Chapter 1: Ellen CHAPTER 1 Ellen
Standing beside her daughter’s open grave, Ellen Foster dug her fingernails into her palms as the annoying sound of a kazoo wafted through the wintry, pine-scented air.
At a funeral.
Worse, the kazoo wasn’t playing anything remotely appropriate, like “The Lord Is My Shepherd” or “Amazing Grace,” but instead ABBA’s “Dancing Queen.”
Ellen tried to ignore the other mourners who were silently lip-synching the song as they swayed to the music. Safely hidden behind her large sunglasses, she closed her aching eyes for a long moment. It was all so tasteless. But then, everything Julie had planned for her own funeral was, so far, bizarre and uniquely tasteless. Julie would have loved it. She was always good at irking me. Frightfully so.
Ellen pressed her lips firmly together, holding back both a torrent of tears and the deep desire to shout a curse. She’d never uttered a curse in her entire life. Not once. But right now, it was all she could do to keep it inside. She was discovering that grief was a devious beast, a bitter mixture of loss and regret that ripped its way through her heart not once but over and over again, leaving her exposed and furious.
Two elderly women wearing Game of Thrones T-shirts under their open coats stepped up to Julie’s shiny black casket, which had been painted with outrageous red glitter flames along each side and signed with Julie’s familiar swooshing signature. With military precision, the women unfolded a huge dragon flag and draped it over the casket, nodding at the preacher as they rejoined the other mourners.
The purple dragon flag fluttered in the chilly January breeze, one heavily lashed eye seemingly locked on Ellen. The kazoo began playing once more, the lilting notes of “Macarena” drifting into the air.
Ellen cast a baleful gaze at the sky. That’s not funny, Julie. Not even a little.
The echo of Julie’s hearty, unchecked laugh rang through Ellen’s mind, so immediate and clear that for one glorious second, hope flared and she instinctively looked around, searching the small crowd for her daughter. The almost-instant realization that the laugh was just a memory was followed by bone-crushing disappointment. I’ll never hear that laugh again.
Chest aching, Ellen silently sucked in a deep, shaky breath. I don’t have time for this. I should be thinking about how I’m going to help Kristen. My granddaughter deserves a happy life, and I’m going to make sure she gets one.
To accomplish Project K, as Ellen had labeled it in her Louis Vuitton Noir Epi leather agenda just this morning, she had to accomplish three Action Items. Focus on the Action Items, she told herself as the preacher started tapping his toe to the kazoo’s hum. Kristen is all that matters.
Ellen closed her eyes and ignored everything going on around her.
Item One: Make it through the funeral without crying.
So far, so good, mainly thanks to the heavy cover provided by her sunglasses. All she had to do was fight her way through the next fifteen or so minutes, and she could move on.
Item Two: Fix up Julie’s house and put it on the market.
That would be a big one, as, from what Ellen could tell, Julie’s creaky old Queen Anne–style house hadn’t been updated since the ’70s. Worse, now that Julie had lived in it for the past ten years, every closet and corner was piled high with kitsch. All of it has to go.
That the house wasn’t in the best of shape and was stuffed with useless craft-quality items wasn’t a surprise. It was just one example in a long line of examples of Julie’s refusal to grow up. Not only had she become an artist rather than get a real job, but she’d also deliberately had a child without the benefit of either a father or a steady income. Poor Kristen. The opportunities she’s missed—I can’t bear to think about it.
Fortunately for her granddaughter, Ellen was ready and able to handle things from here on out, and the money made from the house sale would go straight into a college fund.
Which leaves Item Three: Get Kristen out of this backward town and to my home in Raleigh where she can begin living a normal, orderly life. Of all the Action Items, that one would be the trickiest. Ellen slanted a glance to her side where Kristen stood, loudly puffing out “Macarena” on her neon-green kazoo. Ellen tried not to gaze too long at the teenager’s purple-streaked hair or the small diamond that twinkled in her nose.
Don’t stare. Ellen jerked her gaze away from Kristen, away from the dragon flag–draped casket, and instead focused on the trees in the distance. Ellen had to proceed carefully where her granddaughter was concerned, as they barely knew one another thanks to Julie and her stubbornness. But with some time and effort, Ellen was convinced she and Kristen would grow closer and finally have the relationship they should have had all along.
Kristen tilted her kazoo to a jauntier angle and finished “Macarena” to a boisterous round of applause.
Ellen bit back the urge to snap out, This is supposed to be a funeral! Although it would be almost impossible to tell by how these supposed mourners were dressed. Behind the safety of her dark sunglasses, she eyed the residents of Dove Pond, who wore a wide range of mismatched, garishly colored clothes, just as the handwritten funeral invitation had requested.
She flinched at the memory of that invitation. When she’d found it in her mailbox just three days ago, she’d thought it a horrible joke. Julie’s flowing script had adorned bright construction paper, breezily inviting her mother to “the funeral of all funerals, date TBA.” The invitation had requested that everyone wear bright colors, as Julie didn’t wish to leave the earth in a parade of dull black or gray. She’d also added that she wanted no weeping, as dying wasn’t really so hard “once one got over the surprise of it.”
It had been ten years since Ellen had heard from her daughter, who’d stormed out of Ellen’s world the same way she’d entered—screaming and red-faced, refusing to be held or told what to do. After their last argument, Julie had cut her mother from her and Kristen’s lives. Ellen had been horrified when Julie had refused to allow her to even see her granddaughter, saying she didn’t want Kristen’s mind “polluted” by Ellen’s “stuffy views.”
In those first few months, Ellen had reached out repeatedly, desperate to see her granddaughter, but her calls had gone unanswered. As the silent weeks expanded to even more silent months, Ellen had decided to give Julie some space, thinking her daughter would come around more quickly if she didn’t feel pressured. After that, Ellen had only called on birthdays and holidays… calls that had gone to voice mail so often that—as time wore on—she’d eventually stopped even that.
Which was why Ellen hadn’t taken the invitation to her daughter’s future funeral seriously. Ellen had never understood Julie’s sense of humor, so she’d just assumed it was some sort of cruel joke and had tossed the invitation into the closest trash can.
But then, the very next day, Kristen had called, crying. In between Kristen’s hiccupping sobs and broken words, Ellen had learned that Julie had died after a two-year fight with breast cancer.
The invitation was real, and Julie was gone.
Stunned, Ellen had numbly assured her granddaughter she’d be there as soon as possible and hung up. Time had slammed to a halt and for some reason, Ellen had found herself staring down at her feet. She’d been wearing a pair of blue Manolo Blahnik Decebalo pumps with gold trim, adorned with large crystal brooches. If she closed her eyes now, she could still see her long, narrow feet in those shoes while tears she didn’t even know she was crying fell onto the blue velvet, shimmering in the late-afternoon sun, brighter than the sparkling brooches.
She’d since thrown the shoes away because she couldn’t look at them without remembering what had happened next. She’d let out a moan like a wounded tiger and had dropped to her knees, desperately digging through the trash, looking for the invitation. When her fingers had closed over the discarded paper, her tears had turned into sobs, her pain tinged a bitter blue from the impersonal tone of the invitation. The truth hurt—that even while dying, Julie hadn’t bothered to reach out to her mother.
Ellen had sat on the floor surrounded by trash as she hugged the ridiculous piece of construction paper, weeping for the daughter she’d lost and for the relationship she’d always hoped for, but now knew she would never have.
Eventually Ellen had run out of tears. So she’d done as she always had whenever she faced a problem: she’d picked herself up, dried her tears, closed the door on her too-raw emotions, and made a list of things that needed to be done. She’d taken time off work and packed for her trip, pausing now and then to add to her to-do list. As she did so, her sadness and fury grew. Once again Julie had withheld something precious from Ellen, her right to say goodbye to her one and only child. Ellen had been left standing on an emotional precipice, alone and empty.
A cool breeze rippled the dragon flag, and Ellen tugged her black wool coat tighter, catching Kristen’s questioning gaze. Ellen realized her expression must be fury-tight, so she forced her mouth to curve into what she hoped was a comforting smile.
Kristen didn’t look convinced. She turned her attention back to the preacher, the diamond stud in her nose sparkling in the late-afternoon sun. It was painfully obvious that Julie had allowed her daughter all the excesses she’d craved as a child, and Ellen shuddered to think what damage had already been done.
As if she could hear her grandmother’s thoughts, Kristen hunched her shoulders against the breeze, causing her red-and-purple kimono to flap around her knees. Earlier today, as they’d gotten ready to attend the service, Ellen had balked at the sight of Kristen wearing the garment, but the teenager had flatly refused to change, saying she and her mother had picked out the kimono during Julie’s final week.
Final week. Ellen’s throat tightened. She hoped and prayed Julie hadn’t suffered. Please, no. Julie, why didn’t you call me? I would have come. I would have helped.
Fresh tears burned Ellen’s eyes, and she furiously blinked them away behind her sunglasses. She would not cry. Would. Not.
The reverend, a round man who looked sweaty even on a chilly January afternoon, smiled at Kristen before he launched into his opening. “My friends, we are not here to mourn the loss of resident artist and beloved town member Julie Foster but rather to celebrate the beauty she added to our lives by sharing her artwork, her smile, her life, and her lovely daughter, Kristen. Julie was a warm person. A generous person. A vibrant person. We will all miss her dearly.” He faltered a bit as his gaze brushed by Ellen.
Ellen wondered what Julie had told people about their contentious relationship but decided it was best she didn’t know. Still, she couldn’t help noticing the uncertain glances cast her way, both curious and faintly disapproving. Had Julie complained about her, or were they upset Ellen wasn’t weeping like a broken doll? They didn’t know her if they expected a public display. When she wept, it was in private, away from prying, judgmental eyes.
Ellen’s restless gaze swept over the residents of Dove Pond. She recognized a few of them from the five years she and Julie had lived here after the divorce. During the day, while Julie was in school, Ellen had been fighting her way to the top of an architectural firm in Asheville, where she’d overseen a number of complex commercial rehab projects. In those days, getting Julie to the bus stop on time had been a struggle, and Ellen could still see her daughter dashing out of the house, her thick blond hair uncombed, her book bag half open, her socks mismatched as she ran to meet the school bus, which was usually honking urgently from the street. That was Julie in a nutshell. She’d rushed through life underprepared and thoughtless, causing her organized and orderly mother decades of worry and concern. And now, for all of Julie’s troublesome and rebellious ways, she was gone.
Ellen’s stomach ached as if someone had punched her. This was not how things were supposed to end. She and Julie were supposed to overcome their issues. They were supposed to become close—friends, even—working together to make Kristen’s life better.
Ellen’s eyes filled with tears yet again, so she took a deep breath and focused on the reverend, who had just asked Ava Dove to come forward and read. Ellen watched the young blond woman make her way from the crowd, a small book in her hands. Ellen disliked the Dove sisters almost as much as she disliked this funeral. The entire town admired the Doves, and some even believed the seven sisters possessed “special” abilities, which was beyond ridiculous. During the drive over, Ellen had been horrified to hear Kristen say how much she loved working for Ava Dove. From some of the things Kristen had said over the past few days, it was obvious she believed the specialty teas Ava made from the flowers and herbs she grew in her greenhouses could cure a number of ills, including arthritis, heart palpitations, and even broken hearts. Ellen had had to fight to keep her lip from curling in disdain.
The Dove Family Nonsense, as Ellen thought of it, was exactly the sort of fairy tale–ish, new age baloney Julie had loved and had apparently fed to an impressionable Kristen. To accomplish Action Item Three, Ellen would have to disentangle her granddaughter from the town, which meant dissolving her close relationship with Ava Dove. That wouldn’t be an easy task, as Kristen worked almost every day after school with Ava, who was planning on opening a tearoom this coming spring. Kristen positively glowed when she talked about it.
Ellen narrowly eyed Ava where she stood beside the preacher, ready to speak. She wore horribly inappropriate purple coveralls under a mustard-yellow Carhartt coat with a bright patch on one front pocket that read AVA DOVE’S LANDSCAPING AND GOURMET SPECIALTY TEAS.
Ridiculous. Am I the only person who understands the proper attire for a funeral?
Ava cleared her throat. “Julie and I became close this past year during her illness, and I consider her and Kristen family.” Ava’s pale gray-green gaze found Kristen’s, and they smiled at each other, sending a twinge of jealousy through Ellen.
“Julie asked me to share a passage from her favorite book.” Ava opened the book, removed a bright pink Post-it, and began reading. “?‘Kama is the enjoyment of appropriate objects by the five senses of hearing, feeling, seeing, tasting, and smelling, assisted by the mind together with the soul.’?”
Of course Julie would have some sort of ridiculous Far Eastern babble read at her funeral.
Kristen whispered, “Recognize the book?”
Ellen shook her head.
Kristen smirked. “It’s the Kama Sutra.”
Ellen wondered if a person could burst into flames with mortification. If it had been physically possible, she was certain she would have already done so long before now.
An odd noise came from Kristen. Ellen cut her granddaughter a sharp look and caught the teen attempting to smother a laugh, looking so much like her mother that Ellen’s heart stuttered a beat. In that grin was a streak of pure rebellion, the same streak that had pushed Julie to run away from home at the tender age of seventeen, beginning the worst years of Ellen’s life. And now, there it was, on Kristen’s face. For the first time since Ellen had arrived in Dove Pond, a sliver of fear pierced her soul. Please, God, don’t let us go down the same road Julie and I traveled. I can’t lose Kristen, too. I can’t. I just can’t.
From across the grave, Ava continued reading, “?‘… without becoming the slave of his passions, will obtain success in everything he may do.’?” She closed the book, a misty smile quivering. “So true.”
Everyone nodded, wiping their eyes and sniffling.
Aware of Kristen’s critical gaze, Ellen forced herself to murmur, “Wonderful.” Wonderful that it’s over.
Ava handed the book to her sister Sarah, who’d quietly come to stand beside her. Although Sarah was five years younger, she looked enough like Ava to be her twin. The younger Dove sister wore a flowing, multicolored maxi dress under a long blue coat, which clashed with her bright orange sneakers.
People in this strange little town thought Sarah was a “book charmer,” which would be laughable if it wasn’t so pathetic. They thought she could talk to books and—more ridiculous yet—books could talk back, telling her which people they’d like to visit. Ellen supposed such a skill, if it existed, would be useful to Sarah, who was the town librarian. All the Doves think they’re so special. Well, they’re not. They’re strange, that’s what they are. Every one of them.
She wondered briefly where the other Dove sisters and their mother were. Perhaps, tired of the strangeness of this tiny town, they’d moved away. Which would be completely understandable.
Sarah patted the book and favored the group of mourners with a far-too-cheerful smile. “Julie asked me to set this book aside at the library in case any of you would like to check it out.”
“So kind,” the preacher said. “Thank you for that reading, Ava. And, Sarah, thank you for making the book available. After that lovely excerpt, I’m sure a lot of us will be checking out the Kama Sutra.” He beamed around the group. “I met with Julie and Kristen as they planned this service, and I was impressed with their determination to bring joy today rather than having ‘the usual weep-fest,’ as Julie called it. She wanted all of us to leave today filled with hope and love. In keeping with that wish, before you head out, please take the time to hug your neighbor.” He smiled. “God bless you. See you all Sunday.”
Hugs? With this group? No, thank you. Ellen turned toward Kristen but found her hugging her friend Missy.
She instantly recognized Ava Dove’s voice and, stifling a sigh, reluctantly turned to face the young woman.
Ava stood beside Mrs. Jolean Hamilton, known throughout town as “Aunt Jo.” Ellen remembered the round, cane-carrying, artificially black-haired, ebony-skinned old woman well, as she had a startling tendency to say whatever was on her mind. At Aunt Jo’s side sat a fat, wheezy bulldog, who was tentatively sniffing in Ellen’s direction.
Ellen ignored the animal and offered a polite smile to Aunt Jo and Ava. “How nice of you both to come and say hello. Kristen said she didn’t know what she or her mother would have done without you two these past few weeks.” When Ellen had arrived at Julie’s, she’d been relieved to find Ava staying with Kristen. Ellen now knew that Ava and Aunt Jo had taken turns cooking and cleaning and generally looking after things when Julie had grown too weak to get out of bed.
Ellen’s jaw ached. That should have been me. But it hadn’t been and, between waves of disappointment, she couldn’t help but feel a deep, genuine gratitude. “I owe you more than I can say.”
Ava’s smile trembled, but she held on to it. “I’m going to miss Julie.”
“The whole town will.” Aunt Jo cocked an eyebrow at Ellen, a challenge in her clear brown eyes. “You haven’t been in Dove Pond for quite a while. I daresay most of the people here today are strangers to you.”
“I remember the Doves, of course,” Ellen replied smoothly. “And I remember you, Mrs. Hamilton.”
“I remember you too,” Aunt Jo said. “You and Julie used to yell at each other in your front yard just about every morning.”
Ellen’s face heated. “We had a contentious relationship, but she was my daughter and I loved her.”
Aunt Jo clicked her tongue. “Sweet Betsy, I wasn’t criticizing you. Children are our greatest joys and our greatest pains in the ass, too. Mrs. Foster—Ellen, isn’t it?”
“Ha! I did remember it. You look as if you could use one of those hugs the preacher ordered.”
What? Oh no. “That’s very kind of you, but it’s not necessary. I was just about to tell Kristen we should le—”
“We all need a hug now and then.” Aunt Jo handed her cane to Ava and rolled up the sleeves of her bright pink windbreaker.
Ellen took a step back. She rarely hugged people, even those she was close to. She’d already put up with so much today and—
Ellen found Kristen at her elbow, her face set in stubborn lines, her friend Missy standing behind her wearing a similarly disapproving expression.
Fine. Ellen pasted on a smile, one she was sure looked as if it had been cut from cardboard, turned back to Aunt Jo, and bestowed an air kiss on the elderly woman’s round cheek. There. That should do it.
She was just straightening when Aunt Jo slipped her arms around Ellen and gave her a massive, enveloping hug. Despite being shorter by at least six inches, Aunt Jo lifted Ellen to her toes, sending one of her high heels tumbling off. It rolled across the grass, stopping perilously close to the open grave.
Gasping for air, Ellen was planted back on her feet and released. Her remaining heel sunk into the soft grass, and as she stepped back, trying to regain her balance, she almost tripped over Aunt Jo’s bulldog. Startled, the dog barked, hopping around and threatening to wrap them both in his orange-and-purple-striped leash.
Staggering back upright, Ellen caught Kristen trying to hide a grin.
“You almost stepped on Moon Pie,” Aunt Jo admonished. “You should be more careful. He’s more fragile than he looks.”
Face hot, and too upset to speak, Ellen left the small group and went to collect her shoe.
“Welcome to Dove Pond, Grandma!” Kristen called after her as both she and Missy stifled giggles.
Jaw tight, Ellen slipped her shoe back in place. She took her time, calming herself with the thought that in just a few minutes, with the exception of Kristen, Ellen would be shut of this place and these people. I cannot wait. Calmed, she forced herself to return to the small group, ignoring the dog that was still barking loudly.
“Moon Pie, shush!” Aunt Jo said to the animal. “I’ve already told you twice that it isn’t polite to bark at a funeral.”
Moon Pie, panting, dropped to his haunches and sat politely as if all he’d needed was a reminder of that earlier talk.
Kristen beamed at the dog. “Who’s a good boy? You are!”
The dog’s tail wagged so hard its butt wagged with it.
Glad to no longer be the center of attention, Ellen murmured, “Such a good boy.”
Ava eyed Ellen with surprise. “You like dogs?”
“I love dogs like Moon Pie.” Which was true. She loved any dog she didn’t have to clean up after.
Ava looked relieved. “That’s good. You’re about to inherit four of them.”
Ellen’s smile froze in place. “I beg your pardon?”
Aunt Jo shot a hard look at Kristen. “You didn’t tell your grandma about your wolf pack.”
Kristen grinned. “It slipped my mind.”
“What wolf pack?” Ellen asked, trying not to let her irritation show.
“Kristen’s doggos,” Missy explained. “They’ve been staying at my house for the past two weeks since Ms. Julie was so sick.”
“How’s Chuffy’s hair?” Kristen asked.
“Still falling out even though we’ve been bathing him in that smelly stuff you sent over.”
“Forget Chuffy,” Aunt Jo said. “It’s that black-and-white one that’s a menace. He’s so full of gas that it’s a wonder he doesn’t propel himself out a window.”
Missy giggled. “Mom says if we could bottle it, we could sell it as bug spray at the Spring Fling.”
“Can you bring them back tonight?” Kristen asked. “I miss them. I’m sure Grandma will be tickled to have company while I’m at school, too.” She sent a sly, challenging look Ellen’s way. “Won’t you, Grandma?”
Fortunately for Ellen, the years she’d spent working for the largest architectural firm in Raleigh, which was filled with demanding clients and bossy men, had taught her not to rise to obvious bait. “I can’t wait to meet them. I’d pick them up myself, but I’d hate to get dog hair in my new Lexus.”
Clearly disappointed in Ellen’s calm reaction, Kristen said in a less excited tone, “Missy has a truck. She can bring them home.” Kristen turned back to her friend and they were soon lost in conversation.
“I’d best get to going,” Aunt Jo announced. “I have a roast in my Crock-Pot. It was good to see you again, Ellen.” The older lady retrieved her cane from Ava and then called to her dog. “Ready, Moon Pie?” Yawning, the dog followed her as she headed toward the parking lot.
Ava turned to Ellen. “Listen, if you need anything, Sarah and I are just a few houses down. Julie was—” The words caught in her throat, and she had to swallow hard to continue. “Julie was special.”
The bruised expression on Ava’s face was familiar to Ellen. She saw it every time she looked in a mirror. Julie had friends here. Real friends. Ava’s obvious emotion eased Ellen’s irritation. Perhaps, with a little work, she could turn Ava into an ally of sorts. I could use more of those. “Kristen says she’s been working for you after school, getting your tearoom ready. It’s helped her to stay busy.”
“I don’t know what I’d do without her. I was hoping to open in February, but now—” Ava grimaced. “I’m behind schedule. It’ll be mid-March at the earliest.”
“Most of my work involves rehabbing older buildings, so I know the trials and tribulations. I’d like to stop by sometime and see what you’re doing. How about Monday?”
“That would be nice.” Ava’s smile was steadier now. “I’ll fix you a cup of tea.”
Ellen kindly returned the smile. “I’d love that.” Feeling a little less alone, Ellen gave the dragon flag–draped coffin one final look and then turned to collect Kristen.
Item One was officially completed. On to Item Two. If everything went as planned, she and Kristen would soon be done with Dove Pond.