From This Moment(10)


by Melanie Harlow

I raised the bottle to my lips. “Nah.”

“Think you ever will?”

After a long swallow, I shrugged. “Not sure, Mom. I’ll let you know.”

He punched me on the shoulder. “Asshole.”

I grinned before finishing off my beer. “I should get going. Hey, if you’re not busy tomorrow, come by my parents’ place. Hannah and Abby are coming over for a cookout. Bring your family. Invite Jack and his family, too.”

“Shit, I’d love to, but we’re so busy at the restaurant this weekend. I have to work tomorrow.”

“Another time then. It would be fun to get everyone together.”

“Definitely.”

We stood up and he clapped me on the upper arm. “I’m glad you’re back. Let’s get you into a house so you don’t lose your mind. And you should come by the inn for dinner sometime. Or even breakfast. Hannah makes waffles that will slay you.”

“Oh yeah?” We collected our empty bottles and went back into the kitchen.

“Yes. BLT waffles, carrot cake waffles, ham and cheese waffles, apple and prosciutto waffles…” Pete groaned. “They’re all amazing. She’s so talented.”

“I’ll definitely come in.”

We said goodbye and I drove home, my stomach growling at the thought of Hannah’s waffles. It made me happy to know she was appreciated at her job, that she had friends to support her. She seemed strong in a lot of ways, but fragile too. Not that I knew her all that well—but I wanted to. She was family to me, and making sure she was okay made me feel closer to my brother. Like I was doing right by him. When I thought of it that way, my protective feelings for her made perfect sense. They were acceptable on every level.

Maybe I’d try the inn for breakfast in the morning.

I woke up early, barely after sunrise, and went for a run, then a swim. After a shower, I dressed in jeans and a clean shirt, frowning at my lack of wardrobe choices. During the last few years, I’d basically lived in MSF T-shirts. It stood for Medecins Sans Frontieres, which was how I thought of Doctors Without Borders. Not that I’d cared. I’d never been all that fashion conscious, but now that I was back in civilian life, I probably should get some nicer clothes. I’d have to ask my mother where to shop, then hope she wouldn’t insist on coming with me. Maybe I could just order some things online.

Happy that neither of my parents was up yet, I drove to the inn, hoping it would be open for breakfast business. It wasn’t even eight yet. As I approached the massive front porch of the old Victorian, I admired the beautiful restoration. I remembered the place as an abandoned, falling-down heap from my youth, its paint peeling, roof sagging, and windows boarded up. The transformation was miraculous. The house was painted a pale, sunny yellow, the shutters a deep green. The home’s roof had been replaced, and the white pillars supporting the portico looked strong and smooth.

The massive wooden front door was open, but the screen door was shut. It looked original to the house, its wood painted red and embellished with fancy scrollwork. Someone had put a lot of thought—and money—into this.

I knocked lightly before entering the front hall, which was empty. To my right and left were large, airy rooms with high ceilings and beautiful wood floors, filled with tables set for two or four. Straight ahead, at the end of the hall, I could see a portion of the home’s original dining room. I wandered into it and found a large antique table set for a meal with china and silverware and crystal for twelve guests.

A swinging door at the back of the room opened, and a beautiful blond woman appeared carrying a vase of roses. “Oh, hello,” she said, surprise lifting her eyebrows. She set the vase at the center of the table. “I didn’t realize anyone was up yet. Good morning.”

“Good morning.” Our eyes met, and recognition hit us both. This had to be Margot, Jack’s wife, and I had met her, but it was at the funeral. I could tell by the look in her eye she was a bit disconcerted by my appearance for a moment—I’d have to get used to that—but her smile returned when she realized I wasn’t an apparition. “Wes, right? I’m Margot Valentini.”

I nodded and stepped forward, holding out one hand. “Of course.”

She clasped my hand with both of hers. “So nice to see you. I ran into your mother last week in town and she was so excited about your homecoming. Welcome back.”

“Thanks.”

“Did you come for breakfast?”

“I did, but…” I rubbed the back of my neck nervously. “I guess I’m early.”

She dismissed that with a graceful flip of her wrist. “No such thing. Let me get you a cup of coffee and tell Hannah you’re here. Take any seat you like in here, or if you’d prefer, I can seat you at a table in the parlor or the music room.”

“Thank you. In here is fine.”

She smiled at me again before turning and heading back into what I assumed was the kitchen area. I chose a chair at one end of the table and sat down, looking around at the room’s fireplace, antique sideboard, and an old Victrola tucked in one corner. A moment later, the door opened and Hannah appeared with a cup and saucer in one hand and a small white pitcher in the other. My chest did something funny when I saw her—a quick catch and release—but it was over so fast, I thought maybe I’d imagined it.

“Morning, Wes.” Hannah set the cup and saucer down in front of me and the pitcher of cream nearby. Unlike Margot, she didn’t make eye contact, and she didn’t smile.

“Morning. I’m a little early, huh? I saw Pete last night and he was talking about the waffles here. I think I dreamt about them last night.”

That earned me a little smile and a brief meeting of our eyes. “It’s okay. On Saturdays we serve breakfast starting at eight, and it’s nearly that. People will start to wander down soon. Oh! Let me get the sugar.” She was through the door again before I could tell her not to bother on my account. I drank my coffee black.

I picked up the cup and sipped, worried I’d made her uncomfortable by coming here. When she returned with the sugar bowl and a silver coffee pot, I decided to be direct about it. It was what Drew would have done. “Hannah, can you sit for a minute?”

She set the bowl and pot on the table and glanced at the kitchen door. “I really shouldn’t.”

“Just for a minute. Please.”

She looked uncomfortable, but she pulled out the chair adjacent to mine and sort of perched on the edge of it. Immediately, she began fussing with her wedding ring, a delicate band of tiny diamonds on the fourth finger of her left hand. I’d noticed her doing that a couple times last night too, a nervous habit. I felt bad I made her feel that way.

“I know this isn’t easy for you. Seeing me.”

She swallowed, and her eyes flicked toward me. “No. It isn’t.”

“I understand. It’s my fault. I shouldn’t have waited so long to come home.”

“No, I—”

I touched her forearm. “Let me say this. I couldn’t say it last night because…I don’t know. Because I was nervous. And you were nervous. And I didn’t want to make things any more upsetting for you. But I feel sick that I stayed away so long. It was selfish—it was me not wanting to face life without my brother. Over there, it was easier to pretend I wouldn’t have to.” If it wasn’t the whole truth, it was at least half of it. The half I could admit to, anyway.

“I get that, believe me.”

“But I feel like I abandoned you and Abby and my parents. And I’m sorry. Things are going to be different from now on.”

“Last night after you left, Abby asked me if I was sure you weren’t Drew,” Hannah blurted.

It felt like a punch in the stomach. “Oh, God. I’m sorry.”

“Stop apologizing. None of this is your fault.” She closed her eyes and shook her head. “I just don’t want her to be confused. It’s…it’s confusing to see you. For her, I mean. I think we shouldn’t come over today.”

“But don’t you think that’s exactly why you should come over?”

“What do you mean?”

“The best way to clear up confusion would be to get to know me as her uncle, right? She needs to see me as myself, not as a substitute for Drew.”

“Maybe,” Hannah hedged.

“And I think talking about Drew would help, too. To clearly differentiate us in her mind. After all, we were pretty different in a lot of ways.”

A little smile. “Yes.”

I wrapped my hand around her wrist on the table. “Come today. Please. Bring Abby and we’ll have fun and tell her about her dad when he was a kid and celebrate life. I need that.” Until I voiced the sentiment to her, I hadn’t even realized it was the truth.

She stared at my hand on her skin, but I didn’t let go. “Okay. We’ll come. Can I bring something?”

“Just you and Abby.”

“Come on. Let me contribute. Potato salad?”