Three steps toward the summer house, Julie realized she had forgotten to roll up the windows and lock her car. Nothing new in that, she admitted wryly. Years ago, David had once lectured her about carelessness until she cried.
The heels of her beige Italian pumps sank into the soft ground as she turned back to her small red Suzuki. Julie tensed as the sound of hammering echoed through the trees, her fingers curling around the door handle. What on earth was that sound? Building contractors launching an invasion on peaceful Gabriola Island?
She closed her eyes, breathing in the scent of sweet honeysuckle blossoms as she listened to the hidden pounding. A woodpecker! Of course! She strained her senses, but there were no cars, no sirens, just the incredibly noisy bird...and farther away, one of the McNaughton calves bawling for its mother.
Deliberately, she tossed her purse through the open car window onto the driver's seat. Surely even David McNaughton wouldn't get excited about locking up on Gabriola Island!
On the cabin, the shingles were littered with scraps from the drooping branches of the tall, sheltering cedar trees. The cedar siding had once been a warm brown. Now it was bleached white from time and sunlight. She loved everything about this place, yet she had neglected it for the last eight years. Foolish. She had thought the cottage would be haunted, but there were only summer smells...and solitude.
How often had David looked up at the empty summer home, thinking critical thoughts about its owner? She shook that thought away, knowing how insane it was for a grown woman to worry that she had failed her childhood idol's standards.
The front door creaked as she swung it inwards. Inside, there was only emptiness and dust, a musty smell over everything. Miraculously, the windows were intact. Where else but Gabriola could you abandon a house for years, come back and find it untouched? She should have come years ago, but she might well have stayed away another eight years if her brother hadn't been so persistent last weekend.
Sunday dinner was a family occasion for the Charters. Julie usually came alone. It wasn't worth subjecting a date to her mother's matchmaking urges. Between Mom's "Are you seeing anyone?" and Dad's words of wisdom on how to get promoted to principal, Wally liked to give his kid sister some Sunday advice. Julie usually escaped the barrage by playing with her nephews, but last Sunday both Wally's boys had been away at computer camp, leaving Julie firmly at the mercy of big-brother wisdom.
"Time to get that cottage of yours on the market," Wally had insisted. "A new coat of paint on the inside walls, a good cleaning. Mow the lawn and put up a For Sale sign."
She had been oddly irritated at Wally's invasion of the summer home that had been her share of the divorce settlement. "That's not a lawn. It's a ground cover that doesn't need tending. They call it—"
"I'll handle if for you if you like."
Julie had hidden a smile. Wally would handle anything—for a commission.
"Now's the time, before interest rates go up again and kill the market for summer homes."
Her mother had slid a steaming apple pie onto the table and Julie had heard herself say, "I'm going over to the island next week."
She had wondered uneasily how tarnished all the old fantasies of Mountainview would be after eight years. David had dubbed the hilltop Mountainview before the land was subdivided, long before Tom's parents built the cottage as a wedding present for Tom and Julie.
Like everything else, Gabriola and Mountainview would have changed.
But they hadn't, she realized now. An island removed from time. Today she had driven past the McNaughton farm on her way up here, had seen smoke wisping from the chimney. She had not heard David's name in years, but he would be there. Once, she would have been drawn to the wisp of smoke, might have run to fling herself into his arms. But if she went down to the farm, Sandy would be smiling that mother earth smile, and David...
David had always known what he wanted from life. It had taken Julie longer, that was all. She had made mistakes, but her life was exactly as she wanted it now. She loved the challenge of teaching at Unlimited Potential. Loved her new condo in Vancouver's False Creek. Loved evenings at the theatre, weekends exploring the waterfront.
Loved Mountainview cottage on Gabriola.
She had known it was stupid to come back, and yet—criminal to leave a beautiful cottage unoccupied just because Julie Charters Summerton couldn't bring herself to make a decision. Silly to hang onto Mountainview, unthinkable to sell it.
Perhaps she would stay here this summer. She had the new English literature course to write. What better place, with the deer outside her door and the fresh sea air blowing across the peak of the hill?
Did the deer still wander the island? Could she look out at sunset and find warm brown Bambis grazing on the wild field grass?
She swung around impatiently, focusing on a small speck on the counter. Mice. Of course there would be mice. No cat in residence. An empty rural house. Certainly there were plenty of spider webs, clinging to the rafters. Nature had been nibbling away for eight years, but Julie wasn't about to start scrubbing now! Not dressed in a white skirt and sweater, clothes that had cost her two weeks pay!
The sun warmed her face as she stepped back outside. Wonderful smells. Cedar and maple. Frogs out back in the pond. A bumble bee cruising past. Did the ducks still come to nest at the edge of the pond each year? They'd used to, ever since David had dug out the hollow with his bulldozer.
Strange that David's memory was more a part of this place than Tom's, that David had always been more real than anyone else in her life. When Julie was ten, he had been a quiet, infallible nineteen. When she was thirteen...Her face flamed at the memory, but she supposed David had understood. Or had he forgotten?
If she really was going to stay, she had better get the ferry across to Nanaimo before the stores closed. The fact that she hadn't packed jeans and a cotton shirt seemed stupid now, but she had really intended to breeze in and look the place over, then lock the door again and—
Forget the place for another eight years?
She stopped half-way between the house and the car, her eyes trying to see around the corner of the path. Were the ducks down there on the pond? She took one step towards the path, felt her shoe sliding on the loose soil. She bent to take off her shoes.
Be practical for once in your life, Julie!
She smiled at David's echo. David, as always, was right. If she left now, she could buy jeans and sneakers in Nanaimo. Cleaning supplies, too. If she hurried, she could be back to see the sun set. She closed her eyes, warmed by the echo of old sunsets. She breathed in deeply and felt lighter, freer. Tom and Julie. They had been friends more than lovers. Even the marriage had not been momentous enough to leave lasting pain. Silly to stay away all these years.
She started her little car, humming as she reversed down the drive. She had never forgotten the shape of this drive. She could still speed backwards down it, her hands instinctively controlling the shiny little car. She could hear the grass in the middle of the drive rushing against the underside of her car. As her car's back wheels crested on the culvert, Julie swung the steering wheel to turn neatly out onto Mountainview Lane.
David changed gear and urged the old dump truck over the peak of the hill. He would dump this load of gravel at Patrick's, then go back to the farm. Tomorrow morning he would move the back hoe from the gravel pit, take it over to Pat's place. David didn't do landscaping services much any more, hadn't time for it and didn't need the extra money. This time was different, though. His brother Pat wanted to surprise his new wife.
David was smiling as the burdened dump truck started to pick up speed on the gravel road. Somehow, Molly the dinosaur lady fit right into his brother's life. David was not a fanciful man, but he could easily picture Molly and Pat bent over a small baby sometime in the future. It would be nice to have more kids around the place. The farm seemed so empty now with Stanley gone to university, working summers in the city. If it weren't for Sarah's two kids stopping by, David's home would have been echoing loneliness.
He frowned as he turned onto Mountainview Lane. He should go up for a look at Julie's place. Not now, with the truck loaded, but after he delivered the load to Pat's. He had chased some hikers off last week. He shifted into third gear and squinted against the sun, suppressing the familiar irritation. Damn Julie, couldn't she either sell, or come and look after the place? She—
A flash of red in the corner of his eye.
A car! A car shooting out from the drive!
Abruptly, he slammed the shift lever down to second. Not enough time. Too close. Slow motion horror, no time at all. His loaded truck. Twelve yards of gravel. Threshold breaking. Not too much or he'd be steering a wild thing, out of control. He pulled down another gear. The engine screamed. The brakes. If he lost control of—surely whoever it was—
Little red car, hurtling onto the road. He jerked the wheel. So small. Inconsequential bit of red metal. Hit the ditch, try to ride it—somehow, miss that car. He felt nausea rise up, could see smashed red metal after the impact.
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