Authors: Gina Ardito
Homecoming in November
The Calendar Girls Series
The following is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.
Cover Art by Elaina Lee of
For the Muse Designs
Copyright © 2016 by Victoria Ardito
All Rights Reserved
No part of this book may be reproduced or stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form, whether by electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise without express written permission of the publisher.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
I looked up at the new sign over the storefront and stifled a shudder that had nothing to do with the first day of November’s chilly wind. Gold script on weathered driftwood,
Tea and Tidbits,
glistened in the late morning sunlight. I sucked in a sharp breath.
What had my uncle been thinking? I was only forty-five days sober, and he’d plunged me headfirst into a new business venture—a definite no-no in any rehab program. Yet, somehow, I couldn’t be mad at him. In my heart, this renovation felt right. The timing might be all wrong, but when did I ever play by the rules?
My Uncle Larry’s meaty hand clamped my shoulder as we stood together on the sidewalk outside the front door, which was painted a charming lilac hue that I loved. “The Candoleros did a helluva job getting this place together in time for your homecoming.”
In the back of my throat, a powerful need bloomed. A need for a shot of iced vodka. I swallowed hard, imagining the zing of the booze, then clutched the gold-plated medallion hanging on a chain around my neck for strength.
Sobriety. You can do this. You earned this.
“I wish you’d waited, Uncle Larry,” I said. “Not that I don’t appreciate all you and Aunt Andrea have done for me, but it’s too soon.”
“Who says?” he demanded. “If you ask me, this is just what you need. Your own tea shop will keep you out of trouble.”
In other words, this new shop, once the home of Andrea’s Antique Alley, was intended to keep me from drinking. The cold edge of my power symbol cut into my palm, but I didn’t let go. I had to learn to dull my pain in other ways than by numbing it with alcohol.
“Come on.” He nudged me with an elbow. “Wait’ll you see the inside.”
He dangled the key near my nose, and I reached for it with a slight hesitation. Uncle Larry and Aunt Andrea had planned this surprise for me. They loved me and forgave me for all the crap I’d put them through with my drinking binges. I had no idea if anyone else in Snug Harbor would extend me that same generosity of spirit. No one else knew I’d come home...yet. Eventually, I’d have to face my old friends. And my old enemies.
Would I be able to tell the difference? After all the damage I’d wrought in my booze-induced hazes, it wouldn’t surprise me if the villagers grabbed pitchforks and torches to run me out of town. A new round of shivers rippled through me.
“What are you waiting for?” Uncle Larry prodded me again. “Come on. I want to see the look on your face when you see what we did.”
A huge gulp of air and another touch of my talisman gave me the courage to insert the key in the lock. Before all my newfound valor fled, I pushed open the door.
At the shout from the cluster of people inside, I gasped and jumped back, right into Uncle Larry’s brawny bear hug. While my heartbeat slowed to its normal rhythm again, I scanned the crowd of smiling faces. Nia and her twin, Paige; police chief Sam Dillon; Francesca, enclosed in Josh Candolero’s arms—that was new—Siobhan Bendlow and her bestie Pandora Bartlett; and, of course, Aunt Andrea all stood in a circle.
Francesca, always the most generous soul, strode forward, pulled me into her arms, and kissed my forehead. “Welcome home, Terri. We’re all so proud of you!”
I clung to her, waiting for the mocking laughter, but it never came. “Are you sure?” I whispered.
“Of course I’m sure,” she whispered back, her breath warm in my ear. “We’ve always known the pain you tried to hide. It takes a lot of courage to deal with your problems head-on. And that’s what you did. How could we not admire you for that? You’re one of us. Whether you ever believed it or not.”
I didn’t. She knew that. Since I arrived for a vacation and wound up staying after my parents’ murder/suicide when I was a child, I’d always felt like an outsider here.
After a second quick kiss, this time on my cheek, she stepped away, and another friend took her place. Nia wrapped her arms around me and squeezed. “We missed you, babycakes.”
“Of course, we did. You’re the fourth in our quartet.” A sweep of her arm encompassed Francesca and Paige, as if bundling them with us. “We’ve been besties since you first came here. It hasn’t been the same here without you the last two months.”
“And yet...” I cast a meaningful gaze at Francesca snuggled up with Josh Candolero and Paige twisted around Sam Dillon. “...at least two of you have seemed to find new ways to occupy yourselves.”
A rosy blush bloomed on Nia’s cheeks. “Three of us, actually.”
“Really?” I couldn’t contain my surprise. Not that Nia was standoffish or anything. She just had this tendency to be...well, for lack of a better term, standoffish. “Who’s the lucky man in
“Aidan.” The blush went nuclear. “You’ll meet him soon.”
Paige and Sam greeted me together, as did Siobhan and Pandora, followed by Josh and, finally, Aunt Andrea who added a warm embrace. “Are you surprised, sweetheart?” my aunt asked. “Do you like it?”
I could barely speak, partly from the shock, but also because my aunt had the slender figure of a bamboo reed, and whenever she hugged me, her ribs poked through her clothes straight into my soft over-and-underbelly.
“I’m still trying to take it all in,” I admitted as I gazed over the beautiful shop that was, apparently, all mine.
“Well, go on then,” she replied. “Walk around. Take your time. Look your fill.”
They all stood back and let me soak in the gift they’d created for me. The dark paneled walls were gone, replaced with lovely images of ivy and roses on a creamy wallpaper background. Framed prints of Victorian-era artwork evoked old-fashioned charm. Faux marble pedestals, topped with faux brass urns stuffed with overabundant bouquets of roses, English ivy, and lily-of-the-valley stood sentinel in the corners.
I touched a petal, felt the silkiness between my fingers, and turned to Pandora. “Your handiwork?”
The owner of Pandora’s Petals, the local flower shop, nodded. “They’re all silk. No maintenance involved—aside from the occasional dusting.”
My black thumb was legendary around town. “Thank God,” I said on an extreme sigh.
While everyone laughed, I continued my survey. Plump, cushy wingchairs, upholstered in heavy gold fabric, circled tables of assorted shapes and sizes to accommodate intimate parties of two, or get-togethers of four to twelve people. Leafy vines twined the curtain rods where heavy gold drapes hung just to the re-sanded and polished wooden floor.
“The kitchen has all new appliances,” Aunt Andrea said. “And lots of counter space.”
In a near-dream-state, I walked past the gleaming mahogany serving counter, with its mini-pastry carousel and state of the art coffee/cappuccino maker, to the doorway in the back of the new space. Gone was the cramped storage area my aunt used to clutter with dusty crates of nineteenth century Americana. Now, I had a stainless stovetop, oven, refrigerator, and a commercial dishwasher. There was also a massive glass-fronted cabinet filled with ivory china embellished on the edge with a simple circlet of gold. Each piece looked elegant and delicate, the qualities I’d never acquired, but had always hoped to project in my tea shop.
“Well...?” Aunt Andrea prompted. “What do you think?”
I turned around to the sea of anxious faces. “It’s perfect,” I said, and I meant it. Every detail I’d ever discussed, dreamed of, and hoped for had been achieved while I’d been drying out. “Thank you. All of you. It’s incredible. And I can’t wait to get to work here.”
“Good,” Uncle Larry remarked. “‘Cuz we advertised your opening day for tomorrow.”
Archduke Ferdinand Fluffypaws had ear mites. Oh, the indignity. Not the mites so much as the name. After all, the infection could be cleared up with an antibiotic. The poor tabby’s title? He was stuck with that, thanks to his owner, Mrs. Pflug, for at least another decade. Pity pierced my tender heart as I lifted the cat off the exam table and placed him back in his carrier. His Excellency meowed in pitiful fashion, and I rubbed his head between his ears before locking him behind the cage door.
“If you’ll take him to the reception area and settle up with Becky,” I told Mrs. Pflug, “I’ll bring out the meds he’s going to need.”
The elderly lady beamed. “Thank you, Dr. Herrera.”
“You’re welcome.” I bent to peer into the pet carrier. “Goodbye, Ferdie.”
I received a hiss in reply.
Gratitude was a lost art in the feline world.
Stupid pet names and ungrateful cats aside, I loved working here. Dominic Bautista, DVM, had been a classmate at Cornell years ago and a member of the brother fraternity to my sorority. I still don’t know how he heard about my troubles, but like a guardian angel, he’d called to offer me a partnership in his veterinary practice in Snug Harbor at the exact moment I had decided to close my doors in Ohio. After two years of trying to dig out from the mountain of negative publicity and vicious rumors, I’d been forced to admit that my alleged notoriety far outweighed my reputation as a dedicated animal lover. I needed safe refuge, and this charming little village on the east end of Long Island was the perfect place for me to lick my wounds—so to speak—and start over. A place where no one knew me or David, where the publicity of the trial probably passed on a ten-second blip—if it appeared in the media here at all.
After washing my hands, I unlocked the medicine cabinet, grabbed a bottle of otic antibiotic lotion, and took it out to the front desk area, along with the patient chart. I left everything with Becky, the administrative assistant, who sat behind the desk. While she handled the paperwork and billing, Miranda, my vet tech, would clean the exam room for the next patient. I scanned the occupants of the waiting room. Seated on the bench near the entrance, a blond boy of about five held a leash connected to a beagle pup, who sniffed the scarred hardwood floor, no doubt in search of treats or the other dogs who’d clustered there until their turn on the exam table. Beside the child, his mother sat, reading one of our informational pamphlets.
Across the narrow aisle, a hulk of a man on the opposite bench stared at his cell in his hand. He was so large, I could only see a pair of black dog paws draped over his boots. The rest of his pet hid behind the human mountain. The man’s ramrod posture and shaved head screamed, “Authority figure,” and I shrank into the corner behind the glass to avoid notice. Not fast enough.
As if he’d sensed my scrutiny, he looked up from his phone, and I swore his gaze searched deep into my soul. The fine hairs on my nape danced, and my breath caught in my throat.
Who was he? A cop? At the thought, an icy chill wrapped around me. Would I ever be able to look people in the eye again, without fear they thought me guilty?
Hugging myself to keep the shivers in check, I turned my attention to Becky, who’d finished processing Mrs. Pflug and Archduke Ferdinand Fluffypaws. “Who’s next?”
“New patient,” she replied as she handed me a crisp manila folder. “Iggy Zemski.”
Iggy? Really? God, didn’t anyone name a pet Mittens anymore? Or Fido? I’d kill for a Fido. Figuratively speaking, of course. On an exasperated sigh, I stepped into the doorway between reception and the waiting area. “Iggy Zemski?”
The brute rose from his seat on the pleather couch, and I caught my first glimpse of the dog he’d brought with him. Fear flipped to anger. The poor beast’s fur was a matted mess on his malnourished frame. He might have been a Lab mixed with border collie or Australian shepherd, but his poor condition made any clear-cut identification impossible.
My voice turned to ice when I ordered, “Bring Iggy inside, Mr. Zemski.”
Behind me, Becky snorted.
“I’m Iggy,” he said as he drew the abused animal forward. “I don’t know the dog’s name. He’s a stray. I think he was abandoned.”
Shame brushed heat over my cheeks. Not only had I mistaken the man’s name for the dog’s, but I’d also insulted him by questioning his humanity. Served me right for jumping to conclusions about someone I didn’t know. Hadn’t I been judged and condemned without all the facts in evidence? Why on earth would I ignore my own hard-earned lesson and treat someone else with that same unkind knee-jerk reaction?
“I’m sorry, Mr. Zemski. Please...” I swept an arm toward the exam room door. “Come this way. I’m Dr. Herrera, by the way. Dr. Bautista’s new associate.”
I remained behind him, believing it safer to have a man of his size and stature where I could see him at all times. He was not only large, but solid muscle. His one weakness, a slight hitch in his right leg when he walked, only enhanced his power persona. He probably injured himself while wrestling a grizzly. Or kicking down redwood trees for fun.
Once we were all inside the exam room, I closed the door. “What made you bring the dog to us?”
“He’s been hanging out in the woods behind the university for at least three weeks now,” Mr. Zemski said as he coaxed the dog further into the room. “I’ve been watching him. He gets close to the buildings so I’m guessing he was originally owned. But if
get too close, he takes off, which makes me think he was abused, then dumped when he got sick or something. Sorry he looks so mangy. It’s taken me this long to gain his trust and get him into my car. I figured I was better off bringing him straight here. I called Dominic, and he had your receptionist squeeze me in.”