldn’t hold it,” Alexis said as the officer started to walk away. She started to cry.
He looked at her and looked at me, his eyes saying he thought I was lying, but the damage was done. The ticket was mine, and we both knew there was nothing else he could do.
“That’s okay, baby. Now that we can go, we’ll get you changed and do what we can to dry off your seat.” I glared at the officer and turned the car back on. I didn’t wait for him to get back in his car before I took off up the ramp toward the service exit.
Alexis cried until I got her out of her seat. Her shorts and underwear were soaked. And so was her entire carseat. I dug through her suitcase while she stood next to the car crying until I found a change of clothes for her and a blanket I could put over the seat.
I took Alexis’s change of clothes and both kids to the bathroom. I made both of them use the bathroom, changed Alexis into her clean clothes, and headed back to the car. I laid a blanket on the seat for Alexis and covered that with a trash bag I found stuffed in a side pocket. It wasn’t perfect, but it was mostly dry.
Great start to our trip.
I got gas while we were there and got back on the road. It was almost halfway, so I hoped we would make it the rest of the way before we had to stop again.
The closer we got to MacKellar Cove, the harder my heart pounded. I was anxious when we left Pittsburgh, but that was nothing compared to how I felt when I passed the sign saying Welcome to MacKellar Cove.
Home to Sebastian Parks.
Sebastian Parks was supposed to be the man I spent the rest of my life with. I fell in love with him when I was too young to really know what love was, and I broke his heart before I learned. I mistreated him worse than anyone I’d ever known, and I deserved to be miserable because of it.
I hated that my kids paid the same price.
We pulled into the driveway for MacKellar Cove Inn, and I was torn between relief that we were there and anxiety over seeing Sebastian again. I knew he wasn’t far, and even though I was also sure Aunt Gina had told him when we were arriving, it was still very possible that he would be around.
“Is Sebastian going to be here?” Alexis asked. Was she reading my mind? She met him when we visited at Christmas and fell for him as hard and fast as I had when I was young.
“I’m not sure. Probably not tonight.”
“But I want to see him,” she pouted.
“I know,” I said, trying hard not to be frustrated by her. She had no idea how hard it was for me to see Sebastian, but he’d imprinted on her and she adored him.
“Maybe Aunt Gina can call him for me.”
“I’m sure she’d be happy to,” I told her, knowing Aunt Gina would do anything for either of my kids.
I parked the car and made sure no one else was in the parking lot before telling the kids to run to the door and go inside. I knew someone in there would entertain them while I took the carseat apart so it could be washed and dried and ready to use again whenever we had to go out.
“Need some help?” Gavin asked a minute later.
I stepped back and hugged my big brother. It was embarrassing to admit hugging him was the most physical contact I’d had with another adult since I hugged him goodbye almost six months earlier.
“Whoa, are you okay?” he asked, pulling back when he realized I was crying.
I shook my head at myself and said, “Yeah. I just really missed you.”
“That’s why you should just move here. Then you won’t have to miss me.”
“You know why I can’t.”
Gavin nodded but the tempting smile on his face did not fade. He had something up his sleeve.
“What did you do?”
“I didn’t do anything. Let’s get you unpacked. What’s first?”
“Grab the bags from the trunk. I need to take care of Alexis’s seat. She had an accident and I got a ticket.”
“Yeah. Fun stuff. I’m really happy to be here.”
Gavin beamed. “Me, too, sis.”
* * *
I was hot and sweaty and feeling even more gross by the time I finished cleaning up the carseat and the back of the car. I took the entire seat apart and threw the padding in the wash along with the blanket and the clothes Alexis was wearing, then sat down for just a minute. The air conditioning felt good, and the heat outside was enough to warrant it.
“I heard you had an exciting drive up,” Aunt Gina said, joining me in the sitting room with a glass of lemonade. “Drink up.”
“Thank you, Aunt Gina.” I took the glass from her and enjoyed a sip. It was sour and cold and delicious.
She took a seat across from me, her assessing gaze running over me. I knew it wouldn’t be long before I got her judgement, although from Aunt Gina, it was always gentle and constructive. Always designed to help, with a subtle encouragement that made me feel as though her words were gospel.
“It’s been a long year, hasn’t it?”
I snorted. “Endless.”
“Any word on your job?”
I shook my head. “Not yet. The school should be letting me know soon.”
“You’re not worried?”
“I am, but I worked there most of the year. I think that’ll help me. Serving lunches in the school cafeteria isn’t glamorous, but it meant I was around for the kids, had all the same days off that they had, and it paid enough for us to live on with the child support and alimony payments from Trevor.”
“Then I’d say you’re doing well.”
I forced a smile for my aunt because the alternative was admitting to her, and myself, that I felt like my entire existence was coming apart at the seams. I took the job because it meant I wasn’t sitting around all day waiting for my kids to come home. I felt useless. When Trevor and I got together, he convinced me not to get a job right away. First, it was so I could plan our wedding. Then, it was so I could get pregnant. Then raise the kids. I always planned to start working once Alexis was in school, but at that point, Trevor and I were having problems and I didn’t want to rock the boat.
Now, I was thirty-two with the job experience of a teenager. My degree only counted on paper since I’d never used it. And no one would hire someone a decade out of college with zero experience in the field they claimed to be an expert in.
“Do you remember the old garden?” Aunt Gina asked, dragging me from one thought to another.
This one full of hot, steamy nights, falling in love, and learning all about what two people who loved each other could do together.
The first time I met Sebastian was in that old garden. I was reading a book and he walked through, pausing to smell one of the roses. It made me laugh, and that laugh caught his attention. We started talking, and over time, the garden became one of the many places at the Inn where we spent time together.
And the place I finally gave myself to him on one summer night after I turned eighteen. A night that still ranked number one on my top ten list of most romantic moments.
“Yes, of course,” I finally choked out, knowing Aunt Gina was waiting for an answer.
“I finally decided to fix it up this summer. It’s been such a mess since Uncle Rob died. He was the one who always maintained it. I miss sitting out there and watching the boats.”
“It was always so beautiful. I loved being there when I used to visit.”
Aunt Gina nodded and folded her hands in her lap. A ghost of a smile lifted her lips. “Uncle Rob and I used to sit there and talk for hours. The garden was always so special. I always hoped you or Gavin would get married there.”
“Well, maybe you’ll get your wish this summer,” I whispered, knowing Gavin’s proposal was a secret. Although, if he didn’t do it soon, the entire town was going to tell Piper. Secrets didn’t last long in MacKellar Cove.
“I hope so,” Aunt Gina said. Her bright, happy smile had the opposite effect on me.
The garden was where I promised Sebastian I’d come back. Where we talked about getting married. Standing beside my brother while he got married was something I looked forward, but doing it in the garden where I’d once thought I’d be married was going to be a challenge.
“You should go out and see it,” Aunt Gina suggested. “Maybe you can help with the design. I’m not getting around as easily as I once was. I think you knew that garden almost better than I did.”
I finished my lemonade and nodded slowly. “I’d like that, Aunt Gina. I want to help any way I can while I’m here. I don’t want to just be three more mouths to feed. I want to pay my own way.”
“You know family doesn’t pay here,” Aunt Gina scolded me.
“I know, but Piper and Gavin own the Inn now. I don’t want Piper to worry that she’s going to be saddled with Gavin’s freeloading baby sister.”
“Piper would never say that, or think it. She’s wonderful, and she adores you. She’s with Alexis and Cameron right now, planning fun summer activities.”
“She is? I figured they’d be with Gavin. I didn’t want them bothering Piper.”
Aunt Gina dismissed my concern with a wave of her hand. “Piper is not bothered. I assure you. Go out and see the garden, then take a shower and get unpacked before dinner. You’ll feel better.”
I looked down at the tee I’d thrown on that morning and the cotton shorts that were designed for someone to run in, an activity I never willingly did. I was kind of a mess, probably smelled like urine, and definitely needed a shower. Before I scared off the guests, I decided Aunt Gina was right.
“Will you watch for the kids? In case they need something?”
“Of course. But I’m sure Piper will be fine with them.”
“Thank you, Aunt Gina.”
I walked the glass back to the kitchen and put it in the dishwasher. I was looking forward to getting to know Piper, but I was nervous about it. She was, hopefully, going to marry my brother, she bought my family’s inn, and now she was taking care of my kids. I couldn’t imagine her perception of me was all that great.
But I wasn’t going to worry about that immediately. I pushed through the back door and out into the sunshine and early summer heat. If it was already close to eighty at the end of June, it was going to be miserable in August. The breeze off the water helped, but I preferred spring and fall weather when I could wrap up in a blanket and sit by a cozy fire.
I walked down the path toward the family house. I smiled to myself as memories of summers long past came back to me. I was going to do everything I could to make this a great summer for my kids. I resisted everything about MacKellar Cove when I first came, but I fell in love with everything the small town had to offer by the end of that first summer. Almost twenty years later, I knew my life would be different if I had trusted that love just a little more.
But I wasn’t strong enough to do that. I let fear dictate what I did. I couldn’t say I regretted the choices I made, but if I could go back and make new ones, I can’t say with certainty what I would do.
I rounded the house and smiled when the garden came into view. Trellises lined with flowering vines created a wall between the garden and the house, hiding anyone inside from view. Every six feet, there was a break in the trellis, with an entrance to the garden and a new path inside.
As I got closer, I heard voices. If Aunt Gina wanted me to help with the design, I figured I should go meet the gardeners. It was a big enough job that I was sure she hired a dedicated crew.
I walked through the closest opening and felt my lips lift in a smile. The water lazily drifted past, gently bumping against the shore with each wave. The garden paths were intact, but the plants were overgrown and dying. A lot of work was needed to make it what it once was.
A laugh drew my attention away from the water toward the people I’d heard. I took a step toward the laughter, a smiling lifting my lips when I recognized Piper’s friend, Sofia. I opened my mouth to call out to her when I saw the person she was talking to. The man she was laughing with. The one and only person I wanted to avoid for the summer.
The one I just told Aunt Gina I would work with.
I turned and ran.
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