Excerpt - Sweet Summertime
“There’s no going back now,” Genevieve MacKenzie whispered as she heard the taxi’s engine roar away.
Gen halted, her breath trapped somewhere between her lungs and her throat. The sight in front of her brought tears to her eyes and an ache to her heart. Home.
Clutching her suitcase in one hand and her tote in the other, she stood staring at the most beautiful sight. Beyond the dock, beyond the ferry that would take her there, stood her island.
Green lush grass butted up to the sandy shore. White buildings peppered the shoreline. The long wooden dock on the opposing land beckoned to her. The boathouse, the nearby shacks, the Dairy Bar she once worked at were worse for wear; all needed a fresh coat of paint. But to her they were like old, welcoming friends.
It was the people living on that beloved island she wished she didn’t have to face.
She took a shivery breath.
“Shake a leg,” the captain of the ferry shouted out.
“Same ol’ Captain Bly,” she muttered.
Captain Beckett, better known to the kids on the island as Captain Bly, had to be older than dirt back in the seventies. Now, he looked even craggier with a leathery wrinkled face, long prominent nose, and tall, whip-thin frame. But it was his cold, gray eyes that drilled through her that she’d always remembered, even had nightmares about.
“Ain’t got all day, girl.”
She moved, slowly putting one foot in front of the other. It was only yards, but it felt like she walked a mile to be condemned. Once at the loading area, she waited patiently as he eyed her.
“You coming or staying?”
Taking an unsteady step forward, she gave her answer.
He grunted. In approval or disapproval, she wasn’t certain. The man’s face showed no emotion. He grabbed for her suitcase and swung it easily into the boat, and then stuffed it in the baggage rack. Absently, he offered her his hand.
Gen gulped hard. Hesitantly, she reached out. His rough-skinned grip tightened as she climbed aboard. Once safely on deck, he didn’t let go. She jerked her gaze to his. A well of sadness shone in his.
“About time you made it back,” he said gruffly, and then abruptly released her hand and shuffled off, shouting orders to depart.
She blinked several times. Had he missed her? No, it couldn’t be.
Trying to brush off the odd sensation, Gen made her way to the front of the ferry, quickly becoming re-accustomed to the gentle sway of the vessel. Water lapped at the sides. Once at the bow, she automatically reached for the railing. The worn, scarred wood brought a wave of nostalgia
Within moments, the captain yelled out again and the boat was set in motion.
Tumbling back in time, she recalled the many summers she’d come here. Her parents dragged their three kids to this place the first time. But it hadn’t taken Gen more than a moment on the ferry and gazing at the island to instantly fall in love.
Her younger sister and younger brother didn’t warm up to the idea. Ever. It began with her standing at the railing, silently drinking in the place she loved the most while her siblings slapped, teased, and then taunted each other mercilessly. Her parents’ cries for peace and quiet soon followed. Then the bickering ensued.
Now, she dragged in a long, shuddering breath. Pain throbbed in her chest. She’d had a knack for blocking things out, mostly their fighting back then. But lately, with age, the memories poked at her more and more. Why couldn’t things have been different? Why couldn’t she have stopped it from happening?
Clutching the railing tighter, she felt the carvings. Looking down, she smiled sadly. She traced the many sets of initials embedded there. All her childhood friends. She trembled inside at the knowledge she’d soon see them. Would they shun her for what she’d done?
Shaking the troubling thoughts aside, she focused on the view. With her chin up, she savored the wind caressing her skin. The morning sun glistened on the water. She sucked in a long, deep breath of the sea air. It almost hurt, but it cleansed away the cobwebs in her body.
“Gone too long,” she whispered. “Much too long.”
The ride took a little more than twenty minutes. Gen savored every moment, silently noting the little changes time had wrought over the last two years. The landscape remained the same, yet different. Trees had grown, their branches longer and fuller. The water lapped a little higher than before. Farther away, the many houses and businesses sprinkled the island. Boats dotted the water near the dock. She spotted the familiar ones. A smile tugged at the corner of her mouth. She, along with friends, had stolen a couple of them for joy rides.
“Almost always, never caught,” she mused out loud. “Almost.”
The rumble of the engines shifted to low gear beneath her feet. The captain shouted out, “Land! Get ready to tie up!”
Gen came out of her reverie. Searching the length of the dock, she spotted him standing near the end. Her heart tripped over itself.
The tall, broad-shouldered man stood with his hands jammed in his jean pockets. The breeze tousled his dark hair. The jacket he wore flapped gently in the wind. His body seemed just as tense as hers was now.
A well of guilt swamped her. How could she ever face him?
Only half aware of the commotion going on around her as the crew hustled to get the ferry boat tucked in and tied up safely, Gen could only stare at the man waiting for her.
“Staying or going?” The captain’s gruff voice came from just a few feet behind her.
With one last long look, she slowly turned. Grasping her tote, she put one foot in front of the other, willing herself to move forward.
A few moments later, the captain helped her out of the boat, and then heaved her suitcase onto the dock. It hit with a dull clatter. He grunted. Goodbye or good luck: she wasn’t sure what it meant.
She mustered up some long-buried courage, and then snatched up the heavy suitcase and marched down the dock. With each step she took, a little more dread seeped into her belly.
She couldn’t dodge him for the rest of her life. She tried for two years. She failed.
He’d been persistent. He’d never quit. That much she did know for sure.
Swallowing hard, she halted in front of him. Gingerly, she put down the heavy case, and then straightened. She couldn’t avoid this any longer.
Gen looked into his eyes. Beautiful blue eyes stared back at her. There was a hardness there now. Her heart squeezed in her chest. Anger shone through, but she witnessed the hurt buried below. It was his pain that tore through her like a dagger. She’d put that look there. She’d been the one to cause the deep well of pain that would never heal. Gen knew that because she’d done it to herself, too.
“Mac,” she said softly. I’m sorry I hurt you.
“Long time no see.” His crisp tone cut through her.
Her throat grew dry. As she tried to collect herself, she took in the changes in him. The beginnings of gray peppered his dark hair. The lines around his eyes and mouth had deepened. But he still wore the mustache and now a goatee. He was so damn handsome. Maybe even more than ever before.
“How have you been?” she asked hesitantly.
“Peachy, just peachy. And you?”
Fucked up! “You’ve changed…” She bit her lip.
“You, too,” he shot back.
She fingered her shoulder-length hair, much shorter than the last time she’d been here. “It’s just not the hair.” It’s every part of me.
“No shit. We’ve both changed. Harder, colder, you name it.”
She sighed heavily. “This isn’t going to work, is it?”
“You decided that for the both of us, didn’t you, sweetness?”
She cringed at the nickname, now used almost like a weapon. “Don’t call me that.”
He waved a hand in the air. “Oh, so what would you prefer me to call you?” He leaned closer. “Wife?”
Thomas (Mac) MacKenzie
If Mac could have kicked himself in the ass he would have. Jamming his foot down on the gas pedal, he peeled out of the dirt parking area. The old Suburban jerked to life as he cranked the wheel to the right. It bumped onto the asphalt road.
He lifted his foot up slightly, and then glanced over at the front passenger seat.
Gen had changed. Thinner and paler than ever, he’d noted the bruised look in and around her hazel eyes. She was still the most beautiful woman he’d ever met.
Sighing inwardly, he realized it just wasn’t her physical appearance that had aged. No, he could tell she was bone-weary. Life had a way of doing that to you sometimes. Hell, he should know. Takes one to know one.
He couldn’t save her back then, not from herself. He sure the hell doubted he could do any better this time.
She gazed out of the open window, straining to catch a glimpse of what time had done. Mac eased up even more on the pedal.
Twisting toward him, she said, “You don=t have to for me.”
“I want to,” he said gruffly. Just let me do something for you. Even a little.
Instead of her turning back to the view, he felt her stare. He looked once. An ache shot through his heart. He focused on the road again.
“I’m sorry, Mac.” She said it so softly he could barely hear her. But he did.
He didn’t ask for what; he knew. Clenching his jaw, he remained silent.
Her sigh bounced off the interior of the vehicle and settled somewhere deep in his core.
The rustle of her movements clued him into her shifting and leaning her head out the open window. A quick glance revealed what he’d already figured. With her face to the wind, her hair blowing crazily around her head, she smiled.
The tightness in his chest eased. He’d do anything just to make her happy again.
He slowed as they passed the Dairy Bar. The small, white building was little more than just a shack with a walk-up window. But its delicious, simple food and tasty ice cream was the place to go during the summer stay on the island. A wave of pride rushed through him. Against all odds, his big brother had worked hard and sacrificed nearly everything he had just to buy and run the Dairy Bar.
“Elliott?” she asked, looking over her shoulder at him.
“At the bar, the alcoholic one, setting up for the crowd tonight. We’ll see him tomorrow.”
Taking the long way, Mac made sure he went by all her old favorite places. The park, their old hangouts, the beauty shop—now shut down and boarded up—the little grocery store on the corner, and everything else in between. All except the one that haunted her now.
He turned down the familiar road. Gen tensed, and then pulled back into the vehicle. Sitting straight now, she clenched her hands in her lap. He halted in front of the big, white house sitting back from the road a half-dozen yards.
Slowly, she turned to face him as he looked at her. The shadows clouding her eyes sent a dagger through his heart. “I…I can’t stay here,” she choked out.
“Because of me? Because of us?”
“No, because of me, of what I did. And, because of…”
“Him.” The one word was short and clipped. The pain it evoked fanned to life once again.
She looked out the front window, staring blindly, or so it seemed. “I could stay with Mrs. B. That’s why we’re all coming together. For Mrs. B’s sixty-fifth birthday.” There was a hopefulness in her voice.
He shook his head. “Nope. She’s got people coming this weekend, remember?”
“Not tonight, right?”
“She’s busy getting her hair done and whatever else you women do in the city. Tomorrow night it’s just the six of us. A special reunion for Mrs. Brewster. Everyone else arrives the next day.”
“So I could—”
“Do you hate me that much?” He braced himself, waiting for the blow.
That had her jerking back to gaze at him. Her frown deepened. He swore there were tears in her eyes. “I could never hate you, Mac.”
He relaxed at her response. Could you ever love me again, though?
“Look, it would be best—”
“If you stop fighting it. You’re staying here.” He got out of the vehicle, slamming the door shut. He marched to the back, and then yanked open the rear tailgate. Snatching up her bags in one hand, he lugged them out, and then shoved the door closed.
Going to the passenger’s side, he stared at her profile. She hadn’t moved. “I could carry you,” he dared her. “Over the threshold again.”
That got her; she swiveled around to glare at him. “Oh, no you don’t, Thomas MacKenzie. You are not slinging me over your shoulder and smacking my butt again, got it?”
“Don’t like caveman style still?”
Forcefully, she yanked the handle, and then shoved the door open. He jumped back just in time to miss the impact. “Men. You always have to prove yourself somehow,” she muttered. She strode by him, heading toward the house. “You coming or gawking?” she threw over her shoulder.
He followed her. God, she still had the sexiest walk he’d ever seen. Shake it, don’t break it; wrap it up and I’ll take it.
She knew him so well. He laughed. It felt strange, yet good.
The reprieve didn’t last long. The closer she got, the more her steps slowed. Climbing the three stairs took longer than an eighty-year old. It wasn’t just the closed door that stopped her.
Mac came up behind her. “You can do this, sweetness. I know you can.”
Her long, shuddering breath tore through his chest.
She nodded. If he could see her face right now, he figured she was biting her lip, too.
“It gets worse the longer you wait.”
“No shit, Sherlock,” she countered.
Chuckling, he said, “I haven’t heard that one in ages.”
“Well, you are a sheriff.” He heard the smile in her voice.
Leaning around her, he grabbed the doorknob and twisted. It clicked and he shoved it open. “After you, Watson.”
“Still don’t lock the doors around here, huh?”
“Curious or just stalling?”
Turning to him briefly, she stuck out her tongue at him. “Observing.”
To her credit, she took one big step to cross over the threshold and into the house. She stilled, gazing around. “You haven’t changed a thing,” she said in awe.
“Don’t need to. I like it this way.” It reminds me of you and what we once had.
As if her feet had lead in them, she moved to the stairs. She clutched the banister while gazing toward the second floor. He heard her gulp hard. “Still?” She cleared her throat.
“Still the same,” he said softly.
Like a statue, she stood frozen in place.
Coming up behind her, he nudged her back. With a shaky breath, she took one step at a time. He kept his hand on her, gently supporting. Finally, at the landing, she gazed to her left. The door at the end of the hallway remained closed. “I can’t.”
“You don’t have to.” I don’t.
“Thank you,” she said on a sigh of relief.
“You’re in our room.” He went around her, walking the few yards to the open door. Once there, he tossed the tote bag on the coverlet and lifted the suitcase onto the trunk at the end of the bed. He turned around when she hesitated in the doorway.
“But, where are you going to sleep?” He swore her unspoken question was more like are we sleeping in the same room?
He jerked his head. “Down the hall. Guest bedroom.”
Relief washed over her features.
Tensing, he clenched his jaw. His gut churned. “Was it that bad, Gen? Was being married to me and living with me with so damn bad?”