Autumn By the Sea by Melissa Tagg

Sydney never should’ve let herself look up Muir Farm.

She couldn’t tug her gaze from her laptop, open in front of her on the bakery counter, her half-eaten caramel roll pushed aside. The yellow house filling her screen was like something from a storybook—large porch and quaint gingerbread eaves, white shutters and trim. And goodness, it was right on the coast. She’d already read the short description below the image three times. Muir Farm—a blueberry farm, of all things.

“You have to go.”

Sydney sputtered on her coffee—Nikola’s signature hazelnut vanilla blend, hot enough to scorch Sydney’s throat, her coughing drawing a gape from the teenage girl working the bakery’s cash register this busy Saturday morning.

How long had Nikola been staring at Sydney staring at her screen?

Her friend’s expression fairly sparkled from the other side of the counter, her thick, black hair braided and coiled around her head and her dark eyeliner emphasizing her gray eyes. “To Maine, I mean. Obviously, you have to go.”

Sydney lowered her mug. “I’m not sure what’s so obvious about it. The whole thing’s absurd.”

This is what she got for not taking the time to cake on some makeup in an effort to hide the purple-ish circles under her eyes before making her usual weekend trek to the bakery. Nikola had taken one look at her when she’d walked in and had immediately demanded to know what was wrong.

What was wrong was that two cups of coffee in, she was still a frazzled wreck. What was wrong was that she’d tossed and turned last night for what felt like forever, mulling Wilder Monroe’s crazy theory and his befuddling request that she let him drag her off to Maine.

What was wrong was that Micah was supposed to have met her here half an hour ago and still hadn’t shown up.

The sticky-sweet smell of the bakery wafted around her, the buzz of chatter and the light jazz always playing in the background filling the air. Of course, she’d ended up spilling the whole story to her friend—the private investigator, the woman in Maine searching for her missing granddaughter, the possibility . . .

She clamped her laptop closed. No, it wasn’t a possibility. She couldn’t go to Maine. She couldn’t hop on a cross-country flight solely on the nonsensical hope that maybe she’d find a . . . a family when she landed.

She’d gone on a treasure hunt like that once before and look what it’d gotten her.

“At least I did the right thing. Leaving you . . . at least I did that.”

Nothing more than a broken heart and a wasted day off work, that’s what meeting CarleeAnn had gotten her—and a photo she’d spent hours tearing apart her apartment looking for last night. Never had found it.

Nikola tossed a rag over her shoulder and leaned toward Sydney, arms propped on the counter. “How long have I known you, Sydney Rose?” Sunlight poured through the generous windows at the front of the small shop, reflected in the long mirror behind Nikola.

“Eight years.” On a whim, Sydney had stopped in the bakery one day after spotting a Help Wanted sign in the window. An hour later, she’d had herself an extra part-time income and the makings of her first real adult friendship.

Nikola nodded. “And in all that time, have you ever done anything spontaneous?”

“Yes. We both colored our hair that one time.” The green streaks had looked amazing in Nikola’s dark hair, but Sydney’s had been a complete fail.

“Fine. Not spontaneous. Have you ever done anything . . .” Nikola’s voice trailed as her gaze roved her bakery, until her gray eyes landed on Sydney once more. “Have you ever done anything because deep down, you knew you had to? Because maybe, just maybe, there was a happy ending out there waiting for you if you’d just run for it. Have you ever done anything like that?”

Sydney couldn’t help a small smile. “We’re not all as fanciful and dreamy as you, Nik.” Her grin faltered. “We’re not all . . .” Brave.

And anyway, happy endings weren’t for everyone.

Did she sometimes dream about buying that empty old Victorian next to her apartment building and turning it into a bookstore or B&B or maybe both? How much fun would she have designing and decorating and just managing something of her own?

But where did a person come up with that kind of money? And anyway, wasn’t it enough that she’d made a decent life for herself? So maybe waitressing wasn’t a glamorous career, but she hadn’t exactly had a wealth of options when she’d been forced to drop out of college. It was a good job that kept her afloat. She had her apartment, she had Micah, she had Nikola.

Some days, when she wasn’t too tired or feeling too alone, she had her faith.

And she’d even managed to indulge her creative side now and then. She’d created websites from scratch for both Nikola and Mezzani’s. Lorenzo at the restaurant had even let her make use of her short stint as a graphic design major, allowing her to come up with a new logo and artwork for the menus.

She needed to believe this life was enough. Because she’d seen what wanting too much could do to a person.

“Nik, remember . . . when I went searching for my birth mom?” It hadn’t been difficult. Apparently, as she’d discovered when she’d called the adoption agency, whatever papers CarleeAnn Picknell had signed when she’d left Sydney as a toddler had allowed for Sydney to discover her name once she reached legal adulthood. From there, all it had taken was an internet search.

Unfortunately, by the time she’d gone looking, it was nearly too late. CarleeAnn was sick and growing sicker by the day.

“Of course I remember.” Nikola’s voice was soft. “You weren’t in a good place after.”

“Exactly.” She tore a piece of her caramel roll free.

“You don’t know that it’d be the same letdown this time.”

She chewed on the bite of her roll, savoring the taste even though it was no longer warm. “Do you remember the photo?”

The one she’d taken from the bedside table in CarleeAnn’s hospital room after their short conversation ended due to the morphine drip. For weeks after that fruitless visit, she’d stared at that photo, studying the faces peering back at her. Two teenage girls—probably only sixteen or seventeen—and a young man in between. CarleeAnn had been the girl on the left.

And she knew now, after Wilder had shown her an old picture of Diana on his phone before leaving her apartment the night before, that the one on the right was Margaret Muir’s daughter. If not for that, she might’ve been able to dismiss the whole thing. Convince herself it was some other CarleeAnn Picknell who’d once lived in Maine.

If not for that, she might’ve actually slept last night.

Nikola nodded.

“Diana Muir was the other girl in the photo.”

Nikola gasped. “Seriously? Way to bury the lede. Then you know this whole thing isn’t entirely impossible. Syd, that dude might actually be on to something. Did you show him the photo? You’ve always thought the guy in the picture might be your dad, right? What did Walter say about that?”

“Wilder. And he didn’t say anything about it because I didn’t show him the photo because I don’t know where it is. I looked everywhere I could think of but . . .” She shrugged.

Nikola slapped her rag to the counter. “You can’t shrug at a time like this, Syd. You might have a family out there.”

“I already have a family. I have Micah.” He’d been her family since his first day at the Jacobsens’, when he’d walked into their entryway with stooped shoulders, clutching a ratty old teddy bear and a neon green duffel. She’d been eleven—already an expert at sleeping in new places; he, only eight.

By that time, she’d given up on old hopes of finding a forever family. She’d heard her social worker talking about her more than once, saying it didn’t make sense. That she should’ve been easy to place. Some kids just don’t get lucky.

Micah’s case had had its own set of challenges with legal issues surrounding his availability.

Seven years in and out of the same foster homes and she and Micah had formed a bond tight enough that when he’d shown up at her freshman dorm room years later, nowhere else to go, she hadn’t even hesitated to welcome him in.

Of course, eventually she’d realized she couldn’t keep paying for school and support her teenage foster brother. And he couldn’t live in her dorm. So she’d traded community college for a job at Mezzani’s and eventually found her apartment where, up until a few years ago, Micah had lived in the second bedroom.

“No, don’t be like this.” Nikola shook her head. “Don’t be passive and . . . and too pragmatic for your own good. Don’t refuse to even consider the possibilities that might be waiting for you just because you’re scared.”

“I’m not scared.”

Nikola rounded the counter and slid onto the stool next to Sydney. “I know how much it hurt you when you got all hopeful about meeting your birth mom and it didn’t turn out the way you imagined. But there are too many intriguing details here to just ignore this.” She draped her arm around Sydney’s shoulder. “And it’s Maine. Who doesn’t take the opportunity to go to the coast when it’s offered? If that old woman wants you to come badly enough, you probably won’t even have to pay for your trip.”

Oh, she knew she wouldn’t have to. Wilder’s business card was in her computer bag even now, taunting her in sync with his parting words in her head. “I’m flying back tomorrow night. If you want to come, just say the word and I’ll get you a ticket.”

Sydney’s gaze lifted to the mirror behind the counter, catching her friend’s reflection as a slow grin stretched Nikola’s rosy cheeks. “You want to go, Syd. I can see it plain as day, written all over your face.”

So maybe she did. Maybe she wanted to pull that card from her bag and call Wilder and tell him she’d meet him at O’Hare. Maybe she wanted to see that big yellow house in person and gaze at the Atlantic Ocean and meet Margaret Muir.

Even if Wilder couldn’t prove she was the woman’s missing granddaughter, well, now she knew CarleeAnn Picknell was originally from Muir Harbor too. Maybe she could learn more about her. Discover other relatives.

And as for the young man from that old photograph—JP, according to the scribbled note on the back—what if she could find him? What if he were really her father? Neither CarleeAnn nor Diana were alive anymore, but he might be.

A father . . . She might have a father somewhere out there.

Suddenly, she needed to move. Needed a moment away from the clutter of voices and music and Nikola’s loving but prying gaze. “My hands . . . sticky . . . bathroom.”

Nikola apparently interpreted that just fine, nodding and waving her off. But by the time Sydney moved past the line of stools and wove through the crowd in front of the cash register, she’d decided to skip washing her hands and head out the bakery’s back door instead. Fresh air, that’s what she needed.

And maybe enough quiet to make a call to Wilder and—oh goodness, was she actually considering this?

Oomph. The restroom door swung open just as she was passing it.

“Syd?”

She whirled. “Micah? When did you get—” Shock stole the rest of her words as she glimpsed his bruised cheek. His black eye. His bloodied lip. “What happened?”

He lifted a wet paper towel to his lip. “Nothing I want to talk about.”

No, of course not. He never did. Not when he’d borrowed her car without asking and wrecked it. Not a couple of years back when there’d been that trouble at his workplace, accusations of stealing. Not after the bar brawl only a few months before that, not to mention a night in jail and her late for another shift at Mezzani’s after bailing him out.

“If you’re in trouble—”

“Don’t look at me like that, Syd.” His stylish camo-print jacket was open to reveal a black tee underneath, his sandy brown hair still gelled into submission despite whatever scuffle he’d been in already this morning.

“Like what?”

“Like I’m fifteen again and standing outside your dorm room begging to come live with you. I feel pathetic enough without your pity.”

“I’m not . . . you’re not . . .” Somehow, despite everything—her fatigue from a sleepless night, her frustration, all the foggy thoughts assailing her since the moment Wilder Monroe had chased her down—compassion found its way to the surface. The same compassion that had gripped her on Micah’s first night at the Jacobsens’, when she’d heard his sobs and slipped off the top bunk, innocently crawled in beside him below and read to him until he fell asleep.

“I love you, Micah. I just . . . I don’t know how to help you anymore.”

He lifted his head, something hard in his eyes. “I didn’t ask for your help this time.” With that, he skulked down the tiny hall and out the door at the back of the bakery.

“That didn’t look good.”

Sydney turned to see Nikola holding her laptop and bag. “How much of that did you hear? And, well, see?”

“Enough.”

“Clearly I can’t go to Maine now.”

“Actually, I think he’s all the more reason to go. You’re stuck, the both of you. Him getting into trouble, you bailing him out over and over again.” Nikola slipped Sydney’s laptop into the bag and handed it to her. “You want to help him? Let him see you choose something different for once. Something new.”

It couldn’t be that simple. Sydney slid her bag over her shoulder. “Nik—”

Her friend interrupted her by holding up a business card. Wilder’s. “Just call him.”

“You went through my stuff?”

“Yes, because I’m that good of a friend.” Nikola leaned in for a hug. “The kind of friend who’s not afraid to boss you around. Go, Syd. Go meet your maybe-grandmother. Go look for your father. Let go of all the doubts holding you back and just . . . go.

Text from Sydney to Micah:Hey, can we talk?


Text from Sydney to Nikola:I can’t believe it! Lorenzo gave me two weeks off work!!!!

Nikola:Of course he did. You’ve got all your bosses wrapped around your little finger. ;)

Sydney:Wilder flies out tonight . . . I guess maybe I do too?!?!?! This is insane.

Nikola:It’s an adventure. Enjoy it!

Text from Wilder to Maggie:Well, she’s coming. Getting her a plane ticket and everything. Hope you’ve warned Neil and the girls.

Maggie:I don’t do texts, young man! But also . . . thank you. Sincerely, genuinely, thank you.


Text from Wilder to Sydney:Hold up. Guess tonight’s flight is overbooked. They rebooked us for tomorrow morning. I’m emailing you the deets.

Sydney:People still say deets?

Wilder:Ha. Ha. Make sure to pack a warm coat. That seaside chill is nothing to mess with.

Sydney:Random question—do you know anyone in Muir Harbor named JP?

Wilder:Not that I can think of. Why?

Sydney: Fill you in tomorrow.


Voicemail from Wilder to Maggie:Okay, I know you don’t do texts, but be honest, do you ever actually check your voicemail? I hope so ’cause I need to let you know we won’t hit Maine ’til tomorrow. Flight got

changed.


Text from Lilian to Neil:Why do I keep thinking about that car in the drive last night?

Neil:Because we told too many ghost stories as kids. We’re susceptible to needless alarm.

Lilian:But why was Cap whining? Shouldn’t he have been barking?

Neil:Why are you texting me from one room away? I’m in the kitchen. Just come talk to me.

Lilian:Grump.


Text from Sydney to Micah:If you don’t want to talk about this morning, that’s fine. But I need to let you know I’m taking a trip. To Maine. For two weeks. Long story. I leave tomorrow. If you ever want to hear it . . .

Micah (two hours later):Any chance I can crash at the apartment while you’re gone?

Sydney:Of course. Actually, could you do me a favor while you’re there? Remember that old photo of my birth mom? I need to find it but I leave tomorrow morning. If you can think of any genius hiding places, mind looking?

Micah:Sure.

Sydney:Would still love to talk to you. I’ll be up for another hour or two if you wanna call . . .