Autumn By the Sea by Melissa Tagg

“First time seeing the ocean?”

Wilder Monroe finally stopped his constant tapping on the steering wheel long enough to tip his sunglasses up and over his head. Sydney spared him only the briefest glance before returning her gaze to where the sea brawled with the wind outside her car window.

So much blue, as far as she could see, its waves tussling and wild. What little sunlight scooted through burly clouds overhead landed and bobbed at the water’s surface. And the shoreline—it was rugged and rocky and absolutely gorgeous.

So gorgeous she could almost forget yesterday she’d made the most impulsive decision of her life and today she was . . . here.

“Lake Michigan has nothing on this. I can’t believe some people live with this kind of view day in and day out.” Or that she would for the next two weeks. This is insane.

Or, according to Nikola, an adventure. Were adventures usually this emotionally confusing? She couldn’t decide whether to be excited or nervous or exhilarated or downright terrified. What if this whole thing was merely the chasing of a fairy tale?

On the other side of the road that traced the coast, tall, aged trees dotted the bristled fields that claimed the landscape. They’d passed a sign for Muir Harbor a mile or so back. Apparently their route from the airport in Augusta to the farm didn’t take them through town.

“I can tell you’ve got some nerves going on.” Wilder was back to drumming his thumbs on the steering wheel. “But trust me, Maggie’s the nicest person you’ll ever meet. A little caught up in the past, sure, but she’s gracious and caring and even pretty funny at times. The others are nice, too. Indi Muir’s a little spitfire, which is entertaining. Lilian’s never liked me all that much but that’s only because I gave her a bloody nose once in school. Dodgeball—and she’s never gotten over it.”

“So you go a long way back with the family?”

Wilder nodded. “It was just my dad and me at home growing up. I hung out at the farm quite a bit. Neil’s my best friend. Although, now . . .” His voice trailed as he steered onto a gravel lane.

“Now what?”

He nudged his sunglasses over his eyes once more. “Just don’t be offended if it takes him a little longer than the others to warm up to you.”

Well, that didn’t sound promising. But she didn’t have time to prod any further, not with the curve of the road and the view unfurling in front of her. Trees burning with color, fiery red and orange and gold, lined the lane on one side, and up ahead, she could just make out the shape of the house. Muir Farm. According to Wilder, the farm had been here prior to the nearby town that shared its name, Maggie’s Scottish ancestors having settled on the coast in the late 1700s, back before Maine became a state.

The crunch of gravel grew louder as Wilder slowed, the house becoming clearer as they neared, and as it did, Sydney’s heart began to sink. This . . . this wasn’t the house she’d seen on the internet.

Or, well, it was, but it was older and droopier. The cheery yellow she’d seen in the Google photos was faded and peeling. The quaint shutters and eaves and the porch were there, but it all just seemed . . . tired. No fall mums in the flower boxes under the front windows, and goodness, when was the last time someone had trimmed the hedges?

Like you’re one to talk, Syd. You live in an ugly brown apartment building. You’ve never even had a porch. Let alone a sprawling lawn scattered with leaves or the acres of wild blueberry fields that were supposedly around here somewhere. Unless the internet had exaggerated that as well.

Wilder pulled up to the front of the house and cut the engine. “Well, here we are. I just hope Maggie’s not too surprised to see us.”

“What? She doesn’t know we’re coming?”

He chuckled and pushed open his door. “Of course she does. But whether she got my voicemail about our new flight time, I don’t know.”

Oh God, what am I doing?

Was that a prayer? If so, it was her first in too long and it felt about as stale as any other she’d offered through the years. Just like her hopes as she stared at the weather-beaten house in front of her. But why should the state of the home’s exterior cause so much angst?

Because somehow, the sight of it seemed to confirm her fear—that this was a hunt for a fairy tale. That she’d built this whole, yes, insane trek up in her head the same way she had when she’d gone searching for CarleeAnn. When she’d let herself ponder and imagine and even think, for a few happy weeks before that hospital visit, that maybe God had been waiting all along to lead her to her mother. That maybe He hadn’t forgotten her.

At some point since Friday night, she’d begun doing the same thing—imagining herself in this house, sitting on its pretty front porch in a quaint rocking chair, gazing at the sea. A grandmother at her side, or maybe even a father. It was as if she was homesick for a life she’d never lived.

But the porch was sagging and there was no rocking chair. And suddenly the thought of walking into the house—

At the knock on her window, she jumped, Wilder’s muffled voice reaching in. “Coming? I’d be a gentleman and open your door but—” He held up her suitcase in one hand and, in his other, the oversized coffee he’d picked up at a convenience store on the way here. Had he knocked with his elbow, then?

She opened her door and slid out.

“You okay? You were like a statue sitting there, frozen in your seat.”

“I’m fine.”

“You don’t look fine.”

A chilly wind tugged at strands of hair she’d attempted to tame earlier with a French braid. But her quick work in the airport bathroom was no match for the seaside’s heavy gusts.

Floorboards creaked as they climbed the porch steps and crossed to the front door, a dog’s bark sounding somewhere in the distance and the nearby echoes of the ocean reaching over the lawn. Wilder plunked her suitcase onto the welcome mat and rapped on the door.

No answer.

“What if she’s not home?”

“Maggie doesn’t tend to stray that far from the farm most days.” Another knock. Then, with a shrug, he tried the door handle. Unlocked. He grinned again and picked up her suitcase.

“We’re barging in?”

“It’s not barging in when you’re practically family.” He glanced over his shoulder at her. “And in your case, maybe legit family.” He went inside, lifting his voice. “Hey, anyone home? Maggie?”

If anyone answered his call, Sydney couldn’t hear it. Not with her heart thudding as she crossed the threshold, her gaze drinking in too many details at once. Polished hardwood floors—cedar, maybe?—and an entryway table that had to be an antique. Off to one side was a living room with gaping windows and an old off-white couch and matching overstuffed chairs. The smell of the house, cinnamon and vanilla, enveloped her.

She caught a glimpse of a dining room past the open staircase that jutted into the entryway. So far the home’s interior seemed as dated as the outside, but there was nothing hollow or neglected about it. Framed photos crammed the wall along the staircase and blankets packed the quilt rack near a rocking chair piled with pillows.

Every detail was a hint at this house’s history and evidence of a lived-in, well-loved home. Of family.

“Okay, now you’re just scaring me.” Wilder leaned against the staircase bannister, still holding her suitcase. “You’re so pale I’m surprised I can’t see through you.”

“I—I shouldn’t be here.” Because this wasn’t a fairy tale. It was real life. And there were real people here, and the chances that she belonged to or with them were so very slim and—

“Little too late for that.” Wilder lowered her suitcase.

“No, it’s not. We could return to the car and you could take me back to the airport and—”

“Can’t do that. If you’d heard the hope in Maggie’s voice when I talked to her the other day, you wouldn’t want to do it, either.” He shook his head. “Listen, why don’t you take a minute to freshen up. There’s a bathroom at the top of the stairs. Have a moment to yourself, and I’ll try calling Maggie’s cell—not that she ever remembers to take it with her. She’s probably just out back, but if nothing else, maybe I can get Neil or one of the girls on the phone.”

“Okay.” Her voice came out reedy and cracked. She’d lock herself in a bathroom, maybe splash some water on her face, re-braid her hair. And perhaps when she emerged, a miracle would happen and she’d find herself composed and ready to meet this woman who’d sent a private investigator to fetch her.

She climbed the stairs, the pictures along the wall mere blurs. She barely glanced down the hallway as she reached the second floor—beige walls with a lilac-print wallpaper border at the top—before opening the first door at the top of the stairs.

Humid warmth gushed around her as she hurried in and closed the door behind her, locked it, and leaned over the sink, hanging her head. “What am I doing here?”

“I really have no idea.”

At the sound of the voice behind her, baritone and rich, she shrieked. And then squealed again at the reflection in the mirror over the sink—a head. A head belonging to a man. Poking out from the shower curtain. Oh my goodness. Oh no, oh no . . .

The steam in the room. The droplets on the mirror. The pile of clothes on the floor.

Oh NO.

She whirled around. “I’m so sorry . . . I didn’t realize anyone. . . the door wasn’t locked.”

The grimace didn’t leave his bearded face, but his eyebrows lowered a good half-centimeter. Dark, wet hair dripped around his face. “Lock doesn’t always work. The knob’s old and fussy.”

“I didn’t hear any water . . .” He must’ve turned off the shower just before she’d barreled in. And she hadn’t noticed the light on. Hadn’t noticed the smell curling around her now—some masculine sort of soap or something. Hadn’t noticed . . .

Anything. She’d been too distraught. “I’ll just, um, leave.”

“Probably a good idea.” The man’s jaw twitched and for all of one second, it seemed like he might be on the brink of smiling. But just as quickly, the lightness seeped from his expression and he nudged his head toward the door.

Right. She spun, but her foot caught on a discarded plaid shirt. And great, there was his face in the mirror again. Another twitch and maybe even a twinkle in eyes that were, whoa, so blue-gray they might even rival that ocean view and—

Syd, get out.

She shuffled to the door and yanked on the knob. But it didn’t turn. She twisted it again. Oh, of course, she’d locked it. But didn’t the man in the shower say the lock didn’t work? She turned the lock, tried the knob—

“Told you it’s fussy.”

His voice again, not only deep but tinged with a slight accent. Scottish? And then, wait, was that the rustle of the shower curtain?

She turned in time to see one manly foot landing on the bathmat. She slapped her palm over her eyes. “You’re not getting out, are you? You can’t . . . not with me still . . . and you . . . I don’t want to see—”

Was that a grumble or a laugh? “Relax, you’re not going to see anything.”

Yes, definitely Scottish. Her closed eyes didn’t stop her from hearing his feet slap over the tile floor. Even if she hadn’t heard him approach, she’d feel his warmth as he neared. She opened one eye and peeked through her hand. Good grief. She was locked in a bathroom with a man wearing only a towel.

And she still couldn’t tell whether the quirk at the corner of his mouth was a scowl or the start of a grin.

“Scoot over.” He reached one long arm past her, his other hand gripping the towel knotted at his waist.

“What?”

“The knob. You have to jiggle it just right.”

She tried to step out of his way but bumped into the counter. “Why is this bathroom so small?”

“Felt plenty big to me until you waltzed in.” He wiggled the door handle. “People don’t knock where you come from?”

“I—”

He jiggled the knob again, then tapped her elbow to nudge her backward and pulled open the door. “There you go. Your escape route.”

She didn’t even wait for him to move out of the way, simply rushed past him, getting a horrible, wonderful whiff of his soap. But at least she managed not to look at him, catching only the briefest glimpse of bare skin as she brushed by.

“Nice to meet you, Sydney Rose.”

She whirled. He still clasped his towel in one hand, the opposite arm leaned up against the doorframe. And oh, that was definitely a grin. A tragically handsome one. She was going to die. She was going to march down those stairs and demand Wilder give her a ride back to the airport and slowly expire from mortification on the way.

“You know who I am?” Her voice squeaked.

“Red hair gave you away. But maybe if you don’t mind, I’ll go ahead and get dressed before we carry on with the introductions.”

“See that you do, Neil MacKean.”

Another unfamiliar voice. This one belonging to a woman.

Sydney turned—slow and unsure and suddenly somehow more comfortable with the sight of a towel-clad man than this woman who must be Margaret Muir, standing at the top of the staircase. She was several inches shorter than Sydney, with nearly-white hair and such hope and joy shining in her eyes it could almost take a person’s breath away.

“Sydney.”

She didn’t know what to say or to do. Didn’t know whether to step forward. Certainly couldn’t step backward or she’d run into that man’s chest. Neil. His name is Neil.

So she just stood there, mute and motionless.

Until the woman burst into tears and pulled her into an embrace. “Welcome home.”


Welcome home.

Neil balled his napkin in his lap, his aggravated gaze darting to the head of the dining room table, where Maggie stood over a pan of steaming lasagna, pulling a knife through its bubbling cheese. Usually the smell of Maggie’s cooking set his taste buds to watering, but tonight not even the butter-and-garlic aroma of her homemade bread could do the trick.

Welcome home.

Home. As if there wasn’t a single doubt in Maggie’s mind that the redhead who’d barreled into the bathroom, not to mention their lives, belonged here. An hour later and he was still brooding.

Not that he intended to show it. Oh no. He would sit through this Sunday night dinner like a perfect gentleman, employ every one of the polite manners Maggie had instilled in him. He owed her that much.

But with any luck, they’d get through the meal quickly and he could escape to the outdoors. To the west edge of the farthest field and the little grove that sheltered his one and only secret.

That is, if Indi ever showed up.

And Sydney Rose—the imposter. He was still annoyed with himself for joking with her upstairs earlier. He should’ve taken the opportunity to politely but firmly suggest she find another farm to invade.

“So, what’s she like?”

Lilian’s whisper cut in from beside him. His sister hadn’t changed out of this morning’s church clothes before heading in to her office this afternoon—she spent too many weekend hours working—and she’d only arrived home minutes ago. Her blue skirt and ruffled shirt made Neil’s usual flannel and denim feel just plain shabby by comparison.

But then, he wasn’t out to impress anyone tonight. Just get through dinner. Eventually Sydney Rose would be a distant memory.

Meanwhile, he had a farm to save. Bad enough he couldn’t figure out how to replace the harvester—no matter how long he peered at the numbers on his budget spreadsheet, they just didn’t work out in his favor—but today Tatum Carter had come sniffing around. The man had tried to pass it off as a neighborly Sunday afternoon visit, but Neil hadn’t missed the hungry gleam in his gaze as he’d eyed the landscape.

Enough to make him wonder if maybe it’d been Carter in that idling car the other night. But no, the man drove a truck.

Anyhow, maybe it wasn’t entirely fair to place the full blame for his current mood on the woman who had yet to show her face in the dining room. A good chunk of it, sure, but not the whole of it.

“Well?” Lilian pushed her short, dark blond hair behind both ears, curiosity swirling in her eyes.

Neil lifted a pitcher from the middle of the table. “Don’t know. Didn’t talk to her for more than two minutes.” And he’d been half-naked and soaking wet at the time, so small talk hadn’t really been his first order of business.

He filled his glass with water, ice clinking, and for the first time since that awkward introduction upstairs, almost smiled. Had to admit, for all his frustration at this situation, seeing that woman about melt from embarrassment, her cheeks flushing redder than her hair, had almost been worth the hassle of her arrival.

Maggie had still been hugging Sydney Rose when he’d escaped into his bedroom at that point, but he’d heard the rest of their short conversation from behind his closed door. They’d exchanged “nice to meet you’s” and Maggie had apologized for her tears and impulsive embrace—and the fact that she’d been sweeping the back steps when they’d arrived, thus why she’d failed to answer Wilder’s knock. She’d told Sydney to make herself comfortable in the spare room at the end of the hall.

“I know this must be overwhelming. Take however long you need to settle in and catch your breath. We’ll have dinner all together later and we can get to know each other better then. I promise the rest of my brood will be fully dressed.”

Lilian nudged him with her elbow. “But you at least got a look at her, didn’t you? Any resemblance to old photos of Diana? Any chance this one’s for real?”

“Would you two stop whispering as if I’m not in the room?” Maggie straightened, knife held in midair. “I know this is all a little uncomfortable, but I expect you to be on your best behavior tonight. Lil, stop questioning Neil as if he’s on a witness stand. Neil . . .” Her grin turned cheeky. “I’m quite relieved you opted for modesty this evening.”

He sputtered on his water. “Very funny. Seems like you might be forgetting I was the innocent bystander in that incident.”

Maggie resumed cutting the lasagna. “You could’ve stayed in the shower.”

“She could’ve stayed out of the bathroom.” He plunked his glass to the table.

Lilian folded her arms. “Clearly I missed something.”

Wilder picked that moment to saunter into the room. “Hey, folks. Ah, MacKean, glad to see you traded in the towel for actual clothes.”

Whatever retort he might’ve tossed at his friend was lost to Lilian’s muttered, “Oh, you’re still here.”

“Been outside.” Wilder peeled off his jacket and draped it over the back of the chair across from Lilian before plopping down. “Maggie told me to stick around. Figured I might as well be useful.” He reached toward the basket of bread in the middle of the table.

But Lilian swiped the basket away before he could nab a slice. “By eating our food?”

“No, by replacing the bulbs in the front porch lights.”

One of a dozen to-dos Neil hadn’t gotten around to this week. He should probably thank the guy, but for once Lilian wasn’t the only one on the outs with him. He still didn’t fully understand how Wilder had come across Sydney Rose or what made him think she was Maggie’s long-lost granddaughter, but to bring her here was downright foolish.

At the soft clearing of a throat, silence rattled through the dining room.

Neil balled his napkin all over again as his gaze flew to the woman standing under the arched opening. She wore dark jeans and a long cream-colored sweater with a wide, sort of scooped neck. He’d noticed the red tint to her hair earlier, but it’d been pulled back then. Now it hung in long, loose waves—darker than he’d realized before. A color that made him think of the blend of spices Maggie used in her legendary cider.

Stop staring. He’d told himself he wouldn’t be curious about her. Wouldn’t be interested. He’d be polite enough to please Maggie and nothing more.

Hadn’t counted on her being pretty, though.

Still, no matter. She’d be in and out of Maggie’s life in mere days like all the other girls. He’d seen it time and again.

Whereas he’d still be here, fighting for the farm, this land, this house. Wishing he could coax Maggie into a change of heart regarding the future of Muir Farm. But how probable was that when clearly her whole heart was still wrapped up in the past?

He tore his gaze away from the imposter. Even now, Maggie’s eyes shone with moisture. “Sydney.” Her voice was soft. “I’m so happy you’ve joined us. I was a little worried you might be scared off by the size of our crowd.”

“You could’ve sent Wilder home,” Lilian mumbled.

Wilder only chuckled.

Maggie continued as if oblivious, moving around the massive oak table to go to Sydney’s side. “We’re not all here yet. Indi should arrive soon, I hope, but we won’t wait on her. She’s used to us starting without her. Lord love her, but that girl’s never been on time in her life. Anyhow, I hope you like lasagna. Oh dear, for all I know you could be a vegetarian or one of those—oh, who are the folks who don’t do eggs and such?”

To her credit, if Sydney was taken aback by Maggie’s rush of words, she didn’t show it. Only offered a brief smile—one that almost came close to hiding her nervousness.

Almost, but not entirely. Did anyone else notice the slight tremble of her hands as Maggie led her to the table? Wilder jumped up, pulling out the chair across from Neil. Sydney thanked him, casting a furtive glance to Maggie, who was currently reclaiming her spot at the head of the table, then to Lilian and on to him.

And for one unsettling moment, a sudden and stubborn curiosity grabbed hold of him. Whatever he might have expected to see in her brownish-green eyes, it wasn’t this. Something like wonder, maybe even awe.

Couldn’t be because of her surroundings. There was nothing fancy about this dining room. Though polished and clean, the wood floors were as scratched up as any other room in the house, and too many dishes and figurines crowded the built-in hutch. The brass fixture overhead was outdated, as was the light lavender wall color and probably the line of canvas prints hanging behind Maggie, not that he was a good judge of home décor.

But he’d never cared that the old house wasn’t modern or HGTV-ready. It was comfortable. It was home.

But if it wasn’t the house causing the glint of near-astonishment in Sydney’s expression, what was it? The spread in front of them? Maybe she was used to freezer food and take-out meals.

“I love it,” she surprised him by blurting, her focus darting to Maggie. “Lasagna, I mean. I love it. I, uh—I work in an Italian restaurant back in Chicago. And I’m not a vegetarian. Or a vegan.”

Maggie spread her napkin on her lap. “Shoot, you’re probably sick of Italian food. I should’ve gone with a roast.”

Sydney shook her head. “No. No, I really do love lasagna. Although I hope you didn’t go to any extra work because of me.”

“She didn’t.” There was an edge to Lilian’s cool words, and Neil didn’t have to look at her to know her expression likely matched it. “Maggie always makes a big Sunday evening dinner so—”

“Yes, because it’s family tradition,” Maggie interrupted, a hint of censure hovering behind her sweet tone. “Everyone assists with meals throughout the week, but on Sunday, I like the time in the kitchen by myself.”

“We help clean up, though.”

Sydney’s eyes met his once more. She seemed startled that he’d spoken up.

Heck, he was startled. He’d planned to leave the chitchat to the rest of the group. Had wanted nothing more than to fill his stomach, dutifully load up the dishwasher, and head outside, spend the waning hours of the day working on the project no one at this table knew anything about.

Maggie touched his arm. “Neil, why don’t you say grace? Then we can dive in and—”

“Hello, hello. I’m here.” Indi’s singsong voice trailed from the front of the house, the sound of the front door thudding and the thump of her footsteps echoing. “I know I’m late, but only by a few minutes, and when you hear my news, you’ll totally forgive me. I know you will.”

Indi blew into the room with her usual energy, tugging off her jean jacket, her mass of tangled curls bouncing around her face. She plopped into the chair on Lilian’s other side and freed a band from around her wrist, reaching up to pull her hair into a messy bun. Only then did she seem to notice Sydney. “Oh. Hi. You’re the latest would-be Cynthia Muir, yeah? Guess you’ll get to hear my news too.”

Maggie’s sigh was barely perceptible. “Glad you could make it, Indi. Neil was just about to—”

“This can’t wait.” Indi practically bounced in her chair. “I’ve met someone and . . .” She paused, playing up the drama. Because that was Indi. Theatrical. Exasperating. Endearing, in her own way. “We’re engaged.”

Neil dropped his napkin as gasps rang out around the table. Lilian’s shrieked, “What?” about split his eardrums, and Maggie looked shocked enough to faint. Wilder was grinning and congratulating her, and poor Sydney was just sitting there.

Wait, not poor Sydney. She shouldn’t even be here. This was family business.

Indi, his little sister, was engaged? To a guy none of them had even met?

Maggie was standing now, rounding the table again, pulling Indi into a hug, though her bewildered concern was apparent. Lilian bulleted questions faster than he could think and . . .

And he needed a minute. Just one minute of silence and sanity.

He grabbed the half-empty water pitcher and stood, escaping to the kitchen. He marched into the room, jutted the pitcher under the sink. The windowsill above housed a collection of plants with leafy vines spilling over its edge, always in the way of the faucet. He pushed a tangle of leaves away, turned on the water, then let himself lean over the sink and simply breathe.

The farm. Tatum Carter. Sydney Rose. Maggie. Indi engaged.

“Wilder just asked Indi if he could perform the ceremony.” Lilian’s irritated voice, along with the rap of her steps as she entered the kitchen, punctured his moment of quiet. “He said technically he’s a sea captain, which means he should be able to officiate. As if owning a houseboat makes him a captain. Why is that man always here?”

He turned off the faucet and faced her. “Indi tells us she’s engaged—engaged to someone we’ve never met, the latest in a string of someones we’ve never met—and you’re upset at Wilder?”

“The engagement probably won’t last more than a week or two.” Lilian rolled her eyes. “You know that. You know Indi.”

“How could you . . . why would you . . . that’s really what you think?”

Neil didn’t even bother to cover his groan at the sight of Indi suddenly behind Lilian, the hurt in her voice. Lilian turned slowly. “Indi, I didn’t mean—”

“Yes, you did.”

“Guys—” he started but Indi cut in.

“Bennington Foster is different. You’ll see when you meet him.”

She was engaged to a man named Bennington? Neil shook his head, sighed. “Indi—”

“And you.” She pushed past Lilian, glare centered on him. “You didn’t even bother to congratulate me.”

“I’m sorry. You’re right, I . . . I’m happy for you, sis. I am. I’m just distracted tonight. I’m concerned about the farm and Maggie and there’s a stranger sitting out in the dining room and . . .” He turned away from his sisters, raking his fingers through his hair with another sigh, appetite entirely gone. “I can’t handle Maggie being disappointed again. Last time she hardly came out of her room for weeks and I just . . . I can’t see her like that again.”

Strained silence carved out the air around him, until Lilian moved to his side. “What do you mean you’re concerned about the farm?”

He shook his head. Now wasn’t the time to burden his sisters with that. Although knowing Lilian, if she got a good enough look at him, he wouldn’t be able to hide the depth of his worry. So he let his gaze drift through the window to a sleepy sky filled with pastels. He heard Indi move to his other side and he reached his arm around her back. “Congratulations, Indi. I’m sorry I didn’t say it earlier.”

She offered a small smile as she glanced up at him. “So what’s the plan?”

“Plan?”

“For dealing with the woman. You always have a plan. Do we sabotage her? Stonewall her? Grab some pitchforks from the barn and chase her off?”

That actually managed to pull a laugh from him. “Or we sic Lil on her. She can intimidate her with a slew of lawyerly questions.”

Lilian elbowed his side. “Don’t be ridiculous. As long as Wilder keeps hanging around, none of us will have to do anything. He’ll annoy her into leaving.”

Now all three of them were laughing. “What is your deal with that guy?” Indi asked through her giggles.

Neil couldn’t help the tease. “The real question is, are you seriously going to marry a man named Bennington?”

She shouldn’t be here.

Sydney opened her suitcase atop the daybed she might not be sleeping in after all tonight. Before that fiasco of a dinner, she’d mostly emptied her luggage, placing neatly folded shirts and jeans into the walnut dresser across the small room and lining up toiletries and cosmetics atop it while her frazzled nerves gradually uncoiled.

But now they were wound tighter than ever.

They didn’t want her here. Not the elegant one with the short blond hair and the nice clothes. Not the bubbly, engaged one. Certainly not the man with the disarmingly blue eyes who’d hardly said a word.

Not five minutes into dinner they’d all disappeared into what she assumed was the kitchen, and no, she hadn’t known what their muffled voices were saying back there. But she had a darn good idea what they were talking about. Or rather, who.

Wilder had tried to smooth things over while they were gone, joking about siblings being siblings, but the second Maggie had left the room to check on them, Sydney had taken the opportunity to escape. She lowered to the bed now, the pillow-top mattress too inviting.

I shouldn’t be here. The only question was whether to repack her suitcase immediately and ask Wilder for a ride back to Augusta tonight or wait until morning.

With a sigh, she tugged her phone from her pocket and tapped out a text to Micah. I made it to Maine but the truth is, I could use a brotherly pep talk about now. Call me?

She waited in the silence of the bedroom. Nothing.

Until the muffled creak of the hallway floorboards. Footsteps. They slowed just outside her door and then paused altogether.

Perhaps Wilder had decided to take mercy on her, help her sneak out of the house undetected. A perfect idea, but for one thing—she’d feel awful for leaving Margaret Muir that way. The older woman seemed so sweet, so kind. So filled with something Sydney recognized.

Longing. She’d felt it in the woman’s embrace earlier, heard it in her husky voice as she’d said Sydney’s name.

Maggie wanted her here. Even if the others didn’t.

At the soft rap on her door, she lifted to her feet.

“Sydney?”

Not Wilder. But at least it wasn’t Neil or one of his sisters. She moved across the room and opened the door. Maggie stood just outside, holding a covered tray.

“Oh, you didn’t have to . . .” Her voice trailed as her stomach betrayed her, growling so loudly it drew a quirk of Maggie’s lips.

“Can I come in?”

Sydney opened the door wider and stepped aside. Maggie padded in, pausing in the center of the faded white rug that partially covered the floor. “I have to apologize for the others. If they were young enough to be grounded, I’d sentence them to their rooms for a year, but alas, the best I could do was scold them and forbid them from touching my blueberry cheesecake. Which is just fine—more for you, me, and Wilder.”

She set the tray on the sill of the room’s lone window—large enough that a person could sit in it. In fact, before supper, Sydney had imagined doing just that. Grabbing a book from the wall of shelves she’d glimpsed in the living room earlier, pulling the quilt off her bed, and curling up in that oversized windowsill.

“I’ve reheated all the food.” Maggie turned back to Sydney. “But could we talk? Just for a minute?”

She couldn’t have declined if she’d wanted to, not with that kindness in Maggie’s gaze. The woman moved to the daybed, pushed Sydney’s luggage toward the brass bars at the back, and sat, patting the spot beside her.

Sydney obeyed, lowering next to Maggie.

“I know this must be all so very bewildering to you. I’m still finding it hard to believe myself that Wilder managed to get you on a plane and bring you here. I’m pretty sure he thought I was batty for insisting he go to Chicago.”

“He said you wouldn’t take no for an answer.”

Maggie let out a low chuckle, one white tress escaping its plait and uncurling over her shoulder. Her gentle nature seemed right at home in this room with all its soft colors and feminine touches—white wallpaper patterned with little sprigs of flowers, lacy curtains, light green comforter and bed skirt and matching pillows.

“This used to be her room, you know.”

Her . . . ? Oh, of course. Diana.

“There’s so much I’d do differently if I could go back in time. I was so young when I became her mother. I . . .” Maggie shook her head. “I know you’ve had a bumpy start to your visit, Sydney, but I hope you’ll stay. I’d like to tell you about my Diana.” She reached for Sydney’s free hand and clasped it between both of her own. “Wilder can keep searching for answers, but I think we just might find our own simply by talking, getting to know one another.”

It sounded so . . . lovely. So very inviting. “But what . . . what if I’m not—”

Maggie squeezed her palm before releasing it, then lifted her hand to pat Sydney’s cheek. “We’ll cross that bridge if we come to it. Now, I’d better leave you so you can eat your supper before it gets cold a second time.” She moved to the door but stopped with her hand on the doorknob. “You will stay?”

Wilder was right. There was simply no saying no to Maggie.

But it wasn’t just Maggie. It was this charming bedroom. It was this big, old house. It was the ocean.

Perhaps it was even the others downstairs, the camaraderie she’d sensed between them just in those few minutes in the dining room. And some small, nonsensical hope that maybe she could find her way into their circle.

She nodded, and an unmistakable relief eased the lines in Maggie’s face. The older woman turned to leave but halted again. “Oh, Neil. You’re heading outside? Wait for a minute, will you?”

Neil was out there? Sydney caught a glimpse of plaid and dark hair past where Maggie stood in the doorway. Shoot. Just when she’d begun to feel better about being here . . .

“Do you need something, Maggie?”

That was a fair degree of reluctance lurking behind his Scottish-tinged words.

“No, but Sydney does. A tour.”

Sydney hopped off the bed. “Oh, that’s fine. I don’t need—”

“Of course you do. If you’re going to be here for a while, you need to know your way around. Neil will give you a tour after breakfast tomorrow, won’t you, dear? I’d do it myself but I don’t usually venture too far from the house. Especially not as far as the barrens.”

She could see just enough of Neil’s face over Maggie’s shoulder to take in the flash of sympathy in his eyes. But in a blink, it was replaced with something else—a forced politeness, if she wasn’t mistaken. “A tour. I can do that.”

Could, but didn’t relish the idea. That was plain enough.

But before she could argue, he spun away and disappeared down the hallway, the sound of his steps thumping on the staircase soon following. Maggie faced her again with a pleased smile on her face. “Well, then, that’s settled. Enjoy your supper.”

She gave Sydney’s cheek another pat, and then she was gone.

Sydney turned with a sigh, plucked her phone from the bed. No reply from Micah. She dropped it and moved to the windowsill, drawn by the tantalizing scent of Italian spices. She lifted the towel and reached for a piece of garlic bread.

But she paused with the slice halfway to her mouth, gaze drifting out the window.

And landing on the figure crossing the rambling yard out back, a full moon tracing his path toward a bundle of trees and a dog bounding at his side. Neil. He stopped, nearly to the trees, looked over his shoulder.

She inched away from the window, sliding up against the wall. Why had he looked back? Almost as if . . . as if he wanted to make sure no one was watching. She ducked her head forward to peer once more into the dusk.

But he was already gone.

Where are you off to, Neil MacKean?