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As signs from heaven went, this one seemed fairly prosaic.
No choir of angels, no booming voice from above or anything like that. It was simply a hand-lettered placard shoved into the seagrass in front of the massive, ornate Victorian that had drifted through her memory for most of her life.
Apartment For Rent.
Julia stared at the sign with growing excitement. It seemed impossible, a miracle. That this house, of all places, would be available for rent just as she was looking for a temporary home seemed just the encouragement her doubting heart needed to reaffirm her decision to pack up her twins and take a new teaching job in Cannon Beach.
Not even to herself had she truly admitted how worried she was that she'd made a terrible mistake moving here, leaving everything familiar and heading into the unknown.
Seeing that sign in front of Brambleberry House seemed an answer to prayer, a confirmation that this was where she and her little family were supposed to be.
"Cool house!" Maddie exclaimed softly, gazing up in awe at the three stories of Queen Anne Victorian, with its elaborate trim, cupolas and weathered shake roof. "It looks like a gingerbread house!"
Julia squeezed her daughter's hand, certain Maddie looked a little healthier today in the bracing sea air of the Oregon Coast.
"Cool dog!" Her twin, Simon, yelled. The words were barely out of his mouth when a giant red blur leaped over the low wrought-iron fence surrounding the house and wriggled around them with glee, as if he'd been waiting years just for them to walk down the beach.
The dog licked Simon's face and headbutted his stomach like an old friend. Julia braced herself to push him away if he got too rough with Maddie, but she needn't have worried.As if guided by some sixth sense, the dog stopped his wild gyrations and waited docilely for Maddie to reach out a tentative hand and pet him. Maddie giggled, a sound that was priceless as all the sea glass in the world to Julia.
"I think he likes me," she whispered.
"I think so, too, sweetheart." Julia smiled and tucked a strand of Maddie's fine short hair behind her ear.
"Do you really know the lady who lives here?" Maddie asked, while Simon was busy wrestling the dog in the sand.
"I used to, a long, long time ago," Julia answered.
"She was my very best friend."
Her heart warmed as she remembered Abigail Dand-ridge and her unfailing kindness to a lonely little girl. Her mind filled with memories of admiring her vast doll collection, of pruning the rose hedge along the fence with her, of shared confidences and tea parties and sand dollar hunts along the beach.
"Like Jenna back home is my best friend?" Maddie asked.
Every summer of her childhood, Brambleberry House became a haven of serenity and peace for her. Her family rented the same cottage just down the beach each July. It should have been a time of rest and enjoyment, but her parents couldn't stop fighting even on vacation.
Whenever she managed to escape to Abigail and Brambleberry House, though, Julia didn't have to listen to their arguments, didn't have to see her mother's tears or her father's obvious impatience at the enforced holiday, his wandering eye.
Her fifteenth summer was the last time she'd been here. Her parents finally divorced, much to her and her older brother Charlie's relief, and they never returned to Cannon Beach. But over the years, she had used the image of this house, with its soaring gables and turrets, and the peace she had known here to help center her during difficult times.
Through her parents' bitter divorce, through her own separation from Kevin and worse. Much worse.
"Is she still your best friend?" Maddie asked.
"I haven't seen Miss Abigail for many, many years," she said. "But you know, I don't think I realized until just this moment how very much I've missed her."
She should never have let so much time pass before coming back to Cannon Beach. She had let their friendship slip away, too busy being a confused and rebellious teenager caught in the middle of the endless drama between her parents. And then had come college and marriage and family.
Perhaps now that she was back, they could find that friendship once more. She couldn't wait to find out.
She opened the wrought-iron gate and headed up the walkway feeling as if she were on the verge of something oddly portentous.
She rang the doorbell and heard it echo through the house. Anticipation zinged through her as she waited, wondering what she would possibly say to Abigail after all these years. Would her lovely, wrinkled features match Julia's memory?
No one answered after several moments, even after she rang the doorbell a second time. She stood on the porch, wondering if she ought to leave a note with their hotel and her cell phone number, but it seemed impersonal, somehow, after all these years.
They would just have to check back, she decided. She headed back down the stairs and started for the gate again just as she heard the whine of a power tool from behind the house.
The dog, who looked like a mix between an Irish setter and a golden retriever, barked and headed toward the sound, pausing at the corner of the house, head cocked, as if waiting for them to come along with him.
After a wary moment, she followed, Maddie and Simon close on her heels.
The dog led them to the backyard, where Julia found a couple of sawhorses set up and a man with brown hair and broad shoulders running a circular saw through a board.
She watched for a moment, waiting for their presence to attract his attention, but he didn't look up from his work.
"Hello," she called out. When he still didn't respond, she moved closer so she would be in his field of vision and waved.
Finally, he shut off the saw and pulled his safety goggles off, setting them atop his head.
"Yeah?" he said.
She squinted and looked closer at him. He looked familiar. A hint of a memory danced across her subconscious and she was so busy trying to place him that it took her a moment to respond.
"I'm sorry to disturb you. I rang the doorbell but I guess you couldn't hear me back here with the power tools."
He spoke tersely, as if impatient to return to work, and Julia could feel herself growing flustered. She had braced herself to see Abigail, not some solemn-eyed construction worker in a sexy tool belt.
"I right. Um, I'm looking for Abigail Dandridge."
There was an awkward pause and she thought she saw something flicker in his blue eyes.
"Are you a friend of hers?" he asked, his voice not quite as abrupt as it had been before.
"I used to be, a long time ago. Can you tell me when she'll be back? I don't mind waiting."
The dog barked, only with none of the exuberance he had shown a few moments ago, almost more of a whine than a bark. He plopped onto the grass and dipped his chin to his front paws, his eyes suddenly morose.
The man gazed at the dog's curious behavior for a moment. A muscle tightened in his jaw then he looked back at Julia. "Abigail died in April. Heart attack in her sleep. I'm sorry to be the one to tell you."
Julia couldn't help her instinctive cry of distress. Even through her sudden surge of grief, she sensed when Maddie stepped closer and slipped a small, frail hand in hers.
Julia drew a breath, then another. "I see," she mumbled.
Just one more loss in a long, unrelenting string, she thought. But this one seemed to pierce her heart like jagged driftwood.
It was silly, really, when she thought about it. Abigail hadn't been a presence in her life for sixteen years, but suddenly the loss of her seemed overwhelming.
She swallowed hard, struggling for composure. Her friend was gone, but her house was still here, solid and reassuring, weathering this storm as it had others for generations.
Somehow it seemed more important than ever that she bring her children here.
"I see," she repeated, more briskly now, though she thought she saw a surprising understanding in the deep blue of the man's eyes, so disconcertingly familiar. She knew him. She knew she did.
"I suppose I should talk to you, then. The sign out front says there's an apartment for rent. How many bedrooms does it have?"
He gave her a long look before turning away to pick up another board and carry it to the saw. "Three bedrooms, two of them on the small side. Kitchen's been redone in the last few months and the electricity's been upgraded but the bathroom plumbing's still in pretty rough shape."
"I don't care about that, as long as everything works okay. Three bedrooms is exactly the size my children and I need. Is it still available?'
She pursed her lips. "Why not?"
He shrugged. "I don't own the place. I live a few houses down the beach. I'm just doing some repairs for the owners."
Something about what he said jarred loose a flood of memories and she stared at him more closely. Suddenly everything clicked in and she gasped, stunned she hadn't realized his identity the instant she had clapped eyes on him.
"Will? Will Garrett?"
He peered at her. "Do I know you?"
She managed a smile. "Probably not. It's been years."
She held out a hand, her pulse suddenly wild and erratic, as it had always been around him.
"Julia Blair. You knew me when I was Julia Hudson. My parents rented a cottage between your house and Brambleberry House every summer of my childhood until I was fifteen. I used to follow you and my older brother Charlie around everywhere."
Will Garrett. She'd forgotten so much about those summers, but never him. She had wondered whether she would see him, had wondered about his life and where he might end up. She never expected to find him standing in front of her on her first full day in town.
"It's been years!" she repeated. "I can't believe you're still here."
At her words, it took Will all of about two seconds to remember her. When he did, he couldn't understand why he hadn't seen it before. He had yearned for Julia Hudson that summer as only a relatively innocent sixteen-year-old boy can ache. He had dreamed of her green eyes and her dimples and her soft, burgeoning curves.
She had been his first real love and had haunted his dreams.
She had promised to keep in touch but she hadn't called or answered any of his letters and he remembered how his teenage heart had been shattered. But by the time school started a month later, he'd been so busy with football practice and school and working for his dad's carpentry business on Saturdays that he hadn't really had much time to wallow in his heartbreak.
Julia looked the samethe same smile, the same auburn hair, the same appealing dimpleswhile he felt as if he had aged a hundred years.
He could barely remember those innocent, carefree days when he had been certain the world was his for the taking, that he could achieve anything if only he worked hard enough for it.
She was waiting for a response, he realized, still holding her hand outstretched in pleased welcome. He held up his hands in their leather work gloves as an excuse not to touch her. After an awkward moment, she dropped her arms to her side, though the smile remained fixed on her lovely features.
"I can't believe you're still here in Cannon Beach," she repeated. "How wonderful that you've stayed all these years! I remember how you loved it here."
He wouldn't call it wonderful. There were days he felt like some kind of prehistoric iceman, frozen forever in place. He had wondered for some time if he ought to pick up and leave, go anywhere, just as long as it wasn't here.
Someone with his carpentry skills and experience could find work just about any place. He had thought about it long and hard, especially at night when the memories overwhelmed him and the emptiness seemed to ring through his house but he couldn't seem to work past the inertia to make himself leave.
"So how have you been?" Julia asked. "What about family? Are you married? Any kids?"
Okay, he wasn't a prehistoric iceman. He was pretty certain they couldn't bleed and bleed and bleed.
He set his jaw and picked up the oak board he was shaping for a new window frame in one of the third-floor bedrooms of Brambleberry House.
"You'll have to talk to Sage Benedetto or Anna Galvez about the apartment," he said tersely. "They're the new owners. They should be back this evening."
He didn't quite go so far as to fire up the circular saw but it was a clear dismissal, rude as hell. He had to hope she got the message that he wasn't interested in any merry little trips down memory lane.
She gave him a long, measuring look while the girl beside her edged closer.