Love Always

by

Carol Marinelli

After a tumultuous year, Kate Madison is hoping for an uneventful Christmas alone. When her family offers to change their plans to join her, she impulsively declares she’s headed to her family’s little cottage on the rugged Irish coast. Baile Dóch holds many cherished memories and will be an ideal Christmas retreat.

Kate is stunned to learn that her first love Liam O’Farrell has moved back to Baile Dóch. Sparks fly when they meet again and though Kate tries hard to attain her planned peaceful Christmas, Liam has other ideas that include a scorching reunion.

This time Liam’s older, wiser and sexier too.

And not inclined to lose her twice.

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“So, are you headed home for Thanksgiving?”

As the cabin crew did their final checks before takeoff Kate Madison gave a smile and, though she nodded to her fellow passenger, didn’t elaborate.

Kate knew she could appear somewhat aloof at times, although in reality she was plain old shy, but today she really was in no mood to speak.

Kate wasn’t just going home to Still Waters, Portland, Maine, for Thanksgiving. She was going home.

Period.

Her eternally pale skin meant that there was no telltale sign that her ring finger was newly bare, and though her green eyes were a little red, that was more from tiredness than tears.

It had been a long day and she wouldn’t be home until close to midnight. Resting her head back, Kate was about to close her eyes when the woman spoke again. “So, how long since you’ve been back?”

“Just a few weeks,” Kate answered. “I get home a lot.”

“That’s nice.”

“Yes.” Kate nodded, and then turned and looked out of the window and into the shiny new night. Her frequent trips home over the last year had been her and Greg’s undoing. A few weeks ago Kate had returned to Seattle early and unannounced, hoping to surprise him.

Instead she had surprised both herself and them!

It was all her fault apparently.

In the arguments that followed Greg had repeatedly said that had she just put him first for once, instead of her family, then it could all have been avoided.

Should she have gone home less and not been there for her sister?

Of course not.

Oh, there were many things about the last year that Kate would change if she could, but supporting Beth, her youngest sister, wasn’t among them.

“So, where is home?”

Kate turned and looked at the friendly face next to hers and gave in. “Still Waters.” She saw the slight frown as the elderly woman tried to place it. “Near Mount Vernon.”

“My daughter’s in Saco. She’s just had a baby two weeks ago, my first grandchild.”

“Congratulations. What did she have?”

“A girl. I’m Betty, by the way.”

And boy, Betty could talk.

With the plane in the sky the hours flew too, and she was shown a photo of Betty’s tiny granddaughter. In return Kate pulled up on her phone the latest picture of her nephew, Simon. “Named after his daddy.” Kate didn’t add that his daddy had died on active duty a few weeks before Simon had been born.

“He’s so blond!” Betty said, looking at Kate’s thick, dark auburn hair.

“My sister, Beth, is blonde, and…” Kate stumbled over the choice of word “…so’s his daddy.”

So is.

So was.

Betty didn’t need to know about the hurt and so Kate moved swiftly on to Simon’s upcoming birthday. “He turns one in a couple of weeks.”

The flight went quickly and they were soon coming in to land and though it was nice to talk, for so long Kate had craved silence. She hadn’t had a moment to herself since she’d broken things off with Greg. As well as having to cancel the wedding, reception and honeymoon, she had moved out of the apartment they’d shared and had been couch surfing, while tying up the ends of her life in Seattle.

There wouldn’t be much time for quiet reflection at home. Her parents always had a full house for Thanksgiving, and with Simon’s birthday coming up and Christmas fast approaching there would be plenty of busy days ahead.

Still, Mom and Dad were going on a month-long winter cruise mid-December, which meant there would be ample time for introspection then. The cruise, to celebrate their thirtieth wedding anniversary, should have happened last year, but was another thing that had been postponed as the Madison family drew together in grief.

And, to Kate’s mind, Greg should have understood.

As the plane hit the tarmac the jolt had Kate screw her eyes closed on the sudden threat of tears, but she breathed her way through it, determined not to break down and to greet her dad with clear eyes and a smile.

Her parents didn’t need to be worrying about their eldest child too.

A light touch to Kate’s shoulder startled her. “Happy Thanksgiving,” Betty said, standing as soon as they were allowed and reaching for her hand luggage.

“And to you.”

Kate didn’t rush off; there was no point. She had three cases to come off and so she took a moment and retied her hair, determined, when she met her dad, not to look like the wrung-out rag she felt like.

He had said he’d be there, and as sure as Monday followed Sunday, Ted Madison could be relied on.

A gust of cold air hit her as she made her way down the tunnel. She pulled her coat tight around her and headed to baggage collection, and then she heard her name.

“Kate!”

He was wearing jeans and the same heavy jacket he’d had forever and his shaggy hair and beard both needed a trim.

When she had been growing up her dad’s beard had grown in three shades—red, like Kate’s hair, a strip that was as black as Mae’s and some streaks that were golden blond like Beth’s.

Over the years it had sprung silver, but now it was fully white.

This year had aged him, Kate thought, and it tore at her heart as he wrapped her in a hug. She did not want to add to their burden.

“How was the flight?”

“It was okay.” She peeled from his arms and determinedly smiled.

“And, how are you?”

“I’m doing okay.”

“You’re sure?”

“Dad, I’m fine.”

“Well, it’s good to have you home. It’s shaping up to be a full house.”

“Is Mae coming after all?”

“She’s already here. Her flight got in this afternoon. This is my second airport run today. How many cases do you have?”

“Three.”

It sounded like a lot, but it was all she had to show for four years. At the end of the day, Kate just hadn’t had the fight in her to argue over a bed, or a Crock-Pot, or…anything really. It had all felt tainted anyway.

The airport crowd was thinning out. Kate could see Betty holding her tiny granddaughter and excitedly catching up with her family as they waited for their cases and Kate felt, well, a bit of a failure. As if she should have something happier to share with her parents than a breakup.

Dad dealt with the luggage with ease and soon they were in his pickup and on the hilly, tree-lined drive for home. She felt him glance over a couple of times and Kate wanted to tell him again that she was fine and not to worry, but, of course, he’d simply answer that it was his job.

“How’s Beth?” she asked.

“She would have been there to meet you but she had a shift over at the Still Waters Resort.”

“Really?” Kate sat up in her seat.

“Yes, she just started a couple of days ago, servicing the cabins.”

“Good for Beth.” Kate was thrilled for her sister. “How’s Simon doing? I can’t wait to see him.”

“Oh, you’ll see a big change when you do. He’s walking.”

“When?” Kate frowned, because her sister generally kept her up to date with any Simon news. “Beth never said.”

“She didn’t tell you because you’d have been boarding your plane. It just happened at lunchtime, about five minutes before she headed off to work.”

“Oh no! I’ll bet she didn’t want to leave him.”

“She didn’t. For real?” Dad checked, making sure Kate wanted the full story, and he turned his head.

“For real,” Kate confirmed.

“Simon walked last night, right after his bath. Your mom had him in his pajamas and he was just standing leaning on the coffee table when he took a few steps. We didn’t say anything to Beth as we didn’t want her to feel she was missing out, so we put the little guy to bed quick smart.”

Kate laughed, imagining her parents doing all they could to ensure that Beth didn’t miss out on a milestone. But, Kate knew, Dad wasn’t telling her without reason—they were doing all they could to get Beth through and if it took a little white lie every now and then, well so be it.

“His daddy walked at eleven months too, apparently,” Dad said and his strong voice husked. “He looks more like him with each passing day.”

“I know that he does.” Kate nodded. “How is she really, Dad? Before we get there.”

“I don’t know,” Dad admitted and she saw his hands grip hard on the steering wheel. “Beth’s still determined that Simon grows up with a happy mom, so she smiles and laughs, while we all know she’s bleeding inside. Twenty-four years old is way too young to be a widow.”

Kate sat silent, staring out at the dark familiar roads and thought of her sister who was trying to be as brave as the wonderful husband she had lost.

And Kate would never regret the time spent being here to support her.

Damn you, Greg, for not understanding.

“We’re home, Kate.” She realized she must have dozed off as she opened her eyes and saw they were outside the old cape house she had grown up in.

Still Waters was a small rural town whose deep, clear lakes brought in the kayakers, hikers and fly-fishers, but it was in September and October that it filled to capacity. Then the tourists would arrive to witness the stunning autumnal foliage displays and the resort and small cafés and shops would fill with leaf-peepers. Now though, at the end of fall, Dad had told her it was getting back to sleepy quiet. As she stepped out of the truck the earthy smell of wet leaves and the lake hit Kate and she breathed deeply in, hearing the familiar, barking hoot of a snowy owl.

She was home.

There were a jumble of boots and shoes on the porch and as she stepped in the scents and sights of home were familiar, with jackets hanging up in the entrance and the warmth of the wood fire circling her like the hug Mom pulled her into.

“You’ve lost weight,” Mom scolded. Kate was slim at the best of times and downright skinny for the rest. Though she had lost weight, it was not through trying, just that the last weeks had been fraught and frantic ones. “Mae was going to wait up for you but jet lag hit, and Beth’s worn out from being back at work. Oh, I spoke too soon, here’s one of them now…”

Kate looked up and saw Mae coming down the stairs. Even in a robe she looked stunning, with her raven hair spilling over her shoulders and her green, cat-like eyes blinking in the overhead hall light as if she’d stepped onto a catwalk. Mae was pure glamour. A flight steward, she was based in Dubai, but flew all over the world, and, Kate was certain, turned heads wherever she went.

“I thought you were scheduled to work over Thanksgiving,” Kate said as they hugged.

“Well, my friend desperately needed some time off in December and we were able to swap.” Mae lowered her voice as they headed through to the lounge. “Though it does mean that I won’t be home for Christmas.”

“Mom and Dad are away anyway, so it won’t matter.”

“I need to speak to you about that.”

But whatever Mae had to say would have to wait as they made plans for tomorrow. Mom would be up at six to start on the feast and the girls would all help with the aim to eat at two.

“We’d better get some sleep,” Mom suggested. “Kate, you’re in your old room; Simon’s back in with Beth.”

More guilt.

Yet it was nice not to be sharing, or on a friend’s couch as she had been for weeks. Kate finally had her own space. She turned on the light and as she closed the bedroom door saw that Dad had brought up all her cases.

Simon’s cot and teddies and little changing table had been moved out and her things, which had been stored away when he had moved in to his own room, were now back.

Things she hadn’t seen in a while.

While it was a relief to finally have her own space it felt strange to be back in her childhood bedroom, not for a visit, but to live. While hugely appreciative of her parents the truth was, Kate felt as if she was going backward. She told herself it was only temporary but still couldn’t help but feel a bit of a failure.

Kate had left home at eighteen, but until Simon had been moved into the bedroom, it had pretty much remained the same. Now, her books were back on the shelves and a few knickknacks too. The quilted bedspread her granny had made years ago was on the bed, and on the wall, was the photo of an evening Irish sky that Kate had taken while on a family vacation. It was a blush of pinks and reds. She’d been a keen photographer back then. In fact, she’d hoped to make a career out of it but had gone into teaching instead. Her old camera was on the dresser and she picked it up, recalling the excitement she’d felt when she’d first held it.

Kate kept the camera here for taking photos of Simon, but generally used her cell phone to take pictures now.

She pulled back a curtain and looked out to the glint of the lake, so silent and still beneath the drifting orb of the moon. So calm, when her family was, despite appearances, still in turmoil. There should be waves, she thought. There should be storms and lightning rods splitting trees. Something visible, something tangible to show for the damage that IED had wreaked upon her family. But instead, more than a year on, when the ripples were being felt to this day, the lake stayed true to its Still Waters name.

Kate let the curtain close.

She changed, but still feeling wired from flying she eyed the books on the shelves, smiling as she did so. There were the books of her teenage years. Crime and romance and a few horror novels and some poetry too and beside that was an old leather journal.

Kate used to pour her heart out to it and she pulled it from the shelf now and sat there reading. Dad turned off the lights and then came the familiar creak of the stairs as he climbed them and finally the house fell quiet.

I don’t know what I should do.

Kate ran a finger over words she’d written at eighteen.

I love him so much.

She’d felt everything so intensely then. From the disaster of having her college applications rejected, to the agony of first love, it had been all poured out to her journal.

God, being eighteen had been hard, Kate thought as she read.

And it had also been rather wonderful.

Turning the page, Kate took out a letter. It was still in its envelope, covered in stamps. She’d come so close to mailing it, but never had. She pulled the cream letter out and remembered the agony again. It had been an impossible letter to write. To somehow dilute all she’d really wanted to say. To attempt to gently enquire rather than plead…

Dear Liam,

I hope you are well and enjoying being back at Trinity.

It feels odd being home and things haven’t gone as expected. I haven’t been accepted to study photography. I’m not really sure what to do and it’s kind of flipped my world. I might try for teaching but there’s a part of me that wants to take a gap year. Perhaps work on my portfolio in Ireland? I don’t know. I don’t want you to feel as if I’m landing on you. We were supposed to have one perfect summer—that was the deal.

We did.

Anyway, I’m just tossing up ideas and would love to hear from you.

Love always,

Kate xxxx

She stared at the letter for a long time, recalling the agony behind each and every word and feeling a stir of regret that she hadn’t been brave enough to send it.

End of Excerpt