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Today was the day.
There'd be hugs and smiles, reminiscences and laughter.
And apologies. Of course there'd be apologies. But they'd be accepted and waved aside because best friends stood by each other. Always.
Today was the day.
If Emma Willoughby repeated it to herself often enough, this time it might come true.
Standing in the parking lot next to clumps of cheery daffodils, she checked her purse to make sure Tracy's gift was inside. She silenced her cell phone. She pasted a friendly smile on her face, passed under the grand portico and headed toward the massive glass doors of Greenhaven Rehabilitation Center.
The doors slid open as she neared. On previous visits, she'd recognized people in the lobbyelderly actors recovering from strokes, aging politicians recovering from hip surgeries, elite athletes recovering from injuries. But in nearly six months, she'd never caught a glimpse of Tracy.
The Sunday receptionist, Francie, looked up to greet her, recognition stealing the beginnings of a smile from her face.
Today, Emma silently prayed.
Francie pushed her rhinestone glasses up the bridge of her nose, tugged the lapels of her aquamarine polyester jacket tightly together and sent an icy glance toward a tall, aging security guard, who stepped forward to block Emma's path. In all the months Emma had been coming here, this was the first time Francie, Greenhaven's gatekeeper, had set a guard on her.
"Young lady, I'm terribly sorry."
Emma's smile weakened. She would not give up. She would keep coming every Sunday until someone let her in. Tracy's family couldn't keep her out forever.
"I know I can't go inside, Francie." Emma reached into her purse for her gifta Carina Career doll. She'd been handing the receptionist a doll every Sunday for months. This week Carina was an astronaut. The dolls were meant as a reminder of their friendship and to let her best friend know Emma believed she still had plenty of choices ahead of her. "Could you please give this to Tracy?"
Francie blanched. "I can't take that. Tracy Jackson is no longer a patient in this facility."
Emma felt a moment's panic. "What do you mean?"
"Tracy Jackson is no longer a patient in this facility," Francie repeated. She glanced at the security guard once more, a disapproving line deepening her already furrowed brow. "I must ask you to leave."
Tracy was dead.
Emma tried to form a wordany wordthat would refute that possibility. But the air in the lobby had become thick and heavysuffocatinguntil Emma knew she was going to collapse if she didn't move.
On a gasp of air, she spun and ran to her car parked at the far edge of the visitors' section. The chilly bay breeze clawed at the hem of her dress, buffeted her hair. By the time she reached the new Subaru, she was shaking so badly she dropped her purse to the ground and leaned against the car door as memories assailed her.
She and Tracy on the bank of the Harmony River building a mud fort for frogs. She and Tracy dreaming about different futures in the Carina Career section of the toy store. Tracy bursting into their dorm room doing an uncoordinated victory dance after landing an internship at an ad agency. And then the most painful memoryTracy's near-lifeless body, head smashed against the passenger window of Emma's car. And everywhere blood.
They'd known each other since they were three, and yet Tracy's family hadn't let her say goodbye, hadn't let Emma know she had died.
But why would they?
Emma had been driving the car that caused the accident, the accident that had put Tracy in the hospital, the accident with killing complications.
A violent, shuddering sob threatened to break her into sharp, tiny pieces. Tremors shot to her fingertips. Useless fingers that had been unable to draw or paint since the accident. Emma ached to create from a blank page or canvas again, but if an empty, soulless existence was her penance for the accident, so be it.
Francie appeared at the Subaru's fender, huffing and clutching a shoebox under her arm. "She's not dead."
Emma's limbs turned to liquid and she slid to the ground, landing on her tailbone, asphalt scraping her legs. She ignored the pain. Tracy was alive.
"There, there." Francie knelt beside Emma, smelling of breath mints and garlic. "Company policy forbids me from telling you what happened, but you came every Sunday for more than five months. It broke my heart to turn you away."
"Thank you for telling me," Emma choked out.
"Are you okay to drive? Want me to call someone?"
Granny Rose. Her grandmother had practically raised Emma while her mother established a career as a cutthroat trial attorney. After Tracy, it was Granny Rose that Emma turned to with her problems. She had always looked up to her grandmother's wisdom, wit and courage. But Granny Rose was eighty and lived hours away in Harmony Valley, in the northernmost corner of Sonoma County.
"Fine. I'm fine." Or she would be when she could catch her breath. Emma scrubbed at her eyes. "Do you do you know where Tracy is?" It would be exactly like Tracy's self-made millionaire brother, Will, to have found a specialist in Switzerland and moved her there.
"Francie!" a male voice rumbled from beneath the portico. "I hear you talking to that girl. Don't make trouble for yourself."
Francie frowned and pressed the shoebox into Emma's hands. "I can't say more, but I wanted you to have this." Using the car for balance, the receptionist stood. "You take care."
Emma lifted the shoebox lid. More than twenty thumb-size Carina Career dolls stared vacantly up at her, one for every week Emma had tried to come and visit Tracy.
A slip of paper was tucked in the corner of the box.
Had Tracy written her a note?
Emma reached for the paper with trembling fingers.
An invitation to visit? Or a request to stay away?
An address was scrawled in thin, spidery handwriting on Greenhaven stationery, too neat to have been written by her friend. Emma made out a familiar address in Harmony Valley.
"This is going to be good." The false enthusiasm left a sour taste in Will Jackson's mouth. He opened the front door of his childhood home. "Dad's been lonely with both of us gone. And now he'll have a full house. You and me, just like old times."
Tracy walked in, looking to all appearances like any other twenty-six-year-old in blue jeans, a beige T-shirt and short, tousled blond hair. Until she spoke. "I want. To to go. To"
"I know you want to go back to your own apartment," Will interrupted. There was no way he'd let his little sister return to San Francisco, to the place she shared in the city with Emma. Tracy was still fragile. Oh, she got around all right, her broken ribs and broken leg having healed. But when her skull smashed into the car window it caused damage, resulting in aphasia, a language disorder. Her speech would probably always be halting, although specialists promised it would get better as long as Tracy fought.
But Tracy had given up fighting to improve.
"You'll go back after your next round of speech therapy." If Will could persuade, bribe or exhort her to return for a new form of transcranial direct-current stimulationbrain shock therapy. He had two months to convince her before the test trials started. "Here's your cell phone." Miraculously, Tracy's iPhone had survived the crash. Will had waited until now to give it to her. Harmony Valley was surrounded by several mountains that prohibited more than an occasional bar of cell-phone service. He didn't want her texting Emma, the so-called friend who'd nearly killed her.
Controlling and overprotective? Maybe he was. But his sister had brain damage and couldn't be trusted to understand what her friend had done, let alone make appropriate decisions right now.
Tracy scowled at the phone. She scowled at the saggy green microfiber couch and worn brown leather recliner. She scowled at the stuffed trout on the wall and the orange burlap curtains. She'd scowled at everything in the past month to the point where her doctor at the rehabilitation hospital thought she might make more progress at home.
"You've got a way to go until you can live on your own again." Much as it worried Will to think about Tracy living alone, odds were against him being able to protect her forever. But if things worked out the way he wanted here in Harmony Valley, those odds evened out.
Her scowl intensified. "My. Car."
Will shook his head. "Doctor's orders. No driving."
Tracy opened her mouth, presumably to argue, but closed it again and stomped off toward her room. A door slammed, shaking the entire house. Shaking Will's resolve.
The family portrait over the fireplace tilted. His mother, immortalized at age thirty-nine, gave him a lopsided, infectious smile. He set the family photo to rights, wishing it was as easy to right the rifts in the family and keep everyone safe.
Will's father Ben came in through the kitchen door carrying a large duffel bag with Tracy's belongings. His boots and faded jeans showed the wear and tear of years working on the farm. "Where's Tracy?"
"In her room."
Ben put the duffel on the scarred kitchen table. He grabbed a glass from the cupboard and filled it with water from the sink. "Give her time. She went from being an independent, healthy woman to someone who's had to depend on others for everything."
"She shouldn't have gone to that conference in Las Vegas with Emma." Just the thought of Emma Willoughby induced chest-tightening resentment. She'd walked away from the car accident unscathed.
"Son, I know you want to protect your sister, but people have got to make their own choices." Ben rubbed a hand back and forth over his thinning blond-gray hair. "I was wrong to let you shut Emma out. I was afraid of losing Tracy. But now"
"There's only one choice here, Dad." There would be no repeat mistakes. No playing with fire. "Aren't you even the least bit angry at Emma for what's happened to Tracy?"
"Of course I'm angry. It isn't fair, what Tracy's going through. But those girls have been friends since they were toddlers." His father leaned against the sink, watching Will sit at the head of the kitchen table. "Where one went, the other followed. And oftentimes, they followed you."
"Tracy's not following Emma anymore." The first thing Will had done upon learning the details of the accident was ban Emma from the hospital. The road had been clear, the day sunny, Tracy dozing in the passenger seat. There were no drugs or alcohol in Emma's system. She hadn't been on the phone or texting. And yet, Emma had crashed the car. She was to blame, the same as he knew Harmony Valley Grain was at fault for his mother's death. "Emma's too much like her grandmother. Too irresponsible."
"I like Rose. Nobody can say that old girl doesn't live life to the fullest. Tracy and Emma have always done the same." Ben arched faded eyebrows. "Maybe you ought to try it."
"Yes, because look where it got Tracy. Responsibility comes before fun." That was how Will had become a millionaire so quickly. And now he was determined to help revitalize his hometown before he increased his fortune further. If only Rose could be made to see that change wasn't a four-letter word. "Rose may be on the town council, but she doesn't understand her responsibilities. She won't even consider our proposal to rezone the Henderson property for a winery."
"Sometimes it takes more subtlety than a hammer, son. You and your friends tried to ram change on Rose like an unexpected enema."
That was an image Will didn't want to contemplate. "Two members of the town council asked us to develop a business and jump-start the local economy. They should have told Rose they wanted to bring some life to this town. How is this my fault?"
Will, Flynn Harris and Slade Jennings had struck gold a few months ago when they'd sold their popular farming app for millions. They'd returned to their childhood home to decompress before coming up with their next big idea. But life in the one-gas-station town moved slower than the Harmony River. If cell-phone service was spotty, internet connections were an urban myth. The population was almost solely comprised of retirees who lacked skill and comfort with technology. Withdrawal from work and the world left Will and his friends sleepless, jittery and irritable. And most concerning? They hadn't come up with a new app idea.
The winery was a solution to everythingtheir burnout and boredom, the town's nearly nonexistent economy and Will's dilemma about a way to protect Tracy in case her brain damage was permanent.
"I don't see why you can't take over here and make a living being a real farmer. Generations of our people have worked this land. You should be proud of your roots."
"Dad, for the hundredth time, I don't want to be a farmer." Will lived for the chaos of programming and development. He thrived on long days and longer nights challenging his brain to wrestle down code that would accomplish the impossible. Will, Flynn and Slade had spent five years living their work, programming and troubleshooting, working out of a crappy apartment in San Jose as they scraped by on the most pitiful amount of venture capitalist funding on record.
Ben scoffed. "If you start a winery, you'll be a farmer. Or will this winery be a hobby?"
What Will hoped was for Tracy to run the winery. Using her business degree would give her purpose and keep her from being judged by anyone who assumed her IQ was tied to her halting speech. Will had to convince Tracy it was best to move home permanently. He was waiting for the right nonscowling moment to tell her.
"It's an investment, Dad. My passion is programming."
"A hobby, then." His father crossed the living room to restraighten the picture over the fireplace. He didn't turn around when he'd finished, but stared at the family portrait and the love he'd lost.
Will communicated better with his sister these days than he did with his father. The two men were never on the same wavelength and things had only become worse since the accident, when Will had taken charge of Tracy's care. "I'm headed over to see Rose and then I'll be at Flynn's house."
Ben gave a wry chuckle. "The old girl can see your agenda a mile away. You'll never get her vote."
"It's Sunday." Will shrugged, forcing an enthusiasm he didn't feel. "Rose likes me on Sundays."