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What’s Left Behind Excerpt

Chapter 1

Abby Stone refused to look at her son’s photos.

If Abby strained her imagination, she could almost convince herself today was like any other Valentine’s Day at Briar Rose B&B, a Saturday celebration replete with lovers feeding each other chocolate-dipped strawberries and toasting their unions with her best champagne. That nearly five hours ago, half the town hadn’t followed her home through high winds that rattled her truck, buffeted snowdrifts, and narrowed Hidden Harbor, Maine’s shoreline roads. That Monday morning, she hadn’t wrapped a blanket around herself to bandage the shaking, while she typed apology e-mails and issued rain checks for her six guest rooms. That Sunday afternoon, her only child hadn’t died.

One misstep, and her son’s daredevil climb between dorm-room windows had ended in a three-story neck-breaking heart-stopping plunge to the unforgiving ground.

Abby’s heartbeat fluttered and flared in her throat, and her fingers trembled.

She imagined Luke’s friends trampling down three flights of stairs. She imagined their footfalls and panicked voices echoing in the stairwells. She imagined them finding Luke splayed in the courtyard and knowing he was already gone.

The Hidden Harbor Gazette had called Luke, “Spiderman.”

Luke would’ve loved that.

The small-town reporter couldn’t have known a younger Luke had worn his paper-thin Walmart Spiderman getup three Halloweens in a row, in lieu of Abby’s offer to sew him a handmade costume. Each year, the hemline inched up his pale legs, and the top rose to reveal a longer swatch of belly. The better for tickling, she’d tell him. Before she was ready, Luke had grown from a round-cheeked toddler clutching Abby with a sweaty grip, to a little boy eager to slip away from her.

I want my son back.

She’d never spanked Luke, but right now she wanted to take all five foot eleven inches of her full-grown son over her knee and give him what for. Don’t you ever scare me like that again! Even under normal circumstances, the idea would’ve been preposterous.

Abby’s oldest and dearest friend, Celeste, stood with her back to Abby, her shoulder muscles working, hands buried in the double sink. Water sprayed the white-tiled backsplash. Steam rose, and Celeste slipped a white serving platter between the slats of the wooden drainer.

Abby’s chest rose in a pressurized wave, as though a hand were trying to shove her heart from her body. She sipped the seltzer Celeste had forced on her. Her throat clenched around the bubbles, and she coughed into her elbow.

Celeste shut off the faucet and leaned a hip against the counter. The uncharacteristic gray half moons beneath Celeste’s auburn lashes made her eyes appear greener than usual. In the last week, Abby and Celeste had held each other and cried more than they had in their entire lives. Celeste had insisted on staying at Abby’s to boil water for herbal teas, which Abby could not taste, and pop romantic comedies that Abby could not follow into the DVD player. Sleep had been sporadic. Celeste couldn’t afford to continue the Abby-watch, with two energetic children to chase, a bakery to run, and a husband in need of occasional attention. Besides, nothing had made Abby feel better. Nothing.

“Ten minutes?” Abby said, trying to blanket her exhaustion with a thread of optimism.

“Ten minutes, buddy, and I kick them to the curb. Hand to heart.” Celeste’s gaze held tight, but her voice wavered.

Earlier, Abby had taken Celeste aside and made her promise to gently enforce the reception’s visiting hours, a task Abby knew she could never do herself. In the fifteen years since she’d owned the B&B, she’d never rushed a single guest out the door. Didn’t matter whether she’d known them all thirty-six years of her life, or they were newly acquainted. Abby lived by the motto gracing her front door: Enter as strangers, leave as friends.

“Hand to heart,” Abby said, “and that includes you. Go home and take care of that husband of yours.” Abby tugged at one of Celeste’s shiny braids.

“Oh, yeah?” Celeste’s weak smile twined two parts curiosity with one part genuine concern. “Want me to kick Charlie out, too?”

Abby sputtered on her second sip of seltzer. Her eyes watered, and she wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. As Luke’s parents, Abby and Charlie had sat together in the front pew of the Congregational Church; their hands clenched white in solemn solidarity. As kids, they’d been best friends before they were sweethearts. After Abby had gotten over hating Charlie, mostly, they’d renewed their friendship and indulged in what she liked to call leap-year sex, although not necessarily on the leap year. And Charlie always turned to Abby when life got rough.

“He’s not moving back in.” Directed at Celeste, Abby immediately regretted the defensive edge to her voice.

“Not judging, just worrying.”

“Our timing has never been right,” Abby said, offering up the same simple answer she’d given Luke whenever he’d asked why his parents weren’t together.

“Present situation included.”

“Agreed.” Abby stared at Celeste, questioning the wisdom of having shared her every Charlie slip-up, but Celeste’s brows remained knit. “I thought you loved the guy.”

“Of course I love Charlie. Everybody loves Charlie.”

Celeste yanked off the dish gloves. She plucked one of her prize-winning mini blueberry muffins from the center island, sighed, peeled the liner.

The muffins’ fruit-and-sugar aroma rumbled Abby’s stomach. What had she eaten today? A packet of apples-and-cinnamon oatmeal she’d choked down to keep Celeste from fussing over her? Coffee, gone cold in the mug between her hands? Abby considered the muffins, Luke’s all-time favorite pastries from Luke’s all-time favorite bakery. Clear as a noon sky, she could see Luke returning home from Celeste’s bakery, Sugarcoated, his teeth and tongue suspiciously blue, the waxed bag containing far fewer muffins than she’d requested.

Yet, Luke was gone.

At Tuesday morning’s private funeral, she’d watched his casket lower into the ground. She’d tossed dirt onto its lid. She’d stared into the black hole, willing the earth to swallow her, until Abby’s mother and Celeste had gripped her by either arm and urged her away from the edge. Eighteen years ago, those same strong hands had held Abby’s arms for support while, terrified, she bore down and Luke slid from her body, a screaming slithering miracle.

Her pulse raced, the room grayed, and she thought she might faint.

I want my baby.

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