At the moment the moon began its descent and the sun started to rise, the back door of the old farmhouse opened and a petite woman with a long strawberry-blond ponytail stepped out onto the porch. Brooke Madison Bowers hesitated for a moment before walking on bare feet through the cool dew-covered grass that was a week overdue for a mowing. When she reached the small fence-enclosed garden, she pushed aside the squeaky gate and headed for the stone bench, where she sat alone in the soft shadows and the hush of the new day until the dawn began to break in earnest.
The backs of her thighs drew the chill from the damp stone despite the sweatpants she wore, and she shifted uncomfortably. She pulled up her legs and wrapped her arms around them and wished she’d grabbed a jacket on her way through the kitchen. Shoes would have been nice, too. Goose bumps rose on her arms under her sweatshirt, and she thought it would be especially nice if the sun, just now nudging over the smallest of the three barns, would move just a little faster.
Light silently fanned out across fields she’d played in once upon a time. The memory of chasing their dogs through the rows of corn was so fresh, so real, she had to stop and mentally tally just how many years it had been since she’d been a child.
That many? Really?
The dogs were long gone, and her life had taken many an unexpected road since they’d romped together. It was hard to believe that the onetime Miss Blue Claw and Miss Eastern Shore—the golden girl, the beauty queen, the girl most likely to succeed—was once again living on her family farm, sleeping under the familiar red roof with her mother down the hall to the left in the room she’d shared with Brooke’s father for forty-two years, and her brother two doors down to the right. Déjà vu all over again. Except that it wasn’t.
For one thing, her father had passed away two years ago. For another, the room next to Brooke now belonged to her son. The biggest change of all was that the once happy-go-lucky girl was now a not-so-merry widow.
“Brooke? You out there?” her brother called to her as he crossed the yard. She’d been so lost in thought she’d heard neither the back door nor his footsteps.
“Here, Clay. In the herb garden.”
He pushed through the gate, telling her, “I’ve got coffee.”
“You’re a good brother.”
“The best.” He handed her a mug of coffee and took a seat next to her on the bench.
“Sure.” Clay stretched his long legs out in front of him and took a deep breath. “Everything okay? How are your finances holding up?”
“Fine. Between Eric’s benefits and the life insurance and some investments, I’m fine.”
“You know if you needed anything . . .”
“I do know. And I thank you.”
“Beautiful sunrise,” she observed, mostly to change the subject.
“Nothing like early morning. Watching the light spread across the orchard like that . . . I never get tired of it.” He raised his mug in a sort of salute in the direction of the apple trees that formed the property line beyond the garden.
“Old Clay Madison had a farm,” she sang under her breath. “Do I have to add the ‘E-I, E-I-O’?”
Clay laughed. “Hey, it’s all old Clay Madison ever really wanted.” After a pause, he asked, “What about you, Brooke? What do you want?”
“Today?” She sighed. “I just want to get through today without going off the deep end. I keep going back and forth between feeling just plain sad and just plain pissed off.”
“Please accept my apologies in advance for being an insensitive ass, but what’s today? Other than Logan’s birthday.”
“That’s it. Logan’s eight years old today.”
“And that makes you sad and angry?”
“Because Eric isn’t here for it, and he’ll never be here for any of Logan’s birthdays.” She paused. “Actually, Eric hasn’t been around for any of his birthdays. He was in Iraq for the first four, and these past few years, he’s been gone.”
“Damn,” he said softly. “Has it been three years?”
“Two and a half since my husband was blown up in Iraq and my life blew up in my face.” She cleared her throat and tried to keep her voice from quivering.
She glanced at her brother and could tell he was struggling to find something—the right something—to say.
“It’s okay,” she assured him. “I mean, what do you say? ‘I’m sorry Eric didn’t live to see his son grow up and I’m still sorry that he died’?”
“I am still sorry that Eric died. He was a hell of a guy.”
She turned her back on him and rested against his shoulder.
“Did I say the wrong thing?”
“No, you said exactly the right thing. I just want to lean,” she said. “ ’Member when we were kids and we sat out here at night and tried to count the stars?”
“Yeah. I think the most I ever counted was a hundred and fifty-three before I gave up.” He turned and faced the opposite direction so that she could rest her back squarely against his. “Better?”
They sat in silence and drank their coffee while the day unfolded around them.
“I guess I should go in and see if Logan—”
“Brooke, I know how hard the past few years have been for you. I know it’s still hard. But . . .” Clay hesitated, as if not sure he wanted to continue.
“But . . . ?” She waited.
“But maybe . . . well, maybe it might be time to try to start to rebuild your life.”
“I am rebuilding my life. By December, I’ll have my degree and I’m starting my own business. I’d call that rebuilding.”
He nodded. “It is. You are. Of course you are. And I’m really proud of you for doing all those things. A lot of people wouldn’t have bothered to take those last courses for their B.S., and I know you’ve put a lot of time into starting up this business of yours, but . . .”
“But . . . ?” She swung her legs around and plunked her bare feet on the ground. Her toes curled up against the cold.
“But maybe it’s time for you to, you know, get out a little more.”
“I get out. I get out plenty. Last night I went with Dallas to look for her wedding dress. Tomorrow night I’m going over to Vanessa’s to help get things ready for the engagement party she’s hosting this weekend for Steffie and Wade.”
“That’s not exactly what I meant. I meant, like, with a guy.”
“You mean dating?” She frowned. “I’ve gone on dates. I’ve gone on lots of dates.”
“You’ve gone on lots of first dates.”
“What’s your point?” Brooke loved her brother but knew where he was heading and she didn’t really want to go there.
“My point is that sooner or later you’re going to run out of guys to have first dates with.” His voice was gentle, and she gave him points for the effort. “I’m just a little concerned that you never seem to give anyone a real chance.”
She stared at him.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means that you flirt with a guy, you go out with him, then . . . nothing. I mean, every guy on the Eastern Shore can’t be a dud. There are a lot of nice guys in town.”
“I know.” Mentally she took back the points she’d just given him. “I’ve gone out with several nice guys.”
“Once. You go out with them once, then find a reason to never go out with the same guy again.”
“I think the truth is that you don’t want there to be any chemistry. You like the company, you like the attention, and I know you well enough to know that you like getting dressed up and looking gorgeous and going out. But the bottom line? You don’t really want a relationship with anyone.” He took her hand. “You’re too young to give up, toots. You’re beautiful and fun and you deserve to have a beautiful, fun life with someone who adores you.”
“I had that.” She pulled her hand away. “Now I don’t. End of story.”
“Doesn’t mean that it’s the end of your story.”
“Yes, it does. You get one soul mate, Clay. I had mine.” Her eyes filled with tears. “I loved Eric so much. We had the best plans for the best life you could possibly imagine. We were going to have more kids, he was going to go back into the business he started with his brother, we were . . .” She swallowed back the lump in her throat. “We were going to grow old together. Raise our kids and spoil our grandkids. Buy a boat and travel the Intercoastal Waterway, then retire on a beach somewhere. Then bam! Gone.”
Excerpted from Hometown Girl by Mariah Stewart. Copyright © 2011 by Mariah Stewart. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.