BY: ANJI NOLAN
Raising teenagers is hard enough. But when a single dad has to deal with a bi-polar daughter, it can be a recipe for disaster. Fortunately, the cosmos has a way of evening things out, and introduces a lonely young widow into their lives. Set in rural Maine, Lonely Hearts Cry is the parallel love story of one such father and his headstrong daughter.
TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In Lonely Hearts Cry by Anji Nolan, we are treated to two love stories. Jingle writer Jo Weston is recently widowed and wants to move to rural Maine. But the house she wants to buy belongs to an eccentric widower who has a bi-polar daughter and very firm ideas on who should be living in the house that he is selling. Once Jo makes it through the interview and actually buys the house, she has to acclimate to being away from everything she has ever known as well as the difference between city and country life. Her first night there, she freaks. It’s too quiet. As the seller, Mark Newcombe, understands what the new widow is going through, he takes her under his wing, and soon a budding romance blossoms. But Mark’s bi-polar daughter, Dani, is a handful, and at eighteen, very hard to control. Mark frets constantly about her, whether she has taken her medicine, and whether he is doing everything he should as a single father. Dani, however, is also in a romantic relationship with her childhood sweetheart, Nick Brewster, but that relationship is also challenged as Dani’s bi-polar disorder makes everyone’s life difficult.
Giving us a glimpse or what it is like to both be bi-polar and to have someone you love who is, Nolan treats these subjects with sensitivity and compassion, crafting a moving and heartwarming tale of love, loss, and starting over. An excellent read.
REGAN MURPHY SAYS: Lonely Hearts Cry by Anji Nolan is the story of a young widow whose life is in a downward spiral. Jo Weston has lost her husband recently and the spark she once had for both life and her work as a jingle writer for an advertising agency. Determined to pull herself out of the funk and get her life back on track, Jo moves to rural Maine, where she meets long-time widower Mark Newcombe. An old hand at the grieving game, Mark helps to draw Jo back into the light, but their romance is fraught with problems. Mark’s daughter, Dani, who is bi-polar, has her own share of problems. Her boyfriend, Nick, plans to be a doctor, and Dani wants to be a vet. Dani, who is now eighteen, is striking out on her own, and Mark finds it difficult to relax and let go, especially when Dani cannot really be trusted to take her medicine like she should.
Told with compassion and skill, Lonely Hearts Cry is both a romance and a story of overcoming loss and starting over, when moving on seems to be the most difficult thing to do. I think it’s a book everyone should read.
Deja vu moments always puzzled Jo, and first impressions hadn’t always worked out well. But as she pulled to halt, the log house in the distance had an inescapable and comforting familiarity. It had been a long drive from her house in Salem, Massachusetts, and it wasn’t that she didn’t like living by the ocean. It was just that she never felt like the house was theirs. Chris had it when they got married, and she simply moved in with her clothes. After he died, the unease she felt there had her whole world imploding.
Jo unconsciously clenched her jaw remembering that for a good while, she’d resided in a dark place where sorrow, guilt, and self-doubt lived. She had struggled with too much alcohol, too little food, and virtually no sleep. But how could anyone sleep, knowing so much had been left unsaid? Grief and those unresolved issues made her a work in progress. A tortured soul who needed to make sense of the years of emptiness. And she knew, that to get where she wanted to be, she needed a place of her own. A haven. A place of peace and solitude, where she could start afresh and exorcise the demons that plagued her.
As Jo let down her SUV’s window, the sound of fast-moving water roared above the purring engine. She was atop a culvert into which a raging waterway flowed. She moved slowly on, down a football field length drive, defined by a stacked boulder wall furred with moss. It held back a majestic copse of pines and Jo wondered what ancient feat of engineering had maneuvered it there. She could see decades of weather had stabilized the structure. Nevertheless, its foundation surrendered in places to damp spots, nurturing clumps of pink and white wild flowers. And midnight blue Iris stood gracefully beside a run-off ditch, glistening bright in the warm spring sun. At the end of the drive, Jo stopped in a walled turnaround. The house, its logs stained warm honey, was on a knoll surrounded by birch and pines. She smiled. It was just as she imagined. A storybook chalet painted in Christmas colors.
She was daydreaming and lost in the moment when a presence interrupted her thoughts. Looking down, she found three Labradors, black, yellow, and chocolate, positioned in a line alongside her car. When she quietly said “Hello,” it set them to barking and whirling like dervishes. However, as soon as she switched off her engine, they sat down, tails sweeping tiny dirt angels behind.
She remained in her car until a lady appeared on the house’s deck and beckoned her forward. Not wishing to alarm the canine sentinels, Jo cautiously opened her door. And as soon as she stepped out, the dogs sprang off toward the house.
Following on, up a sloping path, Jo took in deep breaths of warm April air infused with the fragrances of cut wood, pinesap, and the warming earth. And again, the sound of water, lots of water, distracted her. She pinpointed the tumultuous roar to a waterfall at the bottom of the knoll’s slope. A pond was the source of the turbulent cascade, and it was evident the spring thaw had surged into a fast-moving brook that ran the length of the property.
“Hi, you must be Ms. Weston,” said the lady. “I’m Sandy from Berry Real Estate. We spoke on the phone. Welcome to Maine. I hope you didn’t have too much trouble finding us.”
“Hi, Sandy. Nice to meet you. I used my GPS, which got me so far then sort of left me in the woods. I was about to call you when I came across a very nice old gentleman sitting outside the village post office. He knew exactly where I needed to be.”
“That was Junior,” Sandy said. “His father passed thirty years ago, but the name stuck. You’ll always find him ready to help a pretty lady in distress. Besides, village folk are slow to change, and everybody knows everybody’s business. Anyone could have directed you here.”
Jo nodded. Growing up on a farm, she remembered the support of a farming community. “That’s something I’ll have to reacquaint myself with.”
“You’ll see the value of it especially in the winter,” Sandy said. “Rural Maine can be a trial when you’re under six feet of snow.”
“Good grief. I’m so itching to get out of the city, I never gave it that much thought. But off the beaten track is what I want.”
“Okay. So, we’ll go ahead with the tour.”
“You mentioned on the phone the seller wants to meet me,” Jo said. She glanced around. “Is he here?”
“He’ll be back in a few minutes. He had a family crisis.” Sandy lowered her voice and leaned in close to Jo. “His daughter is a bit of a handful. He’s probably up at the high school—again. What that young girl needs is a mother.”
“Oh really,” Jo said, surprised at Sandy’s openness.
“He’s the most eligible bachelor in the county. I can’t think why he hasn’t been snapped up. Now, I have to warn you, Mark is most assuredly a doting dad, but he’s also a bit eccentric. He’s refused several offers on the house.”
“Might that just be a way to get more money?” asked Jo.
“Not Mark Newcombe. Money he doesn’t need. He told me the other buyers didn’t belong.”
“Didn’t belong? What did he mean?”
Sandy shrugged. “You’ll have to talk to him about that. I have no idea. Frankly, his father died here a couple of years ago. I think he’s simply having a hard time letting go.”
“Did he die in the house?” Jo asked.
“Massive heart attack in the cemetery out back. Mark stopped by on his rounds and found him.”
Jo frowned. “That must have been tough. But I think I understand where he’s coming from. Not saying a proper goodbye does something to your soul.” Jo vividly remembered seeing her husband Chris off to the airport, and the next time she saw him was in the morgue. Despite her restlessness living in his house, it had still taken her four years to summon up the strength to sell it. “Does Mr. Newcombe live around here too?”
“Mark owns all the land that-a-way.” Sandy gestured across the entire horizon. “He lives in the big farmhouse a mile this side of Limerick. That’s the nearest town with a general store and such. But enough of all that, come on into the house.”
After touring the house, Jo was more in love with the property than even she imagined. And when Sandy showed her the generator room under the deck, Jo realized whatever hardships the Maine winter might bring, she had everything she needed to survive. “Well, Sandy, I really want this property. Will you offer Mr. Newcombe full price for me.”
Sandy nodded. “I’ll draw up the offer as soon as I get back to my office. However, you have yet to meet with him. Money aside, he has definite ideas about who he wants here. City folk aren’t his first choice.”
“Oh,” said a startled Jo.
“Don’t get me wrong. He’s not a bigot or anything like that. But we’ve all seen city people move here, thinking it’s easy to manage a rural property. Land is cheaper than down south, so they buy acreage and fancy themselves landowners. But when the snow starts, being in the sticks is a whole different animal. Local resources are limited, and many from away end up selling because they can’t handle things. You’ll have to get used to doing a lot of land and property maintenance yourself. Fortunately, Mark is including everything you need in the sale.” Sandy looked at her watch. “So, that’s about it for the tour. When Mark arrives, he’ll have a bunch of questions for you.”
“So that’s why he’s interrogating potential buyers?” Jo asked. “Because he doesn’t like folks from the city?”
Sandy smiled. “He simply wants to make sure you belong.”
“My husband is—er, late husband—was a pilot, away a lot. I’m used to doing things alone, and absolutely not afraid to get my hands dirty.”
“Plus, I’m a substantial gal who’s worked on a farm,” Jo said. “I might be gussied up today, but I’m pretty much a jeans and tee-shirt sort.”
“I’m just the real estate agent Ms. Weston. You don’t have to convince me.”
Jo blushed. “Sorry, but I really want this place. How do I go about convincing Mr. Newcombe I belong?”
“I really have no idea,” said Sandy. “Just go with the flow. He’ll be here shortly. Don’t be swayed by the overalls and Howdy Doody freckles. Mark is nobody’s fool. I’ll talk to you later.”
“You’re leaving me alone?”
“Sure. Help yourself to a glass of wine and some munchies. Sit on the deck and enjoy the peace and quiet.”
The agent set off down the deck stairs.
“Wait,” yelled Jo. “What about the dogs? They’re still in the woods somewhere.”
“They know their boundaries. Talk to you later.”
Jo watched Sandy leave, wondering what she meant by “they know their boundaries,” and exactly what she’d let herself in for. She’d heard jokes about people from Maine being “Maniacs.” But being deserted in the middle of a real estate showing, to be interrogated by the property owner, gave a whole new meaning to the word.
Once Jo was alone, the serenity of Maine brought back memories of her childhood in Ireland, surrounded by green and the smell of the earth. But the joy of those happy times was quickly overshadowed by the sadness of her marriage to Chris. At the time, it all seemed to be going along fine. But he was always flying off somewhere exotic, leaving her to become the stoic acceptor of a solitary life. And while he might have said, “Go out, join clubs, develop a circle of friends,” she couldn’t find motivation to do it alone. They’d had more than one conversation about the point of being married if you never saw each other. But his answer was always the same. “You knew what my job meant when we got together, it is what it is.” Then, when he died, she realized her life was a series of unfulfilled dreams. She was thirty-nine, childless, with no family close, and she had nothing in her life that didn’t revolve around work. Then the guilt hit. That unspoken menace that berated her for even thinking about abandoning Chris’s house and starting afresh. He’d been a good provider. Didn’t drink excessively, smoke, gamble, or chase other women. What more did she want? Was she the unreasonable one? Sandy had said, “Have a glass of wine and relax,” and a year ago, she may have done that. But not today. She would be stronger. She would handle the emotional rollercoaster that was grief. An offer was in the works. She was making headway. She had to remain positive and believe time was the equalizer. And she couldn’t forget what had prompted her to embark on a new life…
It was three years after Chris died, and Jo was sitting on her porch in Salem. Her laptop was open, ready to rework a loathsome jingle for an antacid she knew from experience was not that good. And she had just poured her second glass of Chardonnay.
When the phone rang at four-thirty p.m., it could only be her boss, Marvin. She could feel the vibrations of his personality across the miles.
“Hey,” he said flatly. “How’s it going?”
Marvin was an extraordinarily, often irritatingly cheerful sort, so his coldness took Jo by surprise. She pushed her wineglass behind the computer as if he could see it. “You know—good days—bad days. What’s up Marvin?”
“The bad days,” he said.
“That doesn’t sound good.”
“Jeep,” he said, using the nickname he’d favored from their first meeting. “You know you’ve been my girl for years, and I wouldn’t be saying anything unless I thought you could do something about it—”
He had paused. Probably to take a drag from the cigar she knew was in his hand.
“Something about what?”
“Trouble in my little corner of paradise.”
“Good grief, Marvin, what’s with the drama?”
“You’re losing it, Jeep. You’re a jingle writer. You’re supposed to convey upbeat, positive, cheerful messages.”
“And nothing, sister,” he said. “Frankly, your work stinks. I don’t like it, clients don’t like it, and the sponsors are ready to pull the plug. You’ve lost it.” He paused for another drag. “I’d like to believe you still have it somewhere.”
Jo wasn’t entirely surprised that Marvin was complaining. She had missed a few deadlines, lately, and had to rework a lot of her stuff. However, she wasn’t about to let him get away with pulling her to pieces. “Umm, so you’ve taken two long drags on that filthy cigar in as many seconds. What exactly is ‘it’ and which ‘somewhere’ are we talking about?”
“Don’t be a wise-ass, Jeep, I’m trying to help. You’re festering in Salem. You have to get out of that house. Take a vacation and get your head together. Move for, Christ’s sake. Seriously, I don’t care what you do, as long as you do something. God knows you’re still young. It’s been over three years since Chris died, you have to make an effort to move on.”
“What if I can’t?”
“I don’t buy that poor little me crap, and you know it. You were always the strong one, the loner. A feisty, do your own thing, piss in the wind sort of gal. You can’t do a one-eighty and expect any of us to believe you prefer torturing yourself.”
Jo took a swig of wine in defiance. “Maybe I’m comfortable with it.”
“Bullshit, you’re wallowing in self-pity, and it shows. I’m not gonna let it continue without saying my piece.”
Jo heard him cough. Now he would pull one of those little bits of tobacco off his tongue and stub out the cigar.
“Look,” he continued. “It wasn’t like you two were joined at the hip. Chris was always leaving you to cope alone. And you got the job done.”
“Are you trying to make a point, Marvin?”
“Hear me out, dammit. You’re going down a one-way street to who-the-hell-gives-a-rat’s-ass, and not even remotely getting it done. You’re missing trends a mile high and sponsors can’t relate to you anymore. Do something soon or they’re gonna walk. And if they do, what will you be—just memories and an empty bottle of Beaujolais.”
“What do you expect—my husband died.”
“I expect you to get over yourself. You’re not the only one who ever lost a husband. But for a woman who always rolled with the punches, you’re letting Chris’s death consume you. Jeep, believe me, I’m saying this for your own good. You’ve become more reclusive than is good for anyone, and I strongly recommend you get out of that house. Please, move away from Salem, take a year off, travel, Jesus, pick one!”
Jo felt an urge to bite back, hard. Tell him to shove his jingles and shove his job. She didn’t need the money. Chris’s investments and an insurance policy made sure she had plenty. But a little voice in her head said, Listen. Marvin is your truest friend and is only doing what he feels is necessary.
“I’ve worked at Bean Town for fifteen years,” Jo said quietly. “Doesn’t history and my loyalty count for anything?”
“It has, for the better part of two years. But I’m in business, and I can’t protect you any longer. You know better than anyone, we are only as good as our latest campaign. Criticism isn’t being whispered any more, it’s being screamed. I need you to get it together.”
Jo could almost see Marvin’s face. Etched with concern and love. She had no doubt confronting her had been hard. And that every word he said was as painful for him as it was for her.
“Whatever you need I’ll get for you,” said Marvin. “Want help moving, need money for plane fare, I’m there. Think about it and get back to me—soon.”
Jo couldn’t prevent her tears from falling. “Thanks, Marvin, I will.”
“Say it, dammit.”
“Okay, I promise.”
“You’ve never let me down, don’t start now. You’re a huge part of why this agency is so successful. I’m counting on you.”
When she hung up the phone, Jo knew the conversation was overdue. She’d simply convinced herself it wouldn’t happen. And while she’d had a sense that their friendship had been keeping her in a job, hearing the truth from her oldest and dearest friend shook her to the core. She’d never been overly sentimental about her work because music and words were subjective. But in recalling how much of it had lately been rejected, she knew Marvin’s admonition was different. This was personal. And it was loud and clear. His “strongly recommend” was not a request.
As she pulled her wineglass from behind the computer screen, Jo smiled. Marvin clearly didn’t know her as well as he thought. She never drank red wine. But his words had struck a chord. She walked into the kitchen and poured the remains of the glass and the rest of the bottle down the sink.
The encounter with Marvin had been some months previously. She rarely drank now. She was afraid it might set off a storm she couldn’t weather. But he had been the catalyst for her moving on. Naturally, she had moments. Moments when plans for her new world collapsed, and she burst into tears, dropping right back to square one. But grief was unpredictable. An ongoing series of baby steps.
Now, as Jo looked out over the property, she drank in the beauty of the surrounding gardens. She made a mental note of plants she recognized, daylilies, peonies, and lilacs. Being late April, they sat quietly, a hundred shades of green, teasing her imagination with possibilities. However, she knew in a couple of months they would burst forth, and the beauty of this verdant island would become an uncontrived explosion of color. She had no doubt this little piece of Maine paradise, meticulously maintained to ward off the surrounding forest, was her new beginning. And as she settled on one of the deck’s chaises, an immediate and unanticipated peace washed over her.
She’d been enjoying the tranquility for several minutes when she heard loud yapping from the woods.
Jo stood to find a beat-up truck turning onto the property. And as it rattled up the drive toward her SUV, the Labradors burst from cover. The vehicle was barely at a stop when the dogs hurled themselves at the driver’s side door.
“Girls,” the driver said, reaching out the window to pet them. “Behave. We have company.”
They seemed to understand him and sat down. However, as soon as he stepped from the truck, they raced towards the house.
Jo assumed Mark Newcombe had arrived. At least six-three, with the sort of lean muscular build you only get from hard labor, his long, easy stride led her to believe he did a lot of walking. She couldn’t miss the cell phone clamped to his ear, and by the look on his face, he wasn’t happy with whoever he was talking to. As he saw her aloft, he nodded. Then he turned his back on her and continued his call.
Jo wasn’t happy. She knew most people had a cell phone and used it as an extension of their consciousness. But she didn’t like them and didn’t have one. Moreover, she wasn’t above telling someone to put it away if they were supposed to be talking to her. However, now was not the time for personal quirks. She had to focus on the job in hand. Feeling she was about to be interviewed for the most important job of her life, Jo waited until he put the phone away and met him at the bottom of the deck’s steps.
“Hi, I’m Jo Weston,” she said, extending a hand. His was solid and hard-worked, with an almost liquid sensuality. And when she felt its pressure, it gave her unexpected goose bumps. “Seems like it’s just you, the dogs, and me. Is it usual for Maine real estate agents to desert a prospective buyer?”
“When they have me for a client,” he said coldly. “Unless you were expecting someone else, you’ll have realized I’m Mark Newcombe. Did you like the property?”
Jo bit her lip to stop from gushing. “As a matter of fact, I love your property, and I’d like to buy it. I know you have an agenda, but I have some questions too, do you mind?”
He raised an eyebrow. “I have forty minutes.”
Jo wasn’t sure whether he was being sarcastic or just plain rude. Ordinarily, she’d have called him out. But she didn’t want to do anything to prevent her from “belonging,” so she said nothing. “I’m a little worried. Is Sandy coming back for her dogs?”
Mark ran a hand through his hair. “They come with the house.”
“You mean whoever buys the house, gets the dogs?”
“Is that a problem?” he asked.
“Well, I haven’t looked after a dog in twenty years,” said Jo, taken aback. “But I guess the drill is still the same. Sandy said they knew their boundaries. Do they live here alone?”
“Of course not. Nick Brewster, the doctor’s boy lives here with them. Also keeps the house and grounds in order.”
Once again, Jo bit her lip. It was becoming increasingly clear why Mr. Mark Newcombe was having a hard time finding someone who he felt belonged. “Well, he’s doing a fine Job,” said Jo, looking around. “Everything is perfect. Where will he go when you sell?”
“Umm, bright kid,” she replied. “So, you’ll be selling by September?”
“More like July. He has a job at The Coop.”
“I see. So, if I belong here—”
“If you belong?” asked Mark.
Jo’s cheeks flushed. It appeared Mr. Mark Newcombe wasn’t overly chatty about anything. So, she worried that Sandy may have spoken out of turn. “Yeah, sorry, bit sneaky to mention it. But I really like this place and am not above a bit of cheating to get it.”
“Don’t need to cheat on my account,” he said, nodding toward the dogs that were impatiently milling around. “The decision is theirs.” He dropped his hand casually to the head of the chocolate lab.
The smiling dog wagged her tail deliriously, causing the others to close in for some attention. But when one of them heard a noise in the woods and took off, the others gave chase.
“So, if the dogs don’t like me, you won’t sell me the property?” asked Jo.
“I’ve known worse. However, being one of those need-to-know gals, I’m assuming you and the dogs have a way of judging prospective buyers?”
“We do,” he said, finger swiping across an eyebrow.
“And you would determine my acceptance how?”
“Did they bark when you arrived?”
“Did they scare you?”
“Sort of,” said Jo. “But not in a, we’re-going-to-bite-you way, more like a we-might-slobber-you-to-death way.”
Mark fought back a smile. “Did they sit down by the car?”
“They did, and it was very odd, because as soon as I opened the door, they ran up to the house.”
“They were inviting you in,” said Mark.
“Will you indulge me with a little test?”
Jo grinned. “As long as it’s not weird or perverted.”
Mark whistled for the dogs, and they hurtled from the woods. “Do you think a gal like you can handle all this land and three rambunctious dogs?”
“A gal like me?”
“A city gal.”
Jo took a deep breath. “We do have dogs in the city.”
“I heard that,” said Mark, as he handed her four cookies. “Give them all one.”
As the dogs sat in front of her, she offered each a cookie, but they remained motionless. Jo looked in Mark’s direction. “They don’t seem to like them.”
“They like ’em,” he said. “The chocolate is the alpha, try her first.”
Jo did, and after the dog accepted the cookie, the others took theirs. “Wow, polite dogs, they didn’t snatch or anything. What do I do with the last one?”
“Give it to Charity.”
“Charity, you mean like the Red Cross or something?”
Mark smiled. “That’s cute,” he said. “I meant the dog, Charity.” He pointed to each dog. “Yellow—Faith. Black—Hope. And the chocolate is Charity.”
Jo handed the cookie to Charity, who gently took it and headed back into the woods, closely followed by the others. “Now where are they going?” asked Jo.
“To my dad.”
Jo looked quizzical, recalling the maniac thing. “To your dad, Mr. Newcombe? I don’t mean to be rude, but isn’t he dead?”
“That, I know. He’s buried out back. Charity is taking him a cookie.”
Oh, this just gets better and better, she thought. “Your dad is buried here—is that even legal in 2014?”
“The cemetery is appropriately consecrated for family use. It’s this way, let’s go visit. If the girls are right—”
“The girls?” asked Jo, finding her situation increasingly surreal.
“The dogs. If they’re right about you, I think you’ll find it interesting.”
Mark strode off but he didn’t have to shorten his pace. Jo was tall and kept up.
“Jo,” he said. “Is that short for Joanne?”
“No such luck. My parents were hippy wannabe’s. They traveled the world trying to find themselves, and the meaning of life. They vowed their children’s names would be wherever they were conceived. Considering all the places they traveled, I count myself lucky.”
“I could’ve been called Katmandu or Galapagos.” She finally saw a genuine smile from him. “As it was, a little too much wine and a night of passion in a VW bus left me with Jericho Palestine Monte Claire-Fitzgibbon.”
Mark stopped in his tracks. “Whoa, that’s a mouthful. So, I assume Weston is your married name.”
“Was, I’m a widow,” said Jo, a catch in her throat. It was the first time she’d actually said it aloud, and the hollowness of it proclaimed her loneliness was real.
“I’m sorry,” said Mark tenderly. “I didn’t mean to pry.”
“That’s okay,” she said. “Chris’s accident was years ago. It was he, who first called me Jo. I think he got sick of the political discussions that inevitably followed the Palestine reference.”
“I can see where that might get heated. So, I should call you Jo?”
“If I can call you Mark.”
“What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.”
Jo smiled. “That’s pretty funny coming from a farmer.”
“I wouldn’t in any way style myself a farmer. That was my dad’s bag. I pitched in when he got sick then took over full time after he died. By profession, I’m a chemist, with a yen to do what your folks did.”
“Be a hippy and travel the world?” asked Jo.
“Nothing quite so bohemian. I was thinking more about setting up a laboratory in the amazon rain forest and discovering a cure for cancer.”
“I don’t mean to sound rude,” said Jo. “But isn’t that a bit of a cliché?” As soon as the words were spoken a wave of embarrassment flowed over her. Those she worked with were used to her blunt honesty. But she barely knew Mark Newcombe and this wasn’t the time for snarky remarks. “Er, sorry that was un…”
“Maybe you’re right.” Mark gestured left. “This way, up the logging trail.”
Jo suddenly realized her jibe might have hurt him. “Well, this has got to be a first,” she said, attempting to lighten the mood. “I drive into the middle of nowhere to buy a property from a trio of Labradors and march into the woods with a thwarted apothecary to view a cemetery. If I told anybody about this, they’d think I was crazy.”
“Don’t worry,” said Mark. “This is Maine, we do crazy.”
As they walked the trail, Mark looked at his watch. He’d been at the house forty minutes and it seemed like a heartbeat. She might be from the city, but Ms. Jo Weston was proving to be way more interesting than any other buyer. He hadn’t missed the slight break in her voice, and her hesitation saying the word “widow.” But he could also feel her strength and dogged resolve to start anew. Right now, she was in the same place he’d been seventeen years before. And he knew all she needed was time. His empathy with her was unexpected. Moreover, the affinity their joint experience created was an unanticipated bond he found difficult to quantify. He smiled. She was no nonsense, but sensitive. Mark’s mind raced. It had been an age since he’d related to a woman on equal terms. His life revolved around his daughter, and of late, his only interaction with another woman was with Dani’s math teacher, Mrs. Fisher. Being on the receiving end of an attractive woman’s decisiveness and sincerity was a novelty he liked. If he didn’t have so much going on with Dani, he wouldn’t mind getting to know Jo better.
When they arrived at the cemetery, Faith, Hope, and Charity were sitting next to a new gravestone. The cookie sat before them untouched. “That is so sweet,” said Jo. “Which one of them eats it?”
“I don’t know. The romantic in me says none of them.”
“Romantic?” giggled Jo.
“Maine farm boy who loves poetry, art, and the metaphysical. Hopeless, right?” Mark paused. “You’re pretty blunt, aren’t you?”
Jo blushed. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to be. I’ve been on my own too long. Social interaction hasn’t been on top of my to-do list.”
“You don’t say.”
“However, in my defense—”
“Ah…the defense,” said Mark, grinning. “Enlighten me…” He made a sweeping gesture to give her the floor.
Whoa, this is new, she thought. Was that gruff exterior just a front? Was he actually flirting with her? Jo continued. “In my defense—my husband was pretty one-dimensional in the hopeless romantic department. Bunch of flowers on birthdays, that sort of thing. I’ve never met a guy who actually admitted to the condition.”
“Well, that’s certainly a shame,” he said, looking at her with new eyes. “However, bowing to the realistic, I’ve been here and seen a couple of cookies—next time they’re gone. I’m assuming the locals ate them.”
“Locals?” asked Jo.
“Deer, moose, coyote, the occasional bob-cat and bear, we have an assortment.”
“Yikes, do I need to worry about that?”
“You really are a city girl, aren’t you?”
“Not quite. I grew up on a farm in Ireland. My folks brought me to Boston when I was fifteen.”
“So, you have what…five years of exposure to the land?”
“Now who’s being blunt?”
“I can hold my own out here. But you come down to Boston, and I’ll laugh my socks off while you attempt to navigate the remnants of the big dig. Now, seriously, do I need to worry?”
“You just need to learn how to use a shotgun,” said Mark matter-of-factly. “Unless being an experienced farm girl, you already know.”
Just then, she heard his phone buzz.
He pulled it out of his pocket. “Sorry, it’s Dani’s principal, I have to take this.” He moved to the edge of the cemetery. “How many times do I have to address this with her? Should I simply give you a supply of her meds? I know, trust. Okay, let me talk to her. Thank you for letting me know.” He pocketed his phone and came back alongside her. “Sorry, family crisis.”
“You seem to have a fair number of family crises.”
“And you don’t,” he answered brusquely.
“Actually, no. My life is pretty boring. Me, myself, and I. Oh, and work.”
“You don’t have kids?”
“My husband and I couldn’t,” Jo said.
Mark couldn’t miss the pain in her voice. “That was insensitive, I apologize.”
Jo nodded. “Me too, sorry. I’m not used to—”
“So, where were we?”
“There must be forty stones here. Wow, this one is 1600.” Jo glanced around. “They’re all Newcombe or Lord. Are these all your relatives?”
He brushed his hand across the top of his dad’s stone and nodded. “The Lords are distant cousins on my wife’s side.” Mark pointed to one of the less weathered stones. “She’s over there, next to her mother.”
“I’m so sorry,” Jo said. “Here I am thinking I’m the only one who had a spouse die young.”
A strange light shone from Mark’s eyes. “You’ll never be the only one. But life has to go on. Especially when there are others to think about.”
“At least you have some family to help on the farm.”
“There’s just my daughter, Dani. Seventeen, going on seventy. Her mom died when she was born, so she’s grown up pretty independent. Comes back to bite me every so often.”
Jo smiled. “The joys of parenthood.”
“Tell me about it,” he said.
“It can’t be all bad, so many people do it,” said Jo, warming to him. “The only thing I have worth thinking about is my career. I’m a freelance jingle writer. But according to my boss, I’ve lost my mojo since Chris died. Buying this place is my first step to moving on.”
“Well, you certainly don’t do things half-heartedly. I know you’ve lived on the land, but that was a long time ago. Are you sure you’ve really thought it through?”
“Umm. That doesn’t sound good. Is this where you politely tell me I don’t belong?”
Mark grinned. “Not exactly. I want to give it some thought. From what you’ve said, I’ll assume you’re going to make me an offer. I’ll let Sandy know by tomorrow. Okay?”
Jo smiled bravely, but she wasn’t okay. She could feel a heavy storm gathering. And it was about to rain on her parade.
© 2019 by Anji Nolan