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Mary Jane was laughing. You could hear it thirty yards away, through a closed door and a screen of bushes, and it was a glorious sound on a mild mid-October Monday beside a mountain lake.
Daisy Cherry came up the steps and out of the delicious fresh air into the resort office and found her sister with shaking shoulders and tears running down her cheeks, a heap of old photo albums in a litter around her, along with piles of shipping boxes, too. "Hey, what's so funny?"
Mary Jane rocked back on her heels, flattened a hand over her heart and gasped for breath. "Dad's mustache, Mom's wedding hat. Their clothes. Her swimsuit. I'm sorry, it's not that funny. I don't know why I'm"
"No, it's great," Daisy cut in with conviction.
As the eldest of the three Cherry sisters at age thirty-four, Mary Jane was too serious and too responsible too much of the time. Right now, her medium brown hair stuck out in a messy halo all over her head, she had dust marks on her cream-colored top and she looked like someone who'd been working harder than she should, for longer than she could remember.
Daisy and Mary Jane had already had a few tense moments with each other since Daisy had come back east to live just a couple of weeks ago, and in all honesty, Daisy didn't think that she was to blame. It was really good to see Mary Jane lose control, lighten up a little, and Daisy found herself grinning at the sight of it.
Unfortunately, the laughter and lost control didn't last.
"I don't have time for this." Mary Jane took a determined hold of herself, stood up, wiped the tears from her eyes with a crumpled tissue and fussed around getting the albums back in a pile, which she dumped into a cardboard box.
"Where did you find them?"
"Here in the office, under a pile of files. Lord only knows what they were doing here."
"Are you packed?" Daisy asked.
"You mean this?" Mary Jane waved her hand at the boxes, some filled, some still empty. "These are going to South Carolina to the new condo with Mom and Dad."
"I meant for your trip, not Mom and Dad's move."
"In that case, I was packed a week ago." Mary Jane looked a little tense suddenly.
She was leaving tomorrow. She loved to travel, and when Spruce Bay Resort closed each year for most of November and April, during the quietest seasons in New York's Adirondack Mountains, she always went away. Someplace exotic, or someplace indulgent. Never the same destination twice. Taking full advantage of the fact that she was single, even though Daisy strongly suspected that in her secret heart Mary Jane didn't actually want to be single at all.
This unwanted condition was down to Alex Stewart, horrible man. Water under the bridge, four years on. Nobody talked about it anymore, but Mary Jane had wasted a lot of timeyears of her lifeon a relationship that had gone nowhere and it had taken its toll on her heart and her outlook.
Mary Jane and I are so different, Daisy had thought to herself more than once. Mary Jane's love for Alex had been a steadfast flame that refused to die even when it needed to. Whereas Daisy had blown hot and cold. Came on strong, then pulled right back. Sent clear signals, then turned them off like a faucet.
I jumped in too fast. I never looked below the surface. It was my fault as much as Michael's.
Was it a fair accusation to make about herself? She still tied herself in knots asking that question. It was a big reason why she was here, instead of in California, and Mary Jane had accused herquite gently and sympathetically, which almost made it worseof coming back for the wrong reasons.
"I don't want you as a business partner at Spruce Bay just because you're running away from something that turned sour in your personal life."
This year, because of the renovation and their parents' retirement from the business, Spruce Bay had closed a month early, missing out on the fall-foliage season, and Mary Jane would be spending most of October, including her thirty-fifth birthday on the eighteenth of the month, on safari in the heart of Africa.
She hadn't wanted to go initially. "I'll have to skip my usual trip this year, with the remodel. It just can't be helped." She was definitely too responsible about things like this. Daisy and Mom and Dadand Lee, from a distance, in Coloradohad all insisted that of course she should go, as usual, since she loved her travels so much. Eventually and reluctantly, Mary Jane had booked her tour package.
"If you're worried I can't handle things here for three weeks, don't be," Daisy assured her quickly now, because her sister had really started to look stressed. "Hey, if I can create the dessert recipes and oversee their preparation every night for a two-hundred-seat five-star San Francisco restaurant, I can oversee a construction crew. I've brainstormed a heap of ideas for the restaurant remodel, I'm so excited about it, and I have menu ideas to match."
"Listen, I don't doubt that, okay?"
"But you doubt the reasons I'm here."
"Sometimes you dive in too fast, Daisy. You told me that happened with Michael. I don't want it happening with Spruce Bay." She gestured toward the open window, where blue sky blazed behind a silhouette of pine needles whose fragrance Daisy could smell from here. She could hear the pine needles, toothe light soughing they made in the breeze. The peace and familiarity of this place hurt her heart, it was so beautiful.
"It won't happen, Mary Jane," she answered, quietly sure of herself, suddenly. "Spruce Bay is different. Spruce Bay is home."
Mary Jane looked at her curiously. "Is that how you feel? Even after ten years away?"
"It is. More than I expected. It hit me just now. I love it here."
"Well, okay, then."
A new peace settled between them. "And as for the landscaping," Daisy continued after a moment, "it makes much more sense to have the structural work for that done when Spruce Bay is already closed for the interior work, rather than waiting until spring. Obviously the actual planting will have to wait, but that's only a small part of what needs doing."
"True," Mary Jane conceded. "We're behind on the planning for all that. The decisions and plans on the interiors took more time than I expected, especially the cabins, and Mom and Dad have been stalling. They think the grounds are fine as they are."
"I know. But maybe it's too late and we'll have to leave it till spring after all."
"No, we won't, because I called Reid Landscaping yesterday, and I've set up a meeting for tomorrow. I'm hoping that if we can make our decisions and plans quickly, work can get started"
Mary Jane stood up, looking horrified, and didn't wait to hear when it was that Daisy hoped work would start.
"Set up a meeting. Tomorrow at ten."
"With Reid Landscaping." It wasn't a question. More of a thud. Like the dropping of a shoe. All the more obvious because just a few seconds ago they'd had a strong moment of closeness.
"They're the best in the area," Daisy pointed out briskly. "And we've known"
"Tucker Reid's company?"
The simmering stress behind Mary Jane's recent bout of laughter burst through the facade and came out as anger. "You cannot be so clueless, Daisy! Tucker Reid!"
"Wait a second "
"Tucker. Reid!" You could have cut the fake patience in Mary Jane's tone with a knife.
Oh, for crying out loud! It wasn't as if Daisy wasn't getting this. Of course she got it!
"It was ten years ago, Mary Jane," she said, gentleness not quite winning out over frustration. Here was her older sister sniping at her again. "It was a broken engagement, not an acrimonious divorce, and it was mutual. Lee and Tucker announced their decision together, remember. Not to mention that Lee is two thousand miles away in Colorado."
Lee, the middle Cherry sister, the meat in the sandwich between responsible, energetically organized Mary Jane and not-nearly-as-blonde-as-she-looked baby sister Daisy.
"Do you honestly not have any idea?" Mary Jane cut in. She was angry. Needlessly angry, Daisy thought. "Do you honestly not know why Lee and Tucker canceled their wedding?"
"I was there, wasn't I? Because they realized it wasn't right, and weren't dumb enough to take such a step when they weren't one hundred percent sure. Because Lee wasn't ready. And Tucker wasn't, either. They were pretty young. I think it was a very wise decision."
"She was twenty-three, he was twenty-four. Not that young. We were all so incredibly happy when they got engaged. Do you honestly think that breaking it was her choice?"
"Lee is incredibly happy with her life now."
"Now. Yes. But it took a while. It took a long while. Years." Mary Jane said that last word as if she knew all about things taking years. Alex Stewart again.
"And you're saying that's all because of Tucker Reid?"
"He dumped her! They might have pretended that it was mutual, but it wasn't. It was down to two things." Mary Jane checked the first one off on her fingers. "Because of the accident, and because" But even though the second finger came up, she stopped abruptly, closed her mouth, and the second reason didn't get spoken.
Daisy's attention had caught on the first reason, however. "The accident? Really? You think it was down to that? Because Lee had some scarring?"
"In large part, yes." But she sounded hesitant and awkward.
"You think Tucker is as superficial as that?" Daisy was shocked about it, for some reason. Disappointed. It had never occurred to her to question the motives of Lee's ex in such a way. She'd taken the whole canceled wedding at face value. They'd both had second thoughts. They'd sensibly called it off. It happened.
She'd been twenty-one years old at the time, and excitedly absorbed in her own life. She remembered giving her first impression of Tucker in a drawled aside to her mother. "Well, he certainly seems like the strong silent type."
She hadn't meant it as a compliment, but it hadn't been a statement of dislike, either. She'd shared the family's happiness about the upcoming wedding and had thought of Tucker as someone who'd be great for Lee, but not for herselfdefinitely not her type.
"Do Mom and Dad think this, too?" she asked her sister.
"Mom and Dad think it even more," Mary Jane retorted with spirit. "But that's because they never saw" She stopped suddenly, and her face was shuttered.
"No one has ever said this!"
"They've said so plenty to me. You haven't been here. And when you are here, usually Lee is here, too, so we don't talk about it."
"Plus it was ten years ago," Daisy reminded her.
"There's that," Mary Jane conceded. She'd calmed down a little. The angry pink in her cheeks began to fade. The violent eddies of emotion filling the room began to settle. Daisy wondered just how much Alex Stewart had to do with all this, how much Mary Jane was still regretting the fruitless years she'd spent waiting for him to get serious, make the full commitment, and then he never had.
After a moment she said, treading carefully, "Is there something else going on, Mary Jane? You seem"
Wrong thing to say. "Oh, because it couldn't possibly be you, could it? Or Tucker himself, for that matter. It has to be me."
"Well, no, okay, but if there is something, if there's ever anything, I want you to know that you can talk to me, that's all."
She reached out her hand and touched Mary Jane's arm, and at least her sister didn't throw her off. The atmosphere between them eased a little, once more. They were sisters, after all. There was a strong bond, even when they disagreed.
"Look, you're going to Africa," Daisy continued. "It's going to be amazing."
"Y-yes. Oh, it is!"
"I'm sure you still have a ton of stuff to do to get ready. I do understand what you're saying. I'm a little shocked, actually."
Mary Jane muttered something that was impossible to hear.
"You said there were two reasons."
"Yeah, well, no, not really. No."
"Look, that's not important." There was a stubborn set to Mary Jane's mouth now that told Daisy she could spend all day trying to coax more out of her sister and still get next to nothing.
"Let me talk to Lee," she offered, letting the was-thereor-was-there-not-a-second-reason thing go. "And I'll talk to Tucker himself. If there really does seem to be a good reason not to go ahead, our meeting tomorrow is just the initial consult so that he can put together an estimate if we ask him to. We're not committed yet. And if some of his personal choices and attitudes aren't quite what they should be, does that matter? I mean, it's yeah, disappointing."
Mary Jane huffed out an impatient breath as if she could have come up with a different word.
"But he'll be doing our landscaping, and that's all," Daisy continued. "It's a business arrangement. It's not like he'll be part of the family, the way we once wanted. It's not as if we need to love everything about him."
"Lee is way stronger than you think. She's" A lot happier about being single than you are, sis.
Daisy managed not to say it out loud, while Mary Jane retorted, "Lee was way more upset than you think about the canceled wedding."
"But since none of this actually involves Lee because she has a whole life that she loves, ski instructing and mountain guiding in Colorado, that she's not planning to change anytime soon"
"Oh, I give up," Mary Jane muttered and stalked into the front office, closing the door very firmly behind her just in case Daisy was in any doubt that the conversation was over.
"You know what?" Daisy said out loud to the empty room. "I give up, too!"