Read the first chapter of my new women’s fiction I co-wrote with Christine Gael, the pen name for my friend Christine Bell.
Celia Burrows thought she had it all—a handsome husband, two successful children, and a gorgeous beach house on the Northern coast of Maine. But her perfect life cracks apart when her husband of thirty years informs her that he’s leaving. In a note. And since problems come in threes, her adult children reveal they’ve both been struggling with issues of their own.
Before the separation, Celia was the main caretaker for her elderly father, but as her sisters step up to help in the wake of her troubles, neither of them takes to the role. Being tethered in Bluebird Bay is a nightmare for Anna, the youngest, whose passion for travel photography has taken her around the world. And Stephanie has struggled ever since her husband died in a freak boating accident a couple of years ago.
As Celia begins to come to terms with her own shocking loss, she’s surprised to feel a giddy sense of freedom. For thirty years, she’s buried her own dreams in support of her husband’s vision. But that was the past. It’s time to pick herself up, dust herself off, and create a better, more fulfilling tomorrow. Now, if only she can convince the other people she loves to do the same…
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Home sweet home.
Celia Burrows stepped through the front door of her house with a sigh.
Part of her was happy to be back in Bluebird Bay, but she couldn’t shake the unexpected sense of melancholy that had settled over her on the ride home. She’d had an amazing couple of days recharging at the Lotus Blossom Spa and Wellness Retreat with her friend, Jackie. Her skin felt great, she’d slept like a baby, and she’d had seventy-two hours to focus wholly on herself for the first time in years. But all of that me time hadn’t recharged her like she’d hoped it would. She was already looking ahead to the yawning stretch of the week to come.
Nate always got on her about that. “You can never live in the moment,” he’d say.
Still, she couldn’t ignore the niggling feeling that something was missing. Truth be told, the feeling had been there for years, but raising children and tending to Nate had helped drown it out. Caring for her ailing father had done the same.
She’d hoped the spa weekend would help, but if anything, that feeling seemed more insistent. Louder.
“Yeah, poor you, Celia,” she murmured with a low chuckle under her breath as she set her suitcase in the foyer and hung her lightweight sweater on the bannister. “Stuck in this big, beautiful, dream beach house with your handsome, successful husband. Someone cue the violins.”
It only caught her then that the house was extra quiet. Nate’s car hadn’t been in the driveway when she’d pulled up, but that didn’t explain why her cocker spaniel, Tilly, hadn’t charged over, tail thumping, the second she’d walked in.
“Tilly, Mommy’s home,” she called as she turned to scan the marble kitchen island for a note from Nate. She glanced at her watch with a frown. She’d told him what time she’d be home, and he hadn’t mentioned going out. “Tilly, come on, sweet girl!” she called, cupping her hand to her mouth and calling up the stairs.
Maybe her sweet pup had missed her so much, she’d decided to hibernate in the master bedroom where Celia’s scent was the strongest. That dog hadn’t been without her a single day since she’d gotten her from the shelter five years before. Maybe she thought she’d been abandoned again?
Guilt pricked at her as she grabbed her suitcase and jogged lightly up the stairs. But her guilt was quickly replaced with concern as she stepped into the bedroom.
Tilly was nowhere to be found.
Dog and car, both gone. Nate would never put her in his beloved Porsche unless the dog was sick or dying…
So where were they?
She peered around the room again and a strange sensation washed over her…a sense of foreboding so strong, it made her knees go weak. The bed was made, no surprise there, as Nate had always been pretty tidy, but it looked so picture-perfect, it could’ve graced the cover of Better Homes and Gardens.
She walked gingerly toward the king-sized bed, which seemed larger and more ominous with every step she took. Fingers trembling, she lifted the corner of the comforter, and what she found shook her to the core.
Pristine sheets with perfectly executed hospital corners.
Corners so precise, only one person could’ve done them, and that was Celia herself.
Blood roared in her ears, crowding out the oppressive silence. Nate hadn’t slept in their bed all weekend. She’d spoken to him just yesterday morning, and he specifically told her he’d slept in and planned to spend the day working on the boat so not to worry if he didn’t answer his phone. No mention of sleeping anywhere but home.
She turned to peer around the room again and something on her vanity table caught her eye. A heather gray envelope propped there, from the gorgeous, custom stationary set she’d bought Nate for Father’s Day last year.
Her legs moved as if of their own accord, carrying her toward the fussy little vanity table even though her brain urged her to run in the other direction. She reached for the note gingerly, like it was a bomb, because in the deepest part of her soul, she knew that’s exactly what it was.
A bomb that was going to obliterate her whole life.
She glanced down at the masculine scrawl on the front of the silky envelope that simply read, Celia. Then she tore it open.
It breaks my heart to do this to you this way, but I know how strong inertia is, and how easy it would be to fall back into our normal patterns if I tried to do it in person. I love you and always will, but I’m not in love with you anymore.
The rest of the words blurred before her eyes as the note slipped from her fingertips to the gleaming, oak floor.
How could this be happening? They’d just celebrated thirty years of marriage three months before. He’d even made a toast at the party he’d insisted on throwing. In front of all their friends and family and his business associates, he’d said, “Thirty down, thirty more to come, and I can’t wait. Love you, Celia.”
But I’m not in love with you anymore.
Celia lowered herself to the vanity stool and pressed her face in her hands. This couldn’t be happening. Not like this. Not now.
They finally had everything they’d ever wanted. All their hard work and sacrifice had paid off. Nate’s business was booming and had become one of the premiere commercial real estate agencies in town. They’d just finished renovating their forever home, a stunning contemporary house with an unparalleled view of the ocean, now equipped with every modern convenience imaginable. The kids were grown and doing great. Max was an accountant in Portland, Maine, two and a half hours south of Bluebird Bay, and happily married to her job, for the moment. Gabe had a great fiancée, and owned a charter fishing boat that allowed him to be on the water seven days a week.
This was supposed to be their time to reconnect. Enjoy the fruits of their labor.
A sharp rap sounded at the front door and she sucked in a steadying breath.
There were only a handful of people who would stop by on a Sunday morning without calling first. Gabe was likely out on his boat, and Max typically spent the weekends with her friends. It had to be one of her younger sisters. Anna was in town between assignments, so it could be either of them.
Briefly, she considered ignoring it, but her car was in the driveway, and her sisters were nothing if not persistent.
She slipped off her kitten heels, afraid her still-wobbly legs couldn’t carry her steadily, and then padded barefoot down the sleek staircase. As she passed the long mirror on the wall, she slowed and swiped at the tears she hadn’t even realized were streaking down her cheeks.
No one liked to see a weeping woman—it made people uncomfortable.
The knocking grew more insistent and she quickened her pace. Maybe she was wrong. Maybe one of the kids needed help with some kind of an emergency.
Dear God, the kids.
She had been so preoccupied with her own feelings, she hadn’t even considered theirs. What was she going to tell them?
Her heart gave a squeeze as memories pelted her brain like tiny, unerringly accurate bullets.
Nate holding a plump, newborn Gabe in his arms, beaming with pride. The two of them playing catch in the tiny swatch of backyard behind their starter home. Max and her daddy dressed to the nines for her kindergarten Father-Daughter dance.
Celia’s chest ached so much, it felt like it might crack in half. This was bad. No doubt about it. But whoever was behind that door didn’t deserve to bear the brunt of her grief.
She straightened and threw her shoulders back as she smoothed a hand through her hair.
Answer the door, plead a headache, and get whoever it is out of here as quickly as possible.
She turned the knob, pasting a polite half-smile on her face.
“Thank God! If you didn’t answer, I was going to have to eat all four of these by myself, and you know I’d do it. Do you have any idea how hard it is to get a good bagel in this town?” Anna demanded as she pushed past her in a whirlwind of typical, infectious energy.
Celia tried to form a reply as she trailed behind her youngest sister, but her throat was locked up tight, frozen with unshed tears.
Keep it together, Celia, you can do this, she counselled herself silently. You have to talk to Nate before you tell anyone. Spreading the news will only make things awkward once he comes home.
“Tell me about the spa. Was it as glorious as I hear it is?” Anna asked as she set the white paper bag on the kitchen island and made her way toward the refrigerator. “You have cream cheese, yes?”
Celia cleared her throat and nodded. “Y-yes. On the door.”
Anna set the tub of cream cheese on the marble island and then paused, butter knife in hand, hazel eyes narrowing. “You look weird. Pale. Did you eat some bad seaweed at that spa or something?”
Celia shook her head and tried to croak out a reassuring “I’m fine.” But what came out was a wrenching, whole-body sob.
“Celia, oh my God, what’s happened?” Anna asked, her face a mask of confused concern. “Is someone hurt?” Her eyes widened as she clutched at Celia’s arm in fear. “Dead?”
“No, no,” she managed, holding on to her sister like a lifeline. “N-Nate is leaving me.”
Where were those dang violins now?
Anna stared at her sister, shocked into total silence.
If she was being honest, her first reaction was relief. Not because she disliked Nate—though she did—but because her mind had instantly shot to several worst-case scenarios. Gabe had gotten into a boating accident, or Max had gotten into a car wreck, or Pop had…
She pushed those thoughts away and tried to think straight, despite the fear-induced dump of adrenaline pumping through her veins.
“Okay. Okay,” she mumbled, pulling her sister into a tight hug as she processed this new information.
Nate had always been a thorn in her side. He was nice to her, of course. Cee-cee wouldn’t have allowed him to be anything but. Cee-cee and Anna had always been close growing up. Even now, with Anna traveling three hundred plus days a year for her job as a nature photographer, she and her oldest sister talked every week. They saw each other frequently whenever Anna returned to her home base between jobs. Nate had known that bond was unbreakable, so he’d carefully maintained the status quo. Deep down, though, Anna knew he’d never liked her.
Well, bully for him, because the feeling was mutual.
She thought back to Cee-cee, B.N.—before Nate. The girl who used to wake her and Stephanie up in the middle of the night for a giggling skinny dip in the pool. The girl who used to host her own version of Chopped on their old camcorder before the show was even invented, laughingly demanding that the three of them make a meal out of canned ham, chickpeas, and peanut butter or something equally vile.
Cee-cee, B.N. had been a firecracker.
Their sister Stephanie had always thought their oldest sister might become an actress or an artist. Something creative, like Anna, because she always saw the beauty in the world.
Nate had been drawn to that wonder and light. At first, Anna had thought it was because he believed it was as beautiful as she did. It hadn’t taken her long to realize that Cee-cee was just another beautiful object for him to add to his collection, like his lawn and his car and this house. He liked all of his things pristine, perfectly manicured at all times, and his wife was no exception.
Celia had been no different. She was still a gem under all the polish, but he’d done his best to keep the wildest parts of her under wraps. Anna remembered, though.
Once Nate came along, that all changed. He’d treated her like a princess, no denying that, but he’d made it clear he expected her to act the part. For a beach-loving, small-town girl who preferred a good, sticky barbecue to fine dining, wasn’t that the cruelest twist of the knife? He’d done it so skillfully, changing her slowly over the years, that Anna was pretty sure Cee-cee hadn’t even realized what was happening. Like a boiling frog, not that Celia, P.N.—post Nate—would appreciate the comparison.
Just watching how he treated her sister was enough to make him a fixture on her “Nope List,” but she’d suffered his presence with cool politeness.
Not anymore, though. Now, she could openly hate his guts.
Her sister’s trim body trembled in her arms as she wept, and Anna’s hand reflexively tightened on the knife resting there. If he was nearby, she would’ve done a lot more than butter him with it right now, that was for sure.
Speaking of being nearby…
“Where is the bast—where is he, anyway?”
“I don’t know,” Celia whispered, pulling away as she swiped at her watery brown eyes. “He wasn’t here when I got home. He left a note—”
“A note?” Anna demanded, hot rage coursing through her. “He left a freaking note? What kind of person…” She trailed off at the sight of her sister’s devastated face and tried to hide her anger.
Going off on Nate wasn’t going to make Cee-cee feel any better right now. And for all she knew, this was another phase in his ludicrous mid-life crisis, like the Porsche and that stupid goatee. Temporary insanity. If they got back together, anything Anna said now would become a wedge between her and her sister. So not worth it.
“You won’t have to deal with him much,” Cee-cee said with a sniffle. “You’re leaving soon for your next assignment in Bolivia.”
Anna swallowed a sigh and shook her head as she took Cee-cee’s hand and squeezed. “Not going to happen. I’m going to be here for as long as you need me.”
Even as she spoke the words, she felt the invisible shackles closing over her, tightening with every breath. She’d only come back because she’d heard the tension in Celia’s voice the last time they’d discussed Pop’s declining mental health. It was meant to be a short visit. Long enough to give Celia a much-needed break, but short enough that she wouldn’t become like her sister in the process, giving and giving to everyone else, until there was nothing left.
They’d watched their mother do it all their lives, until she was nothing but a dried-up husk of a woman. So insubstantial that even her death from breast cancer had been unremarkable. She’d just faded away, her heart growing weaker until she was gone, like a puffy, white dandelion in the breeze.
It had been so hard on all of them, although it had hit Stephanie, a real Mama’s girl, the hardest. Of course, Stephanie had suffered other losses, too.
Anna wondered if Celia had actually processed their mother’s death—she’d seemed so intent on healing the rest of them she’d shortchanged her own grief.
Anna cleared her throat and refocused on Celia, who was already shaking her head vehemently.
“Sis, you don’t have to do that. It’s fine—”
“Shut up, Cee-cee,” she snapped, jerking back to glare at her sister. “It’s not fine. And it won’t be for a while. Just once in your life, can you put your own wants and needs first? Geez Louise, your husband of thirty years just left you, you’ve got Dad to deal with, and it’s going to be a long, ugly summer. Let me help you. Can you do that?”
Celia wet her lips and nodded slowly as she raked a hand through her long, chestnut hair. “Yeah. Okay, I can do that.”
“Perfect. First order of business, where is this note?” she asked, her tone pure acid.
“Upstairs. I didn’t even read the whole thing, to be honest. I was so…”
“I understand. You make us some tea or something. I’m going to go up and get it, and we’ll figure out where to go from there, all right?”
Celia nodded again and managed a tiny smile. “Thanks, sis.”
“That’s what sisters are for.”
By the time she got back downstairs with the note in hand, though, her whole body was tense with unchecked fury.
“Tea ain’t gonna cut it,” she said as she stepped back into the kitchen, resisting the urge to shred the note into a million pieces so her sister never had to read what it said.
It breaks my heart to do this to you this way, but I know how strong inertia is and how easy it would be to fall back into our normal patterns if I tried to do it in person. I love you and always will, but I’m not in love with you anymore.
I’m sure we’ve both felt this growing distance between us, so this can’t be much of a surprise. For what it’s worth, the past thirty years with you has been my honor and I will always think on it fondly. I hope you will too…
Because this town is full of gossips, I wanted to be the one to tell you that, while I’ve continued to honor my vows to you, I’m ashamed to admit I’ve been having an emotional affair with Amanda Meadows. We plan to move our relationship forward now that you’re aware.
Since you weren’t home and Amanda has a cocker spaniel of her own, I took Tilly so she wouldn’t be lonely. We can talk about sharing custody of the dog once you take some time to process and get into a good, healthy place with our new normal.
The dog he hadn’t even wanted and barely gave the time of day.
Anna barreled around the kitchen, opening cabinets and slamming drawers in search of liquor. No hard stuff, but eventually she found an unopened bottle of champagne chilling in the wine cooler and a jug of orange juice in the fridge.
Morning mimosas. How utterly sophisticated. Nate would approve.
On that note, she pried the cork from the bottle, slugged five gulps straight from the opening and handed it to her sister, who watched in wide-eyed silence from her perch at the kitchen island.
“You’re going to want to guzzle about half of that right about now. For medicinal purposes.”
She expected Celia to argue, but to her credit, she accepted the bottle wordlessly and did as she was told.
Then, with a silent prayer, Anna laid Nate’s letter on the countertop in front of her sister. She couldn’t watch. Instead, she paced the kitchen floor and waited.
It didn’t take long.
“Amanda Meadows…our realtor?” Celia gasped.
The realtor who had sold them the very house they were standing in.
The house that was supposed to be their forever home.
The bitter irony wasn’t lost on Anna, but she kept her expression inscrutable as she studied Celia’s devastated, tear-ravaged face, which crumpled before her very eyes.
For the next ten minutes, she just let her cry it out. Ugly, wracking sobs that had her doubled over. Sobs that the Cee-cee of three days ago would’ve never allowed herself to indulge in. Then, once she had quieted and caught her breath, Anna squatted at her sister’s feet and forced her chin up to lock gazes with her.
“I know you’re hurting right now. I can’t even imagine how difficult this is. But you need to redirect that sadness and get angry. He left you after thirty years and was too much of a chicken to do it to your face. Honey, he TOOK YOUR DOG! What kind of man does that?”
Celia sniffled and, for an instant, Anna caught a glimmer of the old, spitfire Cee-cee, B.N. as she wiped away her tears.
“He did, didn’t he?”
“He sure did. Let phase two of sister-helping commence,” Anna announced. “We’re going to that homewrecker’s house and getting your damned dog back.”
COMING THE FIRST WEEK OF JULY.
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