The reporter was a virtual stranger in this town, yet even he’d heard of Dr. Linden’s diagnosis. It was a popular topic of conversation among the diners.
“Dr. Linden, thanks for taking the time to speak with me.”
“Please, call me Doc.” He wrapped his hands around a takeout coffee cup. “I’m not sure I can offer any information for your article. While I know of the blackbirds, I’ve never had anything to do with them.”
“Nothing at all comes to mind?”
Doc stared at the cup’s plastic lid. “All I know for certain is that the blackbirds were here long before I was, and they’ll be here long after I’m gone.”
“Where’s Mr. Lazenby?”
I bolted upright in bed, and rubbed sleep out of my eyes as I looked around. I could have sworn I’d heard someone with a feminine voice asking me where Mr. Lazenby was. No one was around, but the window was open, and I saw the outline of the phoebe against the screen, fluffing her feathers on the windowsill in the morning light. Her crooked wing was a sure sign she was the bird that had been hanging around the café, but she didn’t appear to be trying to get inside.
Which was just as well, because I didn’t want to chase her around the apartment.
I lay back down. It was entirely possible I’d dreamed the voice, since I’d been thinking of Mr. Lazenby before I fell asleep. It had been five days since I’d last seen him, when he went home in a snit the day Pebbles didn’t show up for breakfast.
I rolled onto my side and punched the pillow into a comfortable position. Usually this time of the morning I’d be dragging myself into the shower, but all I wanted to do was pull my quilt over my head and sleep the day away.
I stared at the walls, watching the morning light shift around. I could tell I’d been crying in my sleep. Hearing that Doc only had a few months left to live opened a gaping hole in my heart.
It had been three days since learning of his diagnosis. He was at home, resting, with Seelie keeping close watch over him. Natalie hadn’t been in to work, either, missing two shifts.
She was angry. So angry. What she didn’t understand was that Doc had lied not only to her, but to me as well. To all of us.
However, it was easier to be mad at me than him.
The expression on Natalie’s face when she found out I knew Doc had been ill had haunted my dreams. The scathing look of utter betrayal. It caused an ache deep in my bones and made me question why I’d kept quiet.
But I knew why. I made a promise.
Some promises are meant to be broken, Anna Kate.
Natalie’s words cut like a knife, because I couldn’t stop thinking that she was right. I’d made a bad decision, and I added it to my list of regrets, which had grown rapidly in these past few days.
I regretted not telling Natalie about Doc’s health, and I deeply regretted coming to Wicklow altogether.
My mother had warned me to stay away, and I should have taken that caution to heart. If so, I’d still be in Massachusetts, happily oblivious to this charming little town.
Because truthfully, I hadn’t been happy up north. It wasn’t until I’d come here that I found true happiness. I’d fallen in love with the café and Zee’s garden and my neighbors.
My God, the neighbors.
Faylene, Summer, Jena, Bow, Gideon . . .
Flipping over, I punched the pillow again.
I sang the “Sing a Song of Sixpence” in my head and tried to fall back to sleep, but my brain wasn’t having it. I tossed aside my dad’s quilt.
It was time to get up. Get dressed. Get on with the day. I had a lot to do.
A day that now included checking in on Mr. Lazenby.
It was late morning when I left the café under the very capable control of Bow and Jena and headed across town. After checking in on Mr. Lazenby, I wanted to visit with Doc. I hoped I’d have a chance to talk with Natalie, as well. I didn’t like the way things were between us right now, and I needed to fix it. Somehow. Some way.
On a narrow residential road, I found the house I was looking for. It was easy to see that the blue clapboard bungalow had been well taken care of over the years. The paint was fresh and bright, the lawn freshly mowed, and the flowers along the walkway full of blooms.
I walked under a wooden arbor and headed toward the front door to ring the bell. I heard it buzz inside the house.
“Go away,” Mr. Lazenby said through the door.
“It’s me, Anna Kate.”
“Go on with you. Go away.”
“I brought you some food from the café. Scrambled eggs, sweet potato hash, bacon …” The door cracked open, and I smiled as he scowled out at me. “Since Pebbles has been sick, I wanted to make sure you weren’t ill too. I’ve missed you these last few days.”
“Pebbles is sick?” he asked, reaching for the takeout box in my hands. “How sick?”
He might’ve opened the door, but it was clear he wasn’t inviting me inside. “It’s a virus of some sort. Fever, cough. Started up last week, according to Faylene. A little rest and she should be okay.”
He scratched the white stubble on his chin. “Might could be why she missed breakfast last Friday.”
It was interesting to me that her absence was still on his mind. “It’s likely,” I said. “She hasn’t been around this week, either.”
“I should probably check on her,” he said, the wrinkles around his eyes multiplying as he frowned. “You think she’d mind?”
I tried not to smile. “No, I don’t think she would.”
He gave me a nod, and said, “We’ll see. Thank you for the food, Miss Anna Kate.” He closed the door.
I noticed he didn’t ask if there was pie in the box. It seemed his priorities had shifted.
The blind old fool was finally seeing the light.
It was a quick walk over to Doc and Seelie’s. She smiled when she saw me at the door. “I’m going to have to sedate the man to keep him in bed,” she said by way of a hello.
She put an arm around me in an awkward embrace—she still wasn’t comfortable showing me affection, which was just as well because I didn’t know how I’d receive it. We were feeling our way through our relationship, one uncomfortable hug at a time.
“He wants to go golfing.” Seelie looked like she hadn’t slept well. Her eyes were shot with red, and shadows lurked beneath them. “Lord have mercy on my soul. Natalie and Ollie are upstairs with him now, trying to get him to eat something.”
The foyer was filled with flowers, bouquets and arrangements of every shape and size. “I see word’s gotten out.”
“I have a dozen casseroles sitting in my freezer and at least that many loaves of cinnamon bread. The bread brigade is in top form.”
I nearly laughed out loud at the term. It fit so well.
“Of course James doesn’t want any of it. Maybe you could make him something? I bet he’d eat that, even if it’s only so your feelings don’t get hurt. I’m not above using trickery, Anna Kate.”
“I’ll bring something by later.” And maybe an herbal tea as well. At this point it couldn’t hurt. “How’s Natalie today?”
“She’s been good with James, but with me she’s been quicktempered and snappy. She’s hurting.”
I nodded, thinking we all were.
“Go on up. I must find some room in the freezer for a couple more casseroles, then I’ll join you.”
A carpet runner covered the wooden stairs, muffling my footsteps as I climbed. On the landing, I heard Ollie making vrooming noises from down the hall, then Doc saying, “So help me, Natalie Jane, you’re not too old to have a knot jerked in your tail.”
“It’d be worth it if you’d eat something,” she said. “Come on, it’s your favorite.”
I peeked into the room and saw Ollie driving her tractor along the footboard of a four-poster bed. Natalie sat in a chair, bedside, holding a plate of red beans and rice.
Doc, propped up in bed, spotted me and said, “Don’t tell me you brought food too. If so, turn yourself around and come back without it.”
“No food,” I said, holding up empty hands. “Just me.”
“Hihi! Annkay!” Ollie had learned how to wave properly, and I missed the way her whole arm used to flap.
“Hi, Ollie,” I said, waving back.
Natalie set the plate on the nightstand and stood up. “Come on, Ollie. It’s time to go.”
“You don’t have to leave,” I said, aching at the detached look in her eyes.
“Natalie? You’re leaving?” Seelie asked as she came into the room and stood next to me. “But you barely just got here.”
Natalie picked up Ollie. “We’ll be back later.” She surged past us and out the doorway.
“I’ll be right back,” Seelie said tightly and strode out as well.
I sat in the seat Natalie had vacated and tried to think of something to say.
“She’s angry,” Doc said.
“She’s mad at me and taking it out on both of you.”
He laughed. “She’ll come around.”
I wasn’t so sure. “You know, you really should eat something. You need nutrients.”
“Months ago, when I declined the recommendation to undergo chemo and radiation, it wasn’t a rash decision. It was because I didn’t want to spend my last days going to and from the hospital, sick as a dog from the medicine that was trying to make me better. I want to live, Anna Kate. I do not want to be laid up in bed, being waited on hand and foot, being force-fed. So please knock it off.”
I jabbed a finger at him. “Well, we want you around as long as possible. You’ve had months to deal with your diagnosis, but we’re in shock, so let us fuss a few days. But what’s going to happen if you don’t eat? Or drink enough fluids? Stop being so stubborn trying to prove to us that you’re doing fine. Because you’re not.”
With a heavy sigh, he said, “Fine. Hand me that plate. No need to get all fired up.”
“I don’t know about that. Seems to have gotten the job done.”
I handed him the plate, and he picked at the food. “I behaved horribly on Sunday. I’m sorry.”
“Stop that,” I said. “It’s in the past and we’re focusing on the future, remember?”
“I remember, but I think I’ve been a little too focused. I’ve been getting my affairs in order these past few months, and it hurt to think of having to sell my practice, my legacy, to a stranger. When you showed up, and I heard you were planning to be a physician . . .” He set the plate aside and adjusted his blanket. “I got ahead of myself. It wasn’t right of me, and it certainly wasn’t fair.”
I rubbed a finger on the chair’s upholstery. “I’ve been thinking that maybe being a family doctor and carrying on your legacy might not be so bad.”
His brown eyes shone with compassion. “I haven’t been getting much sleep, and in those dark, quiet hours when it was just me and my thoughts, I came to realize that I’d been wrong. My practice isn’t my legacy at all. It’s only a place. A thing. Work. My legacy, who I am, the person I am, is my family. Long after I’m gone, I will live in you, in Natalie and Ollie, and Seelie. All of you will always be in my heart, and part of me will always be in yours. That’s a damn good legacy, if you ask me. Don’t you agree?”
I squeezed his hand and blinked away tears. “I agree, Doc. I agree.”
“Stop right there, young lady.”
I had almost made it to the back door when my mother’s ice-cold voice stopped me. I set Ollie down as I turned around. “Not now, Mama.”
“Yes, now. I know you’re hurting, but taking it out on Anna Kate isn’t helping anything.”
“So you’re taking her side?”
“I’m not taking any side. There are no sides.”
My heart hammered against my rib cage. “She didn’t tell us Daddy was sick.”
“It wasn’t her place to tell us. It was his. It’s his illness. If you’re going to be mad, be mad at him. He’s the one who deserves your anger.”
“How can you say that? He’s dying.”
“That doesn’t make him any less accountable for his actions. He made the choice six months ago not to tell us—a decision that had nothing to do with Anna Kate.”
My chest felt fit to burst. “She should have told us.”
Mama reached for me, but I stepped away. If she touched me— showed me affection—I might break flat open, and I wasn’t sure I could ever be put back together.
“It’s not Anna Kate’s fault. It’s no one’s fault. Don’t you see what you’re doing, Natalie? You’re acting just the way I did toward Eden Callow all these years. You’re needing someone to blame to help ease the pain. I can tell you from experience that it doesn’t help. You’re hurting because you love him. And the only way to get through the pain is to keep on loving him. Especially after he’s gone.”
I wanted to put my hands over my ears and sing lalalala at the top of my lungs. I needed to get out of here. Breathe. I couldn’t get enough air. I was suffocating.
Picking up Ollie, I said, “I need to go.” I pulled open the door and rushed outside.
“Bye!” Ollie yelled.
Mama’s voice carried on the hot breeze. “Running away isn’t going to help, Natalie. It never has. It never will.”
I blindly walked back to the little house, wondering where I could go. Where I could hide. I needed space. I needed air.
I was halfway up the porch steps when I heard, “Natalie?”
“Hihi!” Ollie said.
“Hi, little darling,” Cam said.
I blinked, trying to clear my raging thoughts. “Cam? What are you doing here?”
“I heard about Doc. Thought I’d come by to check on you. Are you doing okay?”
Was I okay? I wanted to laugh maniacally, but I was afraid all I would do is cry. “No,” I whispered, trying to keep my voice from cracking.
“What do you need?” He put his hands on my arms. “What can I do?”
I needed ... peace. My gaze rose to meet his. “Is your offer to take Ollie and me to the waterfall still open?”
“Of course. When?”
“Now,” I said. “Right now.”
His eyebrows dipped low. “You sure?”
“Absolutely. I just need to grab a few things.”
Before he could talk me out of going, I handed off Ollie to him and went into the house. I quickly packed a diaper bag and grabbed snacks for Ollie and her blankie, too, since it was closing in on nap time. I put on a pair of hiking boots, and a minute later I was back outside, pulling Ollie’s car seat from my hatchback to put into Cam’s truck.
The whole time, I did my best to pretend I didn’t see my mother watching my every move from the window. Or that the truths Mama had laid out to me in the kitchen didn’t hurt more at that moment than my grief.
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Staying on task was proving to be difficult. I chopped mint, and its scent did nothing to soothe me this afternoon. I was worried about Doc, about Natalie, about me.
My gaze went to the mulberry trees as I contemplated the importance of legacies.
A stab of pain brought me out of my thoughts, and I dropped the knife. I’d nicked my finger. Blood pooled along the tip, and I cringed at the sight of it, which was another reason I wasn’t much interested in conventional medicine. The sight of blood gave me the willies. I ripped a paper towel off the roll, dampened it, and pressed it to the cut.
I knew better than to handle sharp objects when I was distracted, but I’d gotten it in my head to take Doc some herbal tea to help him sleep. The stash of my favorite blend of chamomile mint, however, had been low.
On the counter, a dozen chamomile flowers I’d just harvested stared at me, their perky daisy-like faces fairly screaming that everything was going to be okay.
“I have my doubts, little ones,” I said to them.
Checking my finger, I saw the wound wasn’t deep. I washed my hands, rubbed some calendula salve on the cut, and put on a bandage. I washed the knife in case I had contaminated it and went back to chopping. When I had enough mint, I scooped it up and placed it on a tray along with the chamomile flowers.
As I slid the tray into the food dehydrator, I heard steps on the deck and looked up in time to see Summer heading for the back door, a cardboard box in her hands, not her usual basket.
The screen door slammed behind her as she came inside. “What’re you cooking up now? Wait.” She sniffed the air. “I smell mint. And apples?”
“Not apples. Chamomile,” I said. The fresh flowers gave off a slight apple scent.
“Tea?” she asked, smiling.
“I can’t help myself.”
She laughed and set the box on the island. “My mama always said that when you have a gift you should use it.”
Once upon a time, there was a family of Celtic women with heal ing hands and giving hearts, who knew the value of the earth and used its abundance to heal, to soothe, to comfort.
The dehydrator whirred as if in agreement. “Smart mama,” I finally said. “It’s for Doc. The tea. I want to help him any way I can.”
Her eyes clouded. “I hope it brings him comfort.”
She was a sweet girl with a big heart. One that was trying to forgive the Lindens—namely Seelie—for the way they’d treated her father, but was struggling. Time, I told myself. They just needed time. Thinking of them reminded me that I still hadn’t gotten my hands on the copy of the police report. There was always one thing or another to distract me from asking for it.
Summer motioned to the box. “I’ve brought by T-shirts for this weekend.”
I cracked open the box top and smiled at the Blackbird Café logo that stared up at me. “Your dad has outdone himself. Between the T-shirts and renting rooms, is he getting any sleep?”
“He hired on a cousin, an artist who’d been working as a day laborer down in Fort Payne, to help out with the tees. Together they’ve come up with a couple more Wicklow designs, and they’re already selling to shops all around town.”
I smiled at her usage of “all around town.” All the shops were located on one road, but seeing the storefronts open and busy felt like the whole town had spread its wings.
“He’s in hog heaven, by the way, having guests around. He’s started making them breakfast every morning. He said he likes trying out new dishes on a captive audience. It’s been nice seeing him so ... happy. He’s really enjoyin’ the birdwatchers staying with us, and he’s even thinking of turning the main house into a bed-and-breakfast after I go off to school, making it official with licensing and all that.”
“Really. And, Anna Kate, we have enough money now to make the first payment due on my tuition. If business stays like it does, we’ll have plenty for the rest. Oh! And I got a job down at school, too. In the library.”
“Summer! All that is fantastic news. Good for you.”
“I can’t thank you enough for your help, Anna Kate. We couldn’t have done it without you.”
“Oh no. I can’t take the credit, Summer.”
“Then who can? Because before you stepped in . . .” She grimaced.
I laughed. “I think the credit goes to Zee. It was her idea for me to stay here in Wicklow and run the café. If you didn’t bring eggs every day, I might not have met you. If I didn’t meet you, I’m not sure I ever would have found the Harry Potter room. It’s almost like she had this all planned out.”
As soon as I said it, I felt a prickle at the back of my neck. Had Zee somehow planned it?
Summer smiled. “I like thinking that. Well, thank you, Zee!” she said loudly.
With the back door being open, I hoped Zee, roosting somewhere near the mulberry trees, heard the gratitude.
“I know you only stayed because of Zee’s will, but I’m thankful you did, Anna Kate. After Zee died I thought I’d never eat blackbird pie again. When you came here, you gave me the gift of more dreams. I didn’t take them for granted. I admit I’m sad that there might not be more pies, but they’ve already given me the lesson I needed to learn from them.”
“What’s that?” I asked, genuinely curious.
“That a person you love is never truly gone—they’re always there, whether it’s in a memory or a dream.”
Or in a heart.
All of you will always be in my heart, and part of me will always be in yours. That’s a damn good legacy, if you ask me.
“And if that knowledge isn’t the greatest gift of all,” Summer added, “I don’t know what is.”
“Are you feeling better?” Cam asked hours later.
We sat on a blanket at the edge of the waterfall pool. Ollie slept between us, using her blankie as a pillow. Small hands were thrown over her head, one of them gripping the green tractor. Her face was relaxed and angelic as her chest rose and fell rhythmically. River slept, too, snoring softly as he rested his head on Ollie’s foot.
Taking a deep breath, I picked a pine needle off the ground and flicked it away. “I’m embarrassed.”
“I’ve been acting a fool.”
Mama’s earlier words rang in my ears, echoing to the far reaches of my mind, where my deepest fears resided.
You’re needing someone to blame to help ease the pain.
It’s exactly what I’d been doing.
I wanted to blame Anna Kate for what was going on with Daddy.
And I’d wanted to blame Matt for his own death.
Because I hurt.
Good Lord, I hurt.
Because I didn’t know how to cope, other than to run away. But in both of those cases, there had been nowhere to run.
There was no hiding from death.
“I need to apologize to Anna Kate and to my mother. And maybe to the staff at the hospital.”
“That bad?” he asked.
“However bad you’re thinking, multiply it by ten at least.”
“I’m sure they understand.” Cam leaned back on his elbows, stretching his legs out in front of him. “There’s no rulebook on how to behave when blindsided with bad news, Natalie.”
I closed my eyes, letting the sound of the waterfall soothe me, the crashing water, the gentle ripples against the creek bank. “I was terrible, taking out my grief on them.”
If my mother hadn’t given me that talking-to, I might not have come to my senses anytime soon. Sometimes the truth was hard to hear. Harder to accept.
Cam said, “I’m sure no one’s judging you.”
“I’m judging me.”
“Tell me how. Please. And while you’re at it, I need a lesson on forgiving, too. I don’t know how to do that, either.”
He crossed his legs at the ankles. “For me, the first step was trying to understand the why of it all. I put myself in my ex-wife’s shoes. I tried to look at our relationship from her point of view. Living alone, with me halfway across the world for nine, ten months at a time. I get that she was probably lonely.”
“You were gone from her just as long. Did you turn to someone else?”
“No,” he said, shaking his head. “But this isn’t about me. It’s about her. If you put yourself in your father’s shoes, what would you have done if you received that diagnosis?”
Daddy had told me why he’d kept the cancer a secret—because he wanted to live as normally as possible, without people looking at him with pity and feeling sorry for him and bringing by a loaf of banana bread every week.
“I don’t know.” What Daddy had said resonated with me—I didn’t like pitying looks and people feeling sorry for me, either. But I didn’t know if that kind of diagnosis was a burden I could’ve carried alone.
This wasn’t about me, however. It was about my father.
He was by far the strongest person I knew. The way he had carried our family after AJ died ... carried me . . .
“I guess I can see why he did it.” I picked up another pine needle, and bent it between my fingers. “I hate even admitting that.”
“Because it excuses it. Him. And I’m still angry and not ready to let it go.”
He took a sip of water from his canteen. “Angry because he didn’t tell you? Or because he’s dying?”
I stood up, dusted off my hands, and walked toward the water. Leave it to Cam to cut right to the heart of the matter. He had an uncanny ability to see straight through me. As I felt him come up beside me, I said, “It’s not fair.”
“Nope, it’s not. For any of you.”
Looking over my shoulder, I watched Ollie sleep, and my heart ached.
Ollie didn’t know how much she was losing. Or how much she’d already lost. I didn’t know if that was a good thing or not. At one point I thought it was, but now I wasn’t sure.
Ollie would never know Matt’s laugh or remember the way he’d smother her tiny face in kisses. And she wouldn’t remember the way her granddaddy held her just so when he read a book to her, all safe and happy and loved in his arms.
The spray from the falls blew against my legs. “How’d you forgive your wife?”
He picked up a rock, skimmed it across the water. “I don’t exactly know. Forgiveness isn’t a science. It’s more of a feeling. Deep down, all I ever wanted was for her to be happy. She wasn’t happy with me. I loved her enough to let her go.”
I glanced back at Ollie. She hadn’t moved an inch. “Weren’t you angry?”
He skimmed another rock, and there was humor in his voice when he said, “I had my moments.”
Rocks glimmered beneath the surface of the shallow water. “How’d you get over it?”
“It was a choice. I could either keep dwelling on what had happened, letting it define me, or take the valuable—and sometimes painful—lessons I’d learned from the relationship and move on. Maybe find someone eventually who loves me the same way I do them. It was an easy decision. I chose to move on. I came down here, to Wicklow, and started a new business, and here I am . . .”
Here he was.
“Do you still love her?” I didn’t want to explore why that question hurt to ask.
“No,” he said. “Falling out of love isn’t nearly as hard as you think when you know your wife ran off with the cable guy.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t be. If she hadn’t done that ... then I wouldn’t be here, would I?” He held my gaze and smiled. “With you.”
I smiled too. “Why do I suddenly feel the need to send her a thankyou note?”
“Hihi!” Ollie yelled, and River barked.
I turned just in time to see Ollie running straight past my legs, into the water, screaming in delight as she fell forward. I lunged to catch her, and I fell hard on my knees. Water splashed in my eyes as Ollie slipped out of my grasp. No! I scrambled forward, reaching blindly. Suddenly a strong hand clamped my forearm, putting an end to my floundering, and Cam’s laughter cut through my madness.
“It’s okay, Natalie,” he said. “Ollie’s right here.”
Thank God. Oh, thank God. My heart pounded in my throat as I sat up in waist-deep water, and wiped my eyes. I very quickly saw what was making him laugh.
Ollie floated on her back right next to me, her hair fanning out around her face, cheeks sucked in and lips puckered. “Fishy!”
Cam helped me up. “I didn’t know she could swim.”
As soon as I was steady enough, I lifted Ollie out of the water, held her tight, sure I’d never, ever let go again.
“Fishy!” Ollie yelled as she wiggled in my arms. “Pease.”
Ollie wanted back into the water. As she struggled against me, suddenly all I could think of was my mother and how she’d shown me that living a life in fear was no way to live at all.
It was a choice.
The only thing I could think to do right at that moment was choose to let Ollie live. Because if I kept stifling her with my anxiety, she was bound to drown without being near a single drop of water—just like me.
Swallowing back every fear I’d internalized since the day I received the shattering call about Matt, I slowly set Ollie into the water. I held my breath as she threw herself forward, face first, then quickly flipped onto her back. She shot skinny arms outward and giggled.
“She can’t swim,” I said to Cam, smiling so wide it hurt my cheeks. “But apparently she can float.”
All because Mama had insisted on swimming lessons.
She’d been right. One hundred percent right.
About a lot of things.
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