Leaving You by Karice Bolton

Chapter One

Lana

Lars Stockton was presumed dead. I remembered the last thing he’d ever told me. It was a simple couple of sentences, but he was a simple guy. His words got the point across, really.

Later, baby. It was good.

Just the simple act of remembering Lars telling me those words made an involuntary eye roll happen that I’d always wished I could have done in front of him. My reaction was silly, really. Everything happened a long time ago. Why did I care?

I looked toward the colorful gardens where my two sisters were laughing as their significant others wandered over and handed them the fresh lemonade I’d just put out on the deck.

The air was sweet with honeysuckle, and daisies erupted along the new perennial garden leading away from the inn. The world continued to spin. Life continued to move forward in the trajectory that had been set long ago.

But I knew I should be feeling something from this news about Lars.

I shook my head. It was a funny thing. The lack of reaction that those words produced was far more profound than hearing of his death. None of it really mattered, though. Everything happened a million years ago, and he was presumed dead.

Might I add that, of course, Lars didn’t just die? He had to leave that part of his life hanging too. Was he dead, or was he not dead? Why could the man never give any definite answers? Whether it were in his life or in his death, the guy seriously couldn’t commit to anything—not even dying.

Which then made me seem like an awful person for remembering what a jerk he had been rather than mourning a life cut far too short. I had to get back on track.

My phone buzzed in my pocket, but I didn’t want to look. It was as if that would make the news official, whatever it might be.

Life was okay.

No, life was good.

It was good, as Lars liked to tell his stable of girls back in high school. Another eye roll popped out of nowhere.

Apart from hearing about Lars this morning, I could say today wasn’t just a good day. It was a great day, but I didn’t want to sound like I had a heart of stone. Quite the opposite was true. My heart was as tender as a rose petal left in the sun for too long. It could shatter with the softest of touches or no touch at all. Just a gentle breeze could blow it away into a million little pieces.

I’d like to blame Lars for that, but I wasn’t entirely sure it was his fault.

What made today spectacular was that our family was slowly coming back together in a healthy way.

I could finally admit that it was fantastic having my sister Samantha back in Washington to help run the inn. Somehow, this wonder woman of a sister could manage to write bestselling books while operating the inn with me.

I glanced at my other sister, Vera, and smiled. I could also secretly confess to no one in particular how nice it was that Vera had opened a thriving bookstore in the mountains far away from Cloudberry. She was a much happier person for it, which in turn made me much more optimistic. It was my optimal state.

My head still spun from last autumn when I found out that I had a half-sister in town, Charlotte. She had been Vera’s best friend for much of their lives. Once the secret had been spilled, pieces of the puzzle began to fit. All the revelations had highlighted that the perfect childhood I’d thought I’d had wasn’t quite so perfect, after all.

It was an adjustment, to say the least.

My dad was still in the dark while we daughters grappled with who my parents pretended to be versus who they really were.

So, did the news this morning about Lars actually change the little part of the world I lived in?

Probably not.

Obviously, I felt terrible for his family and loved ones, but I didn’t know him as the man he grew into. I just knew the teenage heartthrob he had been.

The phone now buzzed incessantly in my pocket, so I slipped it out to look at who was sending an onslaught of texts. I reached for my own glass of lemonade and glanced down at the screen. It was a friend from high school I’d only recently reconnected with when she stayed at Cloudberry Inn a few months back.

I eyed the phone screen that lit up with multiple messages.

Have you heard?

Can you believe it?

He was so young.

Didn’t you date him?

My stomach tightened at the last message as I unlocked my phone and scanned the notes from Terry until I found the one that laid it all out.

They think Lars flew off his bike, but after this many days of searching the ravine, they’re calling off the search. There’s a memorial in Montana. They think his body floated down the river.

A shudder fluttered through me at the morbid thought.

Lars Stockton.

It was odd. I hadn’t thought about him for years. He was my one attempt at rebelling as a teenager. Lars was the boyfriend all fathers in the world wanted to clobber as he rode away with their daughter into the sunset on his barely functioning motorcycle.

I touched my chest as the words settled around me.

Lars was no longer roaming the earth. He was my age, and life had been ripped out from under him.

It could happen to any one of us.

Drawing a breath, I looked toward the garden. I shook my head as I watched my sisters walking the gardens, holding hands with their spouses, and enjoying the carefree wonderland that Cloudberry Inn had always provided for brief spells.

I could stare out onto the property from any of the rooms in Cloudberry Inn and pretend what happened outside the walls never affected me. Good news or bad news, all I needed to do was focus on maintaining the inn.

But I’d be lying to myself.

Life was quite fragile. I’d already felt that the moment our mom was stolen from us far too young.

Yet, hearing that someone from high school had died in an accident, someone I’d shared all my firsts with, suddenly planted something deep inside me.

I turned to look at the place I’d called home for forever.

Cloudberry Inn was our legacy. I’d grown up here. I took it over with my sisters after my mom’s death when my dad fled to Arizona.

But was this where I wanted to die?

The rather macabre thought didn’t send a shudder through me. Instead, a sneaky curiosity started to rear its ugly head.

I’d always been the happy and optimistic sister. Oddly, the thought of death never scared me. I didn’t want others to pass away, but I never worried about it for myself. My family always thought my optimism was based in a wonderland of naiveté, but I knew enough about reality to plaster a smile on my face no matter the circumstance and just plow forward.

The one thing I excelled at in life was sticking my foot in my mouth. So recently, I’d been working on letting the words simmer in my mind for a few seconds before speaking. Sometimes it worked, and other times it didn’t.

I was sure that my sisters had found their happiness, but the funny thing was that I never thought of myself as unhappy. I was content to work at Cloudberry forever.

Except on those rare occasions, if I really listened closely to my heart, the mere mention of staying forever made the beating muscle behind my chest sputter.

I thought about sharing the news from today.

If I wandered down to my sisters and told them about Lars, they’d make way too big of a deal about Lars’s death and try to make it into something it wasn’t. I hadn’t spoken to him since high school. Once he’d taken up with my best friend right after he’d hit the ball out of the ballpark with me, I didn’t really have much to say to either of them.

I certainly did not have feelings for him, and I didn’t want my sisters to turn the truth into salty taffy. Once taffy was overstretched, the strings of sugar were never the same, and we’d come a long way. We didn’t need to go backward.

I solidly remembered my time with Lars and didn’t want my sisters to romanticize it. Lars, as a first, was less than ideal, but it didn’t matter now. The poor guy was now toes up somewhere.

I let out a long sigh and wandered over to the dripping wisteria, where the deep violet blooms stretched along the gazebo. The vine had long since bloomed, but a few blossoms were clinging to life, daring themselves to make it until the hot days of summer appeared.

As I thought about that last thought, I frowned. Was I just daring myself to make it to the next season? The next stage in life? Hearing the news early this morning started to marginally untwist the cork in me as I looked around the property. Thoughts had slowly begun leaking out, churning into questions and giving me no answers.

Shrugging to myself, I took a sip of lemonade and walked over to join my sisters.

Samantha’s brown eyes caught mine, and she studied me. This was the fun part of being sisters with a writer. She could read my expressions more clearly than I could think them. Unfortunately, the skill could become exhausting at its best and downright infuriating at its worst.

What’s going on?” Samantha asked, dropping her husband’s hand. Garrett’s brows rose as he took a sip of lemonade. He seemed intrigued to hear the answer as well.

Even though the dynamics over the years between us sisters had been complicated, sticky, and as up and down as a rollercoaster ride, the men Samantha and Vera found knew how to navigate the waters between us better than we did.

I crossed my arms over my chest, which only highlighted my slender frame even more. Somehow, Samantha was the lucky one to have curves in all the right places and soft brown eyes that always looked as if she cared.

Lucky me looked like a dried-up sunflower most days, with a poof of brown hair sticking out of my messy bun and a stem for a body with a couple of floppy arms to complete the gangly look. And my green eyes? They were the murky color of a swamp that someone would expect the Loch Ness monster to pop up from. To this day, I wasn’t sure my eyes were genuinely green.

I eyed Vera, who took after me a little more than Samantha when it came to body type, and she was staring right at me too.

Come on, Lana,” Samantha tried again. “You look like someone died.”

My eyes widened, and Samantha’s hands slipped to her mouth while Vera snorted.

Vera always had a knack.

Oh, no.” Vera shook her head. “Someone did die?”

A huge sigh escaped my lips, and I nodded. “Lars Stockton.”

Why is that name familiar?” Vera asked, glancing at Samantha.

Truth be told, Vera was the older sister and very infatuated with the man now standing beside her, so it’s no surprise that she didn’t remember a thing about my first boyfriend.

He was her...” Samantha looked at the two guys as if she wanted to be discreet, but there wasn’t a discreet bone in her body. “First time. First everything, right?”

My cheeks reddened, and I laughed. “Yes, thank you for that brief highlight reel.”

Oh, geez,” Garrett said softly. “I’m really sorry.”

Vera’s husband, Drew, shook his head. “Wow. Me too. What a shock.”

I nodded and suddenly had diarrhea of the mouth. “It’s totally fine. I hadn’t kept in touch. He was kind of a dirtbag. Slept with a lot of girls in high school, including my best friend.” I shrugged and then suddenly realized what it sounded like. “And let me just say she was no longer my best friend after that.”

Eek! Why couldn’t I stop?

Shaking my head frantically, I touched my forehead and groaned. “That’s not what I meant to say at all. I’m sure he grew out of his bad habits.” I glanced at Drew and grimaced. “I was trying to say that it’s not a relationship like you have with my sister. There’s not that history and connection and wondering What if? for all these years. He kind of left a sour flavor. But as a man, I’m sure he changed, and I’m heartbroken for his family.”

Could I sound like I was any worse of a human being? A man just died, and I was somehow preaching about all of his bad habits? Maybe I really shouldn’t leave the safety of the inn.

Samantha and Vera laughed and nodded.

Lars was probably the worst possible guy to date in high school.” Samantha nodded. “Even though I wasn’t home much during that time, the things I remember were pretty awful.” She glanced around and added. “May he rest in peace.”

Vera snickered. “Sorry. This isn’t funny.” She glanced at Drew, who smiled at her as if she were the queen herself.

No, it’s probably not,” I confirmed, smiling at the lovebirds. I’d say it was just a phase between these two, but they were meant for one another.

Samantha pointed at me. “Remember the day after you two slept together for the first time, he took you to the tulip festival and left you stranded in one of the fields while he took off with one of his buddies on his motorcycle? You had to walk home.”

I laughed. “Why, yes. I do. Thank you for bringing that up.” My head cocked slightly as I studied my sister. “How did you know about that?”

I had been so mortified that I never told a soul.

Samantha blushed. “I read your diary.”

You did not.” I couldn’t remember for the life of me what I’d written in it, but I bet it was more than I’d want my kid sister to know.

She nodded. “I did.”

You’re such a writer.” I groaned and shook my head as my phone buzzed again, and I read the message, paraphrasing aloud. “Sounds like Lars had moved to Montana a few years back. Anyway, he veered off a sharp turn in the middle of the night. The bike went one direction, and he went the other, or so they think. They haven’t found his body.” I scanned the last of the message. “But they are presuming him dead. They think his body might have gotten swept into the river. Yikes.” I shook my head. “They’re holding a memorial on Saturday.”

They’re having a memorial when they haven’t found his body?” Samantha asked.

I nodded. “Sounds like it.”

I bit my tongue so I didn’t add my one-liner about his lack of commitment I’d come up with earlier.

You know, this might sound crazy, but I think I’m going to go to his memorial.”

Samantha and Vera both looked surprised, but they nodded in agreement.

I think that’s a great idea,” Samantha said. “Get some time away. You haven’t had a vacation for years.”

I laughed. “Yes, nothing better than a funeral for a break.”