Lana Darling had been home for ten minutes and she already wanted to run away.
Darling Bay, the sparkling little town on the ocean on the rugged California coast. With every crunch Lana’s boot heels made in the gravel and with every chattering chirp her two sisters made as they walked behind her, she wondered if coming home had been the right thing to do.
It was funny – the very light was familiar to her. The sun felt different here, brighter somehow. More cheerful than anywhere else. It smelled like home, too – like pretzels and salt air and sugar from the cotton-candy stand.
It sure as heck had turned into tourist central, hadn’t it? It looked like a Hollywood set, with its adorable main street and gazebo. Over by the diner, a man leaned against a tree, playing his guitar, singing sweetly. Townspeople greeted each other with hearty shouts and friendly embraces. Lana had already seen four bear hugs on the street. Her stomach tightened with nerves. She didn’t want to be hugged by strangers. Or worse, people who weren’t strangers, people she’d have to make small talk with.
Her sisters caught up to her, talking a mile a minute. Lana dragged her suitcase behind her. The rest of her things were in her car, but her suitcase held all her songs and compositions, and she would be damned if those got stolen in a moment’s inattention. Of course, Darling Bay didn’t have a huge problem with theft, or at least it didn’t used to. What did she know, though? It had been years. Almost twelve of them.
‘Can I take your suitcase?’
Lana tightened her grip on the handle. She shook her head, opening her mouth to respond, but they weren’t letting her talk, of course. Questions tumbled out from their lips like coins spilling from a winning slot machine, but they came so fast and furious that Lana didn’t have time to answer one before they moved on to the next.
‘Why didn’t you tell us you were coming?’
‘Where did you come from?’
‘Are you okay? Are you hurt?’
‘No, look at her. She looks great. Do you have more bags?’ Molly, her middle sister, was positively skipping down the sidewalk.
‘Are you with anyone? Is it just you?’
‘Will you stay? Please, you have to stay.’ This last was from Adele, of course. Lana’s eldest sister always had to know exactly how things would work. She needed to know if she could fix them, make them better. It was and always had been her way.
Adele. Asking her to stay, after all these years of not talking at all.
The incessant questions didn’t stop the bubble of joy that rose in the middle of Lana’s chest, though. She couldn’t prevent the small grin that crept onto her face even if she wanted to.
Molly clutched her elbow. ‘We won’t push you. You don’t have to tell us a thing.’
Lana raised an eyebrow.
‘Except, of course, for everything.’ Molly grinned.
‘Here’s my car.’ Lana pointed at the station wagon. It was small enough to park easily, long enough to sleep in when she had to, and old enough that no one ever tried to break into it. ‘I’ve got a couple more things. Not many.’
She could almost see Adele making checklists in her mind. ‘Room one. It’s clean, since Molly has been spending more time with Colin than anywhere else. I’m pretty sure she hasn’t slept there for a week or two.’
Lana looked at Molly, whose cheeks were going pink. ‘Are you sure? You don’t mind?’
Molly shook her head. ‘Actually – and I hadn’t told you this yet, Adele, I’m sorry – I just moved in with Colin.’
Adele stopped on the sidewalk and stared. ‘You did?’
‘You didn’t tell me?’
Something tightened low in Lana’s stomach.
Then Molly laughed. ‘Nope!’
Lana expected a flash. Adele would yell and stomp off, then Molly would cry, and Lana – Lana had no idea what she’d do.
But Adele only grinned and shook her head. ‘You crazy kids. Congratulations! That, and the engagement, and Migration, and the café?’ Adele looked at Lana. ‘I’m glad you’re here. Maybe she’ll take a breather. Relax a little.’
Adele the control-freak workaholic was extolling relaxation?
‘Huh,’ was all Lana managed.
‘Okay, I’ve got to get back to the bar. Nate’s got a delivery to put away, and someone has to man the beer taps.’ Adele moved forward quickly, putting her hands on Lana’s cheeks. With a big mwah sound, she kissed Lana on the forehead. Then she ran to the saloon’s porch and disappeared inside.
Lana touched her forehead. ‘That’s what – that’s what Dad always did.’ She wouldn’t have been more stunned if Adele had hit her.
Molly smiled. ‘Yep. Come on. Let’s grab some of your boxes and head up to your room.’
A few minutes later, with boxes balanced on top of suitcases, Lana followed Molly up the path that ran alongside the saloon.
Lana carefully pulled her load over a crack. ‘Is Adele okay?’
‘She’s great!’ Molly turned to glance behind her. ‘Didn’t you see the way she greeted you?’
Lana readjusted the top box. ‘I don’t trust it. She was so normal.’ She followed Molly through the garden and turned left to head towards the room.
‘Normal is a bad thing?’ Molly heaved the suitcase she was trundling up onto the porch. ‘What’s in here? Rocks?’
Paper. So much paper. Every song Lana had written in the last ten years, plus a couple of old songbooks that helped inspire her when she was stuck. Not that she was going to be writing any songs. She wasn’t even really sure why she was lugging them around with her anymore.
‘Yeah, yeah. Show me the room, already.’ The Golden Spike, the property their uncle had left to his three nieces, was divided into three businesses. Her sisters had gotten the dilapidated bar and café up and running, but the hotel was still uninhabitable, all except for room one. Lana knew both of her sisters had stayed in the room when they were newly back in Darling Bay. Now it was her turn to occupy it.
Her sisters thought it was temporary. A visit.
It might not be. Not that she was ready to talk about it with them yet.
‘The door sticks a bit.’ Molly shoved her shoulder into the door. ‘Just needs a little weight behind it. Here we go!’
Lana surveyed her new space. It was cute, old-fashioned with its dark wood headboard and ornately curved wooden chairs.
Lana just hadn’t remembered how small it was. In her memories, the hotel beds were gigantic. She’d remembered the sitting area of this room as big as a house. Instead, the bed was at most a queen, and the grand sitting area she’d remembered was actually just a two-person sofa tucked under a window that faced the green hill. The window was open, and the sea breeze blew in through the screen, smelling of sand and seaweed.
‘It is, right?’ Molly pushed a suitcase into a corner and dumped two boxes on the couch.
‘Careful,’ Lana couldn’t help saying. In one of those boxes was a framed photo of the three of them. It was one of the only sentimental items she’d chosen to carry from place to place. No matter where she’d hung her hat, that picture had sat at the side of her bed. In it, the three girls stood on the beach. Adele and Molly grinned at each other, obviously sharing a nefarious plan, one that probably included running away from Lana as fast as they could run on their then much longer legs. Over Adele’s shoulder, Lana could be seen, bent over at the waist, hunting for the perfect shell. Just the side of her frowning face showed, but even at a distance, a viewer could see Lana’s frustration.
Yep. Lana loved that picture.
It reminded her of everything she needed to remember.
And it would piss her right off if Molly broke it by throwing the box around.
She was home. Because that’s what this was, even though Darling Bay was a place she’d been in for short periods of time in her childhood. Christmas. Summer vacations. Nashville had been their technical home, but this was where their hearts had always been. After their mother had died, when Lana was just thirteen, Dad had moved his girls to Darling Bay and the town had been home full-time.
This was where the band had been formed, when Lana was fourteen. Uncle Hugh had always made them feel like it was their town (and since their great-grandfather Riley Darling had named it, townsfolk had always made them feel the same way). When she was young, Lana had thought they’d stay here, in town, when they were grown-ups. All the Darling girls, home to roost forever.
By the time she was an adult, though, the Darling Songbirds – the band comprised of the three sisters – had broken up. And their sister relationship had shattered into tiny pieces.
Lana had been fine (eventually). She’d travelled. She’d played her songs, and she’d written more of them. She’d kept in touch (minimally) with Molly and had almost no contact with Adele.
Now she was back – there was a place for her to sleep, and there was money in her bank account for the first time ever, and she could stay if she wanted to.
Which she did.
Molly went into the bathroom and opened the small window. ‘There. Now you’ll get the pass-through breeze. We’ve moved the big dumpster that used to be back there to the side of the parking lot, so you won’t even get the oyster-shell stink that guests used to complain about on hot days. Remember?’
Oh, God, she’d forgotten that bit of hilarity. Uncle Hugh, inured to every ocean smell, had always thought the guests were exaggerating.
Something prickled behind Lana’s eyes and she realised just how tired she was. ‘Good. That’s good.’
Molly frowned and plopped down on the bed. ‘You okay?’
Lana dropped to her knees next to the suitcase that held her clothing. I am the kind of woman who can fit all her clothes in one box. ‘I’m fine. Why wouldn’t I be?’
‘Because you’re here.’ Molly’s voice was soft. ‘You haven’t been here in a really long time.’
‘It’s not a big deal unless you make a big deal out of it.’
Molly shook her head. ‘She’s changed. You saw how she greeted you.’
Lana would not ask Molly for clarification. She pulled out her underwear, all eight or nine pairs, and shoved them in the top bureau drawer.
‘Okay, I’ll tell you what I saw.’ Molly didn’t seem to care that Lana hadn’t asked. ‘I saw a woman who was trying to keep her shit together as her biggest dream started coming true.’
Lana narrowed her eyes. ‘What are you talking about?’
‘All she’s ever wanted is us all together. Now we’re with her. Both of us. I thought the top of her head was going to fly right off.’
‘You thought she was happy?’ All Lana had noticed was the speed with which Adele had left to get back to the bar.
‘If she didn’t cry with joy as soon as her back was turned, I’ll eat my cowboy hat, and it’s so old that wouldn’t be enjoyable, I promise you. You guys will talk, clear the air. It’ll be okay.’
‘Crazy about my sisters!’ Molly threw herself backwards on the bed with a laugh. ‘I’m thrilled, too! Not to the crying point, but then again, I’m not the pregnant one.’
Lana dropped the balled-up socks she was holding. ‘What?’
Molly had already shot back up into a sitting position. Her hand was clapped over her mouth. From behind her fingers, she said, ‘Adele will kill me. She will literally kill me.’
‘For telling me? I wasn’t supposed to know?’ Something red and hot pressed itself into the back of Lana’s throat. Of course. Adele had always confided in Molly. Never Lana.
‘No! That’s not it at all. She’s just keeping it secret until she starts to show. Doesn’t want to jinx it.’
By telling the untrustworthy sister. ‘Sure.’
‘Don’t tell her I told you!’
‘Never.’ It would be an interesting experiment, now that she thought about it. She could see how long it would take Adele to tell her. Would Lana know before the mailman did? Before the regulars at the bar?
Yep, there it was. That rolling ball of discomfort, the one she’d known would lodge itself in her stomach as soon as she hit Darling Bay’s city limits. The ball was made of anger and something else . . . something that hurt more.
Lana wouldn’t call it sadness, because she was just fine.
Totally, completely fine.
She was here on her own terms. Not because she had to be.
‘Let’s have dinner tonight.’ Molly glanced at her phone. ‘The three of us. Like old times.’
Old times? Old-time dinners only had two flavours: before the band, when Lana had been young and tiny and utterly unable to keep up with her older sisters when they’d eaten dinner at the kitchen table: good, cheap food that Mama had been great at cooking. And during the years when they’d been a band, when they’d eaten in the tour bus’s kitchen. They hadn’t eaten out much – they’d always been saving the money. Dad had been good at that, after Mama died. He’d run the band tightly and kept the money close.
Then he’d died too, and everything had gone off the rails.
So Lana wasn’t exactly sure she wanted to revisit any of those old times at all. ‘I’m tired,’ she began.
‘No. I insist.’ Molly grabbed her hand. ‘Dinner together.’
Lana pulled it back. ‘Fine. Where?’
‘The café, of course.’
Well, that would be like old times, all right. Lana had forgotten how much time they’d all spent in the Golden Spike Café as kids. Just thinking about it made her crave a quesadilla and a chocolate malt. ‘You’re still liking being the boss there?’
‘Loving. Loving. It’s better than new. I can’t wait to show you everything.’ Molly’s cheeks were prettily pink.
A tight muscle in Lana’s chest eased. She pressed her thumb against the tattoo at her wrist. It was still new enough to be tender, and feeling the raised ink lines helped.
Maybe this wouldn’t be as hard as she’d thought it would be.
Maybe this would just be coming home. That’s what people were supposed to do, right? That’s how they found their people, how they built their lives. They came home, to the ones who loved them.
Or who could tolerate them, at least. ‘Okay, then.’
Fear fluttered at the base of her throat.
She’d worry about Adele when she had to. Not a minute before.