The Heart Stories
When Trish Evers inherits her grandmother’s B&B on a beach in North Carolina, she packs up her 6-year-old daughter Isabella, who has Down syndrome, and moves there seeking a fresh start. Though she must sell the house, she decides to bring her daughter to the beach for one last summer vacation in her childhood town. Bella likes to explore the beach and has a tendency to wander off. On one such occasion, Trish finds her in the company of an intriguing stranger.
Blind as a result of combat injuries and unable to "suit up," USMC Lieutenant Daniel Conway feels he no longer has a purpose in life. He's come home to the beach, where he spends his days in solitude. Dan must learn to believe in himself and to love life again, which he begins to do through his interactions with Bella and Trish.
When a hurricane strikes and Bella wanders off again, her only hope for rescue is Dan. Working within the confines of his blindness, he must overcome his fear of failure and recall his training in order to search for the little girl and bring her to safety.
SOUNDS FILTERED THROUGH the haze first: the rhythmic squeak of a cart being wheeled along the corridor, the low trill of a telephone at the desk just beyond the door. The shrill ding of an alarm warned that an IV needed attention. The beep-beep of a telemetry machine signaled his heart still beat steadily. Muffled voices hovered at the edge of his awareness; people speaking in hushed whispers... as if afraid they would wake the sick and the dying.
Or the blind.
Dan raised his hands to the patches taped to both eyes, stroking the bandages, itching to yank them off.
Smells edged their way into his consciousness. The sterile scent of disinfectant and antiseptic soap mingled with the nondescript aroma of bland food and the tang of encroaching humanity in a disharmonic mix peculiar to the medical profession. His stomach churned.
Even without the sounds and scents or the painful memory of the events that brought him to this place, Dan would have known he was in a hospital. The mattress beneath him had a wrinkle the size of a speed bump, and the sheet covering his bare legs was the equivalent of starched paper. The pillow on which his head rested might as well have been a log with all the sharp bark-like ridges. He was fairly certain he’d slept on softer rocks when he’d been on his last mission in Afghanistan.
He clenched his teeth against the memory of the mission that had ultimately landed him in this place.
Footsteps crossed the threshold to his room, and a particular scent caught his attention, a combination of spicy aftershave and flowery perfume. It seemed both doctors were paying him a visit this time. That probably wasn’t good news. Previous unveilings after surgery had been accomplished by one of the two high-profile eye specialists on his case. Never both.
They stopped talking abruptly when he turned his head in their direction.
“Captain Conway, I see you’re awake,” said the female. Dr. Matteson, kind but blunt, as he recalled.
“The procedure didn’t work, did it?” He phrased it as a question, but it was really more of a statement.
A man cleared his throat. Dr. Negi. Tentative and apologetic, always skirting the issue. Of the two, Dan had always preferred the directness of Dr. Matteson.
But it was Negi who spoke, his Indian accent giving his words a sing-song cadence. “The preliminary testing right after surgery was promising. But the nerve conduction tests we did yesterday were inconclusive. There is still a chance you will have recovered some sight when we take the bandages off today.”
Impatient with the reticence, the placating, and the hope that inevitably turned out to be false every time, Dan reached up with both hands, sliding his fingertips beneath the gauze covering his eyes.
“Captain Conway, you mustn’t—” Dr. Matteson’s hands were soft on his as she tried to stop him.
Dan ignored the doctor, shrugging away from her touch and peeling the patches from his eyes in one swift motion. He flung the bandages aside, not knowing or caring where they landed.
Blinking twice, Dan wished with everything in him for just a glimmer of light to cut through the black, to see a vague shadowy outline, anything but the utter darkness in which he’d lived for the past four years.
Nothing happened. No light poked a finger through the veil. No shadows formed. Nothing spun into focus.
Dr. Matteson’s familiar hands touched his face, turned him as she did whatever it was she typically did when examining his eyes. “What do you see?”
Dan drew a deep breath, stemmed the bitter disappointment. He went for flippant, not quite hitting his mark. “Same color of nothing I saw two minutes ago.”
Dr. Matteson moved again. Dan heard a clicking sound like something being turned on. If only it were that simple. Click, here’s your life back in living color. He’d even take living in black and white.
“What about now? Anything?”
“No.” Dan sighed. It wasn’t the doctors’ fault his eyes weren’t responding to the surgeries and treatments. It was time to stop treating them to his foul mood. But he needed to get out of there before he swung the other way and started apologizing because the surgery to restore his sight had failed.
Dr. Negi spoke. “We shouldn’t give up yet. I can give you the name of a specialist in Dallas who’s developed a technique for cases like yours.”
Cases like his. Dan’s bitterness surged anew. Optic nerve damage sustained in a traumatic explosion. Cases like his. War injuries.
“Save it,” he ground out, his frustration back in full force. “I’m done.”
Matteson tried reason. “Captain Conway, there really is a lot of promise with Dr. Kellerman’s new procedure.”
Dan allowed a chill to seep into his voice. “Just sign my discharge papers, please, so I can get out of here and get on with my life.”
ONE STOP AT the cashier’s window to settle the remainder of his bill, and Dan could be on his way. He’d go back to his sanctuary, to the once familiar. To everything he’d had to learn about all over again when he’d come home. The cab they’d called for him was waiting. He just needed to sign off on his insurance paperwork so the hospital could be paid. Finally in line, he was one person away from getting out of Dodge.
Her scent teased him, an odd combination of strawberries, sugar, and ocean breeze. She spoke quietly, but he caught the gist of what she said. Dan felt like crud for eavesdropping. It wasn’t her words but her voice he was drawn to; soft-toned, lilting, and sounding like a soothing lullaby to him in the wake of one too many explosions.
“No, her father’s been out of the picture for a while. I’m responsible for her bill, but I can’t cover all of it right now. I’m sure the insurance will pick up more once the appropriate forms are submitted.”
“If you’ll just sign this financial guarantee, Mrs. Evers, you and Isabella can go home.” The tired female voice coming from the cashier’s window was muffled. “Is your address still the same?”
“Um, no. No, it’s not.” Mrs. Evers sighed heavily. Her voice became more charged with emotion. “We’re staying at my grandmother’s home. This is the address.” A crackle of paper being unfolded, then the hiss of paper being pushed along the counter.
“I’ll note this in your file,” said the politely bored female behind the window.
“Okay, baby, we can go home now.” The mystery woman was obviously talking to a child, but her words were like a song playing over Dan’s soul.
After another couple of minutes, in which Dan heard the sounds of rustling clothing and a comforting murmur to a third party by the woman with the music in her voice, he felt the faintest whisper of her passing. Her addictive fragrance softened, dissipated, and then it was gone.
“Next?” It was hard to miss the fresh impatience in the cashier’s voice.
TRISH SHIFTED HER daughter to her other arm so she could unlock the car door. She shoved aside the random thought of how easy it would be if only Gary were there to help. He wasn’t, though, and hadn’t been for just over four years, since right after their daughter had turned two. Strange how the time had passed, and she’d never missed the man who had decided to cut his losses and run.
But their last argument still stung.
“Look at her, Trish! Really look at her!” His voice was heated by anger and impatience. “She’s not normal. No heart surgery is going to change the fact that our daughter is a retard.”
“Don’t call her that.” Trish tried to keep her voice even, but her words came out cold. “She has Down syndrome, Gary. But she’s still our little girl. You just refuse to get to know her because she doesn’t fit your idea of perfect.”
“What’s the point? She’s never going to be anything. She’s not normal,” he repeated. “It would have been better if we hadn’t agreed to the heart surgery in the first place. If she went to sleep one night and didn’t wake up.” He took on a coaxing tone, the one he used to get her to do whatever he wanted. “Trish, there are people out there who’ll be able to love her and take better care of her… let’s explore our options for placing her. Then we can try again, maybe have a better outcome… a normal child.”
She could only stare in stunned silence. In the silver hospital crib, which looked more like a cage, Bella stirred and whimpered, spurring Trish into a response. “Get out, Gary. And don’t come back as long as you have that attitude.”
Divorce papers had been handed to Trish the next day, delivered by private courier to the hospital room where Isabella was recovering from her second open-heart surgery in two years. Trish wasn’t stupid. The paperwork had come too quickly, even for someone with Gary’s connections. He’d obviously been planning it for some time.
Without a second thought, she’d signed the papers and gotten on with life as Bella’s single mother. And if she occasionally looked back, it was only with regret that her child’s father didn’t know the rewards to be gleaned from the adventure of raising the wonderful human being Bella was growing up to be.
Now she and Bella were about to embark on another adventure, just the two of them, back to some of the happiest times of Trish’s childhood.
USING THE SOUND of the surf and the sun’s warmth for orientation, Dan sat on a large rock facing east and enjoyed the sunrise. The kiss of waves on sandy shoreline became louder, more insistent, as the gentle predawn breeze turned into an early morning wind. The air around him warmed rapidly, and the beach life started to awaken, as well.
The cries of gulls in the distance held an eerie, human-like quality, which could as easily have been the delighted squeals of children playing or the terror-filled shrieks of children dying.
Dan breathed slowly in then out and re-oriented himself to his surroundings. The sand beneath his feet was the foot-sucking grain-like consistency found on the beach, not the diamond-hard dust he’d grown used to in the desert. The air surrounding him was humid, not arid.
Beach grass whispered, stroked by the onshore ocean breeze. Nearby, scuttling ghost crabs bulldozed the sand, each tumbling grain sounding like a rockslide to Dan’s sensitive ears. The air smelled a bit of midsummer rain, hinting of possible relief from the early summer swelter by mid-afternoon.
His hand rested on the old guitar, the instrument silent as he considered a future in the dark. He had few options and limited time to make a decision that would affect the rest of his life. Should he try to maintain a semblance of the life he’d once planned for himself? Or leave all that and carve a new niche elsewhere?
Who was he kidding? No one wanted a wounded warrior, let alone one who could no longer see.
He caressed the low E string with his thumb, frowning at the dull, not-quite-in-tune sound. Automatically, he adjusted the string until he was pleased with the pitch, repeating the process for the rest of the strings.
Leaning over her, Dan hugged the guitar to him in the manner a man should embrace such a lady. She’d been his best friend since he was a kid, had never failed to bring him comfort and healing through the secret language they shared.
Dan played a few soft chords, walking his fingers up and down the fretboard, not playing anything specific, the tones coming more easily than he’d expected. He stopped to adjust the G string then played a few more chords, falling into a slow rhythm, one good for thinking.
Without conscious thought, he inserted a simple, impromptu melody, making love to his lady in earnest now, expressing the deepest, most vulnerable aspects of himself through the movements of his fingers. The lonely sound drifted across the beach to join the cries of the gulls, as he laid bare the layers of pain for the audience of his solitude.
As he lost himself in the haunting music, Dan felt the first stirring of a curious sense of freedom. Recent memories were pushed to the rear in lieu of less troublesome ones from his boyhood, when scuttling crabs had held him enthralled and thoughts of where driftwood came from had fascinated him. The music swelled under his hands as he revisited that time of innocence.
At his feet, the dog that had been his companion for the past three years whined. Dan stopped playing, abruptly pulled back into the present.
“What is it, Jack? You don’t like the music?”
Barely a second later, he heard something shuffling through the beach grass behind him, and the scents of caramel and cotton candy wafted into his awareness.
His private beach had been discovered.
The air next to him stirred softly as whoever it was took a seat on his rock. Dan was about to ask if the intruder had noticed the private property sign at the entrance to the beach when sticky fingers were thrust against his palm. Startled by the sudden invasive touch, Dan nonetheless instinctively closed his fingers about the delicate hand that had placed itself into his.
“Well, hello.” Dan listened for the sound of someone else approaching but heard nothing. “Is your mom or dad around?”
The only answer he received was a tiny contented sigh. He could feel the rhythmic movement of the child’s feet swinging over the edge of the rock on which they sat.
“Yeah, I totally get that feeling, kid,” he murmured. It couldn’t hurt to sit and wait a bit, to see if a responsible adult showed up. Dan set his guitar behind them on the rock and relaxed into the peace of their surroundings.
He wondered about his uninvited companion. The kid didn’t speak and showed no inclination of letting go of Dan’s hand. From the size of the stubby fingers, the child wasn’t very old. What kind of parent would let a young kid wander the ocean beach unsupervised? Certainly not a good one.
“I’m Dan,” he said after a moment. “What’s your name?”
That elicited a giggle.
“So you think it’s funny I don’t know your name, huh?”
“Well, I guess I can call you Giggles until we get it figured out.” Dan rubbed his thumb across the top of the child’s hand. “But if your parents don’t come along, I don’t know what I’m going to do with you.”
He pushed the button on the side of his adapted wrist watch.
“Seven thirty-three,” reported the electronic voice.
He’d killed more than two hours sitting on the beach. The absent parents could have another hour of free babysitting. By then Mrs. Moore would be at his place to help with the housework. Maybe she would know where the child belonged.
“Doggie?” The child had a timid-sounding, breathy voice. For some reason, Dan thought girl, though he couldn’t be sure.
He chuckled. “You like my dog? That’s Jack. He helps me get around. You’re allowed to pet him, but you have to always ask me first.” Dan snapped his fingers and called for his Seeing Eye dog to join them on the rock.
The child moved when Jack settled between them. From the rhythm, Dan was certain Jack was getting a good rub-down.
“Can you tell me how old you are, Giggles?”
“Doggie,” the child said again, this time with a giggle.
“Not real talkative, are you?”
Well, that suited his mood just fine.
WITHOUT OPENING HER eyes, Trish reached one hand up to rub her aching neck. Where was she? Something hard was sticking in her cheek. Her other hand came up to rub her eyes open. Brushes, a palette knife, tubes of paint. She’d fallen asleep with her head on her workbench again. Her right leg was curled beneath her on the work stool, and muscles cramped when she gingerly straightened the limb.
As she tried to stretch some of the stiffness out of her neck, Trish decided sleeping at a right angle for the majority of the night was quite possibly the worst idea she’d ever had. Not that it had actually been her idea. She didn’t even recall laying her head down. She hadn’t exactly spent the night in her studio by design, either. Bella’s trip to the hospital in DC the week before had put her behind in her work, and catching up was proving to be a struggle.
Sorting through Gran’s multitude of possessions was draining. Trish could only chip away at the chore, often finding herself presented with a trinket or memento, bringing the sting of fresh tears and the wash of emotional response.
And then there was Bella. Her daughter was having a hard time adjusting to the coastal town. With no school or day camp programs, Trish was the sole source of activities to occupy the girl during the warm summer days. Trish enjoyed the time they spent together, but sometimes figuring out what it was Bella wanted to do could be frustrating. If she didn’t hit it just right, Bella’s attention usually wandered and activities were often abandoned.
So she took time for her art wherever she could squeeze it in, which at this point meant spending late nights in the studio after Bella went to sleep, with a baby monitor close at hand. That needed to change. This was the second time she’d fallen asleep in the middle of doing something in the space of a week.
Trish shook her right foot, wincing against the pins and needles racing from her toes to her knee. She lurched from her garage-turned-workspace as though coming off an all-night drinking binge. Dazzling fingers of early morning sunlight stabbed through her eyes into her brain, and she stumbled blindly through dew-kissed grass. Her bare feet were soaked by the time she reached the back door of the old house. After trudging up the steps, she noticed something was terribly wrong.
The back door stood ajar. Trish’s breath caught against the instant lump of apprehension in her throat.
She was suddenly wide awake. “Bella? You up?”
The ticking of the antique schoolroom clock reminded her of a bomb about to go off. Trish shrugged against the prickly feeling between her shoulder blades.
Hitting the stairs to the second floor at a run, she pushed open the door to her daughter’s room. It was empty. Her breaths were coming in shallow gasps as she struggled to pull air into lungs already too full. She checked her own room and then the room that had been Gran’s and the half-dozen guest rooms as well as the bathrooms, even though she was fairly certain the effort was fruitless.
Bella wasn’t in the house.
Trish raced back down the steps.
Think. Where did Bella like to play? A search of every nook and bush in the back yard only added to Trish’s sense of despair.
Her daughter wasn’t in the house, had apparently left the yard. Which way would she have gone? Town? Or beach?
A light breeze pushed its way in from the ocean, bringing in a unique salty, fish smell and Trish decided it had to be the beach. Bella had been asking to go there since they’d arrived on Lookout Island last week.
It was the most dangerous place her daughter could wander.
“Bella!” Trish took off at a fast walk. Her imagination began to fill in the blanks with various tragic accident scenarios and Trish broke into a run. “Isabella!”
A DISTANT FEMALE voice blended with the screeches of the gulls. The voice wasn’t quite close enough yet for Dan to hear what was being said, so he waited and listened.
“Bella! Where are you?”
Dan tilted his head in the direction of his young companion. “So… are you Bella?”
“Is that your mom calling you, Bella?”
“Mama!” The child sounded happy, but she didn’t leave the rock to answer the call.
“Bella, please answer me!” The voice was much closer, and he could hear the desperation now.
“I’m going to answer your mama for you, Bella, okay?” Dan turned in the direction of the shouts and raised his voice. “I think I have her over here.”
The beach grass rustled, sand shifted, and gravel crunched, then the appealing scent of strawberries tantalized.
“Bella. Thank God.”
Dan clearly heard relief mixed with alarm in the woman’s voice. She sounded vaguely familiar. Maybe he’d met her on one of his forays into town.
“Oh, baby, why did you leave the house?”
Dan frowned. There was music in her voice. For a moment, he thought he’d conjured the woman from the hospital, the lilting voice he’d dreamed about for the past week. That would be too coincidental. He frowned. Wouldn’t it?
But her voice was intriguing, and as she spoke to her daughter, the melody washed over him like a siren’s call. Coincidence or not, this was the same woman from the hospital in DC.
And this must be her daughter, the child whose father was no longer in the picture. For the first time in years, Dan felt the desire to connect with his humanity.
BELLA SAT ON a large, flat rock facing the ocean, next to one of the most attractive men Trish had ever seen. He wore faded blue jeans. A light gray T-shirt hugged his lean, muscular build. His skin was deeply tanned and somewhat weathered. This was no indoor executive. His dark hair was cut fairly short but still curled at the ends. He was a few days late for a shave, giving him an appearance of vacation laziness combined with just a hint of danger. His eyes were hidden behind mirrored sunglasses. Too bad. Trish had a thing for eyes.
His head was bent low as he spoke in soft tones to her daughter. Trish surveyed the serene scene she’d stumbled upon, noting the sense of simple connectedness between Bella and the stranger, and instantly felt like an intruder in her daughter’s world. Now she was torn between relief because Bella was safe and trepidation that she had so easily and trustingly placed herself in the company of a stranger.
Apparently having readied herself for the day, Isabella was wearing a pair of rumpled blue shorts and a pink T-shirt, both from the day before. She had on one white sock and one pale pink. At least her shoes were on the correct feet, though they weren’t tied. She’d eaten her own version of breakfast, if the sticky ring of caramel icing and strawberry fruit filling around her lips was an indication.
The important thing was finding her baby unhurt, Trish reminded herself with a sigh.
Pushing her perpetually sagging eyeglasses up on her nose, Bella turned to Trish and shot her a wide-eyed smile. “Hi, Mama.”
She released the man’s hand and got off the rock, taking her time crossing the distance to Trish, stooping to examine a piece of driftwood, finally picking it up and bringing it along. At last, she gave her mother a hug.
Trish let out a slow breath, allowing herself to relax. Who was the man? Why hadn’t she noticed him before? Did he live around there, or was he vacationing? Finally, she realized she’d been staring. “Thank you… for finding my daughter.”
That earned her a chuckle from the stranger. “I was beginning to wonder if you could speak.” He shrugged. “Actually, she found me.” His words were light, easy. It was hard to tell with the sunglasses in place, but while he gazed generally in their direction, he never quite looked at her.
“I’m so sorry if she interrupted your morning. I fell asleep in my studio last night and overslept. I didn’t know Bella would just leave. She never ran off in the city, but since she turned six, she thinks she… And… I’m babbling like a complete idiot.” She held out her hand. “I’m Trish Evers.”
The man made no move to accept her handshake, and Trish dropped her hand awkwardly. Startled, at first, by such blatant rudeness, Trish gradually took note of the way Bella’s companion held his head at an angle, as though listening intently. She noted the German shepherd sitting quietly at his side with the working harness in place and realized behind glasses the man was blind.
Squelching the insane urge to apologize for not noticing his impairment, Trish stepped forward and snagged his hand, giving it a light squeeze. “I’m Trish, and you met my daughter, Bella. We just moved into the house at the end of the street.”
A LITTLE STIFFLY, Dan shook Trish’s hand, experiencing mixed feelings at her silent acknowledgement of his blindness. He was far more used to pushing away the people who made a big deal about needing to help him.
Absently, he ran his thumb over Trish’s hand. It was slender with long fingers, soft on top, but her palms were a little rough against his. Working hands.
He became aware she hadn’t moved and he still held her hand. “Sorry.” He released her with a bit of regret. “The house at the end of the street… you mean, Mrs. Montgomery’s? The bed and breakfast?”
“That’s right.” Her voice mesmerized him. “She’s — she was my grandmother.”
“Irene was a great lady. She used to invite me for breakfast when she saw me on the beach. Made the best scones and cream. I’m very sorry for your loss.” Dan shifted on the rock. “I’m Dan Conway. I live over the hill of sand behind you.”
“I saw the signs for private property. I’m sorry we intruded. Bella — she doesn’t read yet.”
“She’s a good kid. Not real talkative, though. She’s welcome here any time,” Dan said with a nonchalant shrug. “You, too, of course.”
Trish hesitated. “Thank you, I…” She trailed off, but not before Dan heard the obvious uncertainty and longing in her voice.
“I mean it. Come any time, with or without me.” He wondered why it meant so much to him that this woman and her daughter come back to his sanctuary.
“Thank you,” she said again. “Bella, time to go. Say good-bye to Mr. Conway.”
“Good-bye… Mr. Conway,” Bella said in a lisping, halting style. “Bye, Jack-doggie.”
“It was nice meeting you, Bella.” Dan surprised himself by smiling. “You can come and see me anytime, just make sure you ask your mom first, okay?”
“Okay, Mr. Conway.” Bella spoke with polite care.
“It was nice meeting you, Mrs. Evers,” Dan added.
“Trish.” Her voice mixed with the whisper of the beach grass she and Bella walked through. “Just call me Trish.”
“That only works for me if you’ll call me Dan.”
After they were gone, the beach, which had been comfortably deserted when he first set foot on it earlier that morning, suddenly felt desolate and extremely lonely.