Just his luck, Duncan thought with a scowl as he tied off his sailboat. Sailed all night through a deadly storm, and when he finally reached port, some leggy blonde was stalking him from the pier.
Too bad for the gold digger. He wasn’t there to play – his player days were over. He was there to take an old lady tourist to tea.
“You have to be nice to the American woman,” Duncan’s sister had insisted. “She’s very sad just now. She’s a widow.”
Fine. He’d be nice to the sad old widow. But this young beauty, this willowy creature who looked delicate enough to bloom, he didn’t have to be nice to her. He just had to somehow get past her on the pier without getting caught up in any of her schemes. In times past, he might have enjoyed a bit of a flirtation, but not anymore. He knew the damage a woman like this could cause. He was done with it all now, and good riddance.
So he gave her the old up-and down look. What a great figure she had, not that it mattered. She couldn’t tempt him. He made sure to scowl as he barked an insult at her. “Not interested.”
Next thing he knew, she was delivering an insult right back to him.
With an American accent.
And naming his sister while she was at it.
This was the American widow?
Sarah had begged Helen to meet her anywhere but the hospital cafeteria. Too many memories, none of them good. But Helen had patients to see and limited time for lunch, and it was their last opportunity to meet before Sarah boarded the plane to Glasgow.
Fourth floor. Sarah braced herself as the elevator doors opened, and the hospital crowd swarmed around her in the vast lobby. White coats. Green and blue scrubs. Family members looking exhausted and distracted—she’d been one of them once. Not so long ago. Almost a year, almost exactly a year. Did she still look that pale? That drawn? She’d hardly recognized herself in the mirror by the time Jeff died. But that was nearly a year ago. Maybe she didn’t look that bad anymore. Maybe the worst of her grief lines had smoothed out, and her color had returned, and she looked like a healthy, normal, 28-year-old woman.
Guilt speared her. Which was worse, looking like a widow or looking normal? At what point was it okay to feel young and pretty again? Soon she’d be a widow longer than she’d been a wife. So unfair. Jeff was dead, and here was the place he’d died, and she was worried about whether she needed blush on her cheeks. And she wore a yellow shirt, too. A happy color. Wrong, wrong, wrong.
Ugh. Stop that, Sarah. She should be anywhere but here in this hospital again, especially now. This place was messing with her head.
A flash of red curls peeped through the crowd in the cafeteria. That was Helen by the soup tureens. She wore her white coat. Another difficult memory, Doctor Helen Mackenzie in that damned white coat, though they’d managed to add some more positive memories, too, after Jeff had been buried. Lunches, phone calls, a friendship almost like a lifeline that Sarah had clung to in the depths of her grief. Helen had been there every day while Jeff fought to live. Helen had been there when he died. More than anyone, she understood what Sarah had been through in those endless days. She’d become almost like Sarah’s safe zone though they rarely spoke of Jeff anymore.
Now Helen smiled a bright greeting, something that would be perfectly suitable in their usual meeting places but seemed tone-deaf in this setting. No. That was wrong. Helen worked here, and Helen was fine. Sarah was the one with the bitter memories nipping at her heels.
“You’re lovely!” Helen looked her up and down. “Have you lost weight? You’re perfectly slender.” This was her standard greeting, made charming by her Scottish accent.
“You know I haven’t. But you have.” Another part of their ritual. Comforting. It almost normalized the hospital setting.
They filled bowls with soup—split pea for Helen, mulligatawny for Sarah—and carried their trays to a nearby table.
“I’m ever so sorry to drag you here.” Helen shook out her paper napkin before laying it across her lap. “Couldn’t be avoided. My schedule this week, you can’t imagine. And I’m so very grateful to you for carrying these trinkets to my family.”
“I’m glad to do it. It’s the least I can do after all your help planning this trip.” This trip was her upcoming vacation to the golf courses of Scotland, Jeff’s dream trip, the trip he would never take—but Sarah would take it for him. Only one of them still lived, so it was up to her to fulfill his dreams now.
Helen removed a clear plastic bag from her white coat’s deep pocket and handed it to Sarah. In it were two small wrapped packages, roughly the size of bracelet boxes, and two letters in white envelopes. “Their addresses are on the envelopes. The purple box is for my grandmother. The gray is for my brother.”
Sarah scanned the neat handwriting on envelopes. The one for the grandmother had a street address and apartment number in Troon, Scotland, one of Sarah’s destinations. It was the site of one of the golf courses Jeff had dreamed of playing someday. She would tee off in his memory on the one-year anniversary of his funeral. Not that her game would do his memory any justice, but it might help her feel close to him again. She could almost hear him now—ease up on the grip, keep your elbows straight—and then he would stand behind her, warm and vibrant and solid, and wrap his arms around her to show her the proper swing.
Maybe she’d better not think about that now.
The other envelope listed “c/o Troon harbor master” as the address.
“What does this mean?” Sarah pointed at the envelope.
“Oh, didn’t I tell you? My brother lives on a boat. Just find the harbor master and he’ll help you flag down Duncan. He moors right in Troon near Gran, but he does tend to disappear on us.” Helen’s brown eyes closed briefly, more than a blink but less than an outright battle for self-control. “He has that wanderer’s soul. Gran usually knows when he’s leaving and when he’ll be back, but the rest of us….”
“Where does he go?” Sarah conjured a hazy Scottish map, Troon on the west coast, loads of islands nearby, not that she could remember any of them specifically. She was still a bit iffy on her Scottish geography.
“To sea.” Helen frowned at her soup bowl and then cast an anxious look at Sarah. “You will try to deliver that to him, won’t you? Don’t just leave it with Gran. He knows you’re coming. I told him to expect you that evening. I told him to look after you.”
“I don’t need looking after.” Good lord, did Helen still see her as a limp puddle of tears? She might be a widow, but she had moved past the helpless stage. “I have my maps and my reservations and my guidebooks all on my phone. I know the timetables for the trains. I have the apps for the taxi companies. He doesn’t need to babysit me.”
“Babysit? That isn’t what I meant. Of course you can manage all that. I meant, I asked him to show you around a bit. Not to babysit you, of course not.” Helen reached across the table and brushed Sarah’s hand. The contact felt strange. Nobody touched her anymore. She might as well live inside a giant bubble. Helen’s hand was red and chafed from constant washing, but Sarah felt only warmth and kindness in that brief, gentle touch.
Something ruptured deep inside her, and tears burned the back of her throat. Oh, no. It had been weeks since the last time she’d cried like this. She’d thought she was done with these sudden onslaughts. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”
“Yes, you do.” Helen’s voice was soothing, not the doctor voice but the friend voice. “You haven’t been back here since—well. Since. You’re coming up on the one-year mark. That can’t be easy.”
“None of this is easy.”
“Of course not.”
“They say the first year is the worst.” A hopeful concept, and one Sarah wished would come true.
“Sarah, I think you’ve handled it as well as anyone could expect.”
Sarah wiped the dampness from her cheeks and crumpled her napkin. “I just want it to be over. I thought I should go to his grave on the anniversary, but I can’t. I just can’t. I have to get past this. I have to put half a continent and an ocean between me and that cemetery. It’s the only way.”
“I think it’s a brilliant idea.”
“I’m finally starting to feel okay again. Not good, but just not so desperately miserable all the time. I don’t want to fall back down into that dark place.”
The silence stretched between them as Sarah struggled to cool down. Just breathe. She’d been through worse, and this little burst of emotion faded easily in the calm silence at the table. This was one of the best things about spending time with Helen. Sometimes, they could just be quiet together. Calm. What a comfort this new friendship had been, in ways big and small, over the past brutal year.
Helen cradled her coffee cup between both hands but left it untasted on the tray. “Listen, maybe this isn’t the right time for this, but—well, speaking of falling into dark places.”
Sarah stilled. She’d never heard that note in Helen’s voice before. She sounded almost nervous, not at all the composed doctor with the flawless bedside manner. “What’s wrong?”
“Wrong? Nothing.” Helen sighed deeply. “I just—well, the thing is, my brother Duncan has been in a bit of a dark place himself. Maybe it’s not fair to ask you to check up on him, seeing how you’re in a bad patch yourself. But if you could see him and spend a bit of time with him and try to maybe sense how he’s doing—I haven’t seen him myself in over a year, you know. Gran says he hasn’t come out from the thunderclouds yet. But I think I hear something a little different in his voice these days.” She shrugged. “I don’t know. I’m not even sure what I’m asking you for.”
“It’s not so difficult.” This time Sarah reached across the table to brush Helen’s hand. What a switch. She’d almost forgotten what it felt like to try to reassure or comfort someone else. What a dark hole she’d been trapped in. And Helen, of all people, the composed and gracious Helen asking her for help, that was something new. “You want me to look in on your brother and see how he’s doing and report back to you.”
“Aye, that’s it.” Helen stared at her tray. “But I should warn you, he can be a bit of a growly bear.”
“A growly bear? Is he going to maul me?”
Helen laughed. “No, nothing like that. He’s not violent. But he has his black moods, and you don’t need to suffer through that sort of thing on my behalf. If he gets snarly, just walk away from him.”
“Is that what you would do? Walk away from him?” This didn’t seem at all in keeping with Helen’s character. Helen had stuck by Sarah no matter how hard she’d sobbed, no matter how bitterly she’d railed against the fates that robbed her of her husband after just one year of marriage. Helen had never once just walked away from any of that.
“Sometimes. He doesn’t always leave me with a choice.” With that, Helen picked up her soup spoon and dug into her cooling bowl. “Oh, Sarah, you’re such a sweet thing. Let’s not talk about my doom-and-gloom brother anymore. Don’t worry about him at all. What time does your flight leave?”