After Always

After Always

by Barbara J. Hancock

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Lydia’s life felt like it ended when Tristan died. Sure, they had their problems and he could be a little…intense at times. But he’d promised to love her forever…

When her parents propose a summer across the country with a music teacher who runs an inn, Lydia agrees. But it’s different from what she expected. There’s a presence there she can’t quite reconcile—and it feels like it’s hunting her. It seems Tristan’s promise followed her…and may have graver consequences than she could have known.

Then there’s Michael Malone, the one light spot in an otherwise dark existence. Lydia can’t help but be drawn to him, and as they try to uncover the evil plaguing the inn, they grow closer. But guilt over Tristan’s death still consumes her. Can she and Michael uncover what evil lurks in the inn before it takes another victim?

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781640636811
Publisher: Entangled Publishing, LLC
Publication date: 10/01/2018
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 250
File size: 2 MB
Age Range: 12 Years

About the Author

Amber Mitchell graduated from the University of South Florida with a BA in Creative Writing. When she isn’t putting words on paper, she is using cut sheets of cardstock to craft artwork or exploring new places with her husband Brian. They live a small town in Florida with their four cats where she is still waiting for a madman in a blue box to show up on her doorstep.

Read an Excerpt


"... when he shall die,
(Romeo and Juliet, Act III, Scene 2)

They lost Tristan at sea.

I take an odd sort of comfort in that. He wouldn't have wanted to die in his sleep or walking across a mall parking lot. I think about him on the deck of his father's sailboat, rounding Cape Horn. It's too easy to imagine the long dark curls that always grew into his green eyes, storm-swept and tangled from the salt spray of encroaching waves. I think about how strong he was from years of competitive rowing and how it's hard to believe the water he always harnessed and conquered finally overcame his determination.

I think too much.

In those early days and nights of knowing, they say I didn't speak.

Tristan would have liked that.

If I had taken the news with a few tears and a talk with the grief counselor provided by our school and then moved on with my life, it would have been the worst sort of betrayal. Tristan — the guy who read Keats and Poe and Shakespeare, the guy who could play the violin as well as he could fence and sail — deserved the commemoration of my utter silent falling apart.

They say it lasted a few weeks.

My inability to walk and talk.

I breathed. I sipped protein drinks through a straw when my desperate mother begged and pleaded and threatened an IV.

I don't remember much of anything at all.

In those weeks, I relived his last moments in my imagination, and my heart shriveled to a dry lump of rock in my chest. I can still feel it there now. Hard and heavy and hurtful with its every continued beat.

* * *

I was eating a waffle the morning the letter came. I hate waffles. The way the crisp outer edges crunch when you cut them with the side of your fork. The way gooey syrup puddles in each square crevice to explode, sickening sweet, on your tongue.

Tristan loved them.

My sacrifice won't bring him back, but I chew and swallow just the same.

My mother doesn't notice my new dietary preferences. She's relieved and all aglow because I'm up. I've showered. And I'm eating one studious bite after another.

The hardened lump in my chest hurts as I see her happiness. I'm glad she isn't crying, but the gladness seems to test the confines of a heart that used to feel it often. It doesn't fit there anymore.

My mom read the letter aloud in an eager, breathless voice.

Dear Abigail,

Yes. By all means, yes. I would be happy to have Lydia work for me this summer. As I get older, the busy season can be quite overwhelming. Please don't think of it as a favor I do for you, but rather the other way around.



The hardest thing I've ever done is smile the first smile after Tristan was lost at sea.

But I did it then.

My tight lips stretched strangely over my teeth, but I persevered until I managed a replica of how I used to express joy.

Everything is divided into Before and After now. In my mind, my loss of Tristan is written in giant block letters on one of those timelines they make us memorize for history.

I'd given my mother permission to write her former music professor and ask if I could come and live with her the summer following graduation ... Before. I had planned to turn down the offer if it came. My willingness to apply was only a ruse to appease my mother's concern. She and my father had been afraid my relationship with Tristan had become Too Serious.

They thought we needed Time Apart.

I try not to be angry with them now that we're parted forever. They couldn't have known. They couldn't have known every curfew, every limit on calls and texts and time together took away precious seconds we'll never have a chance to reclaim now that he's ... gone.

They meant well. They love me. But I get a horrible tight feeling between my shoulder blades when my mom is so excited about Mrs. Brighton's offer. I see dark circles under her eyes. The fine lines have seemed to triple around her lips and across her forehead overnight, and her dark chestnut curls are shot with gray. She's older than she was only a few short weeks ago.

Worry for me has aged her.

As she places the letter back in the envelope, her hands are nervous and shaky. There's a slight slump to her shoulders, and I can't help wondering if my being away for two months will be a break for her, an easing of the burden I've become.

There's been no mention of Brice Conservatory. It had been a conflict between us. Before. My dreams of studying music at the prestigious school in Maine had changed when Tristan had been accepted to Vanderbilt. He'd expected me to follow him to Tennessee. Now, whispered conversations stutter and halt when I come into the room. I can almost see "give her time" in their eyes.

As if an eternity will ever be enough.

All I know is that Martha Brighton's inn is by the sea, and I can almost hear the waves calling my name.

* * *

Mom insisted on new luggage and new clothes. I'd lost weight, so some of the purchases were necessary. She wouldn't let me refuse several colorful tops I would never wear, but then she also went along with a deep purple jacket she called a "windbreaker," probably not remembering how Tristan had loved the color on me. He told me once my gray eyes turned lavender when I wore purple.

Everything else I picked was somber and plain.

Still, I remembered the me who would have despised the khaki blazers and what Mom called "walking shorts" we had to buy for my new job. I was different without Tristan. My clothes might as well be different, too. Besides, I probably wouldn't even see anyone my own age at an ancient seaside inn. I would be the next best thing to invisible among the retirees that probably frequented the place.

I liked the idea of invisibility.

"Call us," my mother began. When she saw my eyes widen, she continued, "Or text. Often."

"I will," I replied, taking the new smartphone she handed me.

Tears stung behind my eyes, but I didn't let them fall. They would start because I was going to miss my parents, and I feared they were sending me away because I'd gotten too complicated too quickly. Our lives had always been quiet and peaceful. My mother was a cellist. My father was a physics professor. They liked crossword puzzles and linguini and classical ballet. It had always been impossible to talk to them about Tristan. Even more so now that he was gone.

My meltdown was the bloody razor in their candy apple. Horrible, garish, and strange. How else could they deal but to send me away?

Yes. My tears would start because of them, but the salty flood might continue because of Tristan.

So I resisted. I thought hot, dry, desert-y thoughts until it was time to carry my luggage out to my dad's SUV.

By then, the threat of tears was gone, swallowed up by the hollow black hole of not knowing how to say goodbye.

"Text. Every night," my dad said.

I nodded. My father doesn't text. Ever. He says it's like using Morse code when he'd rather hear our voices instead. Maybe he doesn't know what to say to the me that emerged After. Another change among a thousand changes to deal with in this no-Tristan life.

"I will," I said.

I probably won't.

The ride to the airport is so quiet the silence presses around us, solid and impenetrable. Mom put snacks in my messenger bag.


Granola and yogurt-covered raisins.

I guess in her mind that means I'm ready for anything.

* * *

I remembered the Stonebridge Inn with the senses of the toddler I'd been when my mother and I had vacationed there fourteen years ago. My father had been at a mathematician conference, and we had traveled without his quiet presence.

It had rained.

My mother had played Chopin on an enormous baby grand, day after drizzly day. And I had been obsessed with a coloring book full of ponies or kittens or dolls. I didn't remember the pictures, but I hadn't forgotten the waxy scent of the crayons and my desire to fill every page with brightness to combat the clouds outside.

I hardly remembered Mrs. Brighton at all. Only something to do with spearmint gum.

So when the cab I'd been instructed to take from the airport came around a coastal bend, my first sight of Stonebridge was intimidating.

It was huge.

Massive in the way of something you can't take in all at once.

It was pale gray, like one of the seagulls that circled, circled, circled overhead. The color made it blend with the atmosphere around it because the day was gray as well. I couldn't make out where the sky ended and the house began. It was also eclectically confusing with a myriad of towers and rooflines and various shapes of windows in every size.

Stonebridge was Victorian by way of "Nevermore," and I half expected a mad poet to meet us at the base of the entryway stairs with a great black raven perched on his shoulder.

I had already lowered the window so I could breathe in the salty air. Over the taxi's engine and the driver singing along with Rihanna, I heard the sound of waves at low tide coming into the cove.

Waves had been the last thing he'd heard. Waves and the sound of the rain.

The driver didn't take long to cross the bridge that spanned the cove where high tide must flood. Right now, beneath the bridge, were only brackish pools and tangles of scraggly reeds. The driver stopped the car and jumped out to pull a summer's worth of my things from the trunk, but he was back in the car in a flash. I had only just climbed out, cradling Tristan's violin, when the cab spun gravel that clicked menacingly around me on either side as it drove away.

It seemed as if the last of the real world had driven away with him, just as fast, just as final.

The house was three stories with extra rooms higher still — here, there, and everywhere a tower soared. I counted three for sure, with a possible fourth at the back that might only be an attic nook.

Since the drive ended at the base of a rise, guests had to climb tall, once- white stairs up to the porch that ran the width of the house and beyond to curve around each side.

I had been afraid of the stairs when I was three. As I climbed, I remembered my mother carrying me fourteen years ago, close to her chest, my arms wound around her neck. We'd risen up, up, up while I had closed my eyes as tight as I could until spots swam behind my lids and dizzy swirled in my stomach.

Now, I clutched the violin to my chest as my mother had clutched me.

I had to leave several other things on the bottom stair, but I wouldn't leave it.

Tristan would have left all the bags on the drive to walk along the cliff overlooking the water.

I would walk there soon. Very soon. The sound of the waves was magnetic because it reminded me of him. I wouldn't have to pretend to forget him here. And being near the ocean was almost like being with him again. My heart raced. Not from the steep stairway. More like the way it had pounded whenever Tristan and I had been together.

* * *

Finally, I was on the porch where chipped and peeling rockers swayed in the breeze. It was easy to imagine the ghosts of guests past taking their ease around me. My hair blew away from my face and I let it blow, no longer afraid that my parents would see the tiny blue butterfly tattoo that hid at the base of my neck.

Tristan had gotten one, too, on his right wrist so it flashed and flew when he played. Not hidden. Always ready to fly.


The door opened before I could ring the bell.

"Lydia. Oh, Lydia. Come inside. Hurry. Quick as you can. Rain is coming. My knees know. They always do. Best to do as they say." A woman who must be Mrs. Brighton flung wide the broad mahogany with more enthusiasm than strength. I did as she asked, stepping forward and tactfully wedging my shoe against the bottom of the heavy door to help her hold it open.

The scent of spearmint rose around her like an expensive perfume.

Other than that, she was new to me. Her white hair was piled high in some pinned and twisted style that reminded me of a turban, only instead of colorful silk it was crafted of the finest snowy strands. Her face was delicately lined all over with ancient calligraphy no moisturizer could erase. In stature, she was shorter even than my father, coming only to my nose. But, like him, she had a presence that made her height of no account. His was stoic and quiet and intelligently attentive. Hers was large, so large, filling every inch of the foyer with expressive welcoming energy.

I noticed her limp as I stepped inside. She walked gingerly, as if her joints were aching.

"Never mind the rest of your things. Michael will carry them up. He's strong enough to handle them all on his own. Every year his shoulders seem to get a little broader. Now, first things first!"

Mrs. Brighton motioned me to follow her and I did, keeping the violin case but dropping the other bags I had managed to carry by the main interior staircase that rose majestically to the first story from the foyer's knave.

I detected dust and cedar and the faintest hint of citrus. Lemon furniture polish. Someone at some time had dusted, but not recently.

Mrs. Brighton opened a door off the hall that curved from the foyer to the back of the house. She did it with a flourish of showmanship in spite of her knees.

Immediately, I knew the baby grand. It gleamed blackly in the same room where I must have studiously colored my heart out all those years ago. The ghost of Chopin echoed in my ears.

When she'd said "first things first," I'd thought afternoon snack or a bedroom or even the dreaded "chat." I hadn't thought I'd already be facing the stark white panel of keys I no longer wanted to play.

Mrs. Brighton had brought her palms together, and her long, gifted fingers tapped at the ends ... one, two, three, as if she was already keeping time in her head.

I swallowed.

I thought of Tristan.

And I opened the case I'd brought with me all the way from Seattle.

"I want to learn to play this," I said.

Inside, Tristan's old violin was nestled in faded red velvet. Its flamed maple casing was almost as familiar to me as Tristan's handsome face. He'd played it, always, every day for two years while we'd dated, and when his parents bought him a new instrument he'd given me the old.

They hadn't asked for it back, and I had yet to offer.

He had hated the piano and the time it took from him. He'd hated my recitals when I'd been on the stage in the spotlight and he'd been a vague shadowy face among hundreds of others in the audience. To him, Brice Conservatory was unthinkable until I could hardly remember the excitement I'd felt when I'd been invited to attend.

"But ... the piano ... you've played it since you were a child," Mrs. Brighton said. Her expressive eyebrows were high, their white peaks arched.

I didn't tell her I hadn't played After. Not once. Not one note. The sight of the piano open and waiting caused my palms to grow moist and my pulse to sound in my ears.

"Well. It will be here all summer. Won't it? No problem at all. We'll begin with the violin. A Zhu? This was an extravagant gift," Mrs. Brighton said.

She was neutral. There was no disapproval or eagerness. She would allow the violin. Nothing more. Nothing less. If I had refused to play anything at all to the woman who was supposed to be my music tutor for the summer, that might have been more of an issue. Tension had gathered between my shoulders, but now it gradually dissipated. I closed the case and held it back to my chest.

Just like the waffles and the ocean, playing the violin wouldn't bring Tristan back, but it would make me feel closer to him, no matter how far away he'd gone. It seemed right, a sort of penance for the warm blood that still pulsed through my veins.

Mrs. Brighton's aging blue eyes were puzzled, but she smiled.

I looked away from her confusion. The room was small. Besides the piano, which had first drawn my dreaded attention, there was a large chandelier made up of thousands of crystal teardrops dulled by age and dust above our heads. It was magnificent, really, full of potential for glitter, even though, for now, it was quiet and gray.

The rest of the room was empty except for a painting that dominated the side wall. It was a portrait of a man and woman posed in front of a backdrop of a cove I'd seen as the taxi approached the house. I recognized the curve of the land and the craggy rock the man used to prop up one of his booted feet. His back was held stiff and tall as the sea raged stormy and dark behind him. His coat was black and long with cuffed sleeves, and his neck was swathed in an elaborate, knotted cloth. He had his hands on the woman's shoulders. She wore a dress too formal for the setting, an emerald ball gown that left her collarbone and shoulders bare. Something about the man's fingers bothered me, but before I could examine them closely my attention was drawn and held by his eyes.


Excerpted from "After Always"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Barbara J. Hancock.
Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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