But Caroline's world turns upside down when a mysterious stranger enters her life. Filled with courage and fresh purpose, Caroline embarks on a quest to track down the beloved, rare piano she played as a child. Her search leads her to Rockwater, the Kentucky estate of a wealthy gentleman, where Caroline finds her heart may be composing a surprising new song.
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SIX YEARS LATER
MOSS POINT, GEORGIA
The pendulum clock in the studio struck two. Caroline wished it were six. Painful memories and the dread of another anniversary had robbed her of sleep. She should have been lying next to David, wisps of his breath brushing her neck like a moth's wings and an occasional audible sigh interrupting the night's hush. Instead, the night's silence shouted, "David is gone, and you are alone."
Six years of life without him. Six years of unanswered questions. Why, God, didn't You hold back one thunderstorm for one hour — or maybe even a few seconds? Why did David have to be in Guatemala on that ridge that morning? Why didn't I give in and go with him? He begged me to go. If I had, I wouldn't be lying here by myself still longing for him.
Tears of loneliness moistened her pillow. She untangled her feet from the crumpled sheet, rolled over, and sat on the edge of the bed, rubbing her eyes and pulling the scrunchie from her ponytail. Her thick, dark hair fell loose and free to her shoulders. Cradling her head in her hands, she stared at the floor and watched the moving shadows of the ceiling fan blades.
Why do I keep up this act, trying to make everyone think I'm fine, that I'm no longer grieving for David, that my music and my students make my life complete? They don't know that the music isn't really music anymore. They don't know the piano is where I hide. They think I have it all together. Why should they think otherwise? What would it help if they knew that my ordered, predictable life makes me feel safe? Not alive — just safe.
Caroline stood up, brushed her hair back with her fingers, and twined the scrunchie around her ponytail again. The full moon seeping through the studio windows created a luminescence, making lamplight unnecessary for her trip to the kitchen for a cup of tea. She filled the kettle and turned to look out the window into the cottage garden. The air was still. Not even the plumes on the ornamental grass moved. She stood, twirling the string of the tea bag around her finger as she waited for the water to boil. Thinking herself the only mortal awake in Moss Point at such an hour, she longed for the familiar whistle of the teakettle to shatter the overwhelming silence.
That was her life: still and quiet.
She allowed the kettle to whistle two seconds before pouring the water over her tea bag and slumping over the sink to wait.
Waiting. That's what I do. I wait for the water to boil and for the tea to steep. I wait for the sun to rise. I wait for the summer. When will I quit waiting?
She pulled the tea bag from the cup and squeezed it against her spoon, then fumbled everything and dropped the spoon, splattering tea on the floor. She stared at it. Normally she would have wiped it up immediately. Tonight she didn't.
Teacup in hand, she wandered into the great room where her grand piano reigned in the alcove surrounded by three twelve-foot walls of glass. The painted wooden floor felt cool to her bare feet as she walked across the room. In April she often opened the French doors to the terrace, and the fragrance of spring's first roses drifted in on the sultry night air to mingle with the sounds from her piano before floating back out again. But not tonight. The doors remained closed as she sat at the piano, sipping tea and looking at the water garden. After a few minutes she set her cup down on the marble-topped table where she kept her appointment book and student files.
The moonlight's illumination of the keys was more than sufficient for her hands, so at home on the keyboard. Thoughts of David brought a familiar melody to her fingers: "David's Song," the most beautiful melody she ever conceived and yet never finished. She had written songs since childhood. She was trained to compose. She knew the fundamentals. When she'd begun this composition six years ago, the passionate rush of melody and lyrics had come together so quickly she could hardly record them fast enough. More than a song or a melody, this duet of voice and piano, capturing the essence of David and their passion, would have been her wedding gift to him.
It had been exactly three hundred and sixty-five days since she had allowed herself to play this melody. At least outside her head.
Caroline gazed out the window as she played its same notes over and over again. In six years she had not been able to get beyond this one unresolved phrase. Clenched fists finally replaced her nimble fingers, and a strident, dissonant pounding arrested the melody like David's death had halted her life.
At that moment, a shadow on the pond and a hasty movement across the water's edge caught her eye. She stepped to the window. The tea olives next to the glass still shuddered. Her discordant pounding must have startled some creature.
She turned to pick up her tea. Standing so near that the warmth from her cup fogged the pane, Caroline wondered how many more nights she would find herself here gazing through this glass. That was her life: looking through windows. Windows where she had glimpses of good things, then goodbyes.
Twenty-one years ago she'd stood in Ferngrove, looking out the picture window in her parents' living room, observing the delivery of her 1902 Hazelton Brothers piano: a seven-foot Victorian grand made of burled wood and accented with hand-carved scrolling. This piano had become her emotional vehicle, defining her and filling her hours. It had become her safest place. Her love affair with that instrument had charted the course of her life.
Nine years later, she'd stood at that same picture window as three movers, like pallbearers, removed her piano. The sale of it paid her college tuition. Often, over the years, she had imagined that piano, her first love, sitting in someone else's living room and responding to a stranger's touch. Even now she longed for the familiarity of those ivory keys.
Windows. She'd been standing at a picture window when she first saw David. He had stepped through the door — and quite unexpectedly into her heart — at her best friend's wedding.
Her pulse still quickened when she thought of watching him walk up the sidewalk of the Baker house.
Oh, David, we were so different, but we fit like the last two pieces of a puzzle. You were so full of life and so spontaneous. And your laugh ... Your laugh could fill up a room. Me? I was more soulful, always analyzing things, and all I had to bring to a room was my music.
You lived on the edge. I lived safely behind my keyboard. You wanted to teach the world to think and ponder life and its meaning. I just wanted to instill a love of music in one student at a time. You were bold and adventurous, and I was cautious. And look where it got us. You're gone, and I'm alone. How could you just walk in and through my life like that?
She had said goodbye to him at the Atlanta airport six weeks before their wedding. Standing at the terminal window, she'd watched him board his plane for Guatemala. A week later, she had stood at the same window awaiting his arrival as planned. He didn't come. It was days before they knew what had happened. No David, no goodbye, no closure. Only days and nights of looking through windows, hoping he'd come walking up again.
Her own life had been swept into a deep gorge like David's vehicle, never to be recovered. Her faith told her he was in heaven, but her doubt asked, "Where is heaven? What's it really like? Can he see me? Does he know how much I need him?"
Six years in this studio apartment of longtime family friends Sam and Angel Meadows had only numbed the pain. Coming to Moss Point and living at Twin Oaks provided privacy, a place to teach piano, and the nearness of two friends who had loved her all her life, but her wound was still fresh and deep, oozing with despair and loneliness. She kept it bandaged well so no one would notice.
But lately her life dangled like the dominant seventh chord or the unfinished scale she used to play at the end of her piano lesson as a prank on Mrs. Cummings, her childhood piano teacher. Countless times Caroline had run her fingers up the scale — do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti ... — stopping just shy of the last do. She would run out the door and wait for Mrs. Cummings to play the last note of the scale. Mrs. Cummings always did. That was resolution, the kind Caroline longed for now.
The pendulum clock struck three. Her tea no longer fogged up the window, and the darkness remained. Memories absorbed her when she needed to think about her future. Nothing and no one would appear through this window to change the course of her life again. And important issues were converging in the next few days: her twenty-ninth birthday, the end of another year of piano teaching, and the deadline for a decision that could take her from Moss Point and from this studio that had become her glass cocoon.
She moved back to the piano, sat in the deafening silence, and remembered other windows and unfinished songs. Oh, that morning would come and drown this darknessand the quiet that screams of my solitary existence.
But for now it was still night. She was alone with her piano, and she looked through this window where the night lights danced on the pond's surface amid the silhouettes of magnolia leaves.
She set her teacup down and started to "doodle," conjuring up a melody to accompany the moonlight's waltz across the water. She instinctively darkened the melody when she noticed a shadow moving at the water's edge and she heard the rustling tea olives outside her window. Nighttime shadows nor stirring shrubs frightened her, for playing her piano ushered her into another reality where she was safe.CHAPTER 2
Breakfast with the Meadows
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April mornings in Moss Point, Georgia, were God's peace offering for the long January nights and early March's blustery breezes. With a steaming cup of coffee in hand, Caroline sauntered through the garden and took her seat on the bench at the pond's edge. Fingers of morning light stretched through the weeping willow and played on the water. She measured each morning's unfurling of the fiddlehead ferns and watched the rosebuds swell until color peaked through the green cradles of leaves.
She sipped her coffee. There really is life after a cold, dark winter. Wish there could be a million April mornings. The irises will disappear in June, and the roses will wilt in July's blistering sun. The ferns will curl crispy brown in August. Then it'll be winter again.
Caroline returned to the kitchen for her second cup. The phone rang, and before the receiver ever reached her ear, she heard, "You are my sunshine, my only sunshine. You make me happy when —" She didn't let him finish. "Good morning, Sam."
"'Good morning, Sam'? How'd you know it was me?"
"There are only two people in the world who'd be singing to me at seven o'clock in the morning. One's my daddy, and he's a tenor who can sing. That leaves you, my friend."
"Well, if you're going to be that way, I won't tell you that Angel is flipping flapjacks over here, and yours are almost ready. The bacon's crisp, the maple syrup's heating, and how do you want your eggs?"
"I'll pass on the eggs this morning, but I can't resist Angel's pancakes. Give me five minutes to get presentable. Oh, and, Sam, I'll bring my coffee, and tell Angel I'll bring her a cup too. She doesn't like that swamp water you drink any more than I do."
Sam broke into song again. "You'll never know, dear, how much I love you —"
"Five minutes, Sam!"
The morning sun, blasting through the east windows, spotlighted tea stains on the floor in front of the sink. A reminder of last night's restlessness. She knelt to wipe the stains with a damp sponge. These pine floors were from the elementary schoolhouse Sam had attended seventy-five years ago. He'd acquired the yellow pine before the building was demolished and used it to build this art studio for Angel for their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. Floors, walls, ceilings, doors — everything but the twelve-foot walls of glass was white. The studio had been Angel's unblemished canvas where she painted until a few years before Caroline moved in. Now Caroline, grateful to call it home and her piano studio, kept it spotless like her mama had taught her.
A short hallway led to the bathroom. She brushed her long, wavy dark hair, inherited from her father, and pulled it away from her face into a ponytail. Gray sweats were fine for her trip to the big house. They'd be having breakfast on the back screened porch, and it was still cool.
She returned to the kitchen, poured coffee into a carafe, grabbed her own cup, and started over. It was this stone path, laid thirty years ago and worn smooth by Angel's trips to the studio, that led to the main house about a hundred yards away. Just this winding through the garden usually lifted Caroline's spirits, but her sleepless night had taken the spring out of her step.
She climbed the steps and opened the screen door with her one available finger, angling her body through the doorway as she heard Sam's trumpetlike voice from the kitchen.
"Caroline, don't —"
"I know, Sam. Don't slam the door. You tell me that every time I come in. It would have taken you less time to get the spring on the door fixed."
Angel's "Amen!" came from the kitchen.
Caroline set the coffee down on the white wicker table already set for breakfast. Sam, holding the platter of crisp bacon in one hand and a pitcher of warm maple syrup in the other, came through the kitchen door. He leaned down and kissed her on the forehead. "I always liked my women short. Makes me feel so tall." At eighty-four, Sam was still a solidly strong man with a six-foot-two-inch frame that had not yet given in to the weight of his years. Balding with only a few wrinkles in his tanned face, he could easily pass for mid-sixties. In his youth he had been an athlete, and he'd continued his workouts at the YMCA on almost a daily basis up until a few months ago. Now his morning jogs had turned into afternoon walks, and his workouts were in the garden.
Caroline stepped into the kitchen and pecked Angel on the cheek. "Angel, you are a wonder woman, flipping pancakes with one hand and eggs over easy with the other."
"Yep, don't know if it's my cookin' or something else that keeps Sam around." Angel winked at Caroline. "Thought he might decide to dump me for Evelyn Masters when my waistline disappeared and I traded in my belted slacks for floral muumuus."
"Sam crossed Evelyn off his list sixty years ago. Oh, he just thinks of you as his floating flower garden."
"Guess that's better than a floral fire hydrant." Angel flipped another pancake.
Caroline giggled. "I'd say it's those quick brown eyes and that feisty disposition of yours that keep him around. Here, let me help you."
"Gladly, my dear. Put that spatula to those pancakes. I'll do the rest. You know how Sam is about his eggs. Did you bring me some coffee?"
"Would I show up for breakfast without it? Still can't figure how Sam drinks that stuff."
"He's been doing it for years, and it's too late to change him now." Angel patted Sam's eggs with paper towel to remove the grease as Caroline put the last pancakes on the platter. She followed Angel step for step out the kitchen doorway onto the porch.
Sam seated them both and proceeded with the blessing. With oratorical voice and King James English, he prayed as though God was high in His heavens and might have trouble hearing him.
Their food — and possibly the neighbors' too — blessed, Angel looked at Caroline. "Oh, honey! I always said when God was passing out eyes, His basket was empty when He got to you, and He just decided to put in sapphires instead. So tell me, sweetie, why are those pools of blue surrounded by pink this morning?"
"Just a bit of trouble sleeping last night." Caroline took some butter and passed it to Sam.
"I know you. Normal people have nightmares, but you have 'songmares.' Too many tunes echoing in your head again?"
"Not only can you put pancakes, eggs, and bacon all hot on the table at the same time, now you're into mind reading." Caroline hoped that Angel wouldn't require further explanation.
"If she can read minds, then I'm in for some trouble," Sam said.
"You've been in trouble for the last sixty years, but right now I want to hear from Blue Eyes over here."
"You mean a song? Or what?" Caroline skirted the issue again.
"I mean 'what.'"
Caroline stared at her plate, stirring the melted butter into the syrup. "Well, it's an anniversary of sorts. Six years today David didn't return home from Guatemala. The what-might-have-beens always steal my sleep."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Return of the Song"
Copyright © 2018 Phyllis Clark Nichols.
Excerpted by permission of Gilead Publishing.
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