But that was all in the past. Addie Malloy had finally moved on and made a life for herself and her young child. Except now Skip had come home. And he'd brought someone with him.
Skip was determined to make amends for running out on Addie when she needed him most. But how would the single mother react when she discovered that his daughter was her daughter, too? Would this be the end? Or could this long-awaited reunion be a new beginning for them all?
Mary J. Forbes developed a love affair with books at an early age while growing up on a large and sprawling farm. In sixth grade, she wrote her first short story, which led to long, drawn-out poems in her teens and eventually to the more practical matter of journalism as an adult.
While her children were small, she became a teacher. Continuing to write, she later sold several pieces of short fiction. One day she discovered Romance Writers of America and, at that point, her writing life changed. A few years and a number of cross-country moves later, she had completed several books and a horde of rejection letters. But! That tooth-grinding perseverance paid off. One October afternoon the phone rang -- and an editor offered a contract.
Today, Mary lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and two children and spends most mornings creating another life in the company of characters dear to her heart.
Email her at email@example.com and visit her web site.
Today she would see him again—the first time in thirteen years.
Thirteen years. And she'd counted every one.
Not because of him. Never because of Skip Dalton.
If she'd thought of him at all in that span of time, it was because someone mentioned his name in passing or because Dempsey Malloy had loved to watch football.
But she was no longer married to Dempsey and football hadn't crossed her TV screen in over a year.
Truth be known, little crossed her TV screen these days. Any leisure time she had, she utilized by sewing, baking or caring for her bees—when she wasn't teaching or tutoring. And then there was her mother, who'd decided last spring to cut back her hours at the hair salon, which meant this summer Charmaine called her every "free" day and asked, "Whatcha doing?"
No, the thirteen years Addie had counted had been for another reason—a logical decision her father termed it.
Forget emotion. Forget tears. Forget the hole in her soul that some nights threatened to kill her.
Decisions didn't cater to the weak-minded. Decisions meant logic—and Addie Malloy lived logic.
For a fleeting moment, her work-scarred fingers trembled at her left earlobe and she nearly dropped the tiny golden sunflower dangling on its fine chain.
God, why had she listened to her parents all those years ago?
Because you were a coward, Addie. Just as you are now, shaking in your boots, knowing you'll see him again. Shaking like a little scaredy-cat.
Clamping her bottom lip, she pushed the earring post firmly into place and uttered a sigh of relief when it was done. Should she add a bit of mascara to her stubby lashes? Her sisters, Lee and Kat,always demanded she should wear makeup, that mascara would augment her eyes, make them fab-u-lous.
But this wasn't a date and she wasn't going for Skip Dalton.
Stepping back from the bathroom mirror, she checked her face, her strong tanned arms, the yellow sundress that was a hand-me-down from Kat. It would have to do. She would have to do. Money wasn't a commodity on the island, especially Firewood Island with its two thousand souls, the majority of whose heritage heralded from the hippie sixties.
And as keeper of 480,000 bees she fit right in with the island's agriculturalists and minifarms, or "hobby farms" as some had the audacity to call them. Maintaining and nurturing twelve hives year-round wasn't a hobby. It was damned hard work.
She pulled her unruly hair—dirty blond hair, she'd always thought—into a thick knot on her head, shoved in four long pins to hold the mass in place and ignored the flyaway strands creeping free around her face. Not her best attribute, her hair. No, that would be her mouth. Her downfall at sixteen—and again at twenty-two.
Closer to the mirror, she scrutinized the absence of lines, creases or thinning. Thank God. Thirty-one and holding. Her lips remained full and feminine and youthful and a little wanton. Maybe even sexy if she applied a trace of pink. She would not let him think she'd been kitchen-bound these past years with a passel of kids clamoring around her ankles.
Her heart lurched. You don't need a houseful, Addie. Michaela embodies every one of your dreams.
Still, she couldn't stop the ache that stabbed her chest. Thirteen years of memories bleeding out of a black mist like a herd of fire-snorting dragons. God, why today of all days?
She knew why—Skip Dalton.
Forget him! You did it before, you can do it now.
Right. That's why her heart hammered and a flush spread up her neck. Don't be an idiot. He won't recognize you, anyway.
Holding tight to that notion, she shut off the bathroom light and stepped into the hallway.
In her daughter's bedroom, seven-year-old Michaela sat on the floor, changing the apparel of three of her ten Barbies.
Her little sneakers were on the wrong feet again, and her left sock was missing. Addie noted the clothes Michaela had pulled on: a yellow T-shirt that was inside out and pink shorts. These days, neon pink and sunshine-yellow were prize contenders in her tiny fashion world. And she'd attempted to snap four pink barrettes at precarious angles into her dark ringlets.
Addie forced herself to remain calm, not to rush in, crush her baby to her heart, drink in her child's scent. "Ready to see Gram, honeykins?"
"'Kay." Scooping the dolls into her arms, her daughter scrambled to her feet and caught Addie's hand.
"You'll have tons of fun making cookies with Gram." Gently, she swung their hands. "Better than what Mommy's having at the high school and that boring party."
She wished her little girl would talk more. The school psychologist was trying, but it would take months of patience and a variety of strategies, Addie knew, before her baby would come out of the funk she'd fallen into with Dempsey's departure fourteen months ago.
Outside on the wooden stoop shaded by three western hemlocks towering over her turn-of-the-century carriage-style house she hesitated a moment and looked down her long lane and across the road. A big new house stood almost completed and barely visible amidst the lush growth of red cedars, ash, Douglas fir and Garry oaks. Painted white with green trim and shutters, the building jutted up two stories, showcasing a turret at one end and a massive stone fireplace at the other. An expansive wraparound porch enclosed the entire structure like a small moat.
Observing the construction for the past two months, Addie had heard rumors in the village of Burnt Bend about the owner. Some rich guy, they said, looking for a summer place.
If he was rich, why hadn't he built on the water where he could moor his yacht?Why here, on a piece of property dense with woods and creeks, and down a rural road out in the middle of nowhere?
Well, it wasn't her affair. She didn't care who lived in the house, as long as they minded their own business and the quiet returned. She was tired of the hammering and sawing, the constant buzz of power tools, the coming and going of trucks. She wanted the peace of the woods again, the song of birds waking her at dawn, the deer visiting her backyard.
With a sigh, she looked down at her daughter. "Go on, honey, get in the truck while Mommy locks the door." On the faint, early August breeze, Addie heard Charmaine's cynicism: No one locks doors around here. Why do you?
"Because, Mom," she whispered, watching Michaela climb into the Dodge Dakota, "I don't trust Dempsey." Though she'd never tell Charmaine Wilson that. Her mother favored Addie's ex-husband, thought he should have time to sort things out in his head, to "find himself." Which was what he'd told Addie the day he walked out of their lives. According to Charmaine, Dempsey was just a "mixed-up kid."
Interesting turn of phrase for a man of forty-two. But not surprising, coming from a mother who had told Addie thirteen years ago to "grow up" when she'd found herself pregnant in high school.
With the divorce from Dempsey finalized last January, Addie had moved to her dad's "homestead" house—three miles from Burnt Bend—and installed new locks. She had no intention of letting her globe-trotting ex back in her life or her house.
Today, however, she wanted to install a dead bolt. On her heart.
She would need it when she watched Harry McLane transfer his three-decades-old title as coach of the high school football team to Skip Dalton, his former student.
And her first love.
Skip Dalton. Back to stay. Back where she'd no doubt run in to him at the post office, the coffee shop, his mother's grocery store. Skip Dalton, hero on the mainland, and now on Firewood Island. Again.
She couldn't win no matter how hard she tried.
The school gym and the grounds out the side doors were crowded with students, current and past.
People had come from places as far away as San Francisco and Cheyenne to honor the coach for whom they had cheered and/or run yards, caught field passes and scored touchdowns on the Fire High football field. Thirty years of history had happened between those posts and on those bleachers. Skip should know. From the field, he had waved and grinned at the girls sitting in those bleachers.
And that, unfortunately, had been the start of his history.
He stood beside Coach at the door, greeting folks he hadn't spoken to in thirteen years. People he'd last seen as kids, and who now had kids of their own. Some former schoolmates had gained weight. One guy was bald, while three were salt-and-pepper gray.
But the girls, the women—he had to blink a couple times to recognize even the smallest familiarity. Not until they'd said their names had he remembered. Ah, yes, Alicia Wells and was that Francie—aka Fancy Torres? And Elise Haply and
He regretted not recognizing the women the way he did the men. 'Course, he'd played ball with twenty-five of the guys during his high school years, shared locker jokes, showers, training techniques, victories and losses but, hell, he'd dated damn near as many girls back then.
Admittedly, at one time or other, he'd likely dated every woman standing around today chatting, laughing and sipping punch. Many—when their eyes collided with his—gave him cool, distant looks. No, they hadn't forgotten his cocky attitude as quarterback of Fire High.
Today, they likely detected the I don't remember you in his eyes when he looked their way or was introduced to them. That had to hurt, to know they'd been about as important to him as the socks on his feet.
Not something he was proud of. Hell. If history could be rewritten, he'd erase his entire senior year and begin again.
To right the wrongs he'd done to her.
For that chance, he'd give up his nine years of pro ball.
But the past was gone and all he had at the moment was what he could do for his old high school. Give something back the way he hadn't been able to for Addie.
"Skip, you remember Cheryl Mosley?" Beside him, Coach McLane touched the elbow of a tall brunette. "She married Keith Bartley. Remember Keith, our water boy? Cheryl's head of our science department and will be splitting eleventh-grade chem with you."
Skip nodded to the woman. Fortunately, he'd completed his drive by a linebacker of the opposing team. So here he stood, suit and tie intact, counting his lucky stars in more ways than one to be taking over Coach McLane's chemistry classes and the football team.
Smiling, he shook the woman's hand. Cheryl. Yeah, he remembered her. She'd led the cheerleaders in chants and dance steps at every game in his days on the Fire High team.
He had dated her for five months. The longest relationship he'd had on the island. Before he met Addie Wilson.
Addie, whom he had yet to see.
She's not coming, a taunting little voice whispered in his ear. Why should she? You dumped her. Left her high and dry. No, make that big and alone.
"I look forward to working with you, Skip," Cheryl's voice hauled him back into the celebration. "We'll have to get together before school starts for some planning. Now that Coach is leaving," she said with a sad smile, before turning her gaze back to Skip, "we'll need to make some changes in the science department."
He had no idea what changes she meant, but she stated it with such chilly professionalism, that all he could do was nod a second time. "Sure, anytime. I won't be in the phone book yet, but Coach'll have my number."
Moving away, she issued an indifferent, "Great. Meantime, welcome aboard."
When she'd gone, another took her place and so it went—staff, former students, parents of attending students, kids already on the football team. One after the other, they patted Coach on the back, wiped tears over the old man's retirement and greeted Skip with lukewarm enthusiasm. The adage that women have long memories pricked like a thorn.
He had no illusion to the length of Addie Wilson's memory.
An hour later, the stream entering the gym thinned as the chairs filled and it was time for the presentations and announcements. Principal Jeff Holby introduced Skip as a member of the school staff before Coach McLane slung an arm around his shoulder and took the mike.
"I'm thrilled," the retiring teacher said, "to be passing the torch onto such a fine young man as Skip Dalton. He grew up on Firewood Island, attended its schools and went out into the world to make a name for our little spot on the map." Grinning at Skip, he continued, "As a quarterback in the NFL, no less. Doggone it, but that makes me mighty proud."
A few whistles shrilled, with a spattering of applause. More for Coach's delight, Skip knew, than for his meritorious career.
"After thirty years," Coach went on, "I can't think of one person more suitable to take over for me." Stepping back, he held out the keys to the locker rooms and coaching office. "Skip, these are yours now. Make the team yours. Make the wins yours. We're behind you every yard and run of the way."
This time the crowd's applause rang to the rafters. The words Coach McLane were chanted throughout the room for almost five minutes, before they shifted slowly to Coach Dalton.
And that's when he saw Addie.
She stood at the back of the gym, on the periphery of a group that had come in late. She wasn't clapping and chanting, but instead she leaned against the wall with her arms crossed, a purse slung over a shoulder and watched him. He couldn't help grin. The din ebbed into the distance, and it was all he could do not to jump off the stage and stride across the room.
He wanted to see her up close. He wanted to touch her hand, her soft tawny hair and look into those summer blue eyes. Say her name
And what ? Beg forgiveness? Tell her what you've done, why you're here, what you hope to achieve?
Concerning her, what did he hope to gain?
The question had burned Skip's brain since he'd made the decision ten months ago to relocate back to his hometown. At the time, he hadn't consciously thought about the answer. Hearing of Coach McLane's retirement, he had called the school, talked to Coach, then Principal Holby and later, the school board. Each had jumped at the chance of having him procure the position of Fire High's senior coach, and before he gave it an ounce of thought, he'd signed a five-year contract.
For his daughter, first and foremost.
His gaze slipped to where twelve-year-old Becky sat in the front row, blue eyes sparkling as she offered a thumbs-up. His chest hurt with a love he couldn't fathom. God, every time he looked at the girl, he couldn't believe his luck in finding her—and getting her back.
The only regret Skip had was for the loss of previous years. But this was now and, dammit, the girl deserved a kind and loving home, a great school and community, but most of all, a family to whom she could attach a sense of belonging.
In Skip's mind that was achievable on Firewood Island with Addie.
Though he'd have to tread with care there.
Oh, yeah. From what he'd heard through the gossip mill in the two days he'd been back, she was a woman of independent means. And a loner.
Looking at her across the gym, he could imagine that stubborn tilt to her chin. The one that said, I'm here for Coach, not you.
Finally the applause died. Skip said a few words of gratitude and appreciation, then the ceremonies were over. Time to work the crowd, chat up his goals for the upcoming year and hope to introduce his daughter around.
And meet Addie. Before all else, introduce Becky to Addie.
His daughter waited at the bottom of the stage steps. "You were great up there, Dad. They're gonna love you as coach."
Her confidence bowled him over, never mind how easily "Dad" slipped into her sentences. When he explained his relationship to her ten months ago, Becky—desperate for family—had taken the news and change with a faith that had broken his heart. Skip hoped that same faith would withstand the test when he told Addie about her daughter.
He put a hand on his child's shoulder. "We'll see, honey. I didn't leave here on the best of terms, remember?" In small increments over the past months, he'd explained as much as he could about himself. But not about Addie. No, that part of his history he hadn't the guts to disclose. Yet.
"So you've said." Becky's smile was the moon. "But, hey, once you win a game, the town'll be so happy to have you."
Skip chuckled. "We can only hope. Want a hot dog?"
They headed for the side doors. Over Becky's dark head, Skip searched the room for Addie, for that pretty yellow dress, but she was nowhere to be seen. Had he imagined her in the rear crowd? Probably. She'd been on his mind for months.
Since he'd found Becky.
Admit it, Addie's been in your head since you left thirteen years ago.
For half his life, she had been in his nightmares, and his dreams. Well, it was time. Time to come full circle.
Determined, he touched his daughter's elbow. "Let's go scrounge up some food."
They walked into the island's sea-scented sunshine.