Autumn By the Sea by Melissa Tagg

Neil knew before Mr. Barrett even opened his mouth that all the wishing in the world couldn’t turn bad news into good.

Golden late-afternoon sunlight streamed through the barn’s double-wide door, a contrast to the biting cold that coiled around him as he awaited the mechanic’s diagnosis of his aged equipment. Even this far inland and sharp with an October chill, a tinge of sea salt moisture clung to the air. Neil stuffed his hands in the pockets of his fleece-lined corduroy coat and wondered for the thousandth time why nothing could ever come easy at Muir Farm.

Mr. Barrett gave the old mechanical harvester a pat, its rattling metal an ominous echo, and angled to face Neil. “Sorry to tell you, but you’re looking at more than a faulty belt this time, son.”

Neil trapped his groan between pressed lips, enough frustration climbing up his throat that he was better off keeping quiet. Wasn’t Mr. Barrett’s fault Neil couldn’t manage to keep Maggie’s farm from the brink of bankruptcy for more than a month or two at a time.

Oh, harvest had gone just fine this year—acre upon acre of lowbush wild blueberries picked and winnowed, cleaned and packed, and sold directly to loyal customers in only five weeks’ time. But that was more than a month ago. Yesterday, when he’d finally had time to do some annual maintenance on the machinery, the harvester had barely grumbled to life before giving way to an ominous silence.

Thus the call to Mr. Barrett, Muir Farm’s closest neighbor and an expert in all things motorized.

Neil finally found his voice. “So my hopes of an easy, inexpensive fix . . .” At Mr. Barrett’s shaking head, his words trailed.

The maze of creases in the older man’s face spelled his regret as he stepped up to Neil, tapped his arm the same way he’d patted the harvester. Almost like a goodbye. Which it might very well be. Because without working equipment, this wouldn’t be a working farm.

And if it wasn’t a working farm, there’d be no holding on to the stretch of land that had been in the Muir family for actual centuries, nor the big yellow house by the sea.

Maggie’s home. His home for twenty years now. Since the day his aunt towed him across the Atlantic and left him on Maggie’s doorstep.

“We can look around for some used parts. I can help with the repairs. That’ll save you some.” Mr. Barrett cocked his head toward the barn door and started walking.

Might as well follow the man. No use standing here staring at a useless giant of rusty steel, fighting the urge to pull off a work boot and chuck it at the thing.

“Look at the bright side.” Mr. Barrett stepped into dousing sunlight, his sandy-brown hair nearly aglow. “’Least you discovered it now as opposed to next August. Could’ve broken down mid-harvest and then where would you be?”

Not somewhere all that different from where he was now, to be honest. Discouraged and helpless, with no idea how to tell Maggie something had to change. He pulled one hand free from his pocket and rubbed his chin. Good grief, he about had a full-on beard these days. Indi would love that, always said he needed “more variety” in his appearance.

“It’s all flannel shirts and faded jeans and hair constantly in need of a trim. Would it hurt you to switch it up now and then? Maybe a nice cashmere sweater and pressed slacks or even a dapper suit.”

He’d stopped milking Melba just long enough to let out a hearty laugh. “I’m a farmer, Indi. I don’t do dapper.”

“I’m only saying you need a little more variety. Maybe then you’d finally get yourself a lady. You’re thirty-four, Neil. Time’s ticking away.”

“I don’t need to get myself a lady.” Not when he had three women here at Muir Farm counting on him to keep the place alive. Between Maggie and his sisters, he had all he could handle.

Indi was the youngest, twenty-eight but with an untamed restlessness that made her seem younger at times. Lilian, at thirty, was the middle sibling and the quieter, gentler one. Like the sea on a breezeless day—calm at the surface but with a depth he wasn’t sure too many people ever delved.

And Maggie. A mother and grandmother and guardian angel—and the one who’d knit their family together. None of them were biologically related, but that fact didn’t change the tight bond twining them to one another.

“Maybe you don’t need a lady, but don’t you want one?” The rest of that conversation with Indi slid in.

“What I want, Indiana Joy, is for a little help with these chores. Specifically, those blasted hens. Start gathering eggs, will you, lassie?” He’d poured on his Scottish burr on that last part—what was left of it, anyway, considering he hadn’t seen his homeland since he was fourteen.

But no, this was his homeland now. The farm, the coast, the little town of Muir Harbor only a few miles up the shoreline.

Anyhow, the beard was a change and if it made Indi smile, maybe he’d wait another couple of days before shaving.

“Never took you for a daydreamer, Neil MacKean.”

He blinked under the bright sun, a gust of wind whipping over him, plastering his jeans to his legs at the front and billowing his jacket behind him, carrying the sound of Captain’s distant bark. “Sorry. So, what’s a new harvester go for these days? In my dream world, I’d retire the old one.”

Or, no, maybe in his dream world, he never would’ve insisted on taking out a loan ten years ago to buy their current used harvester in the first place. But he’d been so sure back then they’d have it paid off long before now. Instead, they were still making payments while stuck in an endless loop of repairs.

Mr. Barrett ambled to his old Ford truck parked at the edge of the patchy lot in the center of a cluster of buildings—two barns, the machine shed, the cooling room where they stored winnowed berries until customers picked up their orders. A line of pine and birch trees behind the outbuildings hid the main house from view.

“A new one? You don’t even want to know. It makes much more sense to fix what you’ve got. With any luck, you can have it operational again for, oh, ten or fifteen thou.”

Fifteen thousand dollars? Neil would have more luck pushing back the tide than uncovering that kind of extra money from the farm’s meager accounts.

’Course, he could always dip into his own savings. Again. And push back your own plans. Again.

Mr. Barrett tugged open his truck door and slid in. He pulled out his keys but paused before turning the ignition. “You know, Neil, Carter Farms is always looking—”

“We’re not selling to Tatum Carter.”

“I’m not saying you should. But you wouldn’t be wrong to at least consider it. They’d do right by the land. You could sell the barrens but keep the house. That kind of money would set Maggie up for years to come and you could do, well, whatever you wanted. Whatever’s next.”

Neil gripped the edge of Mr. Barrett’s truck door. “This is my next, sir. This is all I’ve ever wanted.” This farm, this place, his family.

Except that wasn’t the whole truth of it. He had other thoughts—ideas for repurposing and reviving the farm. But Maggie never wanted to hear them. Never mind that he’d been setting aside his own money for years, praying, hoping for the day when she might trust him enough to—

A blur of color and movement in the trees snagged his attention. Indi wouldn’t be home for another day or two and Lilian was keeping longer and longer hours at her law office in town. Which meant that was probably Maggie, picking her way through the grove.

Where was she headed on a chilly day like this? Dusk wasn’t far off.

He turned back to Mr. Barrett. “Thanks for coming out. I really appreciate it.”

The older man’s eyes held kindness and compassion. “You’re a good man, Neil. Probably the hardest worker I’ve ever known. Maggie Muir’s lucky to have you.”

There were times he honestly wondered about that. Wondered if maybe somebody born to this land could’ve taken their farm from barely surviving to thriving in a way he still hadn’t managed to, even after all these years at the helm. Maybe he should’ve involved Lilian or Indi more in the day-to-day operations—after all, unlike him, they were legally Muirs, adopted years ago by Maggie. Whereas he’d been a gangly teen by the time he’d come to live here.

There was significance in a name—especially that one. Why, it wasn’t just this farm but an entire town named after Maggie’s ancestors. MacKean just didn’t hold the same weight.

Mr. Barrett’s chuckle found its way into his attention. “Woolgathering again, son? Or you’re just overly tired. You getting enough protein?”

He laughed. “You kidding me? Maggie stuffs me so full most nights, it’s ridiculous.”

“Listen, I’ll make a list of the parts we need. I’ll talk to Jake over at the implement store. You’ve got time to shop around. See ya in church?”

He nodded. “See you in church.”

As the wheels of the truck kicked up dust, he glanced to the trees again, following Maggie’s movements. Was she headed to the coast?

But anymore she only walked to the shore when . . .

Oh, Maggie, not again.

He scraped his fingers through his hair, let out a huff of air that fogged in front of him, then tromped forward. Either the grief that visited her now and then had gotten ahold of her, drawing her to that place, or she was once again soaring on wings of futile hope. And if he were a betting man, he’d guess the latter.

Blast you, Wilder Monroe.

The man was his best friend but there were times he could throttle the guy. Why could he not just gently let Maggie down, once and for all? To keep looking, investigating, after all these years . . .

Wilder was searching for a ghost, and all the waiting and wondering and wishing was only haunting Maggie. Couldn’t he see that?

Couldn’t she see it?

Captain heard Neil approaching before Maggie did, the collie’s ears perking and his bounding changing directions. Maggie turned as well, a smile spreading her cheeks. “Neil, something told me I might run into you.”

She’d reached the spot where the trees thinned, giving way to a gorgeous view of the craggy shoreline—jagged, water-scraped rocks and stretches of sand interrupted by patches of tall grass. And the sea, wild and wind-tossed, a dozen shades of blue and brushed with foam.

Maggie waited for him to reach her, offer his elbow. She took hold and let him steer her forward. “I take it Ansel Barrett didn’t have the best of news. Your forehead’s got that wrinkled look, like Lilian’s clothing on nights when she stays too late at the office.”

Which was most nights lately. “Harvester’s shot.”

“I see.”

He wasn’t sure she did. Not with that elated smile still in place, the glint of delight in her hazel eyes. He’d seen it before. Watched her whole being light up with whatever fruitless lead Wilder, or the man’s father before him, came up with . . .

Only to snuff out all over again when it led nowhere.

The sea’s briny scent wrapped around him as they slowed, sunlight cascading from a sky nearly as blue as the waves crashing against the rocks. Most days he could get happily lost in a view like this, could feel the damp air erode his worries and carry them out to the ocean. With Captain at his feet, he’d listen to the surf and drink in the sight of whitecaps and gulls—or if it were nighttime, tip his head to count the stars—and feel . . . no, know that this was exactly where he belonged.

But today—with Mr. Barrett’s assessment and Maggie’s telling grin—he just couldn’t muster the peace he wished for. “You might as well tell me, Maggie. I know that look.”

The breeze riffled through her ever-whitening hair. It’d been a deep, radiant red when he’d first met her as a kid. Oddly, the change in color hadn’t seemed to age her—not really. Nor the lines in her face or even the age spots on her hands. At sixty-five, she was as spry as ever.

But also, sometimes, as sad and weary as ever. Oh, he knew she thought she hid it. But this was Maggie. He knew her. Knew her so well.

Knew her enough to predict her next words.

“I think Wilder found her, Neil. I think it might really be her this time.” Her lemon-yellow cardigan flapped in the wind.

Captain claimed his usual spot at Neil’s side, his tail swishing through the sand. “Maggie—”

“I know you don’t like me getting my hopes up. But I can’t help it.”

Her gaze flitted over his shoulder and he knew without looking where it landed—the grouping of rocks down shore, the spot where it’d happened. The accident that’d cost Maggie her first daughter twenty-eight years ago, long before Neil had ever stepped foot on Muir land.

But Maggie refused to believe that her then-two-year-old granddaughter had been lost too. They’d never found a body. Thus, Maggie had never stopped hoping.

“I just hate seeing you disappointed—”

Her gentle smile returned to her face. “I might not be disappointed this time.”

“I take it you’ve invited her here.” That’s what she’d done every other time. Four visits from four strangers in his twenty years at the farm. Four inevitable letdowns every time the stranger turned out to be just that—a stranger with no actual ties to the Muir family.

It’d been Harry Monroe, Wilder’s father, manning the ongoing investigation back then. Maggie had only roped Wilder in recently after Harry passed on and Wilder took over the agency.

“Wilder’s working on it. He says she has red hair.” Maggie stepped closer to him and reached both hands up to pat his cheeks, having to rise to her tiptoes to do so. “It’s going to be okay, Neil. I can feel it in my bones. Change is coming to Muir Farm and I’m so very ready for it.” She stepped back.

“It’s cold, Maggie. We should head back to the house.” And then he could start Googling equipment wholesalers and brainstorming how to come up with an extra ten or fifteen thousand dollars—or resigning himself to the thought of parting with his own savings just like he’d done last year when the furnace had gone out.

But Maggie’s feet were planted, her gaze fixed on the sea, the hope on her face almost enough to rally his own. Almost.

“Change is coming, Neil MacKean.”

He reached for Maggie’s hand, squeezed, and let the sound of the sea take the place of his reply. That’s what I’m afraid of.