Chesapeake Shores had been frozen in time, Jenny Collins thought as she turned onto Main Street toward the Chesapeake Bay. Not yet decked out for the holidays, the quaint and welcoming storefronts were the same familiar ones she'd known practically since childhoodFlowers on Main, owned by her uncle Jake's wife, Bree O'Brien, and then Shauna's bookstore, which had another family connection through the O'Briens, then Sally's café, Seaside Gifts and, finally, Ethel's Emporium, which sold everything from penny candy to gaudy beachwear.
Bree's shop and the bookstore were the newest additions. The others had been around since the town's founding. Ethel herself was something of an institution, a woman who knew everything and kept very little of it to herself.
It was Breeas much friend as auntwho'd lured Jenny back to town after she'd spent several years offering pitiful explanations that no one in her family had believed. First college and then her blossoming career as a songwriter in Nashville had given her more legitimate excuses, but Jenny knew they'd worn thin, too.
The truth was that she'd stayed away because her mom's marriage to the much older Thomas O'Brien and the birth of Jenny's half brother had freaked her out. The safe, secure world in which she'd grown up had suddenly changed in a dramatic way. She'd no longer known how to fit in.
At least she recognized that it didn't say anything good about her that she'd been wildly jealous about not having her mom all to herself anymore. For so long after her dad had left they'd been a dynamic duo, with only her uncle Jake as backup. She'd liked it that way, even when her mom had gotten on her last nerve being overly protective.
Rolling down the car window now, she breathed in the sharp, familiar tang of salt air and sighed. No matter how uncomfortable this visit might turn out to be, it felt amazingly good to be home. She felt settled, as if a part of herself had been restored.
Gazing out at the water, sparkling in the pale sun, she thought of the countless times her mom had talked about how lucky they were to call this town home, how the Chesapeake BayThomas's passion and life's workwas such an amazing estuary and such a national treasure. She hadn't appreciated that then, but on a day like today she did. She could even admit she admired Thomas's dedication to preserving the bay.
Glancing at the car's clock, she saw that she was running later than she'd planned. She drove on to Bree's theater, the real love of her friend's professional life. She'd promised Bree she'd write a few songs for this year's Christmas play, a play Bree herself had scripted.
The prospect of such a collaboration, of possibly reaching a whole new audience with her songs, had been impossible to resist.
And it had given her the perfect excuse to flee Nashville during the holidays. She'd stuck it out there the year before after her breakup with megastar Caleb Green, mostly to prove to everyone that she was doing just fine, but a second year of loneliness during this special season? She simply couldn't face it.
Inside the cozy theater, Jenny shrugged out of her coat and headed for the rehearsal hall, which echoed with childish squeals and laughter and the occasional snatches of applause. She walked into the room just as silence fell. A sea of rapt young faces stared at Bree, her dark red hair pulled back into a loose ponytail, curls lit with sparkling highlights escaping around her pale-as-porcelain face. Though she was in her thirties, she looked younger.
"And once again the whole town felt the magic of the season," Bree concluded with a dramatic flourish.
The children, many of whom Jenny recognized as the newest generation of O'Briens, applauded enthusiastically. A smile split Bree's face at their exuberance, then widened when she spotted Jenny at the back of the room. She jumped up, leaving two young women in charge of the energetic children, and ran to embrace Jenny. When the women waved, Jenny realized with a sense of shock that they were Bree's sister Abby's twin daughters.
"Welcome home!" Bree said, enveloping her in a hug.
"Thanks," Jenny said. She nodded in the direction of the twins. "Caitlyn and Carrie?"
Bree laughed at her amazement. "Can you believe it? They're all grown up. Abby's still reeling about that. As for Trace, I'm afraid their stepfather is having a very difficult time thinking they're old enough to date, much less be on their own at college. He has this mile-long list of rules for them while they're home on break from school. They're convinced he lives in the Dark Ages. I've read the list. Abby showed it to me. They could be right."
Jenny laughed. "I can imagine. Those girls might not be his biologically, but Trace was always as protective as if they were."
"He's much worse than their dad, who's always indulged their every whim to make up for not being around," Bree said, then winced. "Sorry. I didn't mean to be insensitive."
Jenny shrugged. "Things with my dad are what they are. I've gotten over the fact that he's not the least bit interested in me or my life. It's been years since I had so much as a birthday card, much less a call from him."
"But you have a stepfather who does care," Bree reminded her pointedly. "My uncle Thomas really wants to be part of your life."
Jenny held up a warning hand. "Don't go there, okay?"
Bree sighed. "Just saying. He's a great guy to have in your corner."
Jenny deliberately turned away and glanced around. She realized then that she and Bree were the center of attention for some of the children, including her half brother. Sean Michael O'Brien, who'd turned four a few months back, was studying her with a quizzical expression, as if not quite sure who she might be but clearly thinking he ought to know. With his bright red curls and blue eyes, he was unmistakably all O'Brien.
The Collins genes had apparently been no match for his Irish heritage.
Jenny forced her gaze back to Bree. "So you've been trying the story out on a captive audience?" she teased, determined to lighten the mood and change the uncomfortable subject.
Bree laughed, her expression unapologetic. "There are a lot of young O'Briens. They make a great test group to be sure this story will appeal to all ages. And my sisters and sisters-in-law get free babysitting. With their careers flourishing, time's at a premium for all of them this time of year. Come and say hello. Emily Rose and Sean are especially excited about seeing you."
Jenny couldn't help it. Eager as she was to see Bree and Jake's daughter, she stiffened at the mention of her own little brother. The reaction shamed her, especially with Bree regarding her with that knowing expression.
"Don't take all your misguided, conflicted feelings out on Sean," Bree pleaded quietly. "It's not fair."
"I know that," Jenny acknowledged, flushing under the intense scrutiny. "It's just that I don't know how to act around him. I don't feel like his big sister."
"Only because you've chosen to stay away," Bree said. "You are a part of this family, Jenny. And he is your little brother. Those are facts. You need to come to terms with them."
Jenny shook her head, still in denial. "I'm not an O'Brien," she said, as if that were the only thing that mattered. In many ways, to her it was.
Bree merely smiled. "Try telling my father that. Mick's been chomping at the bit for a couple of years, threatening to go to Nashville and haul you home himself. He's not fond of family rifts, especially since he and Mom have mended theirs and gotten back together, and the rest of us have fallen into line to forgive her, too. He expects peace and harmony to reign throughout O'Brien-land."
Jenny could believe that. Mick O'Brien was a force of nature. He, along with his brother, Thomas, who was now her stepfather, and their other brother, Jeff, had built Chesapeake Shores. Mick tended to think that gave him control over everything that happened not only in the family, but in the entire town.
"What stopped him?" she asked curiously.
"Not what," Bree said. "Who. Gram, of course. Nell told him and the rest of us that you'd had to face a lot of changes in your life, that you weren't the first one in this family to need some space, and that you'd come home when it felt right. I'm pretty sure that was a not-very-veiled reference to my mother's extended absence, which Gram used to make her point with Dad."
"And yet you decided to prod things along by dangling this offer to write the songs for the Christmas play in front of me," Jenny said.
Bree flushed. "Yes, well, Gram doesn't know everything. This seemed like the right opportunity and the right time. Even though you haven't said as much, I know things have been difficult for you in Nashville since the split with Caleb. The two of you were linked so tightly professionally and personally that it can't be easy moving on with everyone in the entire country music community watching you."
Jenny didn't even try to deny it. Ignoring the stares and speculation had taken a toll. Pretending that she didn't miss Caleb had been even more difficult. "I was glad for the break, no question about it," she told Bree.
"And I was tired of showing pictures of you to my daughter and your brother to make sure they'd recognize you," Bree said. "See what I mean? Perfect timing all around."
Just then a pint-sized version of Bree, red hair coming free from two braids only one of which still had a ribbon at the end, bounced over and regarded Jenny with a somber expression. She was clutching Sean's hand, her whole demeanor protective, as if she somehow understood the undercurrents swirling around them.
"You're Jenny," Emily Rose announced with certainty.
"I am," Jenny confirmed. "That makes us cousins, just like me and Sean." Despite her discomfort, Jenny smiled. "That's exactly right."
"You've been in Nashville writing music," Emily Rose continued as if well-rehearsed. "I've heard your songs on the radio. I can sing some of them."
"Me, too," a shy little voice piped up. "Mommy plays them at home all the time. She told me my sister wrote them. Sometimes they make her cry."
Tears of her own stung Jenny's eyes at the innocent revelation.
"How come I've never seen you before?" Sean asked bluntly.
Jenny knelt down so she could look into his eyes. "You have. You were just too little to remember," she said, thinking of the day he'd been born, her mom's labor disrupting an O'Brien family wedding, a double wedding, in fact. She recalled the happiness that had shone in her mother's eyes and in Thomas's that day, even as she'd wanted to die of embarrassment. Intellectually she knew her reaction had been childish, but she hadn't been able to move past it. Some feelings simply didn't respond to logic.
"But I've been big for a long time," Sean said, his expression puzzled.
"Yes, you have," Jenny agreed. She took a deep breath and, with Bree watching her closely, added, "Maybe on this trip we'll get to make up for lost time."
"Are you going to stay at our house?" he asked. "Your room is next to mine. Mommy said so. I'm not allowed in there. She's afraid I'll mess it up. She says it's just like the one you had when you were my age."
Startled, she turned a frantic gaze to Bree. That wasn't what they'd agreed. She still needed distance and time to get used to the changes that had taken place in her family the past few years. Coming to town was just the first step. She wasn't yet ready for the next one.
Bree put her hand on Sean's shoulder. "Jenny's going to stay at my house, but you'll see her all the time," she promised.
"Yea!" Emily Rose shouted triumphantly even as Sean's face fell.
"Sweetie, why don't you and Sean go and grab one of Grandma Nell's cookies before they're all gone," Bree said. "Jenny and I have some things we need to figure out."
Jenny watched them walk away, then faced her friend. "I only agreed to come because you invited me to stay with you and Uncle Jake. You're not changing your mind, are you?"
"Of course not," Bree said. "I just thought maybe you might want to reconsider. You know your mom is going to be crushed if you don't come home."
"That house isn't my home," Jenny said stubbornly, thinking instead of the small house in which her mom and Jake were raised and where she, too, had grown up. "I've never spent a single night in it."
"And whose fault is that?" Bree asked reasonably. "It's the house that Thomas built for your mother and his family. No matter how you might try to deny it and hold yourself aloof, you're part of that family, Jenny."
"I'm also a part of your family," Jenny reminded her. "I'd rather stay with you and Uncle Jake."
Bree nodded, though she didn't even try to hide the disappointment in her expression. "Whatever you want. You're always welcome to stay with us. You know that."
"No problem." She smiled. "But if you think I'm being pushy, just wait till you see your uncle. Jake isn't one bit happy about any of this. He thinks it's way past time for you and your mom to mend fences."
"I'm sure he thinks this is all my fault, that I'm being stubborn and immature."
Bree tried and failed to contain a smile. "Your words, but, yes, he's made similar comments."
Suddenly the prospect of staying with her uncle's family didn't seem much more enticing than going home. "Maybe I should book a room at the inn," she said. That, too, belonged to yet another of the O'Briens, but it still seemed more likely to be neutral turf.
"Absolutely not," Bree said. "I guarantee you wouldn't even get your bags unpacked before Jake would be over there dragging you back to our place."
"Can't you call him off?" she asked Bree plaintively. "I know he listens to you."
Bree merely laughed. "I might be the O'Brien with meddling in my DNA, but Jake is no slouch. He knows exactly how to get what he wants, and heaven help anyone who gets in his way. Since I actually agree with him about this, I won't even try."
"All that shows is that you're highly susceptible to his charm."
"Of course I am," Bree admitted readily. "But stronger women than I have been persuaded to change their minds once Jake starts working on them."
Jenny merely rolled her eyes. As much as she'd idolized her uncle growing up, she was pretty sure she could hold her own against him.
"Bring it on," she said.
The truth was she was actually looking forward to a good test of wills. Maybe it would keep her mind off the emotional roller coaster she'd been on from the moment she'd driven into town and experienced the first powerful tug of homesickness she'd felt in years.