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ELISE STANFORD SURVEYED the veritable mountain of cardboard moving boxes stacked in what would, after the unpacking, be the family room, and inhaled what felt like her first easy breath in months. Finally, after all the pain, she was ready to start over. A fresh beginning. Exactly what she and the kids needed.
Not that this change wasn't fraught with uncertainty. She now had an unfamiliar house that needed to be turned into a cozy home, new friends to make, a new environment to grow accustomed to, and a new job to settle into. But at least those uncertainties were of her own choosing and hadn't been thrust upon her by the sometimes unkind hands of fate.
Picking her way through the boxes, she walked into the kitchen then leaned her shoulder against the backdoor jamb. A gentle breeze, scented with a slight whiff of salt courtesy of the Long Island sound, ruffled her hair through the screen door. Bright, early-summer sunshine warmed her skin and she lifted her face, catching the golden rays.
Before deciding to buy this house, she hadn't been to Gateshead in fifteen years, yet Elise knew, in her heart, she was home. She'd always felt safe and happy, warm and loved in this sleepy town on the northeast end of Long Island where her family had vacationed for two weeks every summer when she was a kid. And home was now this outwardly unremarkable house whose kitchen and bathrooms and floors were thirty years outof-date. It in no way resembled the executive house in the upscale gated community she'd sold in Westchester--a beautiful house, yet one too filled with ghosts of the past. Of happy times that would never be again. Even after almost five years, every corner of thathouse reminded her of Ian. Of what they'd had. And what they'd lost.
An image of Ian, the one she carried in her heart, of him smiling, laughing, handsome, robust, before illness had robbed him of his vitality, flashed through her mind. Ian's death had not only taken his life, but seemingly hers as well, leaving numbness where her heart used to beat. Cancer had stolen the man with whom she'd fallen in love twenty years earlier. The man who'd captivated her with his intelligence and infectious sense of humor. A man who had left behind a heartbroken son and a baby daughter he'd never see take her first steps. But if not for Jamie and Maggie, the fact that they needed her, that she was all they had left, she would have sunk into an abyss of grief from which she doubted she'd ever have emerged.
Over the past five years she had slowly emerged, at a rate some of her friends considered a snail's pace, but her grief support group had taught her that mourning was different for everyone, and required different amounts of time for everyone. That magic "one year" time period after Ian's death simply hadn't worked for her. But after five years of living nearly exclusively for her children, she was finally ready to start living for herself again. She'd made a few strides in that direction, had attempted several dates, and knew, in her heart, that this move, this change, was what she needed to move forward.
A shriek of childish laughter drew her attention and her gaze cut to Maggie, running across the backyard in pursuit of a soccer ball, her honey-colored curls flying behind her as Jamie chased her, purposely slowing his steps so as not to overtake his younger sister.
A smile curved her lips even as a lump lodged in her throat. Jamie seemed to have grown six inches since his eleventh birthday last month. Clearly he'd be tall, like Ian, yet he didn't just resemble his father in looks. He possessed Ian's intelligence and patience. His compassion. She watched him scoop up his sister and twirl her around twice before setting her back on her feet with a laugh. His glasses slid down his nose and he pushed them up with an unconscious gesture. He caught sight of her in the doorway and waved with one hand while executing a gentle pass kick to Maggie whose eyes shone with delight.
Maggie... How was it her baby was going to start kindergarten in the fall? In some ways the past five years seemed to have lasted a lifetime, but as far as the children growing up, they'd flown by on wings.
Elise waved back, then called out, "Snack in about thirty minutes, okay?"
Jamie shot her a thumbs up and Maggie yelled, "Kay, Mommy."
Moving away from the door, she poured a cup of coffee then consulted the calendar she'd attached to the refrigerator. Her new bedroom furniture was scheduled to be delivered tomorrow, along with the kids' new beds, her new washer and dryer, and the comfy sectional they'd all chosen. Until then, they'd make due with folding chairs and blow-up mattresses. When she'd sold the house in Westchester, she'd sold most of the furniture as well. Maggie had been ready to move on to something less babyish while Jamie had wanted something with a desk and bookcases.And she had finally let go of the bed she'd shared with Ian, wanting a clean bedroom slate to go along with their new home and her new job.
Glancing at the calendar, she noted that the phone and cable companies were due later this afternoon. That gave her a few hours to get some more unpacking done. In fact, no time like the present. She'd just opened the nearest box, one labeled Kitchen, when the doorbell rang.
She maneuvered her way through the boxes then opened the front door. On the porch stood a smiling woman with snow-white hair, whom Elise judged to be in her seventies. In her hands she held a white bakery box and a sheet of paper.
"Good morning," the woman said, peering at her over the rims of her bifocals, her blue eyes dancing with interest. "I'm Frannie Cabot. I live next door. I know you must be swamped with unpacking, but I saw the moving van arrive yesterday and wanted to stop by to welcome you to Gateshead."
Elise opened the door wider, smiled, then introduced herself. "This is so nice of you. Would you like to come in? I just made some fresh coffee."
"I'd love to, but I'm afraid I'll need to take a rain check. I'm on my way to spend a day at the beach with my daughter and her family. But I'll be sure to pop over tomorrow or the next day. In the meanwhile, this is from Carson's, the best bakery in town." She handed Elise the square box. "Wish I could say it's fat-free, but believe me, you've never consumed calories that were more worth the cellulite than these."
Elise laughed. "Thank you." She lifted the box then breathed in. "Oh, yum. It smells like cheesecake. My favorite."
"And not just any cheesecake. It's called Chocolate Angel Silk Cheesecake and just so you know, it's addicting. We keep telling Gerald--he's the bakery owner--that he needs to start a twelve-step program. This is also for you." Frannie held out the sheet of paper. "It's a copy of what I call my 'Best of Everything' list. Best Chinese takeout, best pizza, best deli, best farm stand--all the food things. It also has all the best useful homey stuff, like best electrician, best painter, best general contractor. Of course, maybe you have a husband who's handy with that sort of thing--in which case, let me know and I'll add him to my list."
"No husband," Elise said. "I'm a widow." Sympathy instantly filled Frannie's eyes and she laid her hand on Elise's arm. "Me, too, dear. Two years."
"Five years ago for me." Frannie blew out a breath. "Everyone tells me it gets easier."
"The hole in your heart eventually mends, but I don't think the scar ever truly goes away."
"Well, we wouldn't want to forget the good things, the good people who have touched our lives, now would we?"
Elise shook her head. "No." Her focus lowered to the list. "Thank you very much for this. There's so much I want to do with this house--updating the kitchen and bathrooms, building a deck."
"I saw your children playing in the backyard," Frannie said. "Remind me of my grandchildren. I have fourteen of them. Youngest is eight months and the oldest just graduated from high school. They visit me often and will be glad to know new kids have moved in. Your children will love it here. There are loads of youngsters in this neighborhood and the schools are great."
"The great schools are one of the reasons we moved here. I'll be teaching math at the high school starting this fall."
Frannie's smile widened. "Then you'll have a lot in common with Deidre Nelson who lives on the next block. She teaches science at the high school. I'll introduce you. In fact, I'll arrange a little get-together, something casual, maybe dessert and coffee, so you can get to know the neighbors. Let's see, I'm busy with the grandkids both nights this weekend and I play bingo on Mondays, so how about Tuesday evening?"
"That's perfect. Thank you. I bake a mean batch of chocolate-chip cookies."
"It's a date. In the meanwhile, about those renovations, call Seth McGuire. He's the best contractor around. Very reliable and does great work. Nothing slipshod with him. He's not cheap, but you get what you pay for."
Elise's brows rose at the name, which, while familiar, she hadn't heard in years. "Seth McGuire? I wonder if it's the same Seth McGuire I used to know when my family spent summers here. He was just a kid the last time I saw him, but that was fifteen years ago. I was friendlier with his two older sisters, Patti and Audrey."
"Yes, that's the same Seth McGuire," Frannie said.
"One sister lives out west somewhere, and the other one's in Florida. His mother moved to Florida, too. The father died about ten years ago."
An image of Adam McGuire flashed in Elise's mind, his ready smile and even readier laugh. "I'm sorry to hear that. When my parents moved to South Carolina, we stopped spending summer vacations here and we lost touch with the McGuires."
"Didn't know the father myself as I only moved here six years ago, but if his son is any indication, he was a good man. Give Seth a call. He recently finished the Culpeppers'deck--they live just across the street--and it's beautiful." Frannie glanced down at her watch and made a tsking noise. "I need to get going, but I'll be in touch about Tuesday night. And I'll hold you to that cup of coffee."
"I'm looking forward to it," Elise said. "And thank you for the cake and the 'Best' list."
She watched Frannie cross the driveway and settle herself into a dark blue Honda Accord. After a quick wave goodbye, Elise headed back to the kitchen, where she slipped the bakery box into the fridge, then looked at the list Frannie had given her. She ran her finger down the typed words until she came to Seth McGuire, general contractor.
Elise instantly recalled the last time she'd seen him. It was the last summer she'd visited Gateshead with her family. She'd been twenty-five, her newly minted master's degree and teaching certificate in hand, and on the brink of becoming engaged to Ian. Seth had been about fourteen, a cute, lanky kid with unruly dark hair who loved the water and fishing and whose freckled nose was always sunburned. She'd watched him grow up over those summer vacations and vividly recalled how she'd barely recognized him that last summer as he'd grown so tall. She remembered teasing him about it and the bright shade of red he'd turned. She also recalled that he'd harbored a bit of a crush on her.
And now he was the best contractor in the area--exactly what she needed. With a smile, she reached for her cell phone. Time to see about getting the house remodeled and the rest of her life going.