Sixty. Today Rhea Masterson turned sixty. She smirked to herself when she thought of what she had accomplished in her life. Thirty-four years of marriage. Four wonderful sons, four beautiful daughters-in-law, three beautiful grandchildren now—she had more on the way over the next three months—and she had built the Masterson County hospital into what it was today.
She would always be remembered for that, but more importantly, she was loved by her family and loved them in return.
A woman could be proud of that kind of life.
The only thing that would have made it better had been if her Daniel had lived to see this day. She had lost him three years ago. Three long years that she had reached for him at night and he hadn’t been there. She probably always would reach for that man.
The loneliness, it would probably never go away. It was just a part of her now.
He wouldn’t have wanted her to grieve him like this, but Rhea knew the truth. He had been her soul mate, from the moment they had met. That was over now.
Oh, Daniel. Sometimes, she just missed him more.
Someone nudged her arm. “You ok?”
Flo Talley stared down at her from green eyes that were a little cloudier than they once had been, but Flo was still as sharp as ever. Even though twenty-three years separated them in age, Flo was probably her closest friend now. Her daughter had been Rhea’s best friend for years—before she had been lost to a fast-acting cancer seven years ago.
Loss. It was a part of life Rhea was far to intimately aware of.
“Just remembering Daniel. He always made such a big deal out of my birthdays.” She had told her children that she wanted the day to herself, but she suspected they were planning something for this evening. A dinner at Joel’s, perhaps. She would like that.
She wanted to see her granddaughter Ivy, and her two grandsons, Daniel and Davin. The twins were fourteen months old now and identical down to the last eyelash. So, so beautiful.
Just like their baby sister, Marlowe, who was not even six weeks old yet. Rhea wanted to hold her again as soon as she could.
They looked just like their mother, with Pip’s big blue eyes and sweet smile, but her son Matt’s dark hair. Beautiful, wonderful.
She was going to enjoy her time as a grandmother now. Live it up, just as her Daniel would have wanted.
“I understand.” Flo settled into the booth across from her. Flo officially ran the diner—and the Talley Inn—but it was a figurehead position. Everyone knew that. Her granddaughters were the real ones captaining those ships these days. Flo had raised eight granddaughters here in Masterson for various reasons—each one of them wonderful girls that would make any woman proud to call family. Now Flo was pestering the girls to give her great-grandchildren to spoil. None of them were cooperating, to Flo’s frustration. “Loss, it burns us all, honey. Should make us appreciate the gifts we’ve been given.”
“It does.” Flo had lost her husband, two daughters—one in early childhood—and one of her sons had disappeared in the wind twenty-three years ago.
Leaving behind four young granddaughters for Flo to raise.
Rhea had been a witness to it all. One of those girls, sweet little Dusty, worked for Rhea’s son Matt a few days a week in the veterinary clinic. She had to be a good twenty-four or twenty-five now, sweet and shy and just adorable.
Time…it just flew by.
Rhea liked to think she’d held up well enough in that time. She had a few more wrinkles, her hair was far more gray than sable brown—though she took care of that once a month at the salon—and she just didn’t move as fast as she once had.
Perhaps retirement was what was getting her down.
She’d left her position at the hospital after she’d lost Daniel. Left Masterson completely for a while there. How could she stay in a town that was named for her late husband’s family? How could she go to work at the hospital every day and look at her son Nate, who was the spitting image of his father, and now ran the hospital better than Rhea ever had?
She’d see Nate out of the corner of her eye and turn—expecting her husband to be there. She’d made a point to stay away from Nate after. Once she’d realized…well.
It had gotten to the point where she was avoiding her own children because they resembled their father so much.
She just couldn’t go back to the hospital to work. Not yet.
She just couldn’t.
Everything around here had reminded her of Daniel, especially at first. She’d just had to get away.
But her children and grandchildren were her world. Rhea was finding her way back to them again.
Perhaps, though, she needed to find something to do with her days besides pestering her children? She was a woman used to making a difference in the world, used to accomplishing great things.
She was not used to sitting at home, doing nothing more than tending her roses and bedeviling her daughters-in-law.
“I think I am bored, Flo. I can’t go back to the hospital. That part of my life is finished.” And it was. Dr. Rhea Masterson had retired. She’d done some relief aid work over the past three years, but the Masterson County Hospital was her son Nate’s now. And a fine job he was doing, too. She was so proud of her boys that she could burst from it.
“Then find yourself something to do, missy. So you don’t rot out that immense brain of yours. You’re one of those who needs to be go, go, going or you’ll just shut down and never do anything again.” Flo leveled a look at her. “I’ll treat you the same way I would one of my girls. Get off you duff and find something that gives you a purpose again.”
“I think I’m going to do that.”
“Good,” Flo said as the front door of the diner opened and one of her granddaughters walked in. Flo humphed. “That girl. I told her to take the rest of the month off. To rest. She’s not ready to be back here, yet.”
“Still healing?” Rhea studied the young woman herself. Marin looked pale, thinner than she had been—which was saying a lot, as she’d always been rail thin. If Rhea hadn’t known the girl’s mother, she’d be concerned. But Marin’s mother had been even thinner. “All going well with her recovery?”
Flo shook her head. “Not going as well as I’d like. The girl just won’t rest. Won’t even sleep a full night. Is giving us all fits, too. Acts like she has demons on her heels right now. Has ever since that day. I don’t think she’s slept much since that creeper shot her. She’s either working herself to death here, the inn, or in that garden of hers. All since that day.”
Rhea knew what that meant. The day the mayor of Masterson County had nearly killed Marin and a few other people. Flo’s granddaughter had been shot. It had been a relatively minor injury, but there had been significant blood loss while she’d been waiting for rescue. It was the emotional trauma that was the biggest concern now. “I’ll check her over myself.”
“If she’ll let you. A more stubborn creature I have yet to see. Of all the girls, Marin is the most contrary. Most sensitive, too, though she won’t ever admit that. Most insecure. Found her asleep in the garden myself two mornings back.”
“I’ll talk to her.” Rhea had delivered Marin twenty-seven years ago—during a snowstorm to rival all others. Talk about a scary night. Marin had come in to the world wailing as bad as the wind.
Flo called Marin over. The blonde, dressed in a flowing skirt and periwinkle blouse that made her look almost ethereal, floated over. There was a broken look in her eyes.
One of grief and pain. Torment to the soul. Rhea’s breath caught at the expression.
There was just something about Marin Talley that had always been a bit…different. Otherworldly, even, some said.
Something that Rhea just couldn’t define.
She’d been that way even as a child.
“Marin, your grandmother tells me she’s worried about you. Sit down and tell me how I can help.”
Marin did as she was told. Rhea didn’t miss the trembling of her hands or the paleness of her face. Up close, it was obvious she had lost a good deal of weight, even though the clothes disguised that.
She understood Flo’s worry.
Marin Talley was struggling, something fierce.
Resolve filled her; Rhea was going to do everything she could to help her. She’d found something to do after all.
The sign for the Masterson Diner blazed in the distance. Beckoning him home. He headed there as if on autopilot.
Gerald Talley parked his rented truck in the parking lot and straightened his tie. He checked his hair absently, part of his habit before exiting a vehicle.
He always felt a mix of nerves and anticipation whenever he returned to Masterson County.
It had always been his home, and it always would be. Especially the diner and the inn three blocks away.
This was where he came from. Where his foundation had been built.
His mother was inside—in one of those two places. He just had to find her.
As were his daughters. Two of them, hopefully. If not, it was just a matter of time before he tracked them down. He had already visited his eldest in St. Louis. He’d spent three days bonding with the young boy who was now his legal grandson that his eldest had adopted. The adoption of Bentley had been finalized in front of Gerald. He would always treasure that moment, even while grieving that his grandson had to face the trauma that had led them to that moment in the first place.
No child should face that kind of trauma.
Gerald had wanted to be there for the court hearing, and had had the necessary connections to have the court date moved up a few weeks so he could be present. So he could relieve the worry he’d seen in his daughter’s green eyes.
Being a well-known diplomat had opened a few doors with just a single phone call. That was a gift he could give his daughter—so he had.
He was a grandfather now.
Pride threatened to burst through his chest. His eldest daughter had seen a need with that young boy, and she had stepped up. Done the right thing. Now Gerald had a six-year-old grandson he adored.
A grandson currently sound asleep in the rear seat of the rental truck while his mother was in Rochester, New York, on a case with the FBI.
Bentley was going to hang around with Gerald for a few weeks now that summer break from his new school had officially started. A private school that Gerald told his daughter he would be paying for. No arguments.
She couldn’t afford a place like Brynlock Academy on her FBI salary. But he could easily afford the fees, several times over.
Brynlock was the best private school in St. Louis, after all. He could give that gift to his new grandson.
He already had an appointment with an accountant in Masterson for later that week. He had college fund to set up as well.
Gerald didn’t have the heart to wake Bentley, so he scooped him into his arms. It had been a while since he’d carried a young child like this. His youngest daughter, Meyra, was twenty-four now. He hadn’t carried her in almost two decades. She had never been quite as sturdy as this little guy, either.
He missed those days. Missed the days he hadn’t had with his daughters, most of all. Sending them to live with his mother when Miranda had been eleven, Marin almost nine, and little Meyra five had been the hardest thing he had ever done. It had been best for the girls. They had had a safer upbringing in Masterson. One filled with family and connections going back generations.
They had been happy there. Were happy there.
That’s what he had always told himself.
Meyra especially had needed the safety and security and just plain routine that a life in Masterson at the inn could provide.
Marin had needed to be away from the world they had known before they’d lost her mother. His middle girl had taken the loss of her mother the hardest—and Gerald hadn’t been equipped to help her the way she had needed.
But his mother and sister could.
He couldn’t provide what they could after he’d lost his wife. If that meant he’d had less time with them, then he had paid that price.
He would do anything for his daughters. Anything. He just hoped they understood that.
“Grandpa? Where are we?” Bentley asked in a sleepy little voice, his head resting on Gerald’s shoulder. Gerald ignored the drool. Children had a way of breaking through even the most rigid bits of order and cleanliness. He had gotten used to that long ago by the time Marin had been three and enamored of playing in mud. Never had he seen someone love playing in the mud like his middle daughter.
She still enjoyed gardening as far as Gerald knew.
He carried sanitizing wipes in his bag for those necessary moments that inevitably followed a six-year-old around. And a stain-remover stick. He’d gone through three of them since meeting his grandson. He made a mental note to have his stockbroker invest in the makers of his favorite brand. The market for them would be forever endless. As long as there were children, there would be stains.
“We’re…here. Masterson County. Where your mother grew up.”
“Where my aunts are? My new mommy says I have new aunts now, too. I’m not alone no more. I never have to go back there again.” Bentley had been warehousedin a group home for foster children for months. With boys a good decade older.
No one knew exactly what had happened to that child in that time, but Bentley’s biggest fear was being left alone in the world now. Worse—being sent back.
Gerald would never let that happen.
Gerald was going to help Bentley understand that he would never be alone again. Miranda worked for the FBI in St. Louis. She’d somehow arranged her position to where travel would be more limited, but unfortunately, it hadn’t been eliminated completely.
That was where a retired grandfather was going to come in.
He had intended to retire to Masterson County, but he might end up setting up a place in St. Louis. Miranda and Bentley needed him now. He had a daughter and grandson in Missouri and two daughters in Wyoming—he was equally torn.
Who needed him the most?
“Yes. Aunt Marin and Aunt Meyra are inside. Along with your great-grandmother Flo and your mother’s cousins. My nieces. Remember me telling you about them? Darcey, Dixie, Daisy, and Dusty. Your family, our family. We are a family now.” Gerald had taken it on himself to read every book he could find on helping a child with a traumatic background. What he’d learned made sense—Bentley needed to feel absolutely safe most of all. Gerald had poured over those books until he understood what he needed to do.
Gerald was going to ensure the boy knew that he would never be left out in the world alone ever again. Would know that he had a family in Masterson that would always love him. Would always take care of him. No matter what. The boy needed to get to know his family.
Bentley didn’t have to be alone again.
He never would be alone again.
Marin Talley was a tough nut to crack. Rhea knew it the instant the younger woman started evading her questions. She was good, really good. But Rhea had been around twice as long—plus a few years—compared to this child.
Rhea wouldn’t give up that easily.
Flo had been correct; something was eating at Marin. Enough to make her jumpy and frightened. Worried. Practically making herself sick with it. “Marin, level with me. Are you ok?”
“Just having a few nightmares after what happened,” Marin finally said after a long stare at Rhea that was very disconcerting. Like she was trying to read Rhea, just as much as Rhea was trying to read her. “I am working through it. Doing some extra gardening. It helps me find my center again. I just need…time.”
Sleeping in the garden with the bugs and the worms was not finding her center. Rhea wasn’t fooled.
“Therapy might be an option. One I’d highly recommend. I went myself after working hurricane relief. After the trauma I saw, experienced,” Rhea said, sensing this Talley was a bit on the no-nonsense side. She’d respect Rhea more if she told it to her straight. “You went through a trauma. There will be an impact from that.”
Marin nodded, a world of nightmares in those eyes. “I know.”
“Good.” Rhea pulled out a small pad of paper from her bag. She wrote down the name of a prominent therapist one county over. She knew this girl wouldn’t want to go somewhere local. No. Marin had a lot of pride. “This is a friend of mine from many, many—we won’t mention how many—years ago. You tell her Rhea sent you.”
“I don’t know.”
“Just consider it.” Rhea shot her a smile as the door behind Marin opened. Rhea paused to watch.
An extremely tall man stepped in. Looking very handsome in an expensive double-breasted suit. Tears hit her eyes unexpectedly.
That wasn’t someone she saw around Masterson every day.
She hadn’t seen him in years. Not since the day they’d buried his best friend.
Rhea studied him for a moment, just taking him in and remembering.
Gerald Talley had just gotten better with age, but seeing him brought back so many memories grief threatened to rise up and surround her.
Not Gerald—not today, of all days. Not when she was already remembering Daniel so hard it hurt.
“Gerald!” Flo shouted, from nearby. Everyone in the diner turned as Flo hurried over to her son.
Marin stood. “Daddy!”
She threw herself at her father, his six-foot-five frame dwarfing her, though she was a taller woman.
Gerald just held her, one-armed. It was the best he could do.
There was a small child riding on his hip.
That was unexpected.
Rhea stepped back as more Talleys rushed closer. This was a family reunion. She didn’t want to be in the way.
Daniel’s best friend had just come back. Bringing so many memories of Daniel with him.