The setup of Richards's 50-somethingth book is wince-inducing: Gayle Fortman's ex-husband, hot-shot TV journalist Eric, has had a nasty run-in with the Taliban; at Gayle's invitation, he returns to the Shenandoah Valley, Va., B&B they bought together to convalesce. Eric, who is in a relationship with L.A.-based fellow journo Ariel Kensington, knows little about the three sons he left behind 12 years ago: 13-year-old Dillon, 16-year-old Noah and 18-year-old Jared. Over 500-plus pages, each boy confronts his father in his own way, while Gayle harbors hopes that Eric will stay. Sidelines include Jared's relationship with hot-to-trot Brandy Wilburn (which may jeopardize his chances at an MIT scholarship), and a neighbor, Travis Allen, waiting in the wings for Gayle. Romance Writers of America award-winner Richards gets the emotions right and writes credible dialogue when the adults speak to children. The result is a fine, light family melodrama. (July)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Touching Starsby Emilie Richards
When is a family no longer a family?
Gayle Fortman has built a good life for herself and her three sons as an innkeeper in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. She has even maintained a cordial relationship with her ex, charismatic broadcast journalist Eric Fortman, covering with the boys for his absences and broken promises. Luckily Travis Allen, her closest/p>/b>… See more details below
When is a family no longer a family?
Gayle Fortman has built a good life for herself and her three sons as an innkeeper in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. She has even maintained a cordial relationship with her ex, charismatic broadcast journalist Eric Fortman, covering with the boys for his absences and broken promises. Luckily Travis Allen, her closest neighbor, has been a loving surrogate father to the boys and her own best friend.
Then, on the eve of oldest son Jared's graduation, Eric returns, having nearly lost his life in Afghanistan. Worse, he has lost his way and his courage, and needs a place to recover. Gayle realizes this might be the last chance for her sons to establish a real bond with their father, and offers him a summer at the inn and a chance to put things right. Gayle and Eric are all too aware that their onetime love and attraction are still there. But can the pieces of their broken lives be mended, or are they better laid to rest?
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Gayle Fortman knew a number of things for certain, but three were at the top of her list. One, that life could spin out of control unless she spent all her waking hours nudging it into place. Two, that even sternly administered nudges couldn't deter fate. And three, that if fate could not be nudged, cajoled or outrun, the only other possibility was to turn and face it squarely.
But she didn't have to smile.
Gayle wasn't smiling now. This morning no one was nearby, so she had no reason to pretend she was anything but worried about what fate had in store for her.
Eric Fortman, the man to whom she'd been married for seven years and divorced from for twelve, was coming home. Eric, the father of three sons who, through the years, had seen him more frequently on their television screen than in person. Eric, her first and only love, who still managed to make the men who volunteered to take his place pale in comparison.
Eric, who had faced fate head-on, nearly died from the experience and was now in need of the family he had abandoned.
A lump formed in her throat at that thought, and she reached for the coffee mug she had set on a table at the terrace's edge, grateful as the steaming liquid dissolved this one lump of many that had resided there for the past weeks.
From an ash tree at the edge of the clearing, a bird trilled a sunrise serenade, untroubled at the lack of a larger audience. Maybe the bird, an old companion, understood one of the other things of which Gayle was certain. If she jumped out of bed in the mornings and hit the ground running, she would fall flat on her face. So every day, alone on the terrace that overlooked the North Fork of the Shenandoah River, she stood with a cup of coffee in her hands and watched as dawn's artistic fingers drizzled copper and platinum on the rippling water.
When midsummer's humidity, fueled by dewdrops and river mist, sucked the breath from her lungs, or when treacherous sheets of ice glazed the fieldstones she and Eric had so carefully laid, she stood here. Dawn was the time when she gathered her thoughts, murmured her prayers, dreamed her dreams. She wasn't rich or self-indulgent, but she gave herself these precious minutes of solitude before she headed into the kitchen of Daughter of the Stars, the bed-and-breakfast inn she owned and operated, to begin her day in earnest.
Except that this morning, with so much to sort out and prepare for, it seemed she wasn't alone after all.
Surprised, Gayle stepped forward and squinted into the pearly light. The inn sat high on a slope, protected from waters that rose and fell according to the whims of the river gods. But when the Shenandoah raged, the low water bridges that skated back and forth over the snaking length of it were quickly submerged. Gardens planted in the alluvial soil washed downstream, and river became a verb. Everyone within miles of the North Fork understood what it meant to be rivered in.
The river was behaving this morning, but the same could not be said about a certain family member. Gayle slammed her coffee mug on the table, then she started down the terrace steps at a brisk trot. The only thing that kept her from yelling her youngest son's name was the knowledge that a shout this close to the house would wake her older ones.
"Dillon," she muttered under her breath. "Dillon Arthur Fortman."
The boy in the boat didn't hear her, nor had she intended for him to. He was oblivious to everything. What could he hear inside the shabby rowboat tethered to the willow that grew at the river's edge, except the singing of the current, the slapping of gentle waves against the sides of the boat?
As Gayle watched, Dillon flipped a fishing rod over his shoulder, then brought it forward, flicking his wrist to cast his line farther into the river. Despite her annoyance, she winced as the rod jerked and stuttered, and the line flopped just in front of him. She had seen her son practice this maneuver over and over, yet his movements were as awkward as if he had never held a rod. Dillon had neither the coordination nor confidence to make his cast a thing of beauty. And his thirteen-year-old body, which every day seemed to explode in new and frightening directions, was as daunting an obstacle as any she'd ever seen.
Now that she was almost to the water, the rowboat no longer looked like one of the toys her son had sailed across mud puddles as a toddler. Afraid she would startle him, she raised her voice just enough that he could hear her words.
"Dillon Fortman, what are you doing out here alone?"
He turned, and the boat wobbled alarmingly. In the early morning light his face looked pudgy and unformed, his eyes heavy-lidded.
"What are you doing here?"
She had too many sons to go on the defensive. Sometimes she thought it was a shame Dillon never had the chance to trap her the way his brothers had.
She reached the bank and slapped her hands on her hips for emphasis. "We have rules. One of them is that you don't go near the river alone."
"But I didn't make that rule. You made it. I didn't get to say a thing about it."
"That's right." She picked her way across uneven ground to the tree where the boat was tied. Wedging her index finger between loops of what wasto give Dillon creditan expertly tied knot, she began to loosen it so she could pull him to shore.
"No, you were fishing. Now you're coming in."
"You ruin everything!"
She ignored him, resorting again to years of experience. She managed to untie the knot, although by the time she was able to pull the boat to shore, yesterday's manicureone of her few indulgenceswas a casualty.
"We'll go over the rules while you're my captive audience," she said as pleasantly as she could muster. "You don't come down here alone. You don't go out in the boat alone. And you don't disobey me, then try to make this my fault."
"Well, it is your fault, because it's a stupid rule!"
The boat was close enough to the riverbank now that he could jump out and did. She moved to the edge and handed him the rope, then stepped back so he could finish pulling the boat ashore.
"We can always discuss a rule," she said as he went through the motions, then retied the boat once it was out of the water. "But we don't discuss a rule when you're in the middle of breaking it."
"Like you have time to talk to me or anybody else!"
She waited. She was a busy womanbusier than most, it was truebut all her sons knew she would drop anything if they needed her. Dillon was no exception. When he didn't, couldn't, come up with anything else to add, she took pity on him.
"Is this about your dad coming for the summer?"
Dillon was as tall as she was. At five foot five, she'd had little hope of remaining taller than her boys.Their father was a strapping six foot one, broad shouldered and raw boned. Eighteen-year-old Jared, their oldest son, was nearly as tall as Eric. At sixteen, Noah was not yet six feet, although he still looked down at Gayle from a superior height. Dillon was already taller than either of his brothers had been at the same age. Gayle hoped he would grow to be the tallest. He needed some way in which he towered over the others.
For the moment Dillon was just tall enough to gaze straight into her eyes. She saw that his were mud-brown with anger. His forehead was crinkled, and he was breathing loudly through his nose, like a bull about to charge.
"It doesn't matter." He cut his hand through the air, narrowly missing her shoulder.
"Well, it does. I'd like to know what you're doing out here." She sighed and her voice dropped appreciably. "How was the fishing?"
"Do you see any fish?"
Sadly, she didn't. "A worm waster, huh?"
The forehead crinkles deepened."Just because I said something cute when I was three doesn't mean I have to hear about it the rest of my life."
"Personally ‘worm waster' makes me smile, and these days I need all the smiles I can get." She took a risk, a calculated one, and put her arm around his shoulder for a quick squeeze. He did not pull away.
"Your dad likes fresh river bass," she said.
There was nothing else to say. As she had suspected, her son had sneaked out in the darkness, before the fish were even fully awake, hoping he could go back to the house with a string of freshly caught bass or sunfish. He had braved a river he feared, a sport that bored him, the state's warnings about PCB and mercury contamination in fish caught in these waters, and, finally, his mother's wrath. All in search of Eric Fortman's elusive love.
"Your dad likes fresh bass, but he'd be sorry to lose you over pursuit of them," she said as they started back toward the house.
"I can swim."
Dillon could swim. A little. She had made certain that despite his debilitating fear of the water, he learned to keep himself afloat. But her youngest son was a long way from being a swimmer. When the water was rough he was given to panic, to hyperventilation and cramps and erratic splashing. If he fell into the river when no one was watching, if he thought he was being carried away by the current despite his efforts, it was possible he might panic and drown.
Dillon did not need a reminder. He knew.
"Your dad also likes chocolate-chip muffins," she said when they were halfway to the house. "And the state of Virginia doesn't dictate how many we can safely eat in a month. Want to help me make some?"
"It's not the same thing."
"True. Muffins taste better for breakfast."
"I just wanted to show him I can fish!"
"Maybe the two of you can fish together when your dad's feeling a little stronger."
"Do you think he'll want to?"
The question was a good one. None of them knew exactly what Eric would feel like doing this summer. Her ex-husband's life had been turned upside down. His health had suffered. In their brief phone calls he had tried to be the take-charge Eric she'd known and loved so long ago. But he had sounded like an actor playing that part, a bit player who had only managed to memorize the lines.
"I know he'll want to spend time with you." She smiled the lie into truthor at least the nearest neutral zone. She did not know if Eric wanted to spend time with Dillon. Dillon was a stranger to him, the son he knew the least. The son he hadn't wanted.
The son who needed him the most.
"I don't know why he can't stay in the carriage house with us," Dillon said.
"Because no matter how I juggled sons or space, I couldn't find room for him."
"He could have slept in my room, with me and Noah."
"Your dad needs a room all his own, and the Lone Star room in the inn is one of the nicest. He'll just be yards away. You know you can see him any time you like."
"But we'll have to be quiet because of the guests."
"Your dad will be welcome in our house, Dillon, any time he wants to come over. You know that. Don't make trouble where there is none, okay?"
He pouted. As always, she was struck by how much this son resembled his father. Same dark gold hair, same deep brown eyes, even the same slightly off-kilter nose. Jared was the most like Eric in personality, but when Dillon had finished growing, he was going to be a nearly exact physical replica. The irony wasn't lost on her.
They were almost to the terrace before he spoke again."It's going to be, like, weird for you, isn't it?"
"A little." She stopped and put her hand on his shoulder, pleased he could see beyond his own turmoil. At thirteen, Dillon wasn't particularly talented at understanding how other people felt."It's going to be a little weird for everybody. Your dad included. But you kids don't have to worry about your dad or me. We're grown-ups, and we've stayed friends. You just take care of yourself."
Dillon fidgeted, shifting his weight. His hands were balled into fists. "Dad's coming. Jared's graduating from high school."
"Life just keeps moving, and we either move with it or watch it pass right by."
"So? Do we have to like it?"
She wished, as she did at least a dozen times a day, that she could make this child's life easier. "No. We just have to accept reality."
"I'm going back to bed."
"Good luck on that. We may not have guests this week, but I bet your brothers will be up shortly."
As if to prove it, the door opened and Jared, in athletic shorts and a T-shirt, stepped out, followed by Noah in navy-blue sweats. Normally getting her sons out of bed when they didn't have school or work to do was like prying dinosaur bones from a tar pit. But this was no ordinary day.
She hadn't had time to mentally prepare for everything to come. For a moment she felt like hopping in the rowboat and floating downstream as far as she could go. But panic was a luxury she couldn't afford.
"Chocolate-chip muffins," she said, willing her voice to be steady. "How about scrambled eggs and apple sausage to go with them?"
"It's just us, remember?" Dillon said.
She raised her hand to welcome Jared and Noah. "‘Just us' is plenty good enough for a special breakfast."
As they walked to join the others, she thought that this would be the last time for a long time that they would eat breakfast as a family. Tomorrow Eric would eat it with them. Not quite family, at least not her family. Not any longer.
Two parents, no longer married. Three sons shared. And a history of trying so hard to make things work out. First the marriage, then the divorce, and now the recovery.
"I'm glad Dad's coming," Dillon said.
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