Clara Mar hated Paris. The city was magnificent, and the people were pleasant enough, but Paris was officially the backdrop against which most of the excrement of her life was thrown. The first time she’d lost focus during a performance? Paris. First champagne hangover? Paris. Awful first kiss? Paris. The “aggressive tongue incident,” as she’d termed the experience, technically happened on a train from Versailles to Paris, but close enough.
Even the town-car fender bender that left her a scant fifteen minutes to warm up before performing Beethoven’s Cello Sonata No. 3 for the first time in front of thousands of people occurred in Paris.
And the pièce de résistance? Her cheating fiancé, a man she barely liked, dumped her in front of nearly every contemporary she knew—and some she even respected—under the ubiquitous glitter of a New Year’s performance in the preeminent City of Light. So, quoting The Grinch movie she’d watched on the plane from Charles de Gaulle last night while drinking an extra glass of wine with dinner, Clara’s thoughts on Paris were hate, hate, double hate, and loathe entirely.
Bodega Bay already seemed like a much gentler place. Granted, she was standing at the bathroom sink of an inn she’d inherited from a grandfather she’d never known, but that would hopefully sort itself out later in the day. Staring at her reflection, Clara regretted both the extra glass of wine and skipping at least a cursory skin-care routine before falling into the first bed she found and sleeping until noon.
She’d arrived at eight-thirty that morning. She should have made the concoction that always worked for her jet lag, and she should have stayed awake. But there was nothing to do to keep her busy. No hotel restaurant, no other chatty musicians, not even a spa. So, after setting up her cello in the downstairs study, Clara caved, adjusted her phone alarm to ensure she was awake in time for the meeting with her mysterious grandfather’s attorney, and crashed.
Mr. Norman Hill, Esq., would arrive in a little over an hour to “review the documents and explain the stipulations.”
Clara normally left stipulations to other people, but fleeing Paris amidst protests from those who claimed to love her meant she was truly on her own. No staff, no representatives. She’d abandoned all of that in the city that shall no longer be named.
The escape was necessary to sort out her recent embarrassment and her parents’ . . . lie? Misstep? Betrayal? She wasn’t sure what to call it, but up until sometime before Thanksgiving when Mr. Hill had emailed Clara and called incessantly regarding her inheritance, she’d believed most of what her parents told her. She would have defended them to anyone as supportive, loyal, and trustworthy.
A small voice inside her argued they were still all those things, but in adult reality, Clara’s mother was a liar, and her father, the man who raised her, called before she boarded the plane to ask if she’d consider talking things out with the amoral fiancé who’d ended things. Apparently cheating fell under the “men are complicated” clause, and the dumping-her bit was a “rash and unfortunate choice.”
To say Clara was having a crisis of identity, that she was like a workhorse who’d removed her own blinders, was an understatement.
Splashing water one last time, she dried her face and studied her reflection again. At thirty-one, she was nearly ten years older than her newly discovered birth father was when he died. She never knew, would never know, either her grandfather or her father, but there she stood on the second floor of their family business.
Clara swallowed her handful of vitamins and supplements. She had no inkling about running an inn or, apparently, about family. Serums, eye cream, and moisturizer later, her phone lit with a giant letter M.
On a deep exhale, she answered.
“Darling.” Bianca Mar’s voice spilled, luxurious and mellow, from the other end, like expensive champagne.
“Mother. Shouldn’t you be asleep? It’s late in Paris.” Clara didn’t have the energy for anything more than cordial.
“Off to bed now. We’ve just finished a lovely evening with friends. What’s this I hear about you hiding in shame?”
Setting the towel on the sink, Clara returned to the warm afternoon sun peeking through the sheer draperies in the adjacent bedroom. She sat on the bed. “I am not hiding. I . . . had some business to attend to.”
A dramatic sigh rushed through the phone. “Sweetheart, Carter still cares for you, and I think you’re both big enough to make it over this minor bump.”
Clara closed her eyes. “Cheating on someone multiple times is not a bump.”
“Those are ridiculous rumors,” her mother insisted.
Clara wondered if her mother was drinking and medicated, or was simply unwilling to take her daughter’s side, ever.
“I don’t love Carter. I’ve never loved Carter. And I am not running. I’m . . . absorbing the impact of my bizarre new reality.” And your lies. Clara left that part out. “Besides, Clara and Carter? We sounded more like a circus act.”
“Pfft, you sound like a child. Carter is your best match.”
Clara couldn’t remember ever acting like a child, ever being given the space for anything as frivolous and safe as childhood. Leaning back on the bed, she said nothing. There was no need—her mother had always been deft at handling both sides of the conversation.
“You should consider what this outburst will cost your career. I know you’re upset about the misunderstanding with your grandfather and all, but running from life’s challenges is never the way to handle things.”
“Misunderstanding? My father died.”
Her mother was silent.
“And you never told me he existed. I had to find out from a lawyer.” Her voice faltered with surprising emotion, which never played well with her mother, so Clara swallowed it back.
Another sigh. “Unfortunate, I admit, but you’re a grown woman. And your father is the man who raised you.”
“I know Burt raised me, but this”—Clara glanced around the white-wainscoted bedroom her mother would immediately dismiss as gauche—“is part of my history.”
“Do not use your father’s first name. It’s disrespectful. And the idea of some dinky beach town playing any part in your history is utter nonsense.”
Clara closed her eyes. “I have a family and roots you kept from me my entire life. That’s not nonsense.”
“Oh, please. He died, Clara. You were a baby.”
“Well, I’m not a baby anymore.” She opened her eyes, watching the wind strum the leaves of a tree branch outside. “I deserved to know.”
“You are a world-renowned cellist, dear. The symphony is your home, your roots. Your dead grandfather and father change nothing about the glorious fiber of your making. Please do not belittle yourself by thinking you’re going to become some impregnated innkeeper making pies, or some such absurdity.”
Clara exhaled, the leaves through the window now still. There was no point in arguing. “I should go. I arrived early, and I need to get a practice in. You could think about an apology while I’m away.” She braced for her mother’s blast but doubled down, bolstered by their physical distance. “And . . . it’s not nice to tell me to reconcile with a man who cheated on me and embarrassed me in front of my colleagues.”
“Apologize?” Her mother practically spat the word. “I have nothing to apologize for. I was acting in your best interests. Christopher, your sperm donor, was a summer fling. Nothing more. I was already engaged to your father. When you were born, the man wanted to see you. And I, out of the kindness of my heart, schlepped all the way back down there.” She sucked in more air. “That was the last time you had any contact with those people. We returned to Europe, and he died. There was no reason to scar you with useless information.”
“Scar me?” Clara nearly laughed.
“Yes. You were born for greatness. Of that, I am certain. All anyone has to do is listen to you play. I would put nothing as banal as parental loss into your story.”
The conversation was going nowhere. All these years Clara thought she’d had a good relationship with her parents, but now she wondered if it was only contingent on her obedience. Saying the right thing, never complaining or even thinking about escaping whatever hotel suite they’d tucked her into.
“What is the purpose of your call, Mother?” Clara asked, bravery and nausea rolling together through her empty stomach.
“You are part of the creative world we both live in, and for you to—”
“Purpose, Mother. What is the purpose?”
“To tell you to stop this nonsense and come home.”
“I don’t have a home,” she nearly yelled. Clara had never raised her voice at her mother in her life.
The line was silent until her mother exhaled and said, “Young lady, you cannot—”
At the familiar and deprecating start, Clara disconnected the call and told herself she would ignore any others that followed. She should block her mother. But what if someone fa, or they needed her? the small perfect child that lived in Clara’s head asked. She tossed her phone on the bed.
Opening the only trunk she’d managed to haul upstairs upon her arrival, Clara wondered how she’d gotten things so wrong all these years and where to begin unraveling such a mess. She didn’t have another performance scheduled until May. Her manager and her agent didn’t like it but knew she was taking a break. Hopefully she could learn about these other members of her family and figure out a way forward.
She went down the worn, carpeted staircase, hand trailing along the polished wood, and dragged up another of her trunks. She needed to change her clothes and try to find something to eat before her meeting with Mr. Hill. The airplane biscotti she’d eaten when she’d woken up around ten o’clock before falling back to sleep certainly did not count as nourishment.
She would meet with the attorney like a grown woman who did this sort of thing all the time and do what she’d done her whole life—act confident when she wasn’t, break things into practicable pieces, and deliver an outstanding performance.
Dylan Pace hated doctors and hospitals, which made no sense, given he’d spent his life surrounded by the medical profession. Working coast guard search-and-rescue and part-time for the fire department when he was off the water, Dylan had seen nearly everything. That didn’t make sitting on the exam table in Dr. Marsh’s office any easier, and he hoped like hell his orthopedic surgeon would be on time for once in his life.
Dylan checked his watch. He had a meeting with Mr. Levinson’s lawyer, of all people, in an hour and a half. The man was so formal he made Dylan’s palms sweat. He couldn’t be late. Levinson, who had died almost a year ago, had “bequeathed” Dylan something in his will, according to Mr. Hill.
Dylan couldn’t imagine what Levinson would leave him, but he hoped it wasn’t the old man’s prized and ancient blender. Although, the blender would be the perfect thing to leave behind, given how much crap Dylan used to give him about it. Maybe Levinson left him a book or a letter, something sentimental.
He scrubbed a hand over his face at his asinine thoughts. While Mr. Levinson leaned toward flowery language and ten-point words, he was never that way with Dylan. They had often enjoyed one another’s company over the silence of a cup of coffee or deciding if the hedge lining the walkway to the inn needed trimming again.
Dylan glanced at the clock over the Muscles Are Our Friends poster. Fifteen minutes late. Leaning both hands on the exam table, he watched his dangling feet and tried to straighten his right knee. Better. It was better than it was when he’d blown it out by lunging into the helicopter when he should have waited until they’d ratcheted him and the woman pulling his hair—not in a good way—higher and through the cargo door.
The unforgiving fluorescent light of the office seemed to highlight the graveyard of scars up and down both legs. Lost in thought, Dylan pivoted to rest his knee on the exam table as Dr. Bob Marsh walked in, flipping papers in that way hurried doctors did to convey their importance, before setting the chart aside and washing his hands.
“Hey, Dylan. How’s the knee?” He quickly glanced over his shoulder before returning to the sink.
“Better,” Dylan said.
Next through the door was Dr. Chris Marsh, once a defensive lineman on their high school football team, now a doctor looking to join his father’s practice. It must be nice having a father who paved a life path.
“So, it’s healing, which means you’ll continue to walk. You may need another surgery down the road, but I wanna see how it goes.” Dr. Marsh dried his hands and tossed the paper towel.
“And you’re not clearing me to return to duty, right?” Dylan asked.
Dr. Marsh leaned against the counter, one foot over the other with his arms crossed, before he sighed.
“Just give it to me straight.”
“Straight?” Dr. Marsh said. “You want it straight?”
“Doctor, want to give it a shot?” Marsh asked his son. “You’ve reviewed his case. You can tell Dylan what he needs to know.”
“Okay.” Chris looked back at the X-ray and met Dylan’s eyes. “Your knee is shredded. Multiple repairs already, possibly another one in the future. It will always be a weakness. Your supervisor—”
“Whatever. He wants assurances you can return to strenuous duty. You can’t. You’re never going to be able to rely on this knee in the way search-and-rescue demands you rely on it.” Chris looked at his father, who concurred.
Dr. Marsh the elder exhaled as if Dylan’s broken body was a reflection of the guy’s skill. “Straight enough for you?”
“Like an arrow. Well done.” Dylan tipped his head at Chris.
“Sorry,” said Chris. “My bedside manner is usually better, but you’re a—”
“Pain in the ass,” Dylan finished. “I know.”
“Takes one to know one.” Chris grinned, again reminding Dylan they’d once shared a football field.
“What about the fire department?” Dylan shifted on the exam table.
Dr. Marsh looked over from the laptop clamped to the wall. “It might be an option with PT. We’ll have to see, down the road.”
“Down the road? How am I supposed to pay my bills?” Dylan asked before recoiling at the question. No one cared how he paid his bills, and he wasn’t some broken-ass man. “I’m kidding,” he said, releasing his best fake laugh as he hopped off the exam table, jaw clenched at the shot of pain. “Well, I guess that’s it, then.”
“Hold on. We still need to examine your knee. Walking is the priority, remember? Get back up there.” He pointed to the table.
Dylan obeyed, and Dr. Marsh handed the rest of the exam over to his son while he left to prep for surgery at the hospital in Santa Rosa.
Chris lifted Dylan’s leg, carefully resting it on a rolled towel. “You and Annie still a thing?” he asked, eyes on the knee.
“Is that a professional question?” Dylan asked, briefly snapped out of his what-the-hell-now panic spiral.
“No, but I’m trying to get you to hold still for more than twenty seconds.”
“And you thought bringing up the last woman to dump my ass would do the trick?”
Chris poked and prodded some more. “I didn’t know she dumped you.”
“Bullshit.” Dylan closed his eyes as Mini Marsh manipulated his knee a little more. They were almost done. Dylan knew the steps of the exam in his sleep.
“Any idea how grueling a surgical residency is? I’m only recently coming up for air. Sorry if I’ve fallen out of the gossip ring.”
“Yeah, well”—Dylan extended his leg again—“you’re not missing much. Annie dumped me because I wasn’t—ouch.” Pain shot all the way to his toes.
Chris gave him a minute and typed more notes on the computer.
“She dumped me, and now she’s a dentist somewhere.” He exhaled.
“A dentist, huh?” Chris faced Dylan again. “Okay. So, you can move from the rigid brace to the soft hinge. Do you have one, or should I—”
Dylan shook his head. “I have them all.”
“Perfect. So, take it easy”—he glanced at the file—“and you’re all set up for physical therapy starting next week.”
Dylan closed his eyes.
“Let me guess, you hate physical therapy?”
“I get it, but walking. Remember walking.”
“I’m walking right now.”
“You are, but as the body ages, it is—”
“Yeah, yeah.” He made to get down again, but Chris held him off.
“So do you still think about her?”
Dylan furrowed his brow.
“It’s been two years.” He snatched the instructions from the doctor’s hand and noticed “ice packs” in bold. He’d need to get more ice packs.
“There are a few other things we should go over,” Chris said.
“About Annie or my knee?” Dylan scooted to the edge of the table.
“I know the drill, Chris. I’ll show up to PT and wear the brace. Hey, maybe you should date Annie, since you’re so interested.”
Chris met his eyes and handed him another form.
“Wait, are you dating her?” Dylan asked.
Chris said nothing.
“Nah.” Chris patted him on the shoulder with the chart. “Just messin’ with you.”
Dylan shook his head. “Still an idiot.”
Chris pointed with the chart this time, one hand on the exam room door. “Always fun catching up. You still have enough meds for inflammation?”
“Okay, well, I’ll update the elder Dr. Marsh, and like you said, you know the drill. Take it easy, go to PT, and we’ll see you in a month.”
“Got it.” Dylan slid off the exam table, less badass this time. “Thanks.”
“No problem.” Chris peeked back in. “Oh, and do you still have Annie’s number?” He grinned, evil and familiar, and was gone behind the door as Dylan flipped him off.
After grabbing a quick lunch, Dylan drove through the gate of the Inn by the Bay, pulled his truck out of sight, and cut the engine. Reaching into the bag next to him, he peeled the wrapper off a Drumstick ice cream cone and ate the coveted snack of his youth in silence. Catching most of the chocolate-covered peanuts before they hit his white long-sleeve, Dylan tried to imagine the realities of life without his job.
Who was he if he wasn’t grabbing coffee before shift, beating himself up, and returning home to a town that valued his bravery, his dedication?
Dylan recognized change. Hell, he’d dealt with it his whole life. Someone or something was always coming or going, but he’d thought he was his job. No matter what else swirled around him, he could count on his earned professional skills, the people he worked with, and even the bay of water that both taunted him and kept him sane.
There would be other jobs. He could work with Chance in the metal shop or see if the Branches needed help around their bed-and-breakfast. Dylan had practically grown up as Levinson’s sidekick. He could dust off those skills and be of use somewhere else in town. Search-and-rescue was only part of his life, Dylan tried to assure his anxious mind. He’d get through this meeting, find a spot for Levinson’s blender, and then figure out his bills for the month.
Having reached his self-reflection limit for the day, Dylan checked his watch and popped the best part of the Drumstick, the tip of the cone, into his mouth and started his truck.
He could be anything he set his mind to. Tyler had preached those words at various stages of their life. Dylan wasn’t sure what or who he wanted to be yet, but he would figure it out on his own. There was no need to bother anyone with his latest . . . challenge, but at thirty-two, he hoped there was still time for another change.