He’d come home.
Matt Powell shook his head at that absurd thought and slowed the car as he took in his first sight of the old gray and white shore house standing unchanged on the corner.
He pulled into the wide driveway, the pale tan beach pebbles making the old familiar crunch under the tires. Still feeling tossed twenty years back in time, he glanced next door, past the low picket fence covered in clematis dividing the two driveways, slammed by the intense belief he’d see Katie out on the Vanburens’ porch.
Pure wishful thinking, of course.
However, twenty-plus years ago, the boy he’d been would have, and he’d be unbuckling his seat belt and scrambling to escape his parents’ car with a rushed, “Katie’s there! Can I go? I’ll be back in time for supper. I promise. Please?” With that, his summer vacation in Lavallette, New Jersey, and the best days of his life, would begin for real the moment his feet hit Katie’s driveway.
Today, the big, shady screened-in porch wrapping the now-white house was empty, he and Katie had lost touch long ago, and the cheerfully painted mailbox read “MacBain.” Katie was probably far away and married with a family these days. That’s what she’d wanted back when they’d been best of friends forever.
A silver sedan stood in Katie’s pebble driveway, and a rainbow of towels and clothing swayed on the clothesline. Besides the white siding, the new owners had renovated her old house with a tan shingled roof and summery blue trim, shutters, and lattice covering the porch crawlspace like a lacy skirt. Pink and white flowers overflowed the baskets hanging from the porch eaves and filled the garden beds.
He stepped from the car and filled his lungs with the hot, briny July air as he faced the shore house formerly owned by his grandparents. Nothing had changed. Still painted in faded battleship gray and white, the two-story home perched high on its concrete block foundation. Nana’s favorite gaillardias splashed yellows and reds among the orange daylilies, and sun-bleached clamshells edged the flowerbeds and outdoor shower enclosure. The clotheslines gently sagged at the back end of the driveway over Nana’s rosebushes.
Yes, he’d been looking forward to this vacation, but the upwelling sensation of coming home together with the rush of deep emotions and memories rocked him to the core. The feeling made sense. He’d been more at home here than anywhere else in his life.
Of course, the old house wasn’t truly the same and never would be. Katie wasn’t next door. Nana and Pop weren’t waiting inside to ambush him with hugs, Dad wasn’t ignoring Mom and sprawled out watching the Mets with Uncle Walt, Mom wasn’t hiding on the porch with Aunt Dottie reading or working on her cross-stitch project, and Bruiser the cat wasn’t lurking under the couch ready to attack passing feet.
Out of habit, Matt pulled out his phone. No voice mails. No e-mails. No messages. No appointments. Nothing.
Exactly what he wanted, exactly what he expected, yet still unsettling.
He’d just have to learn to relax again. He grabbed the house keys and two grocery bags and headed for the kitchen door. When this had been his family’s house, no one used the front door except to fetch the mail.
Stepping into the stuffy, hot kitchen wrapped him further into the past. The same old pine cabinets lined the walls, and the same old table and chairs crowded the dining room. He inhaled, almost able to smell Nana’s chicken casserole in the oven under the fresh wave of memories. A glossy new white stove and refrigerator replaced her old harvest gold appliances. Ordinary, sheer white curtains covered the lower window sashes. He dropped his load on the counter and headed outside to finish the rest.
With the car emptied, he opened a beer and took a long sip.
Okay, he was officially on vacation. Retreat. Hiatus. Time out. Whatever. Calling these two weeks a vacation sounded better.
He set to unloading the cooler and the grocery bags, all healthy food—Except for the beer, of course. This was a vacation after all. He’d stuck to the eating healthier decision over the last few weeks, and he already felt better for the change. Major stress reduction had also helped.
Lizzie’s ring tone warbled on his phone.
“Are you there yet? I thought you would have called earlier.”
“Traffic was heavy. I just arrived and unloaded the car. You wouldn’t believe the place. It’s like stepping back in time.”
He opened cupboards and drawers. Old familiar dishes mixed in with new ones, and ordinary stainless flatware mingled with the timeworn silver-plate he’d used as a kid. He found two of the old cartoon printed jelly glasses Lizzie and he had once used for their orange juice at breakfast. Nana’s old electric percolator sat tucked on a shelf.
He laughed. “Even some of Nana and Pop’s dishes and flatware are still here.”
“That’s so weird. I still can’t believe you went back to Lavallette when you could have chosen Aruba or Hawaii, or some other fun place. Somewhere with air conditioning and room service?”
“I don’t need fun. I just need to relax.”
Her voice softened, and her concern warmed her words. “I know. I know. How’s your stomach doing?”
“Much better. And that’s not a get-my-big-sister-off-my-back deflection either. I haven’t needed the pills for a week.”
“That’s great. I’m happy for you. So, give me a tour. What’s new, what’s old?”
“They left the pine beadboard walls unpainted. The living room furniture is new, except for the red bookcase and the corner side table. Pop would have liked this flat screen TV.”
The place had cable now, so he could enjoy catching a baseball game or two. Still no AC in the house, which the rental agent had apologized for, but that lack was fine by Matt. If he’d wanted fancy amenities, he’d have gone to a resort. He was here for the rest and the memories.
“So, which bedroom will you stay in?”
A good question. Definitely not his old stuffy digs upstairs once shared with his older cousins, Dirk and Greg. Lizzie had been squeezed in with Tricia, Lana, and Briana, but at least the girls were all close in age and had gotten along. Dirk, Greg, and he still had nothing in common but an impersonal exchange of Christmas cards.
He peeked into his uncle and aunt’s old room. Same old furniture, plump new mattress.
“Uncle Walt and Aunt Dottie’s room in the back will be quieter.”
True enough, but Nana and Pop’s room in the front offered a view of the bay and caught the breezes best on a hot night.
“Whoa. Nana and Pop’s old mahogany bed and dressers are here, too.”
“Please tell me it’s not the same mattress.”
The smooth stretch of the summer-weight bedspread proved this bed also had a firm new mattress. Nana and Pop’s mattress had always had two gently sagging hollows worn over the years and napping on their bed had been like sleeping in a hammock.
“Nice and new.”
“Thank goodness for that.”
“The bathroom was renovated.”
The fixtures he’d known had been originals from 1934, so that update was a welcome change.
Upstairs, little had changed in the three bedrooms beyond new beds.
Most nights, rather than endure his unwelcoming cousins, the airless room, and the creaky fold-up bed with the weird spring, he’d slept curled on the porch chaise lounge until dawn woke him and Nana. She’d make him a milky, sugary cup of coffee, and they’d play solitaire together until Pop woke. Then she’d start breakfast, and he’d share the newspaper with Pop. The rest of the family always slept in late, so his mornings were sweet and peaceful, and he had Nana and Pop all to himself.
The boys’ room held the attic hatch door, and he couldn’t resist peeking in and pulling the chain for the light.
“The attic’s full—the old towel trunk, beach chairs, crab cages, canoe paddles, fishing nets, a seine net, and a laundry basket full of beach toys. I wonder if the canoe is still under the house. Maybe I’ll go crabbing while I’m here.”
“Crabbing? You’re kidding, right?” Her laughter pealed over the phone. “Oh! Are the Vanburens still next door?”
“No. There’s a new name on the mailbox. MacBain. The place looks good though.”
“Have you ever thought about trying to get in touch with Katie again?”
He shrugged, wincing at the sharp pinch of remorse and loss. Undeniably, he should have done so years ago—he should never have let life’s troubles break them apart in the first place. Anyhow, he’d probably let things go too long to bother tracking her down now, like the failed connection with his cousins. “It’s been twenty years. I’m sure she’s forgotten all about me.”
“You should consider it. What do you have to lose? Someone in the neighborhood might still be in touch with her family.”
“True.” He walked out to the porch and studied the thunderclouds churning their way up into billowing pillars beyond the sparkling bay. Another wave of sentimental happiness rose over his remorse, and he smiled. Katie and he’d always loved watching the summer storms roll across Barnegat Bay.
Seagulls wheeled over the blue water dotted with sails, and pairs of people scattered the docks, crabbing and fishing. Families with small children filled the little beach, enjoying the warm, kid-friendly shallows and the playground. A modern, bright red, yellow, and blue climbing contraption stood in place of the swings and old steel merry-go-round of his childhood.
“So, what are you going to do first?”
“Finish my beer and unpack my suitcase. Looks like we’ll have a thunderstorm come through soon. Maybe I’ll take a walk up to the boardwalk afterwards.”
“You’ll die of boredom in a day.”
“I always found plenty to keep me busy when I was here.”
“You were a kid then, doing kid stuff. I don’t see you playing on a boogie board or building sandcastles for two weeks.”
“Lizzie, I’m here to relax, do nothing, and enjoy a distraction-free space to make a decision on the offers.”
Quitting without having accepted the next job was unsettling and weirdly freeing. He only regretted the impulsive decision on the occasional nights of insomnia. He had three equally excellent offers, and each firm wanted him strongly enough to wait patiently on his answer. Nice being a sought-after commodity.
“Well, at least you’re close enough to New York and Atlantic City if you do get bored. I only wish you were moving closer, not further away. I understand they’re all great offers, but . . .”
“That’s what planes are for. I’ll visit you and Julia just as often, maybe even more. I’ll have more time—”
Lizzie’s laughter cut him off. “Promises, promises.”
“You could always pack up and move east with me. You’d make more money.”
“I’m not uprooting Julia, and you wouldn’t want that for her either.”
“She’s four and happy, so a move for her wouldn’t be even remotely like what happened to us. Anyhow, we adapted.”
Lizzie snorted. “N. O., brother dearest. Okay, I’ve got to run. Lots to do. Julia has her swimming lesson, and I have a date tonight. Wish me luck, enjoy your quiet, and call occasionally.”
“Good luck. I will. Hug Julia for me.”
He finished his beer and pocketed his keys. He’d walk to the end of the docks, stretch his legs, and breathe some salty bay air to jumpstart him on clearing the crap out of his head.
Katie stepped outside, propping the laundry basket on her hip, and sighed happily at another lovely, hot summer Saturday at the Jersey shore. Hopefully, the towels were dry and ready for folding since the usual afternoon thunderheads piling up on the horizon looked promising. She always enjoyed a good thunderstorm.
Next door, a snazzy luxury sports car gleamed in the Powell’s driveway. She still thought of the old house as the Powell’s although they’d sold the place ages ago.
Since the new renters had parked squarely in the driveway, rather than tucking neatly to the side to make room for other cars, perhaps they were just a couple, rather than a family or group. Katie crossed her fingers against music-blasting partiers. The rental agent was on top of screening, so most of the time she was happy with her temporary neighbors.
She plucked off the first clothespins, dropped them into the basket, and folded the towel.
Maybe after the storm passed, she’d walk up to the Seaward Inn and read a book over a nice dinner of crab cakes and glass of wine to celebrate, well, the beautiful day. She was all caught up on work and had her home to herself today. She loved family stopping by, adored the days when the house groaned at the seams with her parents and her brother’s and sister’s families, but she also liked her peaceful, private days.
The Powell’s kitchen door squeaked open.
Katie peeked from behind the line of towels as a tall man stepped onto the landing.
Scanning about as if finding his bearings, he walked slowly down the stairs. He had short, dark brown hair and sharp brows over a strong, straight nose. Broad shoulders filled the red polo shirt he wore untucked over loose khaki shorts, and he had long, muscular legs. At the bottom, he turned sharply, as if he knew she lurked behind the laundry. The strangest expression of longing filled his lean, intelligent face, and—
Complete déjà vu clobbered Katie as she raised her hand to give a neighborly wave. Pain warred with joy, strangling her greeting in her throat.
Matt? How could he be? Impossible, but this man had to be Matt. Katie pressed a hand over her wildly beating heart. Twenty years had passed, but the man was the spitting image of Edward Powell, Matt’s dad.
Why on earth hadn’t he come right over to say hello?
The delighted little girl in her burst through her shock and drove her bolting next door. She threw her arms around him. “Matt! Oh, it’s so good to see you!”
Several impressions struck Katie simultaneously through her dizzy joy. Matt felt astonishingly different in her hug. Of course he did, he’d grown taller and filled out since their last summer together twenty years ago when she’d hugged a boy goodbye. This Matt was all man, and he fit her exactly how a man should, rocking her with a wild, weird surge of enthusiastic craving.
However, while the marvel of his presence and her abruptly resuscitated libido burst and bounced through her, realization dawned that he stood stock-still in her arms. He should be hugging her back. Why wasn’t he hugging back?
Because it’s been twenty years, and he has a wife or girlfriend in the house watching you make a fool of yourself with her man.
Oh, no! She snatched her hands off him and leapt back a step, only to bump into his car. She glanced up to see if anyone was watching them from a window.
Matt’s startled gaze swept over her, a shifting tangle of confusion and male appreciation. “Uh . . . You know me?”
That puzzlement broke her heart. How could the most important friend from her childhood have forgotten her? She’d never forgotten him, although she’d honestly never expected to see him again. Except now he was here, more handsome and wonderful than she could have ever imagined he’d become, even back in the blithe childhood days of make-believe when she was his mermaid princess, and he was her daring prince.
Then he blinked, and his brown eyes flew wide. “Katie?” He scanned her again, disbelief flaring to shock. “Holy shit! Katie, it’s really you?”
A tidal surge of joy washed away the hurt. “It’s me, all grown up.”
“Damn, it’s great to see you again.” He shook his head. “This is such an incredible surprise.”
She laughed. “I know. You must have wondered who this crazy woman was running toward you.”
“My mind was totally elsewhere until you called my name and tackled me. How have you been?”
Unable to restrain herself, she hugged him again, and this time he hugged her tight before letting go.
“Oh, I can’t believe you’re here. Oh, my gosh! This is awesome. I keep thinking I should pinch myself.
Matt was here! After his parents’ divorce, Matt’s mom had taken Matt and his sister to Colorado and never let him return to New Jersey. She’d never stopped missing Matt, even after he’d stopped writing, and she’d resigned herself to his only being a precious happy memory.
“You’re staying here? But your grandparents sold it.”
“I needed a vacation and on a whim decided to see if I could rent the place. I lucked out, and here I am.”
“How long are you staying?” She glanced at the house. “Are you here with friends, wife, girlfriend?”
“Two weeks.” He shrugged and shifted edgily, as if he were uncomfortable with small talk. “No wife. No girlfriend. Just here by myself for some long-needed rest and relaxation.”
He cast a fleeting look at her bare left hand before he nodded his chin toward her house. “The house looks great.”
“I’ve spiffed up the inside, as well. Making the place mine has been great fun.”
“I bought the house from my parents three years ago, and I’m living here year round.”
“I couldn’t be happier. My family invades almost every weekend, but I love the company. In fact, my parents are coming down tomorrow. They’ll be so happy to see you again. We all missed you so much.”
“Be nice to see them again.”
Katie puzzled over his flat politeness. That wasn’t the Matt she knew. He seemed . . . subdued and on-edge. Maybe he was simply tired after a long trip from, well, from wherever he was from these days.
He eyed her mailbox, definitely puzzling over the name.
Her stomach twisted into an aching knot, and she braced for the inevitable questions. She should have replaced that mailbox years ago, but Marie had painted it and wouldn’t understand.
Katie, all grown up. Still his Katie, but holy shit, had she grown up nice.
Still reeling from surprise, Matt kicked himself for not instantly knowing Katie by her happy run and shout of his name. He’d been lost in thoughts of the past, and before he could focus on the now, she’d plastered herself around him in that enthusiastic hug. Her soft curves had hit him in all the right places and intellect had been momentarily derailed by an out-of-the-blue punch of pure lust.
Lust. For Katie? For his once upon a time best friend forever? He blinked.
Katie. Same sun-streaked toffee brown hair. Same pretty, bright blue eyes, but no longer hidden behind thick glasses. Same cheerful, dimpled smile, but she’d undergone the same torture of braces as he had. No longer a gawky, reed-slender slip of a girl, she’d filled out real nice—
Heated guilt rushed over him at how part of him was busily considering how nicely her breasts would fill his hands.
He shook his head. Katie, with breasts.
Katie had always just been Katie, his best friend. Now there was no ignoring she was all woman. Her sleeveless, summery dress hugged trim soft curves and long tan legs, and the deep V of the bodice discreetly emphasized her perfect breasts. Pink painted toenails peeped out from the silly bright flowers decorating her sandals.
Katie had breasts, and he was standing dumbstruck with a hard-on for his former best friend, praying she didn’t notice.
And he was missing what Katie was saying.
“—Would you like to come over? If you don’t have other plans, I’d love to catch up, find out what you’ve done with your life. Wow, I can’t believe you’re here.”
This reunion had to qualify as the weirdest and most disconcerting moment in his life. He paused too long gathering his wits before answering, and the happiness in her face faded.
Tell her yes. Vacation, remember? No hurry. No worries. What better way to kick off a vacation at the shore than with Katie? Just like old times.
“Sure, yes, I’d like that. My only plans were to walk out to the dock before the storm rolls in and to unpack.”
The sparkle returned to her eyes, and a warm rush filled his chest.
“The rain might miss us. You never know, but I was taking in the laundry, just in case.”
“Want me to give you a hand with the rest?”
Katie glanced over at the line, her cheeks coloring. Beside the towels and the swimsuits, a rainbow of lacy underwear waved in the breeze.
He grinned. “How about I’ll get the towels and let you handle the rest.”
“Ah, okay, thanks.”
The MacBain name on the mailbox, but no ring on her hand bugged him. Might as well come straight out and clear up the issue right now.
“So, any significant other?”
As if jabbed by pain, Katie sucked in a deep breath and glanced away before she spoke. “No one now. I was married. That’s why the mailbox says MacBain. Jeb passed away four years ago.”
Oh, crap. A whole wave of sorrow and worry for her slammed him.
“I’m so sorry.”
“Thanks.” She smiled thinly, failing to veil her pain, and picked up the laundry basket.
As Matt tackled the towels, he struggled to process Katie’s news. Katie. Here. Sexy. Beautiful. Married. Widowed.
Conflicting impulses yanked and wrestled within him. Hold her. Escape.
Worse, the news left him nonsensically imagining he’d let her down in some way even more than he had as a boy, that somehow he should have been there for her, should have fixed her pain.
His mind soared back twenty-five years to their first meeting. He’d been hanging at the playground fence, lonely and grumpy, ditched by his older cousins, who’d taken off for Seaside, and by Lizzie, who’d rather take knitting lessons from Nana.
Katie had been struggling to push the big steel disk of the merry-go-round by herself, skinny legs churning over the sand, and then jump on to ride the lackluster spin. She’d heave a sigh, jump off, and gamely restart the whole routine.
“You’re not big enough.” That sour thought shot from his mouth. “You’ll never get it going fast by yourself.”
She paused to eye him and pushed a finger at the bridge of her glasses. “I can try. I’m getting better at it.”
With a toss of her sun-bleached hair, Katie clenched her jaw, tightened her grip on the handrail, and shoved, huffing and puffing as she jogged. The slippery, soft sand made digging in her feet and getting the leverage she needed difficult. Her green flip-flops weren’t helping.
He sauntered over, as much as a scrawny eight-year-old could saunter on sand in stiff, new sneakers. The other kids playing around the beach and on the swings were even younger. She’d get no help from those babies.
Loping into a jog behind her, he caught a rail and heaved his own spindly weight into the job. Her laughter pealed as they sped along faster and faster.
“One, two, three. Jump!” Katie swung her legs up, losing one flip-flop.
After a hard last push, Matt jumped on, and they hung on tight, laughing through the dizzy spin.
The merry-go-round slowed into lazy rotation, and she scooted around to face him and sit cross-legged.
“That was great! Hi, I’m Katie. You’re one of the Powell’s, right? I’ve seen you there. Except, you’re new.”
“I’m Matt. Yeah, we usually only visit Nana and Pop at Christmas, ’cause we live in California, and Dad’s always too busy.”
“My grandparents own the house next door. We’re the Vanburens. How long are you visiting?”
“The whole entire summer,” he said glumly. “Lizzie and I are supposed to get to know our cousins. Except they don’t want ‘the little runt’ hanging around.”
“Pretty much the same problem here, only we come here all the time, and I already know them.” She rolled her eyes. “I get to be here all summer, too. I love staying with Grandma and Grandpa, but always being the littlest is a huge pain.”
They’d both been weedy and stick-thin then, the runts of the litter in their respective families. Their older teen siblings and cousins—conveniently forgetting their own recent weedy stages of life—had made Katie’s and his second-class station in life miserably clear.
She grinned and pushed up her glasses. “I’m eight. How about you?”
“I’m eight too.”
“Perfect! Do you like crabbing?”
“Never done it.” He hated admitting he didn’t know how, but he’d seen the people on the dock, and he wanted to learn.
“I can show you. It’s easy, if you’re patient. Let’s push this thing again and see if we can go even faster.” She pinned him with her dimpled grin and jumped off.
From that moment, they’d stuck to each other like glue all summer and all the following years until his battling parents had broken his family. What had started out as the worst summer in the world became the five best years of his life.
Having a girl best friend didn’t bother him one bit. They liked the same stuff: fishing, crabbing, boogie boards, snorkeling, riding bikes, and checking out piles of worn paperback books from the library where they discovered Jules Verne, Edgar Rice Burroughs, C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien, and telling each other long, fanciful stories that they jotted into flimsy notebooks. Katie and he had spent their allowance at the ice cream shop, the bait shop, and their favorite shop of all: the variety store crammed with every bit of summer vacation treasure, junk, and candy a kid could desire.
“So where are you living now?”
Katie’s question dragged him into the present. “At the moment, Seattle, but I’ll be moving soon.”
“Wow, with all the gorgeous places to visit out west, you came all the way here just for a vacation at the shore?” She dropped the last folded top into the basket. “All set.”
“Seemed like a good idea at the time. Lizzie thinks I’m crazy too.” He grinned and lifted the laundry basket. “Where would you like this?”
“Follow me.” She led him through the side porch door into the bright updated kitchen. “You can just leave the basket on the table there. I’ll deal with it later. Let’s sit on the porch. I want to know everything. Would you like something to drink? Water, soda, tea, wine?”
“Water’s good, thanks.”
Out on the front porch, sturdy wicker furniture with comfortable cushions replaced her grandparents’ worn and haphazard collection of decades ago.
Katie curled up on the couch, and he took the chair opposite.
The sensual attraction to Katie remained baffling and captivating. She’d been a cute kid. Now she was a lovely woman, but they were no longer kids, and part of him was taking fascinated notice of that fact and her single status. Worse, notwithstanding the escalating potential for embarrassment, certain really imprudent parts of him had enthusiastically embraced the situation and had yet to take no for an answer.
He took a long swallow of the cold water. No doubt about it, this vacation was going to be very interesting.
Thank you for reading.
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