Read an Excerpt
He'd prayed all the way from Brazil to northwestern Wisconsin for God to spare his nonna, even when God and he both knew his prayer was a selfish one.
Warm wind buffeting him, Tony Stefano leaned the Harley into the big curve and braced for his first glimpse of Nonna's Victorian in ten years. He roared round the corner, and there it stood. Tall. Proud. Unbending.
Like his nonna.
A lump caught in his throat. He felt just like he had when he'd left at seventeen trapped in circumstances he had no clue how to handle. Nonna's demands. His overwhelming feelings for Maggie McGuire. And the final straw Sheriff Bunker's accusations.
He gave his head a shake as if he could shake off the past and focused on the crisis at hand. According to Maggie's brief email, Nonna had fallen down the stairs and injured her leg and who knew what else. A shock. Somehow he'd thought his grandmother would live forever.
He had to see her one last time. He needed to ask her forgiveness before she went to meet her maker.
Gut churning, he took the turn into the driveway. Tires popped gravel. He braked to a stop beside the polished gray-and-white Suburban Maggie's dad had let him drive a few times. He couldn't believe she still had it. It must be a classic by now.
Hitting the kill switch on the Harley, he lifted off his helmet and squinted up at the sagging roof of the old house. Chipped paint and rotting windowsills. Keeping up a big, old house was like pouring money down a hole. But Nonna had always kept the place looking good with little cash, plenty of hard work and sheer determination. By the looks of it now, she was running low on all three.
Why hadn't she cashed those checks he'd sent?
At least her flowers were going stronger than ever. The place was draped in them, the air sweet with a fragrance that reminded him of Maggie. She'd loved Nonna's flowers, especially the roses. He peered through hundreds of pink ones climbing the arched arbor over the brick walk and caught a glimpse of copper hair.
His jaw clenched down on feelings he'd buried long ago. But he couldn't deny seeing her again filled him with anticipation mixed with sheer terror. Pretty much the way she'd affected him ever since he'd hit town when he was six, and she'd been four. He climbed off the bike and ducked through the roses.
She stood near the back steps, hammer in hand, boards helter-skelter around her bare feet, a yellow T-shirt and worn, torn jeans skimming her curves.
He should have guessed she'd grow into a striking woman with those new-penny curls and big, brown eyes. Eyes filled with trust and belief in him those years growing up when they were the only kids for miles. Innocent eyes that had reminded him of his protective side.
Except for the day he'd betrayed her trust and taken her innocence. Sure, he'd been a head-over-heels-in-love kid of seventeen, but she'd been only fifteen. He'd asked God's forgiveness, but he doubted he'd ever forgive himself.
"Tony?" Maggie squinted at him as if she couldn't be sure who he was. "You came home?"
"I started out as soon as I got your email." Stopping in front of her, he tried to prepare for an answer to the question he feared asking. "How's Nonna?"
"She's slowly improving. The hospital in Eau Claire transferred her to the new rehab center on the other end of town yesterday."
Relief flooding him, he breathed a silent thank-you and grinned. "That's great news."
A frown flitted across Maggie's face. "She's very unhappy. She expected to come straight home from the hospital." She brightened a little. "But seeing you will cheer her up."
He hoped so. Now all he had to do was figure out what to say to her. "I need to set things right with her."
"It's about time." Maggie's face crumpling, she reached for him. "I'm so glad you came home to see her."
He swept her into a bear hug, her fresh scent touting hours outdoors. Memories of innocent kisses popped into his mind. Did she still taste like strawberries?
She pushed away, swiping at her eyes, a soft pink tinge flushing her cheeks and neck.
She was blushing?
"Your nonna's missed you so much."
What about you, Maggie? Have you missed me? Had she thought about him like he'd thought about her?
But they weren't kids anymore. They'd both moved on with their lives. His chest aching somewhere in the vicinity of his heart, he noticed a few freckles still spattered her nose. For some reason, he was glad they hadn't all disappeared.
She glanced at her watch. "It's nearly six. Your nonna goes to sleep early, but if you hurry, you can probably see her before she goes to sleep for the night."
He rubbed the back of his neck. "Nonna was always a stickler for cleanliness, so I should probably get cleaned up first. I've spent the last twenty hours on planes, in airports or eating truck exhaust. I'd kill for a shower."
"You don't have time. Splash water on your face." Maggie at her all-business best.
He frowned. "I don't know what to say to her."
"Just talk." She waved her hand as if to point out the obvious.
Unfortunately, God hadn't given everybody Maggie's talent for rebuilding bridges with people. "What can I say to her?"
She squinted. "There will probably be apologizing involved. Tell her you're sorry for running away."
"I have a feeling sorry is not going to cut it."
"It's a place to start."
He'd like to believe it was that simple, but He dug deeper for words to make Maggie understand. "I figure raising a six-year-old kid after his mother died couldn't have been a piece of cake. Especially one with a chip on his shoulder the size of South America. I owe her.
"Yes, you do."
"But you know nothing was ever easy between Nonna and me."
"She loves you, Tony." Her smile softened the intensity of that statement.
"Of course I'm sure. She'll be so glad to see you but it might take a while for her to forgive you. For running away. And for never coming home."
He dragged in a breath. "What about you, Maggie? Have you forgiven me for running away?"
"Me?" She stared at his boots. "Ten years is a long time."
Which meant no, she hadn't forgiven him and probably never would. But could he blame her?
"Stella keeps your letters stashed in the chest in her room. We" Frowning, Maggie shook her head. "She rereads them so often, they're falling apart."
"That's hard to believe."
"Well, it's true. Just how long are you planning to stay?"
"I have to be on a plane for Porto Loges in a week."
"A week?" She gave him a scouring look.
"Can't be helped. We're starting a building contract I've worked hard to get off the ground."
"And they need you more than your nonna does?"
"I have a great foreman, but so many things go wrong, especially in the beginning of a project. BesidesNonna has never needed me, and you know it."
Shaking her head, Maggie raised her chin a notch, a move that had always put him on his guard.
It worked as effectively as it always had. She clearly thought he was making excuses. "I have a lot to lose, Maggie. I need to get back to keep my financial backers from getting nervous."
She sighed. "And you think you can make up for ten years in a week?"
A tall order, he knew. He rubbed his whisker-stubbled chin and realized he didn't even know how to begin with Nonna. He needed to take Maggie with him. Just like old times. Him needing her help. But what else was he going to do? "Will you help me with Nonna?"
She frowned. "What makes you think I can help?"
"You've known us a long time. You can steer us around our old hang-ups."
"I had no idea I held such power."
He gave her a look. "Will you come with me?"
"It will be better if you see her alone."
Not a good plan. "We haven't seen each other for ten years."
"I can't go with you. She doesn't know I wrote to you. She needs to believe coming home was your idea."
Leave it to Maggie to overthink this. He shifted his stance. "Coming back was my idea. And I really need your help. Who else am I going to ask?"
But she hadn't said no. Not yet anyway. "You think my being here will help her, right?"
"Seeing you will give her a huge boost."
"Not if we get off on the wrong foot."
She narrowed her eyes as if giving his comment serious thought. "It'll take a couple minutes for me to change clothes."
He grinned his thanks. "I owe you."
"I'll remember that." She laid down her hammer and jogged up the porch steps, the screen door slamming shut behind her.
Her absence giving him time to think about what lay ahead, he stood there fighting a wave of panic. Pretty ridiculous. He was going to face his grandmother, not a firing squad.
Too bad he couldn't shake the feeling that the firing squad would be easier.
In her upstairs bedroom, Maggie pulled on clean jeans with shaking hands. He was home.
After all these years, the boy who'd lit the moon and hung the stars in her sky was home. A man now. A gorgeous man. But still Tony.
And he was more. More rugged. More confident. More exciting. More everything she didn't need in her life.
He looked so different from the skinny boy she'd shadowed as a little girl. The boy who'd been her protector, her confidant, her friend. The boy whose kisses had awakened feelings too powerful to deny that day years ago. The day she'd told him she loved him.
She glanced at the chest beside her bed, her gaze skimming the princess figurine her parents had given her and homing in on the gold, oval locket draping its neck. Tony had given her the locket that day, a present for her fifteenth birthday.
The next day, he was gone.
Instead, Sheriff Bunker had shown up on her doorstep asking questions and accusing Tony of hurting Doc Tilbert and stealing his money. He did errands and odd jobs for the doctor, but Tony would never hurt him or steal from anybody. That's what she'd told the sheriff, but he was convinced Tony ran away because he was guilty, and vowed to send bulletins to surrounding lawenforcement agencies to find him. She'd been so afraid for Tony.
She grabbed her pink T-shirt from the bed and threw it over her head, jabbing blindly for the sleeves. Finally, she got the shirt on and dragged in a breath.
She was so relieved Tony had come home to see Stella that she hadn't given any thought to what it would be like having him around. Now it was all she could think about, and she couldn't stop shaking. In some ways, she felt like that same giddy schoolgirl all over again. How silly. How humiliating. How dumb.
This was the guy who'd shattered her heart when he'd abandoned Noah's Crossing, his nonna and her. The guy who'd jotted a postcard to his nonna to let her know he was okay, then dropped off the face of the earth for five years. The one who hated the town she considered home, who had no use for roots and couldn't wait to leave it all behind again.
But he'd finally come home to make things right with his nonna. Part of her couldn't help being proud of him for that. As for making things right with her?
It was far too late for that.
She pressed her hand to the stab in her heart and lowered herself to the bed. Dear God, I thought I'd forgiven him for deserting me when I needed him most. But seeing him again, I know I haven't. Our baby isn't coming backshe's gone forever.