Chapter 1 of COMING HOME TO SEASHELL HARBOR
Hadley Wells managed to pee, buy two large chai tea lattes, and grab her luggage from the carousel before racing to her grandmother’s usual pickup spot at door 7 at Philly International Airport. She tugged off her big sunglasses and her floppy hat, blowing out a sigh of relief when no one looked her way. Then she took a seat on her Big Daddy Samsonite and chugged a gulp of her latte. Her phone told her that she was early, with a minute to spare. Good, because Gran had no tolerance for lollygagging.
Hadley couldn’t wait to wrap her arms around her grandmother. And she couldn’t wait for her grandmother to wrap her arms around her, enveloping Hadley in that wonderful lavender-scented squeeze, the cure for all heartaches.
Grandma’s hugs might not be a magic bullet for heartbreak like they’d been for her many skinned knees, but they sure would help. Hadley was excited to spend the summer with her family in their quaint Victorian seaside town, where she planned to relax and read escapist fiction on the beach. And eat real food. Maybe then she’d have a chance to recover from the stress, exhaustion, and heartache that had marked the past few months.
Hot tears stung her eyes. She was getting emotional again. Breathing deeply, she reminded herself that she was just thirty-five, even if the tabloids were calling her over-the-hill with no prospects. Getting over a break up was one thing, but her high-profile split with Cooper Hemsley, the beloved A-list actor, hadn’t made that any easier, that was for sure. Just more public. She’d watched all her dreams of love and a family of her own disintegrate with millions of people watching.
But in Seashell Harbor, she’d just be Hadley, not Cooper Hemsley’s jilted ex. She’d get some full-scale pampering from her family, reunite with her two best friends, and help out Gran at Pooch Palace, her dog boarding business, Hadley’s favorite place in the world. Because dogs didn’t cheat on you, run away with their costars, or publicly embarrass you.
And PR firms that you worked for didn’t insist you take an entire summer of paid leave because the damage from your giant, scandalous breakup couldn’t be repaired any other way.
Twenty minutes later, she’d unconsciously gulped down her latte and half of Gran’s but still no sign of her grandmother.
Gran had a cell phone for emergencies only, but Hadley didn’t want to call while Gran was driving. She was just about to text her parents when they pulled up to the curb in their black Lexus.
Her mom got out of the car, a book tumbling from her lap and hitting the pavement with a thunk. The big, dusty tome on Victorian something-or-other was no doubt for her research as an English professor at Rutgers. Then her dad also got out, in the no-parking zone no less, which completely freaked her out. As did the too-cheery smiles on their faces.
“Hey, Pumpkin,” her dad said, preparing to envelop her in a hug, but her mom got to her first.
“Hey, Mom, hey, Dad,” she said, now too nervous to fully appreciate the hugs of her loving but very type A parents. “Where’s—”
“Aw, honey!” Her mom gave her a big squeeze, then held her at arm’s length to examine her with shrewd eyes. “You’re too thin. And you look exhausted.”
Great. Her mom had seen through the concealer and fresh lipstick, neither of which apparently hid her heartache.
“But you look as beautiful as always,” her dad said. As she hugged him, she could feel his phone vibrating in his pocket, which was pretty typical in his role as a high-powered financial advisor. “We’re thrilled to have you home for the summer.”
“Me too. But where’s Gran?” she asked, a creeping sense of dread ruining her chai tea zen. Plus she had to pee again.
“She’s fine,” her mom said as she inhaled deeply, “but she had a little…accident. We didn’t want you to panic, so we decided to tell you in person.”
Accident? The loud no in her head exploded at full volume. She didn’t want to think of Gran getting older. Of bad things happening. Not when she needed her sage counsel, her advice, her love, and her killer double-chocolate brownies.
“She’s fine,” her dad repeated in a reassuring voice, still holding on to her. “Breathe.” He waited patiently while she took several breaths. “Atta girl.” When he seemed convinced she wasn’t going to lose it right there at the pickup entrance, he continued. “She was chasing after Mayor Chaudhry’s dog this morning and fell and broke her hip. She’s going to be fine and the dog is fine. Except she’ll need to go to the rehab hospital for a few weeks because the break is a little complicated but she should do just fine.” He glanced at his watch. “Her surgery’s at five.”
“I could’ve caught an Uber—”
“She insisted we come and get you,” her mom said. “We’re going to head right back to the hospital.”
Hadley’s heart sank. It was an hour-and-forty-minute drive back to Seashell Harbor. And Gran was alone while Hadley and her parents were here.
“Paul’s with her, but he has to work at four,” her mom said, reading her mind. Paul Farmer was Pooch Palace’s next-door neighbor and ran the local ice-cream shop, Scoops. Gran and he were great friends. “She even wrote you a note.” Her mom pulled a bright yellow pack of sticky notes out of her purse.
Hadley instantly recoiled, then caught herself. She still despised sticky notes after all these years, ever since her high school boyfriend had broken up with her on one, serving up her first big heartbreak. Silly, she knew. But to this day, her hatred of sticky notes was still fierce, extending to all colors of the rainbow.
Gran’s practical, no-nonsense tone rang out loud and clear:
Hadley, honey, sorry for sticky note but it’s all I’ve got. Listen, I’m going to be fine. Don’t worry yourself. All I want is to see you (cont.).
Hadley had to peel that note off to get to the rest of the message:
And maybe you can ask Paul to bring me a chocolate banana milkshake? We’ll split it when I’m out of surgery. xo
P.S. You’re so much better than that phony scoundrel. Glad you dumped him. Gran
Gran was an optimist if, one, she believed she was going to be hungry for a milkshake post-op, and two, she made it sound as though Hadley had done the dumping when the whole world knew that wasn’t true. She’d just pocketed the note when the airport police pulled up and signaled to her dad to move his car or else, thank you very much. Her mom hooked her arm through Hadley’s elbow and whisked her to the back seat.
For the next hour-plus, Hadley had no choice but to sit back and watch the familiar sights of her home state. The Garden State Parkway ran right along the ocean, displaying the picture-perfect summer day, the sun hitting the water and scattering it into a thousand diamond sparkles. It was the kind of day for heading down to the beach with a book and a folding chair and sticking your toes in the sand, your cares blowing away like the puffy little clouds that sailed by.
She’d envisioned coming home as a vacation: her grandmother spoiling her with all her favorite foods, taking her window-shopping along Petunia Street. Having lunch together at one of the cute outdoor restaurants with an ocean view, lounging at the beach in front of Gran’s little oceanfront bungalow, and reading good books, her most strenuous activity of each day being the reapplication of sunblock.
But now all that seemed self-indulgent.
She’d hoped, too, for a chance to reassess her life. When she’d moved to LA five years ago to handle PR for an animal rights agency, she’d dreamed of making a difference. But then she’d gotten an offer for a “better” job in celebrity PR, with so much more pay and a certain amount of…prestige.
The work had been fun, exciting, and glamorous…at first. The parties! The stars! And, of course, that was where she’d met Cooper Hemsley III at a post–award show interview junket. He’d approached her and she’d almost had a heart attack and swooned on the spot, instantly smitten with his charisma and charm.
And everyone back home had been so proud—her family, the neighbors. Nearly everyone, except her grandmother, who’d never cared for Cooper. While Hadley had enjoyed the money and the perks of her new job, handling damage control for celebrities with too much time and money on their hands was a far cry from her passion to make the world a better place.
At last, Seashell Harbor’s beloved downtown came into view, as comfortable as a favorite sweater. Hadley took in the seaside park, the quaint Petunia Street shops with their overflowing baskets and pots of flowers, the Pooch Palace sign that said We Treat Your Pet Like Royalty, the massive white banner flapping indolently in the sea breeze that read Welcome Home, Cam!—
Wait, what? Better rewind that one. Hadley blinked and confirmed that, yes, the banner was real. Seashell Harbor’s famous—or rather infamous—gridiron hero was back? She closed her eyes, but she still saw a billowy white sheet with Cam in bold black letters burning into her brain. At one time, Tony Cammareri had loomed as large as that obnoxious, flapping banner in her life. But that was long ago. She had fresh, adult heartbreak to deal with. And Gran. Gran was all that mattered now.
She tried to enjoy the rest of the sights but it was futile. That awful banner was blocking everything out, including her common sense.
“Tony—I mean, Cam—is back?” she found herself asking. Unlike the rest of the world, she’d never called him Cam.
But as far as she was concerned, Tony, the boy who’d been her first love, was long gone. So Cam he’d be.
Her mom turned in the front seat. “He’s been back since his injury, rehabbing his knee. Such a shame, isn’t it? Suddenly ending his career like that. I’m sure you two will run into each other.” Her voice was just a touch higher than usual, the tone she often used when she was nervous. Well, they were all nervous about Gran.
“I don’t want to see him again,” Hadley said, a little more adamantly that she’d meant to. She waved her hands dismissively. “He’s ancient history.” Ancient teenage heartbreak. That was all.
Her parents exchanged knowing glances, which made her nervous. Then her dad spoke. “Honey, there’s something else you need to know.”
Hadley white-knuckled her seat as she imagined even worse news. “What is it?”
“Well, your grandmother’s thinking of selling the Palace. Actually, she’s been considering retirement for some time.”
Gran, retire? For a woman who’d once vowed to take her last breath while sitting in Pooch Palace and petting the dogs, Gran’s sudden pushing of the panic button to sell her business just seemed off. The dogs were her life, her love, her joy.
“I’m sure after the accident she’d have some reservations,” Hadley said. “But I’m here all summer. I’m happy to help until she gets back on her feet.”
There went another knowing glance. Geez, she felt like she was twelve again, trying to read her parents’ private language from the back seat.
“Actually,” her mom said, “she’s thinking of selling the building…”
“…to Cam,” her dad finished.
She could not have heard right. “Come again?”
“He’s offered her quite a nice price,” her mom said.
“Wait. Gran wants to sell Pooch Palace to…to him?” She couldn’t say either of his names. She kept blinking but the furious scarlet before her eyes would not be erased.
“Business isn’t what it used to be.” Her dad turned onto the road that led to the hospital. “Even before the accident. Gran’s older and it’s getting harder for her to chase after all those dogs. Cam’s planning to use the building to open a sports bar/restaurant. The money would tide your grandmother off really well for retirement.”
Pooch Palace re-created as a sports bar? Gran retiring? It was like Hadley had landed in an alternate universe that looked like home but really wasn’t. Because the Gran she knew had vowed to never retire. And would never, ever consider selling her building to Tony Cammareri. Before he was Big-White-Flapping-Banner Cam, she’d known him as the One Who’d Crushed Her Tender Teenage Heart and Left It for Roadkill. On a Sticky Note. That Cam.
Why would Gran even be friendly with him?
Coercion, that’s what this was. Putting pressure on Gran when she was vulnerable. Cam was using his many charms to bamboozle Gran and her parents. Because clearly they were eating the Cam candy as well.
Her mom and dad exchanged looks again. “The business needs restructuring and rebranding. The new pet hotel near the interstate has taken away a lot of business.”
“I could help,” Hadley piped in. “That’s what I do. I could even ask for some unpaid leave if I needed to.”
“Honey,” her dad said, “your job is way too important for you to come back here and run a dog boardingbusiness.”
He’d said it like Pooch Palace was an amateur lemonade stand, the kind that she and her best friends Kit and Darla used to set up at the bottom of the driveway as kids. Something that an educated Wells daughter would never stoop to do.
“Hadley,” her dad continued, “maybe you can stop by Carol Drake’s office tomorrow and tell her we want her involved.” His phone buzzed with another call.
Carol Drake, Super Realtor, could sell a falling-down shack as a vintage charmer with potential, and every year she won the top-selling Realtor award. Her office also happened to be two buildings away from Pooch Palace. But Hadley would rather have a dental extraction than ask Carol to handle this deal.
Hadley’s mom patted her knee as they pulled into the hospital parking lot. “We’ll drop you off so you can run up and say hi. I know you’re upset, but now’s not the time to get into this with her, okay?”
Hadley restrained herself from a snarky teenage comeback: I know. Geez, Mom and Dad. “I get it,” she said instead, climbing out of the car and walking through the sliding double doors into the hospital. Somewhere in the floors above, her grandmother was lying in pain, anxious for surgery.
Gran was in the hospital. The villain of her teenage life was back in town, waiting to get his big baller hands on Gran’s building. Hadley’s beloved Pooch Palace was going under faster than a king tide. This was not the welcome home she’d imagined.
* * *
A few minutes later, Hadley burst into Gran’s hospital room, out of breath from climbing six flights of stairs because she hadn’t wanted to wait for the elevator. But her grandmother was asleep in her bed, looking a little aged and frail. Her hair had gotten whiter, creases lining her face a little more prominently than she’d noticed in their frequent FaceTime sessions.
She sat down on the vinyl chair in the corner next to the window, trying not to tear up. Flower arrangements adorned the sill despite the fact that Gran hadn’t even gone into surgery yet. Hadley randomly flipped up the tag on the most beautiful one, a massive bouquet of yellow roses.
Thinking of you. Tony
“Show-off,” she mumbled. It would be just like him to send flashy displays of flowers. “But where’s the chocolate?” Cam had always been an overachiever.
“Did someone say chocolate?” A weak voice emanated from the bed. Hadley took one look at her grandma and forced back tears again before going in for a hug.
“Oh, sweetheart, I’m so glad you’re back.” Gran leveled her gaze with Hadley’s. “You’re thin and wan. But nothing we can’t fix.”
“Don’t worry about me,” Hadley said. “Worry about you.”
“Tony was here,” Gran said instead, a little groggily. “He told me to tell you hi.”
Hadley smiled for her grandmother’s sake, but secretly thought she’d like to tell him a few things too. However, hi was not high on the list.
“Hadley, I have to tell you something.” Gran took both of Hadley’s hands in hers. “I’m sure you’ve heard that Tony wants to buy my building.” Hadley started to speak but Gran shushed her. “You must promise not to judge him too harshly.”
Hadley pursed her lips before she said something upsetting, like How could you? Instead, she squeezed her grandmother’s hands. “Don’t worry, Gran. I’m going to be here all summer to help you with the business and to help you recover. You know I love the Palace just as much as you do.”
Gran pointed to the little table between her bed and the wall. “He left you something.”
Hadley’s gaze followed to where Gran pointed. No. It could not be. Hanging off the edge of the bedside table, right underneath the flowers her mom must have brought from her garden, was a sticky note, rippling slightly in the current from the air-conditioning.
A yellow sticky note.
Bile rose in her throat as she reached forward and snatched it.
Hadley, feel free to call me. I’ll be at Pooch Palace tomorrow morning at 10. Talk soon, Tony
Underneath the words, he’d scrawled his phone number. She calmly pocketed the note, but pure unmitigated anger made her crumple it into a little ball inside her pocket.
Just then, her parents walked in, along with Gran’s nurse and a tall guy in scrubs with a kind smile. “Hi, Mrs. Edwards,” he said. “I’m Nasir. I’ll be taking you down to surgery.”
“Let’s get this over with so I can dance the two-step again,” Gran said as the family all kissed her. Her voice was cheery, but Hadley detected a tinge of bravado. Just before she was wheeled out the door, she gave Hadley a wink and whispered, “Don’t forget the shake.”
As Hadley and her parents prepared to trek down to the surgical waiting room, her mom stifled a yawn. “It’s been a long day already,” she said. “At some point I’ve got to run home and grab some overnight things.”
“I’d love to stay with her,” Hadley said. “I’ve already got all my stuff with me.” She glanced at the ugly beige chair in the corner. Not exactly the bed she’d planned on sleeping in, but it would do.
As she walked out of the room, her fingers brushed against her pants pocket, reminding her of the note. She pulled it out to analyze one last time, struggling to tamp down her anger.
Two things came to mind. One, Cam’s handwriting was just as bad as ever. And two, he was not getting Pooch Palace. Not now, not ever. She’d make certain of it.