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By DONNA KAUFFMAN
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Donna Kauffman
All rights reserved.
She didn't mind being known as the single sibling, the last remaining unmarried McCrae. She didn't. Kerry McCrae's life was too big, too bold, to settle herself down in one place, with one person.
Let 'em eat wedding cake!
"Refills in the back!" The shout came from the pool table area in the rear of the Rusty Puffin, the lone pub in the tiny harbor town of Blueberry Cove, Maine. The same town where she'd been born and raised.
The same pub she'd been helping her Uncle Gus — who owned the place — run for a little over a year now, her big and bold life on hold. She'd come back for her older brother Logan's wedding the previous summer, then stayed on for her oldest sister Hannah's Christmas wedding. And now the middle McCrae sister, Fiona, was driving them all bonkers as she reached the final planning stages of her impending wedding in just a few weeks' time to Snowflake Bay Christmas tree farmer Ben Campbell. None of those were excuses for Kerry not heading out on her next grand adventure.
If she was looking for an excuse — and she wasn't — it was the stroke that Fergus had suffered a mere few weeks prior to Hannah's holiday wedding. Technically, he was her late grandfather's cousin, but he was Uncle Gus to her and to her siblings. He was her port in a storm, the one McCrae who truly understood her, who recognized that glint in her eye, because it matched the one in his own.
He'd been in his fifties when he'd up and moved from County Clare, Ireland, to America, offering to help his distant cousin raise his orphaned grandchildren when her grandpa's own health began to fail. Kerry had just turned ten and thought her newfound great-uncle was the most exotic thing she'd ever seen, with his short, stout frame, wild fringe of white hair ringing his bald pate, and vivid blue eyes. But it was that rich, lyrical brogue of his, as he told her bold tales of exploration and adventure, that truly entranced her. The fact that Fergus had stuck it out in the Cove going on twenty years now didn't mean he wasn't a wayfarer at heart.
Gus knew she couldn't contain her spirit in a small seaside town, no matter how dear the Cove was to her. And her hometown was dear, as were each and every one of her family members. It was their strength, stability, and support, after all, that had given her the confidence, the assurance, the daring, to leave home at the tender age of nineteen and go forth to conquer the world as she pleased. And she'd pleased herself a great deal, gypsying around the globe for more than a decade, hitting every continent except Antarctica. And that was only because the floating science lab she was going to crew on, from Tierra del Fuego all the way down to the penguins and back, had been docked for funding reasons a week before she'd been set to leave.
Gypsying until last year, anyway, she thought, when she'd come home again. For the weddings. And to help Uncle Gus. If staying, helping, and playing bridesmaid time and again also kept her from thinking about the last adventure she'd been on before she'd returned home to the States, then all the better, really.
"Are the brews coming anytime soon? We're thirsty men back here!"
"Keep your pants on, Hardy," Kerry called out, without even looking up from the bottles she was up-capping and sliding down the bar to two of the other thirsty bar patrons crowding the small establishment. Her musings continued as she pulled four more drafts and set them on a tray. Gus's stroke had absolutely been the reason she'd stayed past Hannah's wedding. He'd always been there for her, so, of course, she'd be there for him. In fact, the thought of leaving, then his having another stroke and her not being there with him — well, she didn't even like to contemplate that.
She carried the tray to the back, weaving her way through the throng, trying to ignore her little voice as it whispered, He's fine now, no more strokes, or fine enough at any rate. He doesn't need you to stay as he's mentioned a time or a hundred. So how long are you going to cling to that lame excuse before you find yourself yet another? Fiona's wedding? Sure, okay. Then what?
Kerry gritted her teeth a little, ignoring her incessantly pestering little voice — she'd gotten good at that — and set the tray on the round café table closest to the pool table Hardy and his three fellow lobster fishermen coworkers were using. "Who's losing?" she asked, then grinned as all four men paused in chalking or lining up their cues to look her way. "I only ask so I know whose tab to put this round on."
"Might as well add it to Perry's," Hardy replied as the other two men who weren't Perry chuckled in agreement. "He couldn't sink a shot tonight if he nudged it all the way to the pocket with his nose," Hardy added with a laugh.
Hardy was a tall, well-muscled, good-looking guy, a few years older than Kerry's thirty-one. He wasn't a native of the Cove but had moved up from Boston about four years back, after marrying Caroline Welsh, the third-grade teacher at the local elementary school. So Kerry didn't know him well, or at all, really. What she did know was that he was a natural flirt and cocky enough to think it was perfectly fine to exhibit that character trait wherever and whenever he saw fit. She also knew it had surprised no one except him, apparently, when, after three years of marriage, Caroline had filed for and gotten a divorce almost before he'd known what had hit him. That had happened right after Kerry's return to Blueberry.
He'd stayed on in the Cove, continued working for Blue's, the local fishing company in Half Moon Harbor, the central docking spot for everything seafaring in the Cove. The local gossip was that he'd hung around to woo his ex-wife back, but given that he'd been trying to coax Kerry out on a date since she'd begun helping Gus full time after his stroke, almost seven months ago now, her personal opinion was that divorce had taught him nothing about women. He'd been good- natured enough about accepting Kerry's continued rejections, but she knew, given the twinkle in his dark brown eyes, that he'd try again. She wasn't worried about that. She'd handled men far more aggressive than Hardy on her globetrotting travels, with a lot less leverage than having her family's pub, currently occupied by a goodly percentage of her entire hometown population, to back her up.
Perry was a half dozen years older than Hardy, also a Blue's employee, and had been since he was sixteen, helping to keep his family's farm going by dropping out of school and working full time as soon as he was able. His face was weathered and he sported a perennial tan, along with a few more crinkles at the corners of his eyes and mouth than he otherwise would at his age. He was as good-natured as he was hardworking, married to Bonnie, the town's one and only EMT, and proud of his wife's accomplishments. They had two little ones and another on the way.
He looked up at her with a sheepish grin, then straightened so he could take a sip of the beer she'd carried to him. "I wish I could say different, but he's right. I'm blaming it on lack of sleep. Bonnie's pulling night-shift work as long as she can — pays better — so I've been pulling double duty with the kids. Her ma's got them tonight so I can get out for a bit."
Kerry just nodded as he handed the mug back to her and bent back over the table to line up his shot.
Across the table, Hardy took a sip of his beer, folding his arms around his pool cue as he leaned back against the wall, watching Perry try to line up a shot that would sink both the seven and the three if it worked. The other two men followed Hardy's example, which was privately why Kerry thought Hardy had really stayed in the Cove. Big-man-in-a-small-pond complex, at least in his immediate circle anyway. The three men took turns sipping and taking side bets on how many rounds Perry was going to owe for by the end of the night.
Kerry had set Perry's mug on the table and picked up the now empty tray but set it back down again and walked around to where Perry was still lining up his shot. She leaned down next to him. "Tap the side of the table," she told him, her voice low.
He paused, shifting slightly to look at her. "Beg pardon?"
"Tap the table," she said again, enunciating the words this time. She'd just delivered their second round of ale so she knew he wasn't buzzed.
Perry straightened, then caught her wink, and tapped the edge of the pool table with the flat of his palm.
Kerry followed suit and tapped hers twice, then took his cue and nudged him out of the way.
"Hold on, hold on," Hardy said, his smile fading, beer suddenly forgotten. "Wait — you can't just —"
"He tapped out. I tapped in," Kerry said. "I'm taking his turn for him."
"This isn't a wrestling match," Hardy protested. "You can't just tap out and tap in."
Kerry lined up her shot, going after the same two balls but taking a slightly different approach. "My bar, my rules." She hit the cue ball, then stood, grinning, as first the three went in, then the seven. She moved around the table. "Excuse me," she said as she slipped between Hardy and the pool table to get to her next shot. "Still Perry's turn, I believe." She then proceeded to run the rest of the table. She'd been playing pool since she could see over the edge of these very tables, a skill that had stood her in very good stead on her worldly adventures. She'd been surprised by just how many countries there were with bars and pubs containing a pool table or two. And how men in every last one of them would underestimate a woman with a pool cue.
A goodly number of folks were watching now as she sank the final ball, and a cheer went up as the black number eight fell in the side pocket. Perry was flushing but laughing, as were both of the other fishermen playing his table. Hardy looked like he was going to complain, but Kerry just held her hand out, palm up, in front of him. "Man's got two toddlers and another on the way. He needs that money for diapers and college funds." She rubbed her fingers, her smile and stare never wavering. "Now, be a nice single guy with no kids and pay up."
"I have a dog," Hardy grumbled as he reached for his wallet to the hoots of the other two men and the assembled crowd. He got a cheerful thanks from a smiling Perry. "A big dog," Hardy added as he slapped the bills on her palm while Perry collected from the rest of the bettors.
Kerry took one of the fives and handed it back to him. "I've seen your big dog, Hardy. Ten pounds of terror, that one. Get little Fritzie some kibble. On me."
"He's my ex's dog," Hardy replied and, to his credit, ignored her offer and picked up his beer again. He grinned as he lifted the mug to his lips. "At least he doesn't steal the covers."
Everybody laughed, including Kerry. It was just past suppertime, a nice breeze coming in off the water as the sun began to set on the first Friday in June, and the Puffin was full up with the hardworking folks of the Cove looking to burn off a little workweek steam and a few dollars from their freshly cashed paychecks while they were at it. They worked hard and played hard and, but for a few exceptions, mostly kept themselves in check.
Despite Gus's stroke leaving him a bit less blustery than his usual ornery Irish self, the folks of the town respected him and knew he ran a tight ship. The Rusty Puffin was the only pub in town, and as he was often fond of saying, "I want it to stay standin', so keep yer balls on the table and your hands to yourself, or I'll cuff one to the other and let you sort out how to get yerself free." That his great-nephew — Kerry's older brother, Logan — was the Cove's chief of police didn't hurt matters any either.
She handed the cue back to Perry, but not before tapping the end of it on his shoulder. "Seeing as Bonnie's also pulling double duty, working and growing you an adorable new baby at the same time, maybe you should spend some of your grandma capital taking her out for dinner and a movie while she can still sit long enough to enjoy them."
Perry didn't flush or look embarrassed. He grinned and leaned closer over the laughs and guffaws. "Our tenth anniversary is coming up, can you believe it? She thinks she's got shift duty and I'll be out running traps, but her ma and I have set up a little surprise. Getting away for a whole weekend, just the two of us."
Pleased, Kerry gave him a fist bump to the shoulder. "Well, then. Good on ya, mate, good on ya." Then she leaned in and bussed him on the cheek for good measure. "The world needs more men like you," she added, plenty loud enough for those close by to hear over the sounds of a pub in full swing.
Grinning at the hoots and hollers that got, she scooped up the tray and skirted the table, taking an order from the three men at the next table as she ducked by. Hardy eased forward just enough to crowd her pathway back to the bar. "Sounds like someone from your little Down Under adventure left a bad impression of men on you. Mate," he added pointedly, copying the bit of Aussie accent that crept into her voice now and again, usually when she was cheering or swearing. So, fairly often. "You should let me fix that for you."
Kerry smiled sweetly up into his handsome, preternaturally tanned and weathered face. "I'm thinking I'll wait until your track record improves."
Hardy clutched his chest and stumbled back a step in mock pain as one of the other players called out, "She shoots, she scores!" causing another ripple of laughter among the slowly dispersing crowd. Hardy grinned and laughed with them, but not before Kerry saw a bit of a hard glint come into his eyes. If she lived anywhere else, she'd have wondered how he knew where she'd been prior to her return to the Cove, given she'd never once spoken of that particular adventure other than to Fergus. But in a town the size of Blueberry, the fact that everybody knew everyone else's business was a given.
Within moments, she was once again swallowed up in the rush of running a small pub on a crowded Friday night. She dismissed any concerns about Hardy. He might be an inveterate flirt who hadn't had the good sense to expend at least some of that natural charm on his own wife, but he wasn't an overly aggressive guy. He'd keep up the pressure, to be sure, but she'd handle it, handle him.
She ducked under the bar in time to bump hips with Fergus as he came in from the tiny kitchen in the back. "Natives are restless," he said. "And hungry. Eatin' us out of house and home, they are. We're down to pretzels and nuts. Need to order more of those cracked corn nuts you put on the menu, too."
He was balancing a tray filled with little wooden bowls in his good hand. She smoothly shifted the tray from his hand to hers, leaning in to kiss his ruddy cheek as she did. "Will do," she said, and carried it to the waiting bar patrons without giving him a chance to protest. He was touchy about the limitations his stroke had left him to grapple with, and she'd learned the best way to deal with that was to do what needed doing while charming her way through his moods.
The stroke had left parts of the left side of his body less than fully functional. He had a very slight droop to the corner of his left eye and the corner of his mouth on that side, but his speech patterns had mostly returned to normal with only minimal slurring. He still had random gaps in his memory, both of current events and ones from his past, and at times he would lose his train of thought or struggle a moment to form a word, but otherwise, for a man in his midseventies, he was still sharp as ever.
More troublesome was that the stroke had weakened his left shoulder, arm, and hand, which made him less capable of taking on the normal lifting and carrying duties required of running a pub, though fortunately he was right-handed and still had all his fine motor skills there. According to his doctors and physical therapist, he should be using a walker, as his left hip and knee weren't at full mobility, but Fergus wasn't having any of that. He'd found a way to get his short, stout-framed self around well enough using a thick, hand-carved oak cane that Eula, the local antique store owner, had given him, complete with a large, knotty knob handle that was easy to grip even with his less functional hand.
Still, Kerry worried about him and was glad she could stick nearby to keep an eye on him. She filled two more drink orders, handed out more pretzels and nuts, and listened to Fergus regale the bar patrons with boyhood tall tales of his life in Ireland. She smiled as she pulled another tray full of drafts, thinking it was likely they'd heard the stories a dozen times or more, but, if they were like her, they never tired of listening to them. The town had rallied around Fergus after his stroke, and the love everyone had for him was made obvious each and every night, right here in the pub.
Excerpted from Starfish Moon by DONNA KAUFFMAN. Copyright © 2016 Donna Kauffman. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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