Will stood on the lower deck of the Dolphin IX, listening to the brief lecture going on above her. Sunshine reflected off the water and, as the boat gained speed, the wind whipped her hair and cut through her Dolphin Fleet windbreaker. They rounded the narrow tip of Long Point and skirted the coast along Herring Cove before heading for open water. It was one of the last whale watches of the season.
Summer had been warm. Even now, in the middle of October, the real chill of fall had yet to arrive. Will wasn’t in any hurry for it. As much as she enjoyed the changing leaves and drop in temperature, it meant winter was fast approaching. She’d yet to spend a winter on Cape Cod, but she’d heard enough stories that she dreaded it already. Of course, weather was only part of the dread. No steady income and no one around didn’t help matters.
But real winter was still a couple of months away. For now, life was good. Will breathed in the sea air and closed her eyes. As she’d taken to doing each time she went out as part of the Dolphin Fleet crew, she offered up a moment of gratitude.
“Where are the restrooms?”
The question pulled her back to the present. Rather than resenting the interruption, she smiled and pointed to the narrow metal door. “Right behind you.”
“Thanks.” The woman led a little boy who looked to be about five into the bathroom.
Will tuned back in to the lecture. She liked Graham’s delivery the most. Although she was still a graduate student, and only part of the crew as an intern, her knowledge base was solid and her enthusiasm for marine life infectious. Of course, Will had a bit of a soft spot for her. They’d started with the fleet at the same time. And while Will was merely a customer service member of the crew, they hit it off. Graham was sweet, funny, and profoundly optimistic. She’d only been entrusted with giving the lecture a few weeks prior and killed it. Will was proud of her, in a big sister sort of way.
She dashed up the stairs to the top deck to say as much, but Graham was surrounded by little kids oohing and aahing over a whale tooth or some other artifact from the talk. Since she was on service duty today, Will didn’t linger. She returned to the main deck and headed to the canteen. Since the weather had turned colder, they sold a lot more coffee than bottles of water and soda. She sidled up behind the counter next to Liz and jumped in.
It didn’t take long for whale sightings to begin and the interior room quickly emptied. Over the speaker, she listened to Graham and Charles, the more senior naturalist, talk about breeding behaviors and the tail patterns used to identify and track the whales. In her five months working on the boat, she’d learned a great deal about whales and marine life in general. She enjoyed it more than she expected, feeling an unusually strong affinity for the wildlife and geography of the waters surrounding New England.
She’d also found her sea legs. When she first started, choppy water would have her bracing her legs and grabbing onto the closest available surface. Now, she’d adopted a slightly wider stance, swaying with the rocking of the boat instead of fighting it. It made serving coffee a hell of a lot easier. At this point, she could serve customers and still steal glances out the window, even catching a glimpse of a whale from time to time between the people huddled along the side of the boat.
The boat stayed out for a couple of hours before heading back to shore. The line at the canteen picked up with people in search of a quick snack or late lunch. She served up clam chowder and chili, hot dogs and pizza. The crowds were smaller now that school had started, but still sizable and always enthusiastic.
Before she knew it, they were back in the harbor and pulling up to the dock at MacMillan Pier. Because she’d arrived early to do set up, Will was off the hook for cleanup. She grabbed her things and headed for the ramp to the dock just as Graham came down the stairs. “Are you done for the day?” she asked.
Will smiled. “I am.”
“Want to grab a beer?”
“Yes. Yes, I do.” They strolled down the pier together. Will stole a glance at Graham, whose eyes were shaded by sunglasses. She had this happy, bouncy energy that Will found infectious. It reminded Will of her own youth. She chuckled. When had she started referring to her youth in the past tense?
“What’s so funny?”
Will shook her head. “Nothing.”
Graham stopped walking and gave her an exasperated look. “Come on. Tell me.”
“I was merely appreciating your joie de vivre.”
Graham raised a brow.
“Really. You’ve worked all day, but you’re still soaking up the sun, looking thrilled to be alive.”
They continued walking. “I am thrilled to be alive.”
“Exactly. And I love that about you.”
They meandered down Commercial Street. Much like the crowds on the boat, the throngs of people in town had thinned. Will considered it the sweet spot—just busy enough to keep things interesting. They peeked in the window at the Squealing Pig, happy to discover only about half the stools at the bar occupied. Will held the door for Graham, who smiled at her then led them to a spot near the back.
Within seconds, they had matching glasses of cold Cape Cod Blonde. Will lifted her glass. “Here’s to a great season.”
Graham clinked her glass. “And to enjoying every minute of it.”
They drank in silence for a moment. Will found her thoughts turning to what would happen next. She had two more weeks with the Fleet, helping to clean and winterize the boats for storage. That would get her almost to Thanksgiving. After that, though, her options were slim. She knew finding a full-time job in the off-season would be unlikely. But she hoped to piece together some part-time work and maybe do odd jobs here and there. For never having owned a house, she was pretty handy. Years working at one of the big box home improvement stores had taught her quite a bit.
“I don’t think I’m ready for the season to end,” Graham said.
“I feel you. Are you heading back to school?”
Graham shrugged. “I’m not sure. I didn’t sublet my room, but I don’t have classes or anything. I need to work on my thesis, but I could do that from here.”
“I’m clearly biased, but I think you should stay.”
Graham smiled. “Thanks. I’ll think about it. I’m not sure my aunt bargained on giving up one of her rooms through December. Speaking of which, why don’t you come home with me tonight?”
Will raised a brow at the suggestive phrase. “Are you propositioning me?”
Graham’s cheeks turned crimson and Will almost regretted teasing her. “I mean, come to my house for dinner. My aunt has a full house for a wedding and is doing a clam bake for the rehearsal dinner.”
That sounded far more delicious than the frozen burrito waiting for her at home. Still. “I’m sure the last thing she wants is an extra person to deal with and another mouth to feed.”
Graham was unswayed. “She’ll have an obscene amount of food. She always does. What if I said you could earn your dinner by helping me with cleanup?”
Will smiled. “Now the truth comes out. You’re looking for labor.”
“So you’ll come?”
Will didn’t mind helping out. She liked feeling useful. “I’ll come.”
Will looked down at her jacket. Underneath, she wore a faded thermal shirt. “I should probably go home and change.”
“Relax. I won’t change, either. We’ll stay behind the scenes.”
“All right.” It was a relief, really. This made it seem like she was coming to pitch in more than be fed a nice meal. Besides, she wasn’t sure she had any nice shirts clean.
Graham glanced at her watch. “We should go. I think it starts in about an hour.”
They left the bar and started walking toward the East End. The sun had set and dusk was quickly giving way to dark. “Shouldn’t you let her know I’m coming?”
Graham shrugged. “She won’t be looking at her phone anyway. Don’t worry. It’ll be fine.”
“Okay.” Will matched her pace to Graham’s. If Graham didn’t think it was a big deal, she wouldn’t worry about it, either. She was looking forward to meeting Aunt Nora. From the way Graham described her, she sounded like quite the force. And Will had walked by Failte Inn enough times to be curious about the inside.
She tucked her hands in her pockets and soaked up the last of the day’s warmth. The breeze carried the smell of the ocean and aromas wafting from the restaurants they passed. She’d been in P-town for six months and the reality of it still made her smile. She thought of Graham’s earlier statement. Maybe there was something to be said for being thrilled to be alive.
Nora crossed her arms and surveyed her back garden. Even without the lush flowers of summer, the space was her favorite. More than the perfectly decorated guest rooms or her meticulously appointed kitchen, the garden soothed her soul. It had been an overrun mess when she bought the place, used as little more than an extra parking spot and smoking area. Now, it was one of the features that drew guests to Failte, and had them returning again and again.
Had it been summer, she would have served dinner outside. But since the temperature would dip into the upper thirties by nightfall, her guests would have to settle for a small fire to cap off the evening. Still, she’d strung extra fairy lights, and half a dozen vintage hurricane lanterns hung from shepherd’s hooks. Even with the chill, the space emitted a warm and welcoming glow. If she didn’t have a thousand things to do, she could stand there and enjoy it for hours. But today she did have a thousand things to do and she wanted everything to be just right.
She turned on her heel and headed back to the kitchen. Tisha, her summer manager, was inspecting clams and loading them into steamer baskets. Corn and potatoes were already prepped, along with mussels and a bowl full of lemons, onions, and garlic. “How’s everything in here?”
Tisha nodded. “Right on track. I’ll have the drinks set out before everyone arrives, then be ready to go with hors d’oeuvres.”
“Excellent. Do you need a hand with anything?”
“Not until we start steaming.”
“Great. I’m going to change into something presentable. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
Nora headed to her room at the back of the house. Although smaller than the guest rooms, it had the perfect blend of coziness and natural light. The southern-facing window helped, as did the mix of antique furniture and pastel walls. She took a moment, as she always did, to appreciate it before hustling over to her closet. She surveyed her options, wanting something nice enough for playing hostess and forgiving enough to allow her to work during the party. She settled on a dress with a floral print. It had such a nice cut, she felt feminine even after slapping an apron over it.
She put on flats that looked nice but wouldn’t kill her feet, earrings, and just a little makeup. It was a party after all. She brushed her hair and studied her reflection, grateful the light color belied just how many grays had appeared in the last couple of years. Nora shook her head, refusing to fret about it. She pulled the front half back with a clip so it would be out of the way and stepped back from the mirror. Satisfied with her appearance, she returned to the kitchen.
Tisha greeted her with a whistle. “Don’t you clean up pretty.”
Nora gave her an exasperated look, then smiled. In addition to running things with the same efficiency and attention to detail that she did, Tisha managed to maintain a playfulness in her personality. As someone prone to seriousness, Nora appreciated the balance. Nora gave a little twirl, more for Tisha’s benefit than her own. “Someone’s got to do it.”
Tisha laughed. “Better you than me. I like getting pretty, but charming a bunch of strangers is not my idea of a good time.”
“You say that, but you’re better at it than me.”
“I’m good at scrubbing toilets, too. Don’t mean that’s how I want to spend my time.”
“You make a good point.” When she’d hired Tisha seven years ago, it had been for just that. Well, toilets and cleaning and other housekeeping. She’d returned the following summer and the summer after that, returning to Jamaica each winter to be with her family and work the high season there. Each year, she’d taken on more and more responsibility, becoming almost a partner for the high season as well as a friend. She’d be leaving in a couple of weeks and Nora already missed her.
Tisha finished plating a tray of bruschetta. “So maybe there will be a smooth-talking and handsome butch who comes tonight and sweeps you off your feet.”
Nora rolled her eyes. “Not likely. The couple getting married is a pair of gay men in their fifties.”
“They have friends.”
This was true. Still, she didn’t have the time or inclination to think about being swept off her feet. But she knew better than to say that to Tisha, who was constantly telling her she needed to loosen up, have a little fun, have an affair. “I’ll be sure to keep you posted.”
Graham led them down a narrow path to the front porch. In addition to the lights on either side of the door, thick white candles burned in decorative lanterns set on small tables and a welcoming glow poured from the windows. “This place is gorgeous.”
Graham smiled. “Wait until you see the inside.”
They went in the front door and Will did her best not to gape. The entryway boasted a gleaming wooden staircase and wide openings to the adjacent rooms. It wasn’t over-the-top fancy, but it was beautiful, and nicer than any place she’d ever stayed.
“Graham, is that you?”
Will looked in the direction of the voice, but didn’t see anyone. “Yes, and I brought a friend. She’ll work for food.”
Will chuckled at the assessment, in part because it made her feel about fifteen and in part because it was true.
“You know you can bring people over without putting them to work.”
The owner of the voice came into view and Will blinked in surprise. She’d imagined sort of a Martha Stewart type. This woman was no Martha Stewart. Nor was she like any of Will’s aunts—women on the far side of middle age who either clung to their youth or gave themselves over to their role as grandparents. Nora was something in the middle, older but with a kind of refined beauty and poise. Her hair was a sandy blond, perhaps with a hint of gray running through it, that fell in waves to her shoulders. She wore a floral dress that accentuated an hourglass figure. Over it, a dark green apron. She was stunning. Will swallowed.
“Aunt Nora, this is my friend, Will Lange. Will, Nora Calhoun.”
Nora extended her hand. “Nice to meet you.”
Will shook her hand and tried to find her vocabulary. “Likewise.”
“You have an interesting name, Will. Is it short for something?”
Will smiled. “Willa. My dad had a literary streak.”
“And her sister is Emerson,” Graham said.
Nora smiled and Will’s heart rate kicked up an extra notch. “How nice. I always wanted a name with a little more flair.”
“I like it now, but as a kid, all I wanted was one that was more normal.”
Graham laughed. “There was a kid who called me Golden Grahams for the entirety of second grade.”
Will laughed, too, then realized they were likely keeping Nora from her preparations. “I don’t intend to crash your party, but I really am happy to help.”
Nora looked at Graham and shook her head. The girl had a huge heart and, as a result, was always bringing home strays. Usually, they were kids around her age—college students, seasonal workers, an artist here or there. This Will seemed different, older. At least Nora hoped she was older. Nora didn’t want to think about finding a twenty-three-year-old attractive. And she definitely found Will attractive. “Everything out here is set. I’m sure Tisha wouldn’t mind some help in the kitchen.”
“We’re on it.” Graham took Will’s hand and led her toward the kitchen.
Nora remained in the hall and watched them. Even in the same uniform jacket as Graham wore, Will stood out. She had a posture, a certain energy. Add to that blue eyes, a mop of short brown curls, and high cheekbones. She reminded Nora of Jordyn—physically, but also in the magnetism Nora felt in her presence. Nora shook her head again. She needed a trip down memory lane like she needed a hole in the head.
When Will glanced back and caught her staring, Nora quickly turned away. She took a deep breath and refocused her attention on the dining room. Neither the time nor the inclination. Understatement of the century.
She spent a minute fussing over the table in the dining room, then glanced at her watch. Her guests were due in a few minutes. Nora took the lighter from her apron pocket and made her way around the room, lighting candles.
The wedding party arrived with some of their guests. The grooms, a pair of teachers from Rhode Island, had been so easy to work with. They’d not even planned on a rehearsal dinner, but with so many of their family and friends coming in the day before, they begged Nora to throw something together. And she was happy to oblige. Nora greeted them, then headed to the kitchen to bring out hors d’oeuvres. She spent the next two hours moving in and out of the kitchen, checking the chafing dishes she’d set up on her buffet and making sure everyone was happy.
She didn’t see Will, but knowing she was around put Nora on edge. Not angry or nervous, just aware. Different from the kind of awareness she felt with guests or Tisha or Graham. Not unfamiliar, but something she hadn’t felt in a long time.
Trying to shake it off, Nora went to the back yard to light the fire and set out a tray of ingredients for s’mores. It wouldn’t have quite the charm of a beach fire, but the grooms had requested it. The guests moved outside and Nora returned to the house to grab the basket of throw blankets and pashminas she’d put together for guests who wanted them. On her way back to the yard, she caught a glimpse of Graham and Will in the now empty dining room, eating. She nodded her approval and passed through the kitchen. “I’m going to deliver these and check on things, then I’ll be back to start cleaning up.”
Tisha waved a hand. “Take your time and tend your guests. I’m fine in here.”
She didn’t intend to take her time, but Nora found herself pulled into several conversations. She didn’t mind the chatting. And although she didn’t want to saddle Tisha with all the cleanup, playing hostess was as much a part of the job as cooking meals and making beds. As she went about the familiar routine, she wondered if Will had left for the night. She shouldn’t be disappointed by the possibility, but she was.
When she finally made it back inside, she found Graham and Will at the sink, laughing and washing dishes. Seeing Will the second time gave her the same jolt as the first. Just like the feeling that had stayed with her most of the evening, it felt uncomfortably familiar. Annoyed, she stepped the rest of the way into the kitchen. “I meant what I said. You don’t have to earn your dinner.”
They turned to look at her in unison. “I’m happy to help,” Will said. “The dinner was exceptional.”
Graham tipped her head toward Will. “What she said.”
She glanced at Tisha, who simply shrugged. “They take good direction.”
Nora decided to let it go. They were young and had the boundless energy to match. She returned to the back yard just as the last guests were trickling in. Some had already set up camp in the sitting room to drink wine and laugh and play games. A few had gone to bed, including her grooms. She loved the vibe of a wedding party in the house. She always considered her home, her inn, a happy place, but weddings brought an extra level of joy.
She picked up the yard, blowing out candles and poking at the remains of the fire. It should go out on its own, but she hated to take chances, so she filled a bucket and doused the embers. Satisfied everything was in order, she returned to the house.
When they’d finished the dishes, Will dried her hands and turned to Graham. “Do I get the tour?”
Graham grinned. “I can’t show you the guest rooms, since there are guests in them, but everything else, sure.”
“I’ll take it.”
Graham gestured to the space around them. “This is the kitchen.”
“So I gathered.” It was a beautiful space, a mishmash of professional-grade appliances and French country decor that somehow worked. It reminded her of those insane home kitchens on cooking shows, the ones that were too perfect for any normal person to have. But this one had a lived-in feel.
They exited through a swinging door to the dining room, where they’d had their dinner. The French country feel continued. A massive farmhouse table had seating for twelve. The sideboard had been cleared of chafing dishes and set up as a coffee bar. Black and white toile curtains stood in contrast to deep red walls and complemented the black metal scroll work of the chandelier. “I love this room.”
Graham nodded. “Aunt Nora handled all of the design herself. She bought the place when I was still a kid and it was in terrible shape.”
“I love that the style is a mix of traditional and eclectic.”
“Wait till you see the library and sitting room.” They left the dining room and entered a hallway. Graham gestured up the stairs. “There are three guest rooms upstairs, including a suite. One more down the hall on this floor, along with my aunt’s room and the one I’m staying in.”
They crossed into a large room with tall windows that faced the front garden. A sofa, love seat, and two chairs flanked a fireplace. Some of the guests from dinner sat, drinking wine and talking. Another pair of chairs were tucked into a corner with a small table. It felt homey. Like the fantasy version of homey that had never actually been home for her, but homey nonetheless. Will imagined sitting by the fire with a book. She could see Nora in jeans and a baggy sweater, curled up at the opposite end of the sofa, their socked feet entwined.
Where did that come from? The image was so vivid, she had to shake her head to chase it away.
“This room is great, but the library is still my favorite.”
Graham’s voice yanked Will back to the present. “There’s more?”
Graham led the way to a door at the back of the room. A moment later, Will found herself in a space probably a third the size of the sitting room. It felt even smaller thanks to towering bookshelves that lined three of the walls. “Wow.”
“I know, right?”
A much smaller sofa, that appeared to be an antique, sat opposite two leather wing chairs. Even without a fireplace, the room felt even more inviting than the sitting room. “I’d spend all my time in here.”
“When no one else is in here, I do.” Graham grinned. “I think that makes us nerds.”
Will smiled. That word had generally been reserved for her sister. She liked the idea that someone might think of her that way. “I’m okay with that.”
Graham led them out of the library and down a short hall past the kitchen. “Aunt Nora’s room is there and I’m…” She opened a door. “Here.”
Will stepped inside. The room was cozy—full bed, narrow dresser, and a small chair in the corner. Smaller than her room, but with nicer decor. “This is very cute.”
Graham bumped her shoulder. “Thanks. It’s an add-on room people can book with the adjoining one if they have kids. The regular guest rooms are much nicer.”
Will shrugged. “I think this one is plenty nice.”
“And best of all, it’s free. I tried to pay Aunt Nora rent, but she refused.”
“I’m sure she loves having you around.”
It was Graham’s turn to shrug. “I hope so. This was the best summer of my life.”
The fact that Graham would be leaving soon made Will a little sad. Other than Emerson, there was no one in P-town she’d spent more time with. She hated the idea of becoming friends who texted and saw each other once a year. “It’s been pretty great. And to think I applied to the Dolphin Fleet on a whim.”
Will nodded. “When I decided I wanted to stay in town, I needed a job. And I wanted something that wasn’t retail or bar tending.”
“So, you joined a whale watch. So random.”
“But if I hadn’t, we’d never have met.”
Graham’s face grew serious. “I don’t even want to think about it.”
Not wanting to tread into overly sentimental territory, Will smiled. “Shall we go see if your aunt needs any more help?”
They found Nora in the dining room, putting dishes and glasses into the buffet. “Thank you again for the help,” she said.
“Happy to do it.” Will offered a warm smile. “I’m still pretty sure I got the better end of the deal.”
“It’s nice of you to say so. You two have any other plans for the night?”
Graham looked at Will expectantly. Will shrugged. “I hate to admit it, but it’s already past my bedtime.”
Nora returned the smile. “There’s nothing wrong with that.”
Graham rolled her eyes. “The two of you.”
“Are you a morning person at heart or is it the line of work?” Will asked.
“I always have been.” Nora shook her head. “Much to the consternation of my sister, with whom I shared a room for fifteen years.”
Will laughed. “My sister is exactly the same. She got up early when we were kids because she’s an overachiever, but she hated it. These days, she keeps the craziest hours.”
“One more reason to be glad I’m an only child,” Graham said.
Will raised a brow at her. “And to think you turned out not the least bit spoiled or difficult.”
Graham pouted dramatically, but then grinned. “Funny. So, I’ll see you tomorrow?”
Will turned to Nora, who seemed to be watching them with mild amusement. “Now I think she’s trying to get rid of me.”
“I’m just kidding. But it is late. I should get going.”
Graham walked with her to the door. Will stole a final glance at Nora as she left, hoping to share a smile or some other moment of connection. Her attention was back on the dishes, though, and she never looked up.
By the time Will got home, she was exhausted. She peeled off her clothes and threw on her robe. As she was walking to the bathroom for a shower, Kaylee emerged from her room. “Wow, you look fancy. Hot date?”
“Very.” Kaylee grinned. “Hopefully, I won’t see you later.”
“Since I’ll probably be sound asleep in under an hour, I would hope not.”
Kaylee gave her an exasperated look, but laughed. “You’re too young to be such an old fart.”
“I’m way older than you and I worked all day. I can be as much of a fart as I want.”
“Just know I’m going to drag your ass out before the season completely ends.”
Kaylee picked up her wallet and keys and opened the front door. “Have a good night.”
“You, too. And Kaylee?” Kaylee turned. “I hope you get laid.”
She quirked a brow. “Me, too.”
Kaylee left and Will headed to the bathroom. After her shower, she padded back to her room. Since it was quarter after eleven—well past her usual bedtime—she stripped off her robe and crawled into bed naked. She picked up her book, but instead of opening it, let her mind wander back over her day. No, that wasn’t accurate. Will let her mind wander over her interactions with Nora.
From the moment she saw Nora standing in her beautiful inn wearing that perfect dress, Will was taken. She always had a soft spot for that slightly older, polished kind of beauty, but her reaction to Nora went beyond that. Will was more attracted to her than she’d been to a woman in a long time. Her voice, her mannerisms—everything about her only intensified that attraction.
And now Graham was about to leave and she’d likely have no occasion to cross paths with Nora again. Even in such a small town, it was hard to imagine they moved in the same circles. Or that a chance second meeting would amount to anything.
Will opened her book and attempted to read.
It didn’t help that she’d shown up in her work uniform, traded some help in the kitchen for dinner. The whole thing reminded her of high school when she’d go home with one of her teammates after a soccer match or basketball practice. Her friends’ parents would serve them dinner, then shoo them off to study. Of course, some of those study sessions had turned into her first explorations of being attracted to girls. Only in this scenario, she wanted to make out with the mom and not the best friend. Will sighed. It wouldn’t be the first time she’d had a mom crush.
Only Nora wasn’t Graham’s mom. Even as an aunt, she pegged Nora as no more than twenty or so years older than Graham. Which made her only about ten years Will’s senior. And there was nothing weird about that at all.
Not enough age difference to be creepy. Will set her book back on the nightstand and scratched her temple. Probably not a compelling case to get Nora’s attention. Of course, she had caught Nora looking at her twice over the course of the evening. Technically, that could mean anything, but Will liked to think at least a hint of the attraction might be mutual.
Will switched off her light and stared into the near dark of her room. Even if she didn’t get the opportunity to pursue Nora, she was glad to know that part of her brain—and her body—still worked. Although she’d confided her general longing for a relationship to Emerson, she hadn’t felt a real spark since ending things with Kai. And since that time had included an entire summer in P-town, she’d actually started to worry. So she might be attracted to the wrong women, but at least her ability to feel attraction in the first place wasn’t broken.
Will chuckled to herself. Compared to the train wreck of her relationship with Kai, maybe being attracted to Nora wasn’t such a bad thing.
The rehearsal dinner was Tisha’s last event of the season. As she did every fall, she packed up and Nora drove her to the airport in Boston. And, as she had since opening the inn ten years ago, Nora would handle the off-season solo. The bookings had already begun to thin and, with the exception of holidays, she already had stretches during the week of no guests at all. Nora was curled up on the sofa in the sitting room, sipping tea and trying not to feel blue about it, when Graham came in.
“Are you alone?” she asked. Her tone was incredulous.
Nora smiled. “I am.”
“Don’t move. I’m going to make some tea and I’ll join you.” Graham started toward the kitchen, then turned back. “Do you need a fresh cup?”
“I’m good, thanks. I just sat down.”
Graham returned a few minutes later with a steaming mug. She’d swapped her shoes for slippers, but she took even those off to curl her feet under her. “I love it when there’s no one here.”
Nora chuckled. “I can’t say I agree entirely, but I know what you mean.”
“Does it make you sad when everything slows down? Or do you like the break?”
“A little of both.” Nora thought about the cold, dark days ahead. “It’s nice for the first few weeks. And I usually have people over the holidays. It’s mostly January that feels a bit grim.”
Graham nodded soberly. “Yeah.”
“What about you? Are you looking forward to getting back to your life in Maryland?”
“Is that a no?”
“How would you feel if I stayed the rest of fall?” Graham set down her tea and looked at Nora with anticipation.
“What do you mean?”
Graham shrugged. “Since I’m not doing classes this term, I’m in no hurry to get back to school. I don’t want to take up one of your rooms, but I’d love to stay. I could help out.”
Nora sighed. Under most circumstances, she’d be thrilled to keep Graham around for a couple of months. With her busy season winding down, they’d actually get to spend quality time together. But something told Nora that time with her favorite aunt wasn’t Graham’s primary motivation. “Is that the only reason you’re looking to stick around?”
“I love spending time with you. And even now, P-town has way more charm than Baltimore.”
Nora nodded. “Does it have anything to do with that girl you brought home the other night? Will?”
Graham sat up straight. “I invited her for dinner. You make it sound like more than it was. We’re friends.”
The speed and vehemence of the reply made Nora think there was perhaps more to it than Graham wanted to share. But harping on it wouldn’t help. And truth be told, Nora didn’t really want to know. She got a funny vibe from Will and would be happy if Graham’s interest in her didn’t go any further than friendship. “All right. You don’t need to convince me.”
“Does that mean I can stay?”
Nora smiled. Graham had been born while she was still in college. And while they’d always been close, Nora most treasured the last few years when Graham could stay with her for long stretches of time. It felt like her chance to play the role of older sister, rather than the younger one she’d been in reality. “Of course you can stay. You are welcome here anytime.”
Graham beamed and threw her arms around Nora and squeezed. When she pulled away, though, her face was serious. “I can pay rent, you know. I feel bad that I’m taking up space you could be using.”
The room she’d given Graham was technically a bedroom she could use for guests, but it was small and she never booked it as a standalone reservation. It had been easy enough to take it offline when Graham arrived for the summer. With the high season over, she doubted she’d have need for it even if it was available. “You’ll do no such thing. You’re family.”
“Well then, you’ll have to let me pitch in around here.”
Nora nodded. She had a few winter projects in mind, on top of her usual deep cleaning, and having an extra pair of hands would make them go more quickly. “I think that could be arranged.”
“Thank you.” Graham beamed. “Oh, I’m so excited. We’re going to have fun.”
“I’m going to remind you that you said that when we’re waxing floors.”
Will looked at her phone and smiled. Graham had been moping about the end of her fieldwork for the better part of a week, but suddenly seemed to be in better spirits, including orchestrating a happy hour to celebrate the final sail of the season. Since they weren’t on the same schedule, Will promised she’d be there.
Although Will had another week of work lined up, she had her own touch of melancholy over the end of whale watching season. When she’d applied for the job shortly after arriving in Provincetown, she never would have expected it would turn into something she loved so much. Nor could she have predicted the friends she’d make. Graham was her closest friend by a long shot, but she’d hung out with half a dozen other members of the crew at one point or another.
Part of that fun, free-spirited vibe stemmed from the fact that the crew was young and mostly unattached. And if a few of her previous jobs had that, Kai never let her join in. She still couldn’t believe just how isolated she’d let herself become. Will sighed. One more reason to appreciate her freedom.
By the time she got to Nor’East, the Dolphin Fleet crew had taken over nearly half of the outdoor seating area. She stopped at the bar to grab a beer, then went out to join them. Graham spotted her almost immediately and came over, a huge smile on her face. “Guess who’s sticking around until Christmas?”
Will didn’t figure it was a trick question. “Yeah?”
“Aunt Nora insisted she didn’t mind and I found someone to sublet my room.”
“Really? That’s awesome.” Graham had hinted at wanting to stick around, but Will didn’t think she was serious.
“One of my roommate’s friends broke up with her girlfriend, so she needed something quick.”
“Sounds like a win-win.” Will smiled. The idea of Graham sticking around for a couple of months made the impending slow season less daunting.
“I’ll work on my thesis, we can hang out. It’s going to be great.”
Hanging out with Graham would be great. So would having more occasion to see Nora. Will didn’t say as much to Graham, but the prospect of spending more time at the inn and in Nora’s company made Will’s stomach leap with anticipation.
“I’m going to help her with some projects. Maybe I’ll rope you in.” Graham took a sip of her beer. Her eyes lit up. “Hey, that’s actually a great idea. Do you have work lined up for the rest of the fall?”
She had a couple of leads, but nothing solid yet. “I’m working on it.”
“Maybe Aunt Nora will hire you. I think she wants to paint and redecorate some of the rooms and she does a crazy deep clean when there aren’t any guests.”
Will nodded. Part of her wanted to jump at the chance. Part of her hesitated. She didn’t want Nora to think she couldn’t support herself. Then again, she was pretty good at around-the-house sort of projects. It might be a way to impress Nora. Not to mention spend a lot of time with her. “Well, if she’s looking for someone, I’d definitely be interested.”
“I’ll mention it to her. It would be so much fun to work together.”
Will wondered what Nora was like when she wasn’t in full-on hostess mode. Low-key and relaxed? Or did she maintain that controlled poise that Will found both sexy and a little intimidating? She realized how badly she wanted to find out. “I have some relevant experience from when I worked at a home improvement store.”
Graham gave her a quizzical look. “When did you do that?”
“A few years ago. I started as a cashier, but ended up rotating through most of the departments. I learned a ton. I can paint, build basic stuff. I stay away from plumbing and electric.”
Graham shrugged. “That seems reasonable.”
Will grinned. “And safer.”
“I’m pretty sure it’s painting and stuff she has in mind. I’d love the company. And I’m sure she’d pay you. I just don’t know how much.”
Would working for Nora help Will’s cause or hurt it? If she never saw Nora, she didn’t even have a cause to worry about. And, even if she didn’t want to admit it, she could use the cash. She’d saved up enough to mostly make rent, but she’d need to bring in some money if she planned to eat all winter. “I’m sure she’s reasonable and fair. So, yes. Please include me if she’s open to it.”
Happy hour concluded with lots of hugs and well-wishes, hopes to meet again the following year. After, Will walked to the store to get things to make dinner for herself and Emerson. She’d seen so much less of Emerson since she’d practically moved in with Darcy and Liam. And now that they were about to close on a house in Wellfleet, Emerson made a point of scheduling time to hang out. Will appreciated the gesture as well as the promise of sister time. Both of her roommates were working late, so she had the apartment to herself. She changed into sweats, put on some music, and got to work.
A couple of hours later, Emerson sat cross-legged on the sofa, shoveling pasta into her mouth. “This is really good.”
“Thanks.” Since moving to Provincetown, Will had been spending more time in the kitchen. She’d come to find cooking both relaxing and adventurous. Not having to worry about Kai, who shunned both messes and carbs, made a huge difference. Her roommates had even taken to giving her money for groceries in exchange for dinner a couple nights a week. Tonight’s concoction was Bolognese and, for her first attempt, she was pleased.
“So you’re done with the Dolphin Fleet?”
Will nodded. “They’re closed for the season. I’ll stay on a couple of weeks more to help with the winterizing, but I’ll need to find something to tide me over until spring.”
“Alex might have something at the café. All her seasonal staff is long gone. I think she usually has just Darcy and Jeff for the winter, but she might take someone else on part time.”
“I’ll stop by tomorrow and talk with her. Thanks.”
“And you know I can float you a little if you need it.”
Will shook her head. “No way. You put me up when I came to town and now you have a house and a family to take care of.”
“Speaking of the house, I think there might be some projects there. I’m not sure if it’s stuff we can do or if I’ll have to hire a contractor, but I’d love your thoughts.”
Will had seen the house before Emerson and Darcy put in an offer. She hadn’t looked closely, but she had a feeling it was more cosmetic work than anything structural. “I bet we could do a lot of it ourselves. When do you close?”
“Next week. We’re both a little terrified, although I’m not sure if it’s buying a house or the prospect of moving.”
“The house is great and the moving will be a snap. You’ve got me to help and we don’t even have to deal with appliances.”
“Right.” Emerson offered a nod of determination, then smiled. “You always know what to say to make me feel better.”
Will leaned over and nudged Emerson’s shoulder with her own. “The feeling is mutual, Em.”
When Emerson left, Will indulged in an extra long shower. She put on clean pajamas and climbed into bed. She wondered if Graham would convince Nora to hire her for the projects at the inn. Based on what she saw her one time at Failte, everything looked perfect and professionally maintained. Still. She probably had more experience than Graham.
As it had a hundred other times since they met, the image of Nora filled her mind. The way her hair curled around her shoulders and the cool, reserved way she looked at Will. It made absolutely no sense to pursue Nora romantically, if for no other reason than she seemed utterly disinterested. Will sighed. She had such a penchant for wanting what she couldn’t have. And now Nora—beautiful, elegant, reserved Nora—sat squarely at the top of that list.
“So, I’ve been thinking,” Graham said over breakfast.
“Why does that worry me?” Nora was kidding. Mostly. Graham folded her arms and pouted. Or, more accurately, she pretended to pout. Nora knew better than to think she’d throw an actual tantrum. “Kidding. What have you been thinking?”
“I can clean with the best of them. And although I haven’t except for once when I was fifteen, I can probably paint a room.”
“Okay. Haven’t we already discussed this?”
“Yes. I’ve been thinking how great it would be to do more.”
“More whatever. Painting, building stuff.”
Nora studied her niece. Clearly, the girl had something on her mind. But she’d be damned if she knew what it was. “Building stuff?”
“You know my friend Will? The one I brought over the night you did that rehearsal dinner.”
Oh, she knew. “I remember her.”
“Well, she’s pretty handy and she doesn’t have a lot planned for the off season and I thought it would be cool if you hired her and we could get so much more done.”
Nora blinked a few times, trying to process Graham’s train of thought. Red flags flashed. “Is this your idea? Or hers?”
Graham sat up straight. “Oh, it’s totally mine. I thought it would be fun to do stuff with her now that we aren’t working together. And then I thought she might not have a job lined up for winter, which she doesn’t. And it turns out she worked at a home improvement store and knows how to do all sorts of things. Not plumbing. Or electric, she said. But more than me.”
Nora pressed a finger to her temple. She had so many problems with Graham’s proposition, she didn’t even know where to start. “You didn’t promise her anything, did you?”
Graham shook her head. “No. I was thinking out loud and mentioned it. She said that if it turned out you did want some things done, she’d be interested. We left it at that.”
At least that was an appropriate response. That meant Will likely wasn’t trying to insinuate herself into a job. Or other places, like Graham’s bed. Nora sighed. “I don’t know.”
“You’ve talked about painting all the upstairs guest rooms. If I had help, we could do that and more. She knows what she’s doing.”
Nora wasn’t opposed to hiring someone to help with the work, especially someone trying to make a go of living in town year-round. She might not be crazy about Will and Graham spending lots of time together, but if Will knew what she was doing, Nora would be happy to have her services. And if it meant spending more time with Will herself, well, she’d just have to keep a professional distance. “Okay.”
“Okay, you’ll hire her?”
“Okay, I’ll talk to her.”
“Excellent.” Without waiting for another word, Graham picked up her phone. “I’ll text her right now.”
Nora sipped her coffee and wondered how quickly she would regret this. Maybe Will knew less than Graham implied and she could get out of it. Almost as quickly as Graham stopped typing, her phone chirped. “Did she answer you already?”
Graham nodded. “She’s free this afternoon or tomorrow morning, whichever is more convenient for you.”
She could interpret Will’s promptness a dozen different ways. Not ready to give her the benefit of the doubt, Nora filed the detail away. “I’ve got a doctor’s appointment tomorrow, so this afternoon would be better.” Graham started typing again, so she added quickly, “Only if she really is free.”
By the time Will stood in her front hall a few hours later, Nora had thought through the projects she’d like done and planned out the questions she intended to ask. Hopefully, she’d figure out quickly enough whether Will could actually do the work. And what her intentions were.
“Thank you so much for the opportunity to talk with you.” Will extended her hand. Nora shook it. She seemed nervous, but in a good way. The way that meant she was treating this like a job interview. She’d dressed nicely, too. Nora told herself she appreciated that Will took the conversation seriously. It had nothing to do with the fact that Will, in gray pants and nicely pressed oxford, could drive Nora to distraction.
“Thank you for making the time to do it on such short notice. Shall we sit?” She gestured toward the dining room.
“That would be great.” Will walked in ahead of her, took a seat, and sat up straight with her hands folded neatly on the table.
Nora realized she was frowning and plastered a smile on her face. “Graham tells me you have some DIY experience?”
“More training than experience, to be honest, but the training was good. I worked at both a small hardware store and a larger home improvement center. I learned basic carpentry and hand tools, painting, and wood finishing.”
Nora nodded. “Impressive.”
“I didn’t want to be presumptuous, but I did bring a copy of my résumé.” Will leaned over and pulled a sheet of paper out of her messenger bag.
Nora accepted it and skimmed the contents. On one hand, it was a smattering of experience that told her Will seemed to lack professional focus or ambition. On the other, there were no gaps and she spent an average of three to five years in each position she held. And she seemed to possess the skills Graham had promised. “Not at all. You seem to have picked up a lot over the course of your jobs.”
Will swallowed and told herself to relax. “I like to learn new things. I never could bear the idea of a desk job, but I wanted more than basic retail.”
Nora made a face and Will instantly regretted saying what she said. But then her features softened and the expression that remained was kind. “I could definitely use another pair of hands. The pay will be fair, but it won’t include benefits.”
Will nodded. Being around Nora every day would be benefit enough. Getting to use her hands, and getting paid, felt almost too good to be true. “I don’t know anything about plumbing or electric, but I’m willing to do just about anything else.”
“Painting mostly. Moving furniture and doing a deep clean. The hours won’t be regular, I’m afraid. We’ll have to schedule everything around my guests. It does mean, at least, you won’t have to work weekends.”
Will smiled. Was it as easy at that? “I’m used to irregular hours. I don’t mind. And I really appreciate the opportunity.”
Graham, who must have been hovering just around the corner, popped her head in. “When do we start?”
Nora laughed, so Will let herself chuckle as well. “I’m helping my sister move later this week. Otherwise, my schedule is completely open.”
“Let me get my reservation book.” Nora stood and disappeared into the kitchen.
Will looked at Graham, who waved her arms around in a silent happy dance. It was cute, but Will was still trying to make a good impression. “Would you be cool?”
Graham rolled her eyes, but gave Will two thumbs up as Nora returned. “I’ve got guests this weekend, but Tuesday through Thursday of next week looks clear.”
Will smiled. “Works for me. Do you know where you’d like to start?”
“One of the rooms upstairs has sadly dated wallpaper. I’d like to remove it and paint. Can that be done in three days?”
“Absolutely. Especially if Graham is helping.”
Graham offered a salute. “At your service.”
Will stood and extended her hand again. It was the professional thing to do, but part of her simply wanted to touch Nora again. When their hands touched, she felt the crackle of a static shock. Nora jerked her hand away. “Sorry,” Will said.
“No, no. I think it was me.” Nora reached out and took Will’s hand.
No shock this time, but Will experienced an entirely different kind of spark. She wondered if Nora did, too. “I’ll see you next Tuesday. Is eight o’clock too early?”
Graham groaned. “How’s nine?”
“Either works for me,” Nora said.
Will looked at Graham, who gave her a playfully pleading look. “Let’s say eight-thirty.”
Graham gave Will a quick hug. “I’ll take it.”
Nora said goodbye and Graham walked her to the door. “Thanks for hooking me up.”
“I’m glad it worked out. I’m so excited we’re going to still be working together.”
Will left the inn and headed toward Emerson’s condo, stopping at Wired Puppy for coffees. The wind had picked up and rain seemed imminent. She hunched her shoulders against it and wondered how long she had before it turned to snow. Probably better not to think about it.
She knocked on Emerson’s door. When it opened, she found a bedraggled version of her sister on the other side. “Hi.”
Emerson’s gaze went from Will’s face to the cups in her hands and back. “Oh, my God. How did you know I was on the verge of giving up?”
Will smiled. “I didn’t, but I’m glad I’m here.”
Emerson accepted one of the coffees and stepped back so Will could enter. It took only a second to understand the source and extent of Emerson’s state. Her place was a disaster. Emerson offered a sheepish smile. “It’s going slower than I thought.”
“Slower? Have you actually packed anything?”
“Yes.” Emerson’s answer was emphatic, but when Will gave her a stern look, she recanted. “Some. A little.”
She pointed to a pile of exactly three boxes in the corner. Will shook her head. “You’re terrible at this.”
“I thought I should sort through things, get rid of some stuff.”
“It’s a noble idea. And when you start a month before you’re moving, totally reasonable. When you’re moving in two days, not so much.”
“Oh.” Emerson frowned.
“The closing came together faster than you expected, so it’s not entirely your fault.” It really had. Within a month of putting her place on the market, Emerson had a buyer. And she and Darcy had found an adorable little Cape Cod-style house off Long Pond Road.
“Thanks. Does that mean you’re here to help?”
Will pretended to consider, even though she’d shown up with the intention of helping. “I could be persuaded. Especially since I got a job today.”
“You did? Where?”
“Not full-time or anything. I told you about my friend Graham from work?”
Emerson angled her head. “I think so. Grad student, right?”
“Yeah. She’s staying in town through Christmas. Her aunt owns Failte Inn and hired us both to paint a couple rooms and do some other projects.”
“That’s cool. Are you two…” Emerson trailed off in a way that invited Will to finish the sentence.
“Good friends. Nothing more.”
Emerson looked at her with concern. “Are you still feeling gun shy?”
There were a million different, yet completely honest, ways she could answer that. “No. I mean, maybe a little. I don’t want to make another terrible mistake, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t lonely. I don’t think a celibate life is for me.”
Emerson smiled. “That’s good. You deserve to find someone, or to have some fun if you want to. I know you feel like you stayed with Kai longer than you should have, but she was still the fuck-up in your relationship.”
“I know.” She did know. And Emerson had helped to drive home the point when Will confessed the extent of Kai’s abusive behavior. But that didn’t mean she’d entirely finished beating herself up about it, or questioning her judgment.
“Are you interested?”
Will blinked at her, confused. “Huh?”
“Graham. Are you interested in her?”
Will shook her head. “Oh, no. It’s not like that. She’s very pretty. Smart and funny, too. It’s,” Will paused, “she feels like a kid still. Kind of innocent.”
Emerson smirked. “And you’re so jaded and world-weary?”
Will rolled her eyes. “In relative terms, maybe.”
“Why do I feel like you aren’t telling me the whole story?”
Will sighed. One thing hadn’t changed through the years, even when they hadn’t seen much of each other. Emerson could still read her like a book. It was kind of annoying, considering she was the younger of them. Annoying, but also nice. “I met her aunt.”
Emerson raised a brow. “And?”
“And she’s gorgeous. Like, movie star gorgeous.”
Emerson made a face. “How old is she?”
“Not old.” Will straightened her posture. “Early forties, maybe? I think she’s Graham’s dad’s younger sister. Or maybe her mom’s. I can’t remember.”
“And you have the hots for her?”
On a most basic level, the answer was yes. She did have the hots for Nora. But even though they’d only spent maybe twenty minutes total in one another’s company, Will felt like it went deeper than that. Not that she could articulate exactly what that meant, but it was definitely more than a passing infatuation. “I’m attracted to her. She has this poise, an elegance to her. I appreciate it and want to muss it up at the same time.” Emerson studied the box in front of her. The lack of response, paired with her refusal to make eye contact, told Will that she didn’t approve. “What?”
Emerson looked up. “What? I didn’t say anything.”
Will shook her head. “You didn’t have to. I can tell.”
Emerson crossed her arms. “What can you tell?”
Will mirrored the gesture. It was how they’d faced off for as long as she could remember. “That you don’t think she’s someone I should be attracted to.”
“You can’t help who you’re attracted to. It just happens. Acting on it is another matter.”
“Okay, fine. You don’t think I should act on my attraction to her.” She was being defensive, but she couldn’t help it. Probably because part of her knew that pursuing Nora would be a terrible idea.
Emerson shrugged slowly, like she was weighing whether or not to say anything. “It’s not that she’s older, but she seems to be in a very different place in her life than you. And if you’re friends with her niece…”
She trailed off again, leaving Will to fill in the rest. Will sighed, irritated with Emerson, but more so with herself. “I haven’t asked her out. And I probably won’t. For all the reasons you mentioned. And then some.”
“You know I’m not telling you what to do.”
Will sighed. “I know.”
“I just worry about you.”
“I know that, too.”
“And I want you to be happy.”
“Yeah.” Will knew Emerson cared about her. And, despite being younger, had a tendency to be protective of her. It wasn’t that she resented it. She resented the idea that she needed protecting, especially from her own bad choices.
“I didn’t mean to be a killjoy. What can I do to make you feel better?”
Will squared her shoulders and smiled. “Nothing. I’m here to help you, remember? I’m perfectly happy with my life right now. And you’re right. I will find someone and I’ll probably do better if she’s someone even remotely in my league.”
Emerson pointed a finger at Will. “Hey, I never said she was out of your league. You’re a great catch in any league.”
At the compliment, Will’s irritation melted. How could she hold a grudge against her biggest champion? “Thanks. That’s not exactly what I meant, but thanks all the same.”
“I mean it, though. You’re going to make some woman very happy someday. And she’s going to know how lucky she is to have you and treat you the way you deserve to be treated.”
Will cringed. “Okay, we’re venturing into pep talk territory here. You know how I feel about pep talks.”
“All right. No more pep. I promise.” Emerson laughed. “I still find it ironic that someone who was on more sports teams than I could even name hates pep talks.”
Will raised a finger. “There’s a difference between getting pumped up for a big game and coming to terms with my poor choices in the romance department. I hate pep talks about my love life.”
“Point taken. I’m done.”
Will took a deep breath. “Great. How about we get to work?”
Emerson looked around, seeming surprised that the chaos hadn’t worked itself out when she wasn’t looking. “Right.”
They spent two hours packing. Now that Emerson had let go of the need to purge, things moved quickly. She did manage to toss some old art supplies and at least a dozen paint-splattered shirts, so there was that. By the time they called it a night, Will guessed more than half the condo was packed.
Emerson surveyed the space with a pleased look on her face. “You’re a life saver.”
“You needed a nudge more than anything, and I’m always happy to give you a kick in the ass. Gently, of course.”
“Of course. Well, it did the trick. I’m no longer terrified Darcy will come over and see how little I’ve done.”
Will arranged several boxes into a neat stack. “How are things at her place?”
Emerson shook her head. “She and Liam are packing and organizing machines. Other than the things strategically left out to use this week, they finished days ago.”
Will smiled. “I love that.”
“Me, too. Except that it’s made me feel like a total slacker.”
“Eh, it’ll pass.”
“Thanks. I’m heading over for dinner soon. Do you want to come?”
“No, you go do the family thing. I’m good.” Will tossed her now-empty coffee cup in the trash and went to the door.
“Okay. I’ll see you Friday?”
Will nodded. “I’ll pick you up to go get the truck at seven.”
Emerson followed. “God, that’s early.”
“I know. See you then.”
Emerson put her hand on the knob, but stopped. “You know I support you, right? And you can date whoever you want. Well, except Kai.”
Will took a deep breath. “I know.”
“I just don’t want you to get hurt.”
“I know that, too. And I know my track record lately hasn’t been all that great. I appreciate you looking out for me.” Even when it irritated her.
“You certainly did it enough times for me.” Emerson pulled Will into a hug and then sent her on her way.