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Aiden Hughes pulled up to his great aunt’s Victorian-style house in the dead center of Birdsong, Pennsylvania. Dead was the operative word in the scenario, as the only things he’d passed on his way through town were a tiny strip mall, a post office, a municipal building, and a few farming supply stores tucked between homes. There wasn’t a single chain restaurant for more than fifty miles. Nothing had changed since he and mother had moved away seventeen years ago.
He parked his Mustang at the curb and gave it a forlorn pat when he climbed out. The car had been a treat to himself when he thought he was going to make it big in the world of investigative journalism in New York City. He had a grand vision of himself as a hotshot, racing to the scene of a crime or a political upheaval in his shiny red roadster, the flash of his Fujifilm X-T30 camera lighting the way to history.
Of course, no one really needed a car in New York, but he’d gotten it anyway. He paid more for his covered garage parking spot than some people did for a car payment. Now, looking back at the car he loved so dearly, he felt like he was being mocked. Freelance work wasn’t coming fast enough to pay his bills. He’d have to sell the car soon. Maybe give it to someone who hadn’t ruined their dream.
Instead of living the big life, he was twenty-nine and living in his great aunt’s guest room while he worked on rebuilding his life.
“Aiden, honey, that you?” his aunt Beth called when he had opened the front door.
The scent of pork chops and glazed apples greeted him just as strongly as his favorite aunt. “Sure is. It smells fantastic in here.” He walked through the front hall barefoot, having had taken his shoes off as soon as he came in, a rule that had been in place in the old house for as long as he had been alive.
Just like the town, Aunt Beth’s home hadn’t changed a bit. The same lace doilies lay on top of the small upright piano beside the stairs, and he could pinpoint exactly which faded floorboard would squeak when he stepped on it. But there was something nice about the familiar yellow couch in the living room and the pale-blue vase that she kept filled with fresh, white daisies, no matter what time of year. While everything else in his life was in turmoil, he needed a bit of constant familiarity.
“Hope you’re hungry,” Aunt Beth said as he stepped into the kitchen. She was standing with her back to him, a red-and-white-checkered apron tied around her middle. The radio played the local news and a man droned on about the price of corn and cow feed. Her walker leaned against the far wall.
“I’m always hungry for your cooking. I mean, this looks like quite the meal for just a lunch. What can I do to help?”
“Just sit your skinny self down at the table.”
He laughed. “My skinny self?” Considering his favorite food was mac and cheese, he wouldn’t exactly consider himself skinny. In fact, he had visited his building’s gym at least twice a week to work off the midnight burgers he lived on while waiting for breaking news. “I’d have you know that I am considered lean muscle in many circles. Some would even go so far as to call me muscular. I’m gonna call my trainer in New York and demand my money back. I’ll tell him my aunt thinks I’m too skinny.”
“The big city made you too thin.”
“Well, I didn’t have an aunt there to feed me. Although I did learn a cooking trick or two,” he said, taking a seat at the light wood table. “You should let me take care of dinner tonight so I can show you my moves.”
She turned around and brandished a wooden serving spoon at him. “It’s been a long time since I had someone to feed, so don’t you go taking that away from me now, you hear?”
She turned back to the stove and went back to cooking.
Aiden slumped down in his chair a little. Putting on a show for his aunt, pretending everything was all good was weighing on him. He actually felt pretty defeated. He’d met with the managing editor of the Birdsong Voice, the local paper, first thing that morning. She’d been nice enough to give him a part-time gig, but it was only until their usual features editor came back from maternity leave. It would be all puff pieces like bake sales and flower pot shows, but beggars couldn’t be choosers and he was definitely a beggar after getting fired. Fired and possibly blacklisted. Though he had no proof, his difficulty getting even freelance work with the same papers that had once offered him full-time work strongly suggested it.
Aunt Beth placed a plate in front of him that seemed like far too much food for lunch, and he filled both their glasses from a jug of sweet tea on the table. As she sat, she rolled into a story about how one of the women in her quilting club was moving down to retire in Boca. She continued talking about the various women, barely stopping to eat her own food. He nodded appropriately and ate the pork chops. When he finally put his fork down, Aunt Beth reached a hand out and placed it over his.
“Alright, you’ve been here for a week and I haven’t brought it up. Now, you know I would love for you to stay here as long as you want, and I by no means am rushing you out the door, but what’s your plan? You have never been one to wallow long. What can I do to help?” Aunt Beth asked.
He pushed a piece of leftover apple around on his plate. “You’re doing it. Letting me stay is helping. Penny, the Birdsong Voice editor, wants me to do features on everyone who’s participating in the fall festival. Like the lady who makes all the apple pies for the pie-eating contest and the guy who had the best show pig last year. That sort of thing.”
“Ooh, the things I would do for Rachael’s pie recipe,” she said, her pale eyes staring off in the distance.
He grinned. She used to get that same expression when she told him bedtime stories when he was boy. “Well, maybe I can work my journalist magic and get it for you.”
“If you did, you’d be my favorite nephew.”
“I’m your only nephew.”
“Only doesn’t mean favorite,” she said. “So keep that in mind when you’re interrogating Rachael.”
“I don’t interrogate.”
“What do you do then? I have this image of you in one of those old hats, taking people to a dark, gray room with a lone light bulb hanging from the ceiling and asking them all sorts of questions until they finally break down and tell you the truth.”
“You’re confusing me with a cop from a bad TV show?”
“Maybe. So, if I’m wrong, tell me what you really do.”
“I interview, Aunt Beth. I ask a few lighthearted questions, no hats or lone light bulbs, and everything is in full color.” And sometimes he asked harder questions. Questions that got him way more information than just a pie recipe.
“Fine. Keep in mind during your interview that I would love her pie recipe. And trust me, I wouldn’t be the only one in this house benefiting from it either. I’d need someone to help me eat it.”
“Then I guess I have no choice.” He glanced again at the walker. “When did you start using that?”
“That old thing? My doctor says I need it after last winter when I slipped going out to get the mail.”
He froze, his fork halfway to his mouth. “Did you hurt yourself? You flew out to my place for Christmas and didn’t say anything.”
“It was after Christmas. And don’t give me that look. Ice is just slippery.”
“You’re supposed to call me when something like that happens.”
“And what would you do from New York?” she asked, her brows raised. “Calling you wouldn’t have done anything but made you worry.”
Aiden felt ill. He had promised his mom he would take care of Aunt Beth, and he felt like a failure. He had been chasing his dreams, but at the cost of his aunt’s health. “How bad was the fall?”
“You’re acting like I broke a hip. It was just a bruise and my doctor told me to be careful. No harm done.”
“This time,” he grumbled.
“Aiden Eugene Hughes,” she began in the same sharp tone she’d used when he was a kid. “I won’t have any of that mumbling in my house. If I wanted you to worry over me, I’d have told you so. If I break a hip, then you have my permission to get all twisted up. But for now, you cannot treat me like an invalid.”
His jaw tightened, but he nodded. “I promise.”
“Good. Now, focus on yourself and let me take care of me.”
Aiden would really do anything for his aunt. He loved her dearly and appreciated everything she’d done for him since his parents died years and years ago. But how had his life come to lunch in the little kitchen and pig shows and worrying if his aunt was getting too old to live alone? He was a hard-hitting New York journalist, and now his big mission was pulling a pie recipe out of a little old lady for Aunt Beth. He tried not to focus on that too much. It was just a bump in the road, and he’d be back on his feet in no time. He had to be.
The little stories the little town promised just weren’t enough for him. Sometimes, he even wondered if writing was still enough for him, since he was always just writing other people’s stories from a desk rather than living them out in the real world. He was a little lost, but there was no way he’d tell Aunt Beth that. She’d worry. She’d nag . . . it wasn’t worth upsetting her. He just needed to figure out exactly what he wanted and then find someone who’d give him a chance.
When they’d finished eating and Aiden had finished washing the dishes, he went upstairs to his room, the same one he’d stayed in every Friday night as a child when his parents would have their weekly date nights. While his aunt had removed the toy airplanes hanging from the ceiling and switched out the cartoon bedspread for something a little more adult, it was still a step into his past. Every time he walked into the familiar blue room, it was yet another reminder of his failures.
With three weeks leading to the annual fall festival, he needed to get a jump on the features work. People came from all over to watch the livestock judging, buy pies, and enjoy the small cluster of rides that were always set up in the large municipal parking lot near the park. So at least covering the festival wasn’t a complete waste of time, but he’d probably end up putting on some weight.
The editor had given him a list of people and their addresses with the orders to write up two articles per week or more, if he felt some stories needed multiple angles. Addresses. Not email addresses, not phone numbers, but home addresses in neat, flowing script. As if that wasn’t enough, he didn’t see how a birdcall maker or the local expert on native flora would need multiple interviews. But the paper paid by the article, so he was sure he could figure something out.
His editor told him to talk to a dog rescuer named Emily McLane first, and that she’d be expecting him at two in the afternoon. He wasn’t thrilled to go talk to someone surrounded by animals. It wasn’t that he didn’t like them, only they didn’t fit into his life plan. He’d always wanted to chase stories around the world, and that just wasn’t possible with a pet. Then there was the fact they shed, slobbered, barked, and jumped. When he was younger, his neighbor had a dog, and he’d occasionally walked him for a few bucks. But outside that, he didn’t really have much experience with animals.
He checked the battery on his phone, making sure he’d have enough to record whatever he wanted. Then he threw a small yellow legal pad and a pen into his camera bag, and then slung it over his shoulder. Recording the interview was great, but he still liked taking notes. Besides, people seemed to expect certain things from a journalist, and taking notes by hand was one of them.
On the way out of his room, he paused in the full-length mirror to make sure his light-blue button up wasn’t too wrinkled. While he didn’t need to wear a suit and tie, he still wanted to look professional enough, even by Birdsong’s standards.
He got in his car and followed his phone’s GPS directions to Emily McLane’s house. She lived down a narrow street lined with oak and maple trees, their bronzed leaves beginning to fall. He parked behind a small box truck with the words Happy Cones emblazed on the back and a painting of a cartoon beagle wearing a cone underneath. When he stepped on to the street, he could see outlines of ice cream cones and popsicles beneath the dog’s paws.
Was it an ice cream truck, or some kind of dog truck? Did they sell ice cream specifically for dogs? Did Emily sell puppies out of the window on the side, or snow cones? He couldn’t figure it out. But he had to admit, it was pretty clever. It had his attention, and wasn’t that half the battle with advertising? Aiden took his camera out of his bag and snapped a few shots of it, the trees creating a brown and red frame. Normally, journalists would focus only on the writing and let a professional photographer pick up the slack where photos were involved, but photography was always a hobby for him. Not that the Birdsong Voice had any pros available anyway.
He put it away, and then headed to the white house. From first glance, it was the definition of cozy. There were flowerbeds beneath the picture windows, the shutters were painted a cheery yellow, and the cream wraparound porch had a swing that swayed gently in the breeze. From the look of the place, Aiden was expecting some cute little old lady who was maybe friends with his aunt. He probably should’ve asked Beth if she knew Emily before he’d left because the name didn’t sound familiar to him.
Maybe Beth would’ve even had a little gossip to spice up his story. Did Emily have a fiancé she’d left at the altar because he didn’t let the dog sleep on the bed? Maybe she was known as the town crazy who ate dog food or tried to steal people’s pets. Birdsong was certainly one of those small towns where everyone was in everyone’s business. Aiden made a mental note to “interrogate” his aunt regarding some of his other subjects. It would either give him some pretty amazing fodder for his articles or be a source of amusement when things got stale.
As soon as he knocked on the yellow front door, the barking that exploded from within sounded more zoo-like than cozy. The din grew louder with every passing second, and he wished the meeting could’ve been somewhere a little quieter and away from a bunch of dogs. Somewhere like a coffee shop . . . although, the main coffee shop in town was so busy it probably wouldn’t have been much quieter. Being the only one around, it was always filled to the brim with customers.
The door opened a crack and a set of warm brown eyes looked up at him from under dark lashes. “Can I help you?” Her voice was soft and he was surprised he could even hear her as the dogs continued to shout their frantic greetings.
“Yes, I’m looking for Emily McLane?”
The gap widened and the woman’s honey-colored curls fell over the shoulder of her plain black long-sleeve shirt. “Is this about the barking? I’m sorry. Once Trixie gets going, they all start, and—”
“No, I’m with the Birdsong Voice. I’m here to interview Emily for a fall festival feature.”
Her eyes widened. “Was that today? Oh, gosh, I’m so sorry. I completely forgot.”
He shifted from one foot to the other. Things weren’t going as he expected. First, she ended up being decades younger than he’d thought she’d be—and ridiculously pretty. Now she was saying she hadn’t known about him? “It’s okay. I can come back another time if you want?”
“No, it’s okay. The dogs really need the publicity. Come on in.”
A gray snout poked through the gap and snuffled. He looked from the wet nose to Emily. “Will they—”
“Bite? No, never. Here, I’ll go put them in the backyard and then I’ll come back, okay?”
The door shut with a click and Aiden let out a long sigh. He’d only seen her for a few seconds, but it’d been enough. Something about her dark eyes haunted him. They were big, almost out of place on her face, but at the same time, they were possibly the most distinct eyes he’d ever seen. Thinking about them staring up at him, all frustration with her disorganization was quickly slipping from his body. Instead his mind focused on the slight smile on her lips right before she went inside. It was so inviting, and he hoped he could see it again.
When she reappeared at the door, she let him into her living room—a comfortable, rustic space with brown sofas, a row of deep red bookcases, and a flat-screen TV hanging over a line of matching plaid dog beds. The kitchen was visible through the open doorway, and a skylight above them illuminated the room with the bright natural light of the crisp September afternoon.
But after a quick look around, he was back to staring at her. She must’ve taken a few minutes to tame the curly hair he’d seen earlier. Now it was pulled back into a high ponytail that brushed her shoulders. She had also changed into a pale-blue shirt, although he kind of preferred her in the T-shirt. He liked capturing people in their natural environment. The blouse almost seemed too fussy.
“So, you’re with the paper?” she asked when he didn’t say anything.
Aiden looked away from her, wondering if she’d noticed he was staring at her. It wasn’t the first time he’d interviewed someone so pretty, so he didn’t understand why he wasn’t on top of his game. “Sorry, I’m Aiden Hughes. I’m filling in for Kara Michaels at the Birdsong Voice.”
“Nice to meet you, Aiden. I’m Emily, but you already know that of course. Right. You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t. Uh, sorry, I’m not really sure how to do this.” She smiled wider than before, making her already warm features even more inviting. A slight blush settled in her cheeks. The color suited her. Aiden shook his head. When was the last time he’d let himself be this distracted during an interview?
The woman didn’t have a speck of makeup on, but the natural, next-door beauty didn’t escape his notice. Neither did the necklace she wore, a pressed four-leaf clover that sat suspended in glass within a gold hoop on a chain. He had a pressed clover in his wallet. He’d actually found his in Birdsong when he was camping as a kid. Funny coincidence.
“Can I get you something to drink?” she asked. “I have lemonade, sweet tea, coffee?”
“No, thanks. I just finished lunch, so I’m all set.”
She motioned to the sofa. “Please, sit.”
He set his bag down on the red stained coffee table and unzipped the top. “I won’t take up too much of your time, Ms. McLane.”
“Please call me Emily,” she said, sitting down beside him. “Are you new in town? Since you said your name, I’ve been trying to make a connection, but I don’t think I know any Hughes. That’s surprising. Not that I run the welcome wagon or anything, just that I’d probably have heard if anyone was new in town. My best friend, Cindy, usually keeps on top of this stuff.”
“I was actually born here, but I moved around seventeen years ago. I haven’t been back much either. I’m Beth Decker’s nephew, on my mom’s side.”
Her smile grew. “You’re related to Beth? She’s so sweet. She was friends with my grandma for years.”
“Small town,” she corrected.
“I guess you’re right. It’s been ages, but not a whole lot seems to have changed.”
“So you’re back in town now. Where were you before? I mean, before this.”
“I finished school in New Jersey and then moved to New York for a few years.”
Her eyes lit up. “Oh, that’s so exciting. I’ve been there a few times, mostly to see Broadway shows or the Christmas tree. What brought you down here? Most people don’t leave an exciting place like that for the small-town life. I doubt the excitement of a new bridge or something like the fall festival is able to compete with the excitement you probably have daily in New York.”
Why did he feel like the one being interviewed? He didn’t have anything to prove, and she didn’t need to know everything. Well, she didn’t need to know he was in town because he was a failure. No, that would probably not impress her, even though he was coming from the “big city.” He needed to retake control of this conversation before Emily found out just how pathetic he really was. Small town or not, he still needed to keep his reputation up. After all, if any good paper was going to take him seriously again, he needed to prove he could do a basic interview. A pretty face and a warm smile shouldn’t change that.
“Well, I follow the story, and today the story is about you.”
“Me? No, no. The story is about the dogs. They just don’t speak as clearly.”
“Then let’s talk about the dogs.” He had his phone up ready, his thumb over the record button, he said, “Ready when you are.”
End of Excerpt