Since the age of seven, Lucius Quarterfield has known he is dying. Doctors told him he had a “bad ticker” and might not live to see his next birthday. But somehow, the frail yet determined boy managed to hang on and surprise everyone. Lucius not only survived to adulthood, he thrived, turning a small car dealership into a successful chain. But now, at twenty-eight, his time is finally running out. So he’s returning to the one place he ever felt happy, near the only woman he ever truly wanted—the California seaside town of Miramar Bay . . .
Was it so much to ask, a healthy tomorrow shared with a woman he loved?
Jessica was the only daughter of the only dentist in town. An ardent reader and fan of Jane Austen, she was able to follow in her father’s footsteps, as he desired. But Jessica preferred the simple things in life—a trait that captivated Lucius from the moment he arrived in town. Her quick wit and carefree approach to life were a breath of fresh air to a man who devoted all his time to work. Soon they were falling head over heels—until Lucius pulled away, to spare her the pain of his inevitable fate. Now, after all this time, he’s going to make each moment count. Because he knows that everything is about to change . . . he just can’t know exactly how.
“Readers of Nicholas Sparks will find it appealing.” —Library Journal
“Fans of Kate Morton and Liane Moriarty will enjoy how this warm and well-crafted novel explores the limits of human understanding, acceptance, and imagination.” —Booklist
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MAY 1, 1969
Most people said Lucius Quarterfield wore a name bigger than he deserved.
As Lucius and his sisters were passed from aunt to grandparent to cousins, family members had often said it to his face. In the forties and fifties, California's central coast was a vibrant farming region with an aggressive go- ahead attitude. Strong men tilled the earth and raised robust families. Lucius Quarterfield was a nice enough boy, quiet and watchful. But the families who took in Lucius and his sisters knew he would never amount to anything. The bullies gradually grew tired of picking on Lucius. Some even slipped into guardian roles, when it suited them. Mostly, Lucius grew up being ignored. His quiet nature made that all the more possible. He lost himself in books and schoolwork, though he was careful to hide his passions. He was a cautious fellow by nature, with a zeal for numbers.
The one thing that had come easy to Lucius was success. It did not make up for all the misery and loneliness, but it certainly made it easier to bear.
This particular doctor's office had always struck Lucius as a restful place, which was extremely odd, because most of life's problems had centered on doctors. But Nicolo Barbieri was different from those medical staff who assumed an impersonal superiority and lied to young Lucius with their smiles. Nicolo Barbieri's family was among the original Italian immigrant clans who had moved from Tuscany to till the California earth as tenant farmers. A generation later, they had scraped together enough money to buy land of their own, and planted one of the early central coast vineyards. Nico had fought against the tradition-bound family's wishes and studied medicine. Perhaps as a result, Nico Barbieri was a brusque man without a comforting bone in his body. His patients either adored him or found another doctor. "You're dying, Lucius."
"So what else is new." Lucius buttoned his shirt and pushed himself off the doctor's table. He always perspired when being examined, a leftover effect of all the pain doctors had caused him growing up. "I've been dying for twenty-two years."
"Your heart reminds me of a garbage disposal working on a spoon. I should put you in the hospital and run some tests."
"The tests will tell you what we already know."
Barbieri fished a cigarette from his shirt pocket as he slipped behind his desk. "Are you truly so cavalier about death?"
"You've been telling me I'm dying since I was seven years old," Lucius replied. "And don't light that."
"Sorry. Bad habit." Barbieri stuck the unfiltered Camel cigarette back into the pack. "This is different. Are your affairs in order?"
The room suddenly chilled enough to turn his skin clammy. "You've never asked me that before."
"Never felt the need. Are they?"
"Pretty much. I'm negotiating a new deal. Should be finished next week."
"Lucius, you don't need the stress of another deal. Your heart can't take it. And I know for a fact you don't need the money." Barbieri opened the patient folder and began making notes. The file was almost three inches thick. "Bad ticker, weak bones, half a lung."
I have this, Lucius thought, knotting his tie and pulling it tight. I have today.
As though Barbieri could hear his unspoken reply, he said, "You've made the best you could of a thin life. Now go out and enjoy yourself. While you still have time."
Dr. Barbieri's waiting room always appeared half-full. The patients changed, but the setting remained the same. The adults leafed through old copies of Life and Look and National Geographic, while the children played with toys made sticky from hundreds of little hands. Rooms like this had been one of the few constants in Lucius's early life. He used the phone at the nurses' station to call his banker and cancel the day's meeting. The banker was a longtime acquaintance and Lucius was an important client, so he did not complain when Lucius told him to reschedule their appointment with the seller's lawyers. As he hung up the phone, Lucius caught sight of himself in the mirror behind the weight machine. He was five feet eleven inches tall, when he held himself fully erect, which seldom happened. Lucius was underweight and his posture was awful. His cheeks had become sunken during his early bout of pleurisy and never filled back in. The childhood illness had cost him his sense of taste. Smells were vague entities, like words spoken in some foreign tongue. Eating was a troublesome task. His hair was a mousy brown and limp as old noodles. His eyes ... Lucius turned away. He rarely bothered with his appearance, even when buying clothes.
Lucius Quarterfield was twenty-eight years old.
The nurse asked, "When does the doctor want to see you again?"
"He didn't say."
Her hand hovered over the appointment book. "Are you sure, Lucius?"
"Not a peep. Maybe he thinks I'm all better."
Her smile carried all the false cheeriness of his childhood. "I'm sure that's it."
Lucius drove his brand-new Chevrolet Impala north from San Luis Obispo. He had not been back to Miramar in almost a year, though for a time he had traveled this road every week. He was not a man given to holidays and easy living. Recently his only days off had been when he was unable to rise from his bed. Otherwise his every waking hour was spent making money. When the doctor said he should take some time off and enjoy himself, this journey was the only thing that came to mind.
Lucius had never much cared for his name, which to him sounded like it was made for a guy with one lung, bad bones, and a poor heart. He had always preferred Luke. He considered Luke to be a hard name, full of the go-ahead spirit that burned with volcanic fury inside him. Three days after his sixteenth birthday, Lucius Quarterfield had taken his meager inheritance, borrowed everything his two older sisters were willing to loan him, and bought a vacant lot a block off Santa Barbara's Fifth Street. Even then his sisters recognized their brother had something most people lacked, a fire his ravaged and weakened body could scarcely contain. Lucius had strung plastic multicolored flags and buntings from the trees, paid a builder to clear the earth and lay down gravel, erected a moth-eaten army surplus tent, and put nine road-weary used cars up for sale. In the twelve years since then, Lucius had built an empire that contained eleven dealerships selling some blend of the GM lines. He also owned another four businesses that combined used cars with farm equipment. His two sisters had long since moved to Florida, as far from their father's memory as they could get, and lived in houses bought with Lucius's earnings. They sent him Christmas cards and phoned when they needed something. Lucius did not blame them for their distance. Their family situation had not been one to forge strong emotional bonds.
His life was embedded in the road. Lucius was free here. He could unleash the Impala's big V8 and let the car be strong for him. Lucius rarely indulged in past regrets. But the doctor's words cast a magnetic force over the morning, drawing in one potent memory after another. His sisters had loathed their father and revered their mother. Their father had been a stonemason and a nasty drunk. Lucius's few memories of his father had been of a burly giant, massive in every way, who had hulked over the dinner table like a bear in a graying T-shirt and suspenders. But he never laid a hand on his own family. The sisters claimed they had all remained shielded by their mother's remarkable grace, so strong it kept peace in the house long after she had died birthing Lucius. The closest he ever came to his father, at least in theory, was when they both went down with pleurisy three days after his sixth birthday. His father had died while Lucius was delirious with fever. Lucius had spent the next few years being passed around among various relatives, until his sisters had managed to find jobs and get a place of their own. Of course he took care of them now.
The drive from San Luis Obispo to Miramar took just over two hours. The road was fairly awful in places, but Lucius did not mind. The authorities were always talking about building a proper county route, linking Miramar to the new highway. State Route 1, also known as the Pacific Coast Highway, had officially been opened the previous year, but the steep hills surrounding Miramar had forced the coastal thoroughfare inland, isolating this little oceanfront haven. Most of the locals were of two minds over building a better link to the outside world. Some wanted growth, while others feared all the bad things they remained sheltered from. And in 1969, there was certainly a lot of bad to avoid.
At the top of the hour Lucius turned on the radio to catch the news. It was more out of habit than anything. Virtually none of what he heard had any bearing on his very constricted world. The launch of Apollo 10 was approaching, and this final run before man landed on the moon was the only bright spot in a series of grim tidings. The Basques in Spain had earlier set up a new guerrilla army called, of all things, ETA, and their outlaw government were demanding the right to form a nation of their own. British troops arrived in Northern Ireland to reinforce the local constabulary, and the Catholics referred to them as invaders. Harvard's administration building was taken over by Students for a Democratic Society. A ferocious battle had erupted in Vietnam at someplace called Hamburger Hill. The news ended and the announcer introduced a song by Sly and the Family Stone off their new album, Stand. Lucius liked the music well enough, though it made him feel more isolated than ever from the sweep of current events and all the good things other people his age were enjoying. He wasn't sorry when the hills closed in and the signal faded.
At the final approach to Miramar, Lucius pulled off the road and parked where a cluster of California pines offered a masking shadow. He peered across the street at the smallest of his dealerships, a Buick-Chevy-Olds he had acquired two years and eleven months ago. Nowadays his banker was pressing him to sell the place and put his money in a region with stronger growth. But Miramar held a special place in his poorly functioning heart.
During Lucius's first visit there, the old man who sold him the dealership had regaled him with legends dating back to the Wild West heyday of abalone fishing and Mexican banditos and the occasional gold prospector. Back then, the rough and frigid waters had earned the town its original name, Castaway Cove. Around that same period Miramar had latched onto a very odd claim to fame. Stay there for a while, so the tales went, and you might be given a second chance. Second chance at what, Lucius had asked. He had instantly regretted his question, for the old man had taken on the smug look of someone offering a secret of supposedly great worth, but which Lucius already knew was bogus. The old man had then replied, "Whatever it is that you most want to try your hand at again."
Lucius had smiled over the fable, signed the purchase papers, handed the old man his check, and two hours later had fallen head over heels in love.
Whatever else he might think about the town and the lady, Lucius had known it had nothing whatsoever to do with Miramar's fable. For the event was singular. As in, the one time in his short, hard life he had ever known for himself what love actually meant.
Lucius liked to spend a few days loitering around every new acquisition. He called it "kicking the tires." Everyone was on his best behavior, at least at first. But Lucius fit so naturally into quiet corners that gradually the employees relaxed and slipped back into their routines. Lucius learned a great deal in those early days, mostly about money. As in, where the most revenue was generated. Where changes were needed. Where potential profits were being missed. Over his solitary evening meals, Lucius made notes in a script so precise his aging secretary described it as human lithotype. With each new dealership, Lucius brought in the employee he had come to trust the most, named him president of that particular location, and gave him a ten percent share, with an option to purchase another ten percent. Loyalty among his employees was fierce, turnover almost nil. Putting his plans down on paper gave spice to his otherwise tasteless dinner.
One of the first things Lucius noticed about the Miramar dealership was how the salesmen mostly ignored the new vehicles. They clearly made higher commissions pushing used cars. This suggested they were bilking the former owner out of part of his share. On that fateful day Lucius took up station at an empty salesman's desk, blocked from view by a gleaming new Buick Riviera. It was a car he especially liked, with the newly redesigned GM engine and a luxury velvet finish to corners that before had sharp and dangerous edges. Vent windows were a thing of the past, replaced by air-conditioning made standard on all Buicks. It was altogether a beautiful machine, as far as Lucius was concerned. This made the way the salesmen clustered together in the used-car lot all the more irritating. Quiet, silent Lucius Quarterfield was mostly ignored.
Which was when the young woman planted herself directly in front of him and declared, "I hate cars, don't you?"
"Positively despise them." She was far too lovely to be spending time with the likes of him. Tall and willowy, she had a face that was filled with an electric fire that sparked through her wavy, auburn hair. Her eyes were alight with a mischievous emerald gleam as she went on. "Great humping metal beasts just looking for an excuse to bellow."
"That bellow is why I'm here," Lucius replied. "I consider it the finest music on earth."
She pulled over a chair and seated herself so close, their knees almost touched. "How positively dreadful."
Normally, he was so shy around women his own age that he could scarcely speak. Today, however, he heard himself reply with ease, "For years I've wanted to own a Jaguar, simply because I love the way their engine sounds."
"Then why on earth don't you buy one?"
Her matter-of-fact tone surprised him. "How do you know I can afford it?"
"Don't be silly. Everybody knows you just bought this business and paid cash."
"Who is everybody?"
"All of Miramar, of course." The way she spoke made it sound like, All the known universe and beyond. "Why do you think I'm talking to you?"
"I have no idea."
"Because you're fabulously rich and ever so mysterious, of course. I'm Jessica Waverly, by the way."
"Are you really? I've never met a Lucius before, much less a Quarterfield. You haven't just stepped out of a Charlotte Brontë novel, by any chance."
"I don't know who she is."
"You can't be serious."
"I haven't read a novel since my sixteenth birthday. I left school and went to work. Since then I've hardly had time to read everything I need for my business."
She gave a cheery shrug. "In that case, I shall just have to educate you. Your name should obviously belong to some great strapping stable lad who goes around tossing cows for a living. You don't, I suppose."
"I can state with absolute certainty that I have never tossed a cow in my entire life."
"What a pity. What with owning your own business, and being stinking rich and loving to make these awful motors bellow, if you also tossed cows, I fear my father would marry me off in a flash. That's him over there, by the way, trying to convince my dear mother that he needs a new car more than his next breath."
"Then I'll just have to go out and toss my first cow this very afternoon," Lucius replied. And just like that, his heart was lost to the woman whose fire was as merry as his own was morose.
Lucius relied constantly on his objectivity and his logic. Both of which he lost completely whenever in the company of Miss Jessica Waverly. She referred to their relationship as Pride and Prejudice, the title of her favorite novel. Jessica refused to say which aspect referred to him. She remained stubbornly blind to his many frailties. She insisted that her parents positively adored Lucius, when he could see they were growing ever more alarmed by his calls and visits.
Jessica's father was Miramar's only dentist. Jessica had served as his assistant ever since her mother had developed problems with her joints. Her father had pressured Jessica to attend dental school and take over his practice, but Jessica was incredibly stubborn in her capricious manner. She claimed to have no intention of ever working that hard, not in school and certainly not for the rest of her professional life.
Excerpted from "Firefly Cove"
Copyright © 2018 Davis Bunn.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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