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Bree O'Brien sank her fingers into the rich, dark soil and lifted up a handful so she could breathe in the scent of it. This was real, not like the shallow world in which she'd been struggling to make a name for herself for the past six years. Gardening was something she understood. Plants could be coaxed along with water and fertilizer and loving attention in ways that a theater production could not. A vase of flowers, artfully arranged, had only to please the recipient, not an entire audience, each of them a critic in one way or another.
She'd been relieved when her sister Abby had called her about the opening of the Inn at Eagle Point, now owned by their sister Jess. It had given her the perfect excuse to flee Chicago, where her last play had been savaged by the critics and closed a mere week after it had opened. In six years she'd had one regional theater triumph and two box-office and critical disasters.
Some playwrights might be thrilled to have just one big success, even far, far off Broadway, but Bree had always wanted more. She'd expected to be up there with Neil Simon, Noel Coward
heck, even Arthur Miller. Of course, that had been after her first success, when she was way too full of herself. She'd thought herself capable of Simon's comedic timing, Coward's wit and Miller's complex dramatic skill. There'd even been a few critics who'd shared that opinion.
That had made it all the more humbling when the second play had received only lukewarm praise and a shortened one-month run. The third had been skewered by those very same critics who'd sung her praises earlier. Her first play was suddenly being called a fluke. More than one suggested she was washed up at the age of twenty-seven.
She'd been relieved that no one in the family had been in Chicago for the play's opening to witness her downfall or to see the reviews that had followed. She wouldn't have been able to bear watching them struggle to be supportive. It was awful enough that everyone at the theater had been a part of the most humiliating moment of her career. None of the actors had even been able to look her in the eye as the directorher lover, for goodness' sakehad read review after scathing review at the opening-night party before finally crumpling up the papers and tossing them in the trash.
One of these days, she supposed she'd muster up enough confidence to sit down in front of her computer and try again, but for now she was happy to be back in Chesapeake Shores, in familiar surroundings, with her family fussing over her just because they loved her and not because they knew her life was in shambles. She'd needed girl time with her sisters, a rousing game of tag football and nonstop teasing with her brother Connor and his buddies, and a chance to hug her niecesAbby's twin daughters.
She'd needed to be back home even more than she'd realized, back in her old room where the only writing she'd ever done was in her diary or stories and plays written for her own satisfaction and no one else's eyes.
What she'd also needed, but hadn't admitted to a soul, was distance between herself and acclaimed playwright and director Martin Demming, a mentor for a time, a lover even longer. Lately, though, the relationship hadn't been working. Maybe she was already raw and overly sensitive after those vicious reviews, but it seemed to her he'd taken an almost gloating satisfaction in her failure. She hadn't been prepared for that.
So, here she was, three weeks after the opening of Jess's inn, kneeling in her grandmother's garden, yanking out weeds and letting the warmth of the sun soak into her bare and protectively sunscreened shoulders. For the first time in months, the tension that knotted there had finally eased. She felt
She searched for the right word, then realized it was content. She felt content with herself, even with her life, despite the current upheaval. She couldn't recall the last time she'd felt that way.
Oblivious for now to all the warnings about sun damage and Marty's constant and annoying admonitions about ruining her pale-as-Irish-cream complexion, she turned her face up to the sun and felt it ease the headache that came whenever she thought about the life she'd left behind.
Even as the thought surfaced, her hands stilled and she gasped slightly. Had she left it behind? All of it? Chicago? The theater? The writing? Marty? Had she really left it forever? Could she uproot herself from the world that had meant everything just a few short months ago? Was that what she was doing here, on her knees in the dirt, days after she was supposed to return to the life she'd always dreamed of? Was she giving up? Hiding out? Or merely licking her wounds before going back into the battle zone once again?
And that's what it was, Bree realized, a battle zone, with way too many potential enemiesthe producer, the director, the actors, the critics and the public, all of whom had their own views on what her work was or ought to be. Some days everything came together in an amazing collaboration. At other times, it was a highly charged emotional war with all of her carefully crafted words, scenes and motivations picked apart by those who thought they knew best.
She sat back and heaved a sigh. Oh, how she wished she had an answer to any of those questions.
"You've pulled up three of my summer phlox," Gram said, a clucking note of disapproval in her voice as she interrupted Bree's dark thoughts. "Do you want to tell me what's on your mind before you ruin the perennial garden I've spent years cultivating?"
Bree looked from her grandmotherhands on hips, petite and feisty in her straw gardening hat, sneakers and bright-pink cropped pants and matching blouseto the tall, dark purple phlox already wilting amid the weeds she'd tossed aside to her left. At the sight of the flowers, she groaned. "I got the roots. I'll put them back in the ground with some extra water and fertilizer. They'll be okay, Gram."
Gram gave her a penetrating look that suggested she knew exactly what was going on with Bree, but was waiting for her to bring up the subject.
"Can you say the same for yourself?" Gram asked. "Will you be okay?"
Bree deliberately looked away and turned her attention to replanting the phlox. "I have a lot on my mind," she murmured, afraid that she would confirm Gram's suspicions if she said more. Of everyone in the family, only her grandmother seemed to truly understand her, to see inside her heart even when Bree was silent. To her father and even to her outgoing siblings, she was mostly an enigma.
"Your distraction's plain enough," Gram agreed. "What you need is to share some of it, make the burden a wee bit lighter. If you don't want to tell me whatever's on your mind, go over to the inn and have lunch with Jess or call Abby. She'd be happy to take you to lunch in Baltimore, I'm sure. She can show off that new office of hers. You can have a nice heart-to-heart chat."
"Jess has her hands full. She doesn't have time to listen to me moan and groan. The same with Abby. Now that she and Trace are engaged and she's commuting to Baltimore practically every day, she has little enough time for herself and the twins without wasting it on me."
"Nonsense! Either one of them would make the time, because they're your sisters," Gram said impatiently. "With the O'Briens, family comes first. We stick together no matter what. Didn't I teach you that years ago?"
She'd certainly tried, Bree recalled. It had been a hard lesson to learn after their mother had taken off for New York, fed up with their father's endless round of business trips and his neglect of their family. Gram had been the glue that held the rest of them together. She'd been the one who'd tried to nudge them into making peace with Megan on her visits home, encouraged them to keep an open mind toward their mother. Not that any of them had. They were young and unforgiving, and the complexities of their parents' relationship had eluded them.
Lately, Bree had noticed that her father was making more of an effort to connect with all of them. Mick had shelved an entire project in California to be home for the opening of the inn, though he'd taken off again soon afterward. Even their mother had come back for Jess's big day, which had created its own problems, but Bree had to admit it had been nice to have everyoneat least everyone except her brother Kevin around for a few days. Kevin's tour in Iraq had kept him from being home for the festivities.
Those few days had reminded Bree of the kind of family harmony they'd had years ago, before Mick's acclaim as an urban architect and developer had taken him all over the world. It was exactly that kind of camaraderie that Bree had needed most when she'd left Chicago.
She could have told any family member about what had happened, and they would have done anything necessary to try to bolster her spirits. She knew that. She also knew she wasn't quite ready for the pity none of them would be able to hide or the sound, pragmatic suggestions Mick or Abby might have offered.
It would be better, she thought, to suck it up, make her own decisions and then get on with her life, not wallow in self-pity or dump all of her problems on her sisters, Gram or anyone else. What she needed, as always, was the peace and quiet to find her own way.
"Maybe I'll call Jess or Abby later," Bree hedged eventually. "Why don't I go inside and fix us some lunch. We can eat out here or even on the beach." She was suddenly overcome by a wave of nostalgia. "Remember when you used to make picnics for us when we were kids? We'd spread a blanket on the sand and spend the whole afternoon along the shore."
Gram regarded her with amusement. "Do I need to remind you that you were the first one to complain about the sand getting in your food and the sun being too hot?"
Bree laughed. "I guess I'd forgotten that part. Okay, we can eat on the porch. There's no sand on the porch, and there is a lovely breeze."
"Actually, I can't today," Gram said, a note of apology in her voice. "I have a meeting at the church." She studied Bree worriedly, then added, "But I can cancel if you'd rather I stay here so we can talk some more."
Bree wasn't ready to bare her soul. "No, go. I'll be fine. Maybe I'll walk into town, do a little shopping and then have lunch at the café."
Gram nodded. "If you decide to do that, give my best to Sally and bring home one of those raspberry croissants of hers. I'll have it for breakfast tomorrow."
Bree feigned shock. "You're actually going to eat someone else's baking? Or are you trying to figure out her recipe so you can make them yourself?"
"When someone has a knack for something, I'm perfectly content to leave them to it. Sally's croissants melt in your mouth. Why try to improve on that?"
"I think I'll tell her you said that," Bree teased. "It'll please her to know that the greatest baker in Chesapeake Shores admires her croissants."
Gram drew herself up indignantly. "It's nothing I haven't told her myself, young lady. I'm not beyond giving credit where it's due. Now go along with you. Try to come back with a smile on your face. It troubles me to see you looking so lost."
Bree knew that Gram was attuned to her moods, but she hadn't expected her to hit on such an apt description. She was lost. Having one person who could read her and was always willing to lend an ear, offer advice or whatever else she needed brought unexpected tears to her eyes. If she wasn't careful, she'd start bawling right here and now, and Gram would stay put and pry the whole pitiful story out of her.
Instead, she forced a smile. "I'm just sorting through a few things. It's nothing for you to worry about."
The words were as much for herself as for her grandmother. It would be too easy to let herself wallow in that feeling of love and acceptance, to wrap herself in it and forget all about her dreams. Chesapeake Shores would be the perfect safe haven.
Then again, maybe it was time to take a really hard look at those dreams and see if they still fit, after all. Bree had the O'Brien streak of stubbornness in spades, but maybe there was no shame in letting go for once. Moving on. Making new dreams.
If only she had even a vague idea of what those new dreams might be.
Mick O'Brien stood on a street corner in New York City with his cell phone in hand, trying to work up the courage to make a call to a woman he'd known most of his adult life. Megan was his ex-wife, for heaven's sake! Dialing her number shouldn't be harder than facing down an entire planning and zoning commission dead set on vetoing one of his developments. Yet he'd done that numerous times without batting an eye, while just the prospect of making this call had his palms sweating.
Losing his nerve, Mick snapped the phone shut for the third time and turned on his heel. He wound up in a coffee shop somewhere on the Upper East Side of the city, just blocks from Megan's apartment, cursing his own cowardice or maybe the decision that had brought him to New York in the first place, after all these years.
Seeing Megan again at the opening of Jess's inn had unleashed something inside him. He'd suddenly remembered the way it had felt to love her, how he'd always felt ten feet tall when she'd looked at him. All the years of burning anger and resentment over their breakup had disappeared in the space of a heartbeat when he'd seen her walking toward him on the beach, her figure as lithe as a girl's, her auburn hair whipping in the wind.