Return to Willow Lake (Lakeshore Chronicles #9)
Harlequin MIRA (September 2012)
Moments before the wedding was to begin, Sonnet Romano shuddered with a wave of nervousness. “Mom,” she said, hurrying over to the window, which framed a view of Willow Lake, “what if I screw up?”
Her mother turned from the window. The late afternoon light shrouded Nina Bellamy’s slender form, and for a moment she appeared ethereal and as young as Sonnet herself. Nina looked fantastic in her autumn gold silk sheath, her dark hair swept back into a low chignon. Only someone who knew her the way Sonnet did might notice the subtle lines of fatigue around her eyes and mouth, the vague puffiness of her skin. Just prior to the wedding, she’d attended the funeral of her favorite aunt up in Albany, who had died the week before of cancer.
“You’re not going to screw up,” Nina said. “You’re going to be fabulous. You look amazing in that dress, you’ve memorized everything you’re going to do and say, and it’s going to be a wonderful day.”
“Remember what I used to say when you were little—your smile is my sunshine.”
“I remember.” And the memory did its magic, bringing a smile to her face. Her mom had raised her alone, but only now that Sonnet was grown did she appreciate how hard that had been for Nina. “You gave me lots of memories, Mom.”
“Come here, you.” Nina opened her arms and Sonnet gratefully slipped into her mother’s embrace.
“This feels nice. I wish I had a chance to come back here more often.” Sonnet turned her face to the warm breeze blowing in through the window. The sheer beauty of the lake, nestled between the gentle swells of the Catskills, made her heart ache. Though she’d grown up in Avalon, the place felt foreign to Sonnet now, a world she used to inhabit and couldn’t wait to leave.
Despite her vivid memories of growing up here, playing in the woods with her friends or sledding down the hills in winter, she never truly appreciated the scenery until she’d left it behind, eager to find her life far away. Now that she lived in Manhattan, crammed into a closet-sized walk-up studio on a noisy east side street, she finally understood the appeal of her old hometown.
“I wish you could, too,” Nina said. “It’s time-consuming, isn’t it, saving the world?”
Sonnet chuckled. “Is that what I’m doing? Saving the world?”
“As a matter of fact, it is. Sweetie, I’m so proud to tell people you work with UNESCO, that your department saves children’s lives all over the world.”
“Ah, thanks, Mom. You make me think I do more than write e-mails and fill out forms.” Sonnet often found herself wishing she could actually work with a child every once in awhile.
On the smoothly-mown lawn below, guests were beginning to take their seats for the ceremony. Many of the groom’s friends were in military dress uniform, adding a note of gravitas to the atmosphere.
“Wow,” said Sonnet, “it’s really happening, Mom. Finally.”
“Yes,” Nina agreed. “Finally.”
A chorus of squeals came from the adjacent room, where the rest of the bridal party was getting ready.
“Daisy’s going to be the prettiest bride ever,” Sonnet said, feeling a thrum of emotion in her chest. Daisy was Sonnet’s best friend as well as her stepsister, and she was about to marry the love of her life. To Sonnet it felt like a dream come true…but also, deep in a hidden corner of her heart, a loss of sorts. Now someone else would be the keeper of Daisy’s most private secrets, her soft place to fall, the person on the other end of the phone in the middle of the night.
“Until it’s your turn,” Nina said. “Then you’ll be the prettiest bride ever.”
Sonnet gave her mom’s hand a squeeze. “Don’t hold your breath. I’m busy saving the world, remember?”
“Just don’t get so busy you forget to fall in love,” Nina said.
Sonnet laughed. “I think you need to embroider that on a pillow. How about—hello.” Her mind drained of everything but the sight of the tallest groomsman in the wedding party, escorting the grandmother of the bride to her seat in the front row.
In a dove grey swallowtail tux, he moved with long-limbed grace, although his height was not the most striking thing about him. It was his hair, as long and pale as a banner of surrender, giving him the other-worldly look of a mythical creature. She couldn’t take her eyes off him.
“Holy cow,” she said. “Is that…?”
“Yep,” said her mother. “Zach Alger.”
“He’s finally grown into his looks, hasn’t he?” Nina commented. “I’d forgotten how long it’s been since you last saw him.”
Zach Alger. Surely not, thought Sonnet, practically leaning out the open window. This couldn’t be the Zach Alger she’d grown up with, the whiter-shade-of-pale boy who lived down the street, with his big goofy ears and braces on his teeth. Her best friend in high school, the freakishly skinny kid who worked at the Sky River Bakery. This couldn’t be the college geek working his way through school, obsessed with cameras and all things video. Since high school, he and Sonnet had gone in different directions, and she hadn’t seen him in ages.
Zach Alger, she thought. Well, well.
After helping Daisy’s grandmother to her seat, he pulled a flask from his tux pocket and took a swig. All right, thought Sonnet. That was the Zach she knew—a guy with more talent than ambition, a guy with a troubled background he couldn’t seem to shake, a guy who was part of her past, but had no possible place in her future.
Movement in the next room reminded her—she had an important job to do today. She peered through the doorway at Daisy, who was surrounded by the hair stylist, makeup artist, wedding planner, her mom Sophie, the photographer and several people Sonnet didn’t recognize. “What do you say?” she asked her mother. “Shall we go help Daisy get married?’
Nina grinned. “She wouldn’t dare make a move without you.”
“Or you. Honestly, when you married Daisy’s dad, she hit the stepmom jackpot.”
Nina’s grin turned to a soft smile, and her dark eyes took on an expression that pulled Sonnet into days gone by, when it had just been the two of them, making their way in the world. Nina had turned a teenage pregnancy into a small but lovely life for herself and Sonnet. Yes, she was married now—unexpectedly, in the middle of her life—but their two-against-the-world time together belonged solely to Nina and Sonnet.
“You’re going all mushy on me, aren’t you?” Sonnet said.
“Yeah, baby. I am. Just wait until you’re the bride. I’ll need CPR.” The shadows in the room were just starting to deepen; evening was coming on.
“No, you won’t, Mom,” Sonnet assured her. “You’ll rise to the occasion. You always do.”
Nina took her hand again and together, they stepped through the door.