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When Emily Watson ran away from her life, she did it in style. A pair of dark brown skinny jeans, four-inch heels, a shimmery cream shell, all topped with an oversize green cardigan belted at the waist. The clothes were designer, the shoes custom-made, but Emily didn't care. The labels had never mattered to her, and a part of her missed the days when she bought jeans at the Goodwill and topped them with a ratty T that had been washed until the cotton became soft as silk.
She threw a couple suitcases into the trunk of the Volvo she'd bought, even though Cole had hated the big boxy car, then drove away from the house that no longer felt like home. Four hours later, she wound through the hilly roads of Brownsville, Massachusetts, then past glimmering Barrow Lake, until the big leafy trees parted, exposing the long gravel road that led up to the Gingerbread Inn. A small hand-painted sign with a wooden arrow pointing up the hill announced the inn, the familiar marker faded by time.
She rolled down the window and took in a deep breath of fresh, sweet fall air, along with the sense of being home. At peace. Finally.
The tires of Emily's Volvo crunched over the gravel, sending pebbles scattering to the side. Anticipation filled her as she made her way up the road. Finally, she was back here. In the one place where life made sense, the one place where she had found peace, and most of all, the one place where she hoped to find herself again.
She put a hand over her belly. Too soon to feel anything more than an almost-imperceptible curve beneath her pants but Emily had taken to talking to Sweet Pea, as she'd dubbed the baby inside her. "Almost there, Sweet Pea."
And there, Emily vowed, she would start a new life. She'd left almost all remnants of her old life behind, to come here and get some time to think, plan, strategize her next move. Because no matter what, Emily Watson refused to return to the status quo. Or return to Cole, the man she had once loved. The man she had marriedand now was ready to divorce.
Once upon a time was a long, long time ago. The years spent in a lonely, unfulfilling marriage had taught Emily that fairy tales should be reserved for the foolish.
The two-story Georgian-style inn came into view. Shaded at first by the late-fall sun above, it looked sad, lonely, dark. As she drew closer, Emily slowed the car. The anticipation built, then as her eyes adjusted and she saw the full view of the inn, her anticipation imploded into disappointment. What had happened?
The once white gingerbread trim had faded to a dingy gray. Paint peeled off the wooden clapboards, and the wraparound front porch sagged in the center, as if the inn was frowning. Weeds sprang up among the stones of the walkway, and the landscaping that had once been so beautiful it had been featured in a local gardening magazine had become overgrown and tired.
But that wasn't what hit Emily the hardest. It was the red-and-white For Sale sign tacked to the building, hanging a little askew, as if even the Realtor had lost hope.
She parked, got out, but didn't take a step. What was she supposed to do now? She'd counted on staying at the Gingerbread Inn, not just for an escape, but as a way to find closure and connection. A long time ago, she had formed her best memories here, with Andrea and Casey and MelissaOh, Melissa.
Just the thought of her late friend made Emily's heart ache. But Melissa had made it clear she wouldn't want that. Get on with your life and your dreams, she'd written in her final letter. Don't let anything hold you back.
Don't let anythingeven a For Sale sign?
Emily's hand went to her belly again. She had to do this. Not just for herself, but for Pea, too. Sure, she could afford to stay at a hotel, even jet to Italy and spend a week in a villa, but that wasn't where Emily's heart lay. It wasn't the place she needed so desperately to be right now.
Emily glanced down at her hand, at the ornate diamond ring in its platinum setting. She slid it off and tucked it in her pocket. It was time to accept that she was moving on.
Away from Cole.
The front door of the inn opened, and a petite gray-haired woman came out onto the porch. She had on a deep orange apron with yellow edging, a pale pink T-shirt, a pair of denim shorts and sneakers that had seen better days. Emily's face broke into a grin, and she crossed the drive in fast strides. "Carol!"
The inn owner's face lit with recognition and she came hurrying down the steps. "Emily Watson? Oh my goodness, I can't believe it's you!
The two women embraced, a long hearty hug, the kind that came from years of friendship. Emily had spent so much time at the inn in the summers of her childhood that Carol seemed more like an aunt or an extra grandmother than the owner. She still carried the scent of home-baked bread, as if everything good about the world surrounded Carol Parsons.
A wet nose nudged at Emily's jeans. She grinned and looked down at a golden shaggy dog that had a little Golden in her, a little something else. "Is this Wesley's daughter?"
Carol nodded. "Meet Harper. She's a bit of a mutt, but she's lovable and goofy and all the things you want in a dog."
Emily bent down and ruffled Harper's ears. "You've got a heck of a reputation to live up to, missy."
The dog wagged her tail, lolled her tongue and looked about as unworried as a retriever mix could look. Then she turned and bounded off into the woods, barking an invitation to play at a squirrel.
Emily rose. "I'm so glad you're still here, Carol. When I saw the For Sale sign, I was afraid "
"Don't you worry. I'm still here. Hanging on by a thread, but here. Anyway, that's a sad story for another day." Carol gestured toward the inn. "Do you want to come in? Stay a while?"
"Actually " Emily pointed toward the bag in the back of her car. "I was hoping to stay a long while."
Carol's green eyes searched Emily's, and then her face filled with compassion, understanding. "You stay as long as you want, dear. There's always a room for you here."
That was what Emily loved about Carol. She'd never asked questions, never pried. Merely offered a helping hand and a shoulder to cry on, whenever one was needed. Emily hadn't had that kind of bond with her own mother, or heck, any of the female relatives in her family. But she had with Carol, and had looked forward to her summers here as much as she looked forward to sunshine after a cloudy day. She'd spent more time in the kitchen of the inn, helping Carol knead bread and peel potatoes, than probably anywhere else in the world.
The two of them headed inside the inn. The porch creaked a warning as Emily crossed the rotting floorboards. The swing needed a coat of paint, and several of the balustrades had fallen to the ground below. The front door still had the large beveled glass panel that defined its elegance, but inside, everything else looked old, tired, worn. The hardwood floor of the foyer had darkened with age, and one of the parlor's windows rattled against the breeze trying to make its way under the sill. A water stain on the ceiling spoke of plumbing trouble above, while the steam radiators hissed and sputtered a weak wave of heat to break fall's chill.
Emily stowed her bag by the door, then followed Carol into the kitchen. This room, too, had been hit hard by time. The once-bright and happy sunflower wallpaper was peeling, and the white vinyl floor was scuffed and torn in some places. The same long maple table dominated the center of the kitchen, flanked by eight chairs, enough for the help to have dinner, or a few up-too-late teenage girls to grab a midnight snack.
Carol crossed to the coffeepot. "Do you want a cup? I've also got some bread that just came out of the oven. It's warm, if you want a slice."
"No coffee, but I'd love some bread. Who can turn down that bit of heaven? Do you have honey for it?"
"I do indeed. If there's one thing that's still producing here, it's the bees." Carol grinned, but Emily could see the pain behind the facade. Carol retrieved two mugs of coffee, a plate of bread slices and some honey before returning to the table. She held her cup between her hands and let out a long sigh. "I bet you're wondering why this place looks like this and why I have it up for sale."
"Yeah, but I understand if you don't want to talk about it." Emily had plenty going wrong in her own life that she wasn't keen to discuss, either.
"It's okay. It's been hardest for me to tell the regular guests. Those people are like my family, and to think that the Gingerbread Inn will one day no longer exist it just breaks my heart. But there's only so much I can do." Carol dropped her gaze to her coffee. "After my husband died, this place got to be too much for one person. Revenue dropped off when the economy struggled, and I just couldn't afford to hire people to keep up with the maintenance. I love it here, I really do, but it's got to the point now where the whole thing is too much. I don't even know where to begin to repair and rebuild. So I put it on the market. Maybe I'll get enough money to pay for a little cottage near the beach."
Harper wriggled through the dog door in the kitchen, took one look at the two women and ducked under the kitchen table, her tail beating a comforting patter against the tile floor. Carol gave the dog a loving pat.
"I hate to see you sell it. I like knowing the inn is here, if." Emily sighed. "If I ever need it."
Carol's green eyes met Emily's, and her face filled with concern. She reached out, covered one of Emily's hands with her own. "What's the matter, honey?"
"Just a lot going on in my life right now," Emily said. An understatement if there ever was one.
This morning, she'd walked out on her ten-year marriage. They'd already been separated for six months, but separated was a loose term when it came to Cole. He'd stopped by at least once a week, for everything from his favorite golf club to checking to make sure the lawn mower had enough gas for when the landscapers came by.
It was as if he didn't want to accept it was over. Okay, she hadn't made that message any clearer by sleeping with him again. One crazy night, fueled by nostalgia and memories, and she'd forgotten all the reasons they were wrong for each other. The reasons she had asked for a separation. The reasons why she couldn't live with a man who broke her heart almost every day.
Emily finally realized that if she wanted space, she'd have to get it for herself. And with the new life inside her, she needed to have a clear head to make one big decision.
File for divorce or try one more time.
"Well, you take whatever time you need," Carol said. "If there's one thing this place is perfect for, it's thinking."
"I'm counting on that," Emily said, then got to her feet for a second slice of bread. It didn't help her think, but it sure helped her feel like she'd come to the right place. Something about being back at the Gingerbread Inn filled her soul, and right now, Emily Watson needed that more than anything.
Cole Watson bounded up the stairs of his houseokay, technically it wasn't his right now, even if he was still making the mortgage paymentswith a bottle of wine in one hand and a dozen roses in the other. He reached for the front door handle, then paused.
This was Emily's house now. That meant no barging in, something she'd made clear more than once. He lived in a condo across town. A space of his own that was as empty as a cavern, and still echoed loneliness when he walked in at the end of the day. That was his home, like it or not, and this place no longer was, which meant he had to stop acting like he could barge in, grab the remote and prop his feet on the coffee table. He rang the bell, even though it felt weirder than hell to ring the bell of a house he still wrote a check for every month. Waited. No answer. Rang it again.
He fished out his keyshe'd never changed the locks, something he had taken as a good signunlocked the door and went inside, pausing in the vast two-story foyer. Even fully furnished, professionally decorated, the massive house felt empty, sad. Seven thousand square feet of gleaming marble and granite, and it seemed. Forlorn.
The same copper bowl he remembered them buying on a trip to Mexico sat on the foyer table, waiting for his keys. A neat stack of mail addressed to Cole sat beside the bowl under the Tiffany lamp he had bought for their first anniversary. In the parlor to the right, the same white love seat and armchairs that Emily had hated and he had bought anyway sat, facing the east garden. And down the hall, he could see the wrought-iron kitchen table and chairs, a gift from his mother years ago.
The house was the same, but different. Off, somehow.
Then Cole spied the slip of paper atop the mail and realized why. He laid the wine and roses on the foyer table and picked up the note.
Went out of town. Don't know when I'll be back. Don't call me. I need some time to think. To figure out my next step. Emily
The cold, stark words hit him hard. They were separated. Did he think she was going to leave him some gushy love note? Still, the reality stung, and reminded him that the marriage he thought he had and the one he did have were two very different things.
Went out of town. Where? Why? With someone?
That thought pained him the most, and drove home the other fact that Cole had yet to face. If he and Emily couldn't repair their marriage, then at some point she would move on, find someone else. Another man would see her smile, make her laugh, hold her in the dark of night.
And rightly so, because they were over and had been for a long time. Didn't matter if Cole was having trouble accepting the fact.
Against his hip, his cell phone buzzed. He flipped it out and answered the call. "Cole here."
"We've got a wrinkle in the product launch," said Doug, his project manager. "There was a bad storm in Japan, and the plant that's supposed to make the screens for us was damaged pretty heavily. They aren't sure when they'll be back online."
"Call someone else."
"I did. There's a backlog on the materials. Seems we wiped out the inventory. It'll be two weeks before they can produce more"
"I'll take care of it. Get me on the first flight to " Cole fingered the note in his hands. I need some time to think. To figure out my next step.
The next step. There were only two optionsget back together or get divorced. It didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out which way Emily was leaning.
Don't call me.
She didn't want him to contact her. The bridge he'd hoped might still be there between them, the connection he'd been counting on when he'd shown up with wine and roses, was gone. She'd underlined the words. Made it clear she didn't want him coming close.
His marriage was over.