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Willow Brook Road

By´╝ÜSherryl Woods

1

The original Mick O’Brien–designed cottage on Willow Brook Road had been built with weathered gray shingles, white trim and a tiny back porch barely big enough for two rockers side by side. They faced Willow Brook, which fed into the Chesapeake Bay. The backyard sloped gently to the brook, with the graceful branches of a trademark weeping willow touching the lawn at the water’s edge. The peaceful setting was just right for quiet conversation or relaxing with a good book.

In front the cottage featured a small yard with an actual white picket fence and a climbing yellow rosebush that tumbled over it with a profusion of fragrant blooms. Bright red and hot-pink geraniums filled pots on the stoop in a vibrant display of clashing colors. The property oozed picturesque charm.

With three cozy bedrooms and a fireplace in the living room and a surprisingly large eat-in kitchen, it was the perfect Chesapeake Shores vacation getaway or a starter home for a small family, but Carrie Winters had been living there alone and at loose ends for almost six months now. The only personal touch she’d added beyond the mismatched furniture she’d acquired from various family attics was the portrait of the whole O’Brien family taken at the Christmas wedding of her twin, Caitlyn.

These days, sitting in one of those rockers for more than a minute or two made her antsy. After two years in a pressure-cooker public relations job at which she’d excelled, being idle was a new experience, and one she didn’t particularly like. She was too distracted for reading anything deeper than the local weekly newspaper. And though she loved to cook, making fancy meals for one person just left her feeling lonely.

Worst of all, she seemed incapable of motivating herself to get out of this funk she’d been in ever since coming home. Chesapeake Shores might be where she wanted—or even needed—to be as she tried to piece her life back together and reevaluate her priorities, but it had created its own sort of pressure.

While the rest of the O’Brien clan was unmistakably worried about her, her grandfather Mick was bordering on frantic. O’Briens did not waste time or wallow in self-pity, which was exactly what Carrie had been doing ever since the breakup of her last relationship. Timed to coincide with the crash-and-burn demolition of her career in the fashion industry, the combination had sent her fleeing from Paris and straight back to her loving family.

Carrie sighed and took a first sip of the one glass of wine she allowed herself at the end of the day. Wallowing was one thing. Getting tipsy all alone was something else entirely. Even she was wise enough to see that.

An image of Marc Reynolds, the fashion-world icon she’d thought she loved, crept into her head, as it did about a hundred times a day. That was down from about a million when she’d first flown home from Europe after the breakup. If it could even be called that, she thought wryly. Truthfully, she’d finally realized that Marc thought of her more as a convenient bed partner and workhorse whose public relations efforts for his fashion empire had helped to put it on the fast track to international acclaim. Unbeknownst to her, his heart apparently belonged to a she-devil, self-absorbed model who treated him like dirt. Carrie could relate, since Marc had pretty much done the same to her. She was still struggling to understand how her judgment could possibly have been so clouded that she hadn’t seen that sooner. Surely the signs had been there. Had she been so besotted she’d missed them? If so, how could she possibly trust her instincts about a man again?

Not that she was going to let that be an issue anytime soon. She was swearing off the male of the species until she figured out who she was and what she truly wanted. At the rate she was progressing on that front, it could take years.

Enough! she told herself firmly, carrying her almost-full glass inside and stepping over a scattering of toys as she went. She smiled as she picked up a floppy-eared bunny and set it gently in a chair. A stack of children’s picture books sat on a nearby table.

Taking care of her twin sister’s little boy, Jackson McIlroy, was about the only thing that gave her a sense of fulfillment these days. With Caitlyn serving a medical internship at Johns Hopkins, and Caitlyn’s husband, Noah, running an increasingly busy family medicine practice here in town, Carrie had volunteered for day-care duty whenever they needed her. More and more often they’d come to rely on her, which suited her just fine, but seemed to be making everyone else in her driven family a little crazy. Babysitting wasn’t considered a suitable career goal for the granddaughter of the town’s founder.

She picked up a few more toys, put them in the brightly colored toy box she’d painted herself one particularly dreary winter day, then grabbed her purse and walked into town. Ten minutes later she was at O’Brien’s, the Irish pub her second cousin Luke had opened a few years back. She knew she’d find a good meal there, even if it came with a serving of family meddling from whichever O’Brien happened to be around.

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