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Sawyer Trask had been back in Buzzards Bay for two days now. Although he'd stopped on occasion to grab a bite to eat and check in with his team, he'd been in sleep mode ever since he settled in to his new home. He'd slept for a solid fourteen hours straight, which was a record for him. Everything had caught up with him at once-jet lag, being overseas for an extended period of time and his illness. When he finally awakened he'd stepped out onto his parapet just in time to spot Ava Trask walking the path from the beach up to her cottage.
From the first moment he laid eyes on her, something inside him had cracked wide open. He hadn't expected such an overwhelming feeling, but there it was, settled firmly around his heart. It had been a year since he'd seen her. Three hundred and forty-four days since he'd heard her sweet voice.
Sawyer didn't stop to analyze the emotions coursing through him-guilt, attraction, regret? An inner voice had urged him to walk over to the cottage and announce his return, because he knew that the longer he waited, the more difficult it would be to confront the situation head-on. Knowing Ava as well as he did, he could only imagine her stunned reaction.
She was way more beautiful than he remembered, a million times more exotic and appealing. Miles and miles away from the scrawny, plucky tomboy who'd quickly befriended the new kid in town. From the moment she'd reached out to him in the sweetest act of friendship he'd ever known, they'd been as thick as thieves. Ava and Sawyer. In Buzzards Bay their names had been blurred together as if they were one. Partners in crime. Swashbucklers. Pirates. She was so familiar to him, yet everything about her now seemed so foreign. He'd caught a glimpse of her as she took her morning jog across the beach, stood transfixed as she frolicked with the family dog and marveled at the way she played with the twins. His cousin Billy's children. Casey and Dahlia. Dolly, for short. They were six years old, on the cusp of turning seven. Their birthday was coming up in two months. It would be their second one without their father, with dozens of birthdays stretched out before them. A lifetime of events, he thought grimly. Years of special occasions without the man who'd given them life by their side, cheering them on and providing them with guidance.
There was something about the three of them playing on the beach with their dog that pulled at him. They looked like the picture-perfect family, he thought. Minus one. A stab of guilt pierced his heart as his eyes roamed over the family. He wanted to reach out and touch them, to nurture them in any way he could. After all, they were the reason he'd come back. What he really wanted was to be able to give them back every ounce of what had been taken from them. But he couldn't. Some things couldn't be fixed.
Returning home wasn't going to be a cakewalk. He was coming back to the grim reality of what had happened two years ago. It meant acknowledging the way he'd run away like a coward rather than confront his own feelings. He'd have to deal with the lingering grief blanketing his loved ones. And the shadow of guilt that still hung over him. But he was stronger now and more determined than ever. He'd come back to Buzzards Bay with a purpose, one that required commitment and follow-through. It was time to uphold his sacred promise to his cousin. Not another day would go by without him being present in Dolly's and Casey's lives. And somehow he needed to tell Ava about his role in her husband's death. He just hoped it wouldn't mean she'd want nothing more to do with him ever again.
"Tully!" Ava ran down the beach at breakneck speed, her steps slowed down by the gravitational pull of the sand. The sand didn't seem to be slowing down her chocolate Lab puppy as he bounded toward the water. Just as Tully placed his paws in the ocean, she reached down and scooped him up into her arms, nestling him against her chest the same way she'd cradled her babies.
Ava took a deep breath, her nostrils filling with sea air as she struggled to catch her breath. Whew! When had she gotten so out of shape? She used to be able to run the length of this beach without breaking a sweat. She smiled at the memory of Billy pulling her in his arms after she walked into the kitchen after a five-mile run, her body covered with a light mist of sweat. When she'd pulled away from him and told him she needed a shower, he'd drawn her back, bathing her in kisses as he waltzed with her in the kitchen. He loved me, she thought, warts and all. And she'd loved him the same way, even when it seemed almost impossible to keep loving that man.
The twins came running after her, their tiny feet nearly swallowed up by the sand. "You caught him, Mama," Casey shouted. "You sure moved fast."
"I had to move quickly." Ava nuzzled Tully's face, earning herself slobbery kisses in return.
"Mama, I saw a man over there." Dolly pointed a chubby finger toward the horizon, and for a moment it seemed to Ava as if her daughter was pointing toward the sky.
"Where, baby?" she asked, craning her neck upward.
"At the lighthouse."
"Nuh-uh. No one lives there," said Casey with an emphatic nod of his head.
"Does so. I saw him." Dolly leaned in toward Casey, her hands perched on her hips.
"Does not, tattle baby." Casey leaned in, as well, so that they were standing nose-to-nose.
"Does so, stinky pants."
"Stop! Stop!" Ava held up her hands to ward off the war of words between the twins. With her kids it only took seconds for things to spiral out of control. Next thing you knew they'd be rolling around in the sand like miniwrestlers. "Twin rule number one. Be respectful of each other. Everyone has their right to an opinion."
"I did so see a man there. He was walking around at the tippy top of the lighthouse when Auntie took us for a walk yesterday." Dolly's arms were folded across her chest, and she was glaring at her brother.
"Nope. I didn't see a man up there." Casey thrust out his lower lip, his voice sounding emphatic. "The only time I seen a man up there was when Mr. P lived there." A sad look shadowed Casey's face. "And Mr. P died just like Daddy. We're not gonna see neither of them ever, ever, ever again."
A solemn look passed over Dolly's face. "But we can see them in our dreams, Casey. And one day we'll see them in Heaven."
"Heaven must be awesome," Casey said with a sigh. "I wanna go there."
Ava bent down till she was level with her son, then tweaked him playfully on the nose. With his walnut-colored skin, expressive eyes and adorable dimples, his resemblance to his father never failed to amaze her. Dolly, on the other hand, looked like a mini version of her, down to her hazel eyes and the cleft in her chin.
"You won't be going to visit until you're a very old man. You've got lots to do before you see Heaven."
Dolly's chin sank down onto her chest, and she began to sniffle. "Daddy had lots to do, but God still took him."
"I know, baby. It doesn't seem fair, does it? The only thing I can figure is that God needed him up there by His side."
She patted Dolly on the back and began a slow, rhythmic rubbing between her shoulder blades. It was a technique she'd used on her daughter ever since she was a baby in the cradle. Dolly was the sensitive, caring twin, while Casey was the more rambunctious, playful one. Regardless, they both missed their father and were still seeking an answer as to why he'd been taken from them. And they weren't the only ones, she reminded herself. Two years after her husband's death she was still struggling with the tragic event that had taken Billy's life. She still asked herself over and over again if she could have done anything to prevent it.
Tears misted Ava's eyes as she fought back another wave of sadness. When did it end? When did the mourning fade away? When would she be strong enough to let this grief pass over her? Everyone told her it was a process, one she'd walk through in her own time. But she still missed him, still grieved the love they'd shared. Perhaps she would always feel this way, she realized, as if a piece of her had been taken along with her Billy.
She knew some of it was guilt. If she'd gotten him the help he so desperately needed for his drinking, would he have been out on the water that day? Would things have spiraled so badly out of control if Billy hadn't been under the influence?
Lord, please give me the courage to move past Billy's death. Give me the grace to think about our life together without bitterness or regret. Allow me to focus on the good things and not dwell on the bad. Help me raise my two children to be strong and resilient. Please, Lord, help me heal.
She looked up at the lighthouse just in time to see a figure standing on the parapet, then quickly dart out of view. Dolly was right! Someone was there in the lighthouse, and from the looks of it, he'd been watching them.
Sawyer sprinted down the steps and dashed out the front door into the crisp Cape Cod sunshine, his movements agile and quick. He'd watched from the window as the chocolate Lab got away from Ava for a second time. From the looks of it, she'd been too preoccupied with the kids to notice the Lab's escape until it was too late.
As soon as he reached the beach, the sand became a challenge. He felt as if he were running in quicksand. He'd sprinted along this beach hundreds of times. As a kid he was the one all the others had tried to beat as they raced from the lighthouse to the rocks. More times than not he'd been the winner.
He zigzagged across the sand, following the trail blazed by the chocolate Lab. Using every ounce of energy he possessed, he gave it a final push. He reached down and scooped up the furry blob just as he reached the water's edge, cradling the puppy in his arms like a football. Bending over at the waist, he took a moment to catch his breath. When he finally turned around, Ava was a few feet away from him, appearing winded and slightly annoyed.
She stopped in her tracks abruptly, her mouth hanging open in shock at the sight of him. She was achingly beautiful. With her café au lait skin, brilliant hazel eyes and chocolate-brown hair, she could easily have graced the covers of magazines. Her athletic build spoke of her love of running and healthy lifestyle. In all the time he'd known her, he'd been able to gauge her feelings with just one look.
At the moment her eyes were stormy with emotion. Surprise. Anger. Confusion.
"Sawyer? What are you doing here?" she asked.
He walked toward her, easily closing the gap between them. The puppy was still snuggled in his arms, worn-out from his mad dash across the beach. He was making little panting noises, his body heaving with the effort.
"The mission ended. I'm back in town for good, Ava." He mindlessly patted the puppy, trying to soothe his soft whimpers. He watched her carefully, anxious to see her reaction to his news. She tensed up. Her mouth was set in a firm line while her eyes glittered dangerously. Sawyer knew her well enough to know the warning signs. If he had any sense he would run for cover. Without a word, Ava reached out and snatched the puppy from his arms.
"Welcome back, Sawyer," she spit out. "If I'd known you were coming I would have thrown you a party. Forgive me for not rolling out the red carpet."
He let out a pent-up sigh. "I know you're upset with me, but I'd like to see the kids, to help you any way I can."
"Help me?" She bristled. "The same way you helped me after Billy died? 'Cause from what I remember you were a rock for the first year, until you took off for parts unknown and stayed gone this whole time."
He gritted his teeth, uncomfortable with her angry stance. "The coast guard sent me to Africa on a global partnership mission. I couldn't tell you where I was going before I left, Ava. Those missions are classified."
She juggled the puppy in her arms as she attached the leash to his collar. "It's been a year since you left. One whole year. The twins have asked about you nonstop, and I kept telling them you'd be back, that their uncle wouldn't stay away for long. And guess what?" she exploded. "They finally stopped asking about you, because as faithful and trusting as kids are, even they can't continue to believe in something that doesn't exist!"
He hung his head, not wanting to see the hurt in Ava's eyes. He could hear it ringing out in her voice. Seeing it would bring him to his knees. The thought of causing Ava and the twins pain was agonizing. When he'd left Cape Cod it had been an act of self-preservation, an attempt to extinguish all the guilt he'd felt over his cousin's death and to get his life back on track. In the end, running away had only made things worse, since thoughts of Ava and the kids had relentlessly followed him.
"I know I shouldn't have taken the assignment. I should have stayed right here where I belong. Believe me, if I could go back and change things, I would." It was the closest he'd come to apologizing to her. He should have told her sooner, perhaps written her a heartfelt letter. There was so much more lying under the surface, things that both of them had always chosen to ignore. They were part of the reason he'd left and why he'd chosen to stay out of contact with her, even though he'd sent half a dozen postcards and packages to the kids. But it was far too soon for him to start digging up the past. For now, all he wanted to do was extend an olive branch.
"Well, Billy always said your job was the most important thing to you," she said crisply. "I guess you proved him right."