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Kevin glanced out the window of his childhood bedroom. The yard that sloped down toward the Chesapeake Bay was decorated with balloons. Piles of presents sat on a picnic table next to a cake decorated with toy trucks, Davy's favorite things. All of the O'Briens had gathered to celebrate his son's second birthday, but Kevin could barely summon the energy to get out of bed. Despite his resolve to be strong for Davy, he'd pretty much been a wreck since Georgia's death, not able to get a fix on anything, unable to make even the most basic decisions about his life.
He had made three decisions, though. He'd quit his job as a paramedic, he'd sold the town house, which was filled with memories of his too-brief marriage, and he'd moved home. At least here, he knew there were plenty of people who would love and look out for his son while he figured out what came next. That was something he really needed to get to
one of these days.
Someone pounded on the door of his roomhis younger brother from the sound of it.
"Get your butt downstairs!" Connor bellowed. "The party's about to start."
Given his choice, Kevin would have crawled back into bed and pulled the pillow over his head to block out the sound of laughter coming from outside. He wouldn't, though. For one thing, even if nothing else in his life made sense, his son was the most important person in it. Kevin wouldn't let him down. For another, either Gram or his dad would be up here next, and either one of them had the power to shame him into doing what was right for the occasion.
"On my way," he assured Connor.
He showered in record time, pulled on jeans and a T-shirt and slid his feet into an old pair of sneakers, then went downstairs. Only his youngest sister, Jess, was in the kitchen. She surveyed him, then shook her head.
"You're a mess," she declared.
"I showered. These clothes are clean," he protested.
"Did you lose your razor? And maybe your comb?"
"Who are you?" he grumbled. "The fashion patrol?"
"Just calling it like I see it, big brother. Everyone else spruced up for the party. Turning two is a big deal."
"Do you honestly think Davy's going to care if I shaved?" he asked as he rubbed his hand over his unshaven jaw. He had shaved yesterdayor was it the day before? He couldn't recall. Mostly the days slipped by in a blur.
"No, Davy won't care today, but you'll look like some derelict in the pictures. Is that the memory you want him to carry with him throughout his life? Last year on his first birthday it made sense that you looked ragged. It was only a few weeks after Georgia"
"Don't mention her name," he snapped.
"Someone has to," she said, looking him directly in the eye without backing down. "You loved her, Kev. I get that. You're hurting and angry because she's gone, but you can't pretend she didn't exist. She was that little boy's mom. What are you planning to do, let him go through his entire life with the subject of his mother off-limits? What about his grandparents? Do you expect them never to mention their daughter's name?"
" I can't talk about her. Not yet." He knew it was irrational, but somehow he thought if he didn't talk about Georgia or her death, it wouldn't be real. She'd still be out there, on the other side of the world, saving lives. She'd still walk through the door one day, back into his life.
"When, then?" Jess asked, her gaze unrelenting.
If he hadn't been so annoyed, he might have admired her persistence. For a woman who rarely stuck with anything for long, Jess had certainly dug in her heels on this. Just his freaking luck.
"What do you expect me to say?" he snapped again. "A day? A month? Hell if I know when I'll be ready." Even as he spoke, he felt the sting of tears in his eyes. He hated the sign of weakness almost as much as he hated this whole conversation. "Just drop it, okay?"
Of course she didn't. "Sit down," she ordered, not cutting him any slack.
He didn't like that Jess was turning the tables on him. His little sister had always come to him for advice. Now she was obviously planning to dole it out. Just like Georgia, once Jess got stirred up, she was going to speak her mind, whether anyone wanted to listen or not. Apparently this was one of those times. Kevin sat, mostly because he was too shaky not to and because she'd plunked a cup of much-needed coffee on the table to go with whatever words she was intent on dishing out.
She pulled a chair close and sat so that her knees were brushing his. She covered one of his hands with hers. The show of sympathy was almost his undoing.
"Listen to me, Kev. You need to get out of this house."
Alarm shot through him. "Why? Has Gram said something? Is having Davy underfoot too much for her? Do she and Dad want me out of here?"
She rolled her eyes. "You know better," she said impatiently. "This is your home. I wasn't saying you should move. I was saying you need to get a life." Her gaze, locked with his, was filled with compassion. "I know this is going to sound harsh, but somebody needs to say it. Georgia died. You didn't. And Davy needs his dad, the real one, not the one who walks around here all day in a daze."
He frowned at her. "I'm not drinking, if that's what you're suggesting."
"Nobody said you were. Look, I'm saying all this now, before everyone else has a chance to gang up on you. You know it's coming. You must. This family can't keep their opinions to themselves worth a damn. It's amazing we've all been so quiet for this long."
He smiled, despite his sour mood. "You're right about that."
"Will you at least think about what I've said? If you promise to do that much, I'll run interference and keep the others at bay a while longer. Abby, the mother hen, is champing at the bit to offer her own special brand of tough love. She's worried sick that you haven't snapped out of this dark mood."
Since he would do just about anything to keep from being surrounded by all that well-meaning concern, especially from his oldest sister, he nodded. "There's just one thing."
"I don't have any idea at all what to do with myself."
"You're a paramedic," she reminded him at once. "There are openings right here in town. I've checked."
He shook his head. "No. I'll never do that again." His career was all twisted up in his mind with Georgia and how she'd died on a call to a market in Baghdad after an explosive device had been triggered, killing and wounding a bunch of innocent civilians. She and her team had arrived just in time for the second bomb to be detonated. Kevin knew his reaction, his refusal to put his EMT training to good use, wasn't rational, but then he wasn't operating much on reason these days.
"You sure about that?" Jess asked.
"A hundred percent."
Her expression brightened. "Then I have an even better idea."
He didn't like the glint in her eyes one bit. Jess had always had a knack for getting into mischief. Ideas came fast and furiously with her. It was the follow-through that was lacking. Or had been, anyway, until she'd opened The Inn at Eagle Point. That seemed to have captured her complete attention. After a shaky start, she had the place running smoothly and successfully.
"What's your idea?" he asked warily.
"A fishing charter," she said at once, then rushed in before he could utter an immediate objection. "You could lease dock space at the Harbor Lights Marina. Come on, Kev, at least think about it. You spent half your life on the water as a kid. You always claimed it calmed you, even if you didn't come home with a single rockfish or croaker. And naturally, because you didn't really give two hoots about catching them, the fish practically jumped into your boat."
"You want me to become a waterman?" he asked incredulously. It was a hard, demanding life, especially with the impact that farming and other human misdeeds were having on fish, crabs and oysters in the bay's waters, to say nothing of what skyrocketing fuel costs had done to profit margins.
"Not exactly. I want you to take people out on your boat to fish."
He gave her a wry look. "The only boat I currently own is barely big enough for me and one passenger, and I wind up rowing home more often than not because the motor's unreliable."
"Which is exactly why you'll spend some of that trust fund money that's sitting in the bank on a bigger, more reliable boat. Dad set up those funds for us to buy a home or start a business. I know you haven't touched yours, so the start-up money's there, Kev."
"And you think this can become an actual career?" he asked skeptically.
"It's not up there with saving lives," she said pointedly. "But I get requests practically every day from guests at the inn who want to go fishing. There's no one in town who does charters. Once in a while I can convince George Jenkins to take someone out, but he has the conversational skills of a clam."
Kevin thought about the long, lazy days he and Connor had spent on the bay as boys. They were some of the best in his life. He hadn't cared a fig about catching fish, just as Jess said, but he'd loved the peace and quiet of being on the water. Of course, if he had a boat full of strangers along, the tranquillity would pretty much be shattered. Yet somehow the idea took hold.
Jess regarded him hopefully. "You'll think about it?"
There were a thousand practical things to be considered, but the idea held promise. He'd have to take classes to become licensed to be a captain, for example, and that would get him out of the house. Maybe that alone would be enough to keep everyone off his case.
He nodded slowly. "I'll think about it."
"Good! Now let's go outside and spoil that son of yours rotten," Jess said, dragging him to his feet. "You should see his haul of presents. They're piled high. Davy doesn't entirely understand yet that they're his, so this should be fun."
Fun wasn't something Kevin had had in his life for a while now, but when he saw Davy running around on his chubby little legs, his mouth already streaked with chocolate frosting, he couldn't help but feel a little lighter. And when Davy spotted his father and a smile spread across his face, Kevin felt a split second of pure joy. It was Georgia's smile, as bright and carefree as she had been.
For the first time since his wife had died, the sorrow lifted briefly and he felt hopeful again.
Despite his promise to Jess, Kevin spent two more weeks holed up at home, passing his days with Davy and his evenings hiding out in his room away from Gram's pitying looks and his father's increasing impatience. Mick clearly had plenty to say to him, Kevin could tell, but apparently an edict from Gram had kept his father silent. He doubted that would last much longer.
To his surprise, it was Gram herself who broke the silence first. She joined him on the porch at dusk one evening, handed him a glass of iced tea and a plate of his favorite oatmeal raisin cookies and said, "We need to talk."
"About?" Kevin asked, even more wary than he had been when Jess had made the same announcement. If Jess was good at uncomfortable, straight talk, it was because she'd learned from a mastertheir grandmother. Nell O'Brien had stepped in to raise them after their mother and father had divorced. She had a huge heart and a tart tongue.
"The way you're moping around this house day in and day out," she replied. "It's not good for you, and it's certainly not good for your boy. A child needs to expand his world, to see other children."
Kevin frowned at that. "His cousins are here all the time."
"Caitlyn and Carrie are almost eight now, and while they love playing with Davy, he needs to be with some youngsters his own age." She gave him a penetrating look. "He needs to laugh, Kevin. When was the last time you got down on the ground and rough-housed with him, made him giggle?"
"Seems to me that Dad's filling that role." In fact, Mick seemed to delight in it.
"It's his father who ought to be doing it, not his grandfather. When was the last time you took Davy into town for an ice-cream cone?"
"You took him just yesterday," Kevin reminded her.
Gram gave him an impatient look. "Is that what I asked? I want to know when you took him."
"I haven't," he admitted. "But I don't see why that's such a big deal. Davy's got plenty of attention around here. That's why I moved back to Chesapeake Shores."
"So we could raise him for you?" she asked. The question was pointed, though her tone was gentle.
"No, of course not," he retorted, then regretted his tone and sighed. "Maybe."
"Kevin, we all know you're grieving over Georgia, and there's not a thing we wouldn't do to help out, but you have to start living again. You have to give Davy a more normal life. I know Jess has talked to you about this, so I waited, but you're showing no signs of changing. I can't go on watching you shortchange Davy or yourself like this. It's just plain wrong. You're a vital young man with a lot of years ahead of you. Don't waste them and live to regret it."
As much as he hated to admit it, Kevin knew she was right. He just had no idea precisely what he could do about it, not when he was filled with so many conflicting emotions. He was angry about a war that had taken a child's mother and left him a single dad. He was guilt-ridden about not having tried harder to make Georgia reconsider taking another tour in Iraq, even after just about everyone in his family had begged him to. And he was grieving for a vibrant young woman who would never know her son, who wouldn't be there for his first day of school, his college graduation, his wedding.
He finally lifted his head and faced his grandmother. "Gram, I have no idea what to do. Some days just getting out of bed seems like a triumph."
She nodded knowingly. "That's the way I felt when your grandfather died. I'm sure it's the way Mick felt when your mother left him alone with all of you children to raise. You know how he handled that."