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Sonnet Romano’s life is almost perfect. She has the ideal career, the ideal boyfriend, and has just been offered a prestigious fellowship. There’s nothing more a woman wants — except maybe a baby...brother? When Sonnet finds out her mother is unexpectedly expecting, and that the pregnancy is high risk, she puts everything on hold — the job, the fellowship, the boyfriend — and heads home to Avalon. Once her mom is out of danger, Sonnet intends to pick up her life where she left off. But when her mother receives a devastating diagnosis, Sonnet must decide what really matters in life, even if that means staying in Avalon and taking a job that forces her to work alongside her biggest, and maybe her sweetest, mistake — award-winning filmmaker Zach Alger. So Sonnet embarks on a summer of laughter and tears, of old dreams and new possibilities, and of finding the home of her heart. At once heartbreaking and uplifting, Return to Willow Lake plumbs the deepest corners of the human heart, exploring the bonds of family, the perils and rewards of love, and the true meaning of home. Profoundly emotional and resonant, this is Susan Wiggs at her finest.
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Susan Wiggs’s life is all about family, friends...and fiction. She’s been featured in the national media, including NPR’s Talk of the Nation, and is a popular speaker locally and nationally. From the very start, her writings have illuminated the everyday dramas of ordinary people. At the age of eight, she self-published her first novel, A Book About Some Bad Kids. Today, she is an international bestselling, award-winning author, with millions of copies of her books in print in numerous countries. Her recent novel, Marrying Daisy Bellamy, took the #1 spot on the New York Times bestsellers list, and The Lakeshore Chronicles have won readers’ hearts around the globe. Her books celebrate the power of love, the timeless bonds of family and the fascinating nuances of human nature. She lives with her husband and family at the water’s edge on an island in the Pacific Northwest, where she divides her time between sleeping and waking.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Moments before the wedding was to begin, Sonnet Romano shuddered with a wave of nervousness. "Mom," she said, hurrying over to the window, which framed a view of Willow Lake, "what if I screw up?"
Her mother turned from the window. The late afternoon light shrouded Nina Bellamy's slender form, and for a moment she appeared ethereal and as young as Sonnet herself. Nina looked fantastic in her autumn-gold silk sheath, her dark hair swept back into a low chignon. Only someone who knew her the way Sonnet did might notice the subtle lines of fatigue around her eyes and mouth, the vague puffiness of her skin. Just prior to the wedding, she'd attended the funeral, up in Albany, of her favorite aunt, who had died the week before of cancer, and the grief of goodbye lingered in her face.
"You're not going to screw up," Nina said. "You're going to be fabulous. You look amazing in that dress, you've memorized everything you're going to do and say, and it's going to be a wonderful evening."
"Yes, but "
"Remember what I used to say when you were lit-tle your smile is my sunshine."
"I remember." And the memory did its magic, bringing a smile to her face. Her mom had raised Sonnet alone, but only now that she was grown did she appreciate how hard that had been for Nina. "You gave me lots of memories, Mom."
"Come here, you." Nina opened her arms and Sonnet gratefully slipped into her mother's embrace.
"This feels nice. I wish I had a chance to come back here more often." Sonnet turned her face to the warm breeze blowing in through the window. The sheer beauty of the lake, nestled between the gentle swells of the Catskills, made her heart ache. Though she'd grown up in Avalon, the place felt foreign to Sonnet now, a world she used to inhabit and couldn't wait to leave.
Despite her vivid memories of her childhood here, playing in the woods with her friends or sledding down the hills in winter, she'd never truly appreciated the scenery until she'd left it behind, eager to find her life far away. Now that she lived in Manhattan, crammed into a closet-sized walk-up studio on a noisy East Side street, she finally understood the appeal of her old hometown.
"I wish you could, too," Nina said. "It's time-consuming, isn't it, saving the world?"
Sonnet chuckled. "Is that what I'm doing? Saving the world?"
"As a matter of fact, it is. Sweetie, I'm so proud to tell people you work with UNESCO, that your department saves children's lives all over the world."
"Ah, thanks, Mom. You make me think I do more than write emails and fill out forms." Sonnet often found herself wishing she could actually work with a child every once in a while. Buried in administrative chores, it was easy to forget.
On the smoothly-mown lawn below, guests were beginning to take their seats for the ceremony. Many of the groom's friends were in military dress uniform, adding a note of gravitas to the atmosphere.
"Wow," said Sonnet, "it's really happening, Mom. Finally."
"Yes," Nina agreed. "Finally."
A chorus of squeals came from the adjacent room, where the rest of the bridal party was getting ready.
"Daisy's going to be the prettiest bride ever," Sonnet said, feeling a thrum of emotion in her chest. The bride was Sonnet's best friend as well as her stepsister, and she was about to marry the love of her life. To Sonnet it felt like a dream come true but also, deep in a hidden corner of her heart, a loss of sorts. Now someone else would be the keeper of Daisy's most private secrets, her soft place to fall, the person on the other end of the phone in the middle of the night.
"Until it's your turn," Nina said. "Thenyou'll be the prettiest bride ever."
Sonnet gave her mom's hand a squeeze. "Don't hold your breath. I'm busy saving the world, remember?"
"Just don't get so busy you forget to fall in love," Nina said.
Sonnet laughed. "I think you need to embroider that on a pillow. How about Hello!" Her mind drained of everything but the sight of the tallest groomsman in the wedding party, escorting the grandmother of the bride to her seat in the front row.
In a dove-gray swallowtail tux, he moved with long-limbed grace, although his height was not the most striking thing about him. It was his hair, as long and pale as a banner of surrender, giving him the otherworldly look of a mythical creature. She couldn't take her eyes off him.
"Holy cow," she said. "Is that.?"
"Yep," said her mother. "Zach Alger."
"He's finally grown into his looks, hasn't he?" Nina commented. "I'd forgotten how long it's been since you last saw him. The two of you used to be so close."
Zach Alger. Surely not, thought Sonnet, practically leaning out the open window. This couldn't be the Zach Alger she'd grown up with, the whiter-shade-of-pale boy who lived down the street, with his big goofy ears and braces on his teeth. Her best friend in high school, the freakishly skinny kid who worked at the Sky River Bakery. This couldn't be the college geek working his way through school, obsessed with cameras and all things video.
Zach Alger, she thought. Well, well. Since high school, he and Sonnet had gone in different directions, and she hadn't seen him in ages. Now she couldn't take her eyes off him.
After helping Daisy's grandmother to her seat, he pulled a flask from his tux pocket and took a swig. All right, thought Sonnet. That was the Zach she knew a guy with more talent than ambition, a guy with a troubled background he couldn't seem to shake, a guy who was part of her past, but had no possible place in her future.
Movement in the next room reminded her she had an important job to do today. She peered through the doorway at Daisy, who was surrounded by the hairstylist, makeup artist, wedding planner, her mom Sophie, the photographer and several people Sonnet didn't recognize. "What do you say?" she asked her mother. "Shall we go help Daisy get married?'
Nina grinned. "She wouldn't dare make a move without you."
"Or you. Honestly, when you married Daisy's dad, she hit the stepmom jackpot."
Nina's grin turned to a soft smile, and her dark eyes took on an expression that pulled Sonnet into days gone by, when it had just been the two of them, making their way in the world. Nina had turned a teenage pregnancy into a small but lovely life for herself and Sonnet. Yes, she was married now unexpectedly, in the middle of her life but their two-against-the-world time together belonged solely to Nina and Sonnet.
"You're going all mushy on me, aren't you?" Sonnet said.
"Yeah, baby. I am. Just wait until you're the bride. I'll need CPR." The shadows in the room were just starting to deepen; evening was coming on.
"No, you won't, Mom," Sonnet assured her. "You'll rise to the occasion. You always do."
Nina took her hand again, and together they stepped through the door.
The wedding wound down like a noisy parade fading into the distance. In its wake was the curious mellow quiet of a just-passed storm. Sonnet stood on the broad lawn by the pavilion at Camp Kioga, surveying the petal-strewn aftermath and holding on to a well-earned sense of accomplishment.
As maid of honor, she'd been intimately involved with every aspect of the event, from coordinating Daisy's bachelorette party to picking the colors of the table linens. But today hadn't been about table decorations or small appliances. It had been about friends and family and a celebration so joyous she could still feel its echo deep inside her.
Rather than feeling exhausted after the long, emotional day, she was chased by a feeling of restlessness. It was strange, coming back to the place she'd once called home, seeing people who looked her over and remarked, "I remember when you were this tall" or "Why hasn't some guy snatched you up by now?" as if being twenty-eight and unmarried was taboo in a town like this.
She smiled a little, pretending she didn't feel the tiniest dig of impatience with her personal life. No. She wasn't impatient. It was hard, caught up in the wedding whirlwind, to ignore the fact that nearly everyone in sight was coupled up.
Taking a deep breath, she went back to savoring the success of the day. The bride and groom had just departed. Her maid of honor duties were done. In the glow of twinkling fairy lights, the band was breaking down its set. The catering crew got going on the cleanup. The last of the wedding guests were slowly melting into the darkness of the perfect fall evening, the air redolent of crisp leaves and ripe apples. There had been a bonfire at the lakeshore, but it had burned to glowing embers by now. Some of the visitors headed for the parking lot, while the out-of-towners wended their way to the storybook pretty lakefront bungalows of the Camp Kioga, which through the years had been transformed from a family camp to a kids' camp to its present iteration, a gathering place for celebrating life's events. A good number of the guests were, like Sonnet, pleasantly tipsy.
A bright moon peeked over the dark hills surrounding Willow Lake, throwing silvery shadows across the still water and trampled grass. Childish laughter streamed from somewhere close by, and three little kids chased each other between the banquet tables. In the low light, Sonnet couldn't tell whose kids they were, but their joyous abandon lifted her heart. She adored children; she always had. In a place deep down in the center of her, she felt a soft tug of yearning, but it was a yearning that would likely go unfulfilled for a very long time. Maybe forever. She had big plans for her future, but at the moment, those plans did not include settling down and having kids of her own.
In the first place, there was no one to settle down with. Unlike Daisy, who had found the love of her life and was going forward with clear-eyed certainty, Sonnet had no vision of who might be that person for her, that one adored man who would become her whole world. In all honesty, she wasn't a hundred percent sure such a person existed. There was nothing missing from her life, nothing at all. It wasn't as if she needed to add someone like the final piece of a puzzle.
Greg Bellamy, Sonnet's stepfather, came walking across the now-trampled lawn, heading for the gazebo to shell out extra tips for the band. As father of the bride, he was all smiles. Sonnet went over to him, teasingly holding out her hand, palm up. "Hey, where's the tip for the maid of honor?"
Greg chuckled, looking handsome but tired and slightly disheveled in his tux, the black silk bow tie undone and hanging on either side of his unbuttoned collar. "Here's a tip for you. Take a couple of aspirin before you go to bed tonight. It'll counteract those Jell-O shots you did at the reception."
"You saw that?" She grinned. "Whoops."
"It's okay. You've earned it, kiddo. Great job today. You looked like a million, and that toast you made at the reception hilarious. Everybody loved it. You're a born public speaker."
"Yeah? Aw, thanks. You're not so bad yourself, for an evil stepfather." Sonnet loved her mom's husband.
Through the years, he'd been a great mentor and friend to her. But he wasn't her dad. Sonnet's father, General Laurence Jeffries, played that role, although he had been virtually absent from her childhood, making a career for himself far from the bucolic charm of Avalon. When Sonnet went off to college at American University and then graduate school at Georgetown, however, she and Laurence had reconnected; she had dived into his world of public service and strategy and diplomacy, eagerly soaking up his knowledge and expertise.
She was the first to admit that hero worship made for a much more complicated relationship with Laurence than she had with Greg.
Nina came over to join them, her heeled pumps dangling from one hand. "What's this I hear about Jell-O shots? You were doing them without me?"
"Trust me," said Greg, "the champagne cocktails were a lot more fun."
"I trust you. And you were an amazing father of the bride," she said to Greg, smiling up at him.
"I cried like a baby girl." He offered a sheepish grin.
"We all did," Sonnet assured him. "Weddings seem to have that effect on people. Daisy's even more so, because of all the trouble she's had."
"Speaking of trouble, I need to go make sure we've settled up with everybody else," Greg said.
"I'll come with," Nina said. "You might need propping up when you see some of the final bills."
Greg slipped his arm around Nina. "In that case, how about we have one last glass of champagne together? For courage."
"Good plan." Nina helped herself to a couple of flutes from one of the tables. "Join us down by the lake?"
Sonnet found a half-empty bottle and poured herself a glass. "I think I'll stick around here and.. " She paused. After all was said and done, the maid of honor had no further duties. ".drink alone."
"Ah, baby." Her mom offered a soft smile. "Your time will come, just like I was saying before the wedding. No one can say where or when, but it'll happen."
"Gah, Mom." Sonnet grimaced. "I'm not mooning about my love life. That's the last thing on my mind."
"If you say so." Nina lifted her glass in salute.
"I say so. Go away." Sonnet made a shooing motion with her free hand. "Go drink with your husband. I'll see you in the morning, okay? I'm planning to be on the noon train to the city." She watched her mom and stepdad wander down the gentle slope toward the lake, their silhouettes dark against the moonlight.
They paused at the water's edge and stood facing the moonlit surface, Greg holding Nina protectively from behind, his hands folded over her midsection. Sonnet sighed, feeling a wave of gladness for her mom. Yet at the same time, the sight of them embracing made her heart ache. Sonnet tried to imagine herself in that role the bride. Would her own father walk her down the aisle, the tears flowing freely down his face? Doubtful. General Laurence Jeffries, now a candidate for the United States Senate, was more figurehead than father.
And when she pictured herself walking down the aisle, she couldn't form a mental image of the guy waiting at the end of it. She wasn't going to hold her breath waiting for him.
"I hate weddings." Zach Alger sidled over and slammed back a bottle of Utica Club. "I especially hate weddings that require me to behave myself."
Sonnet had spent most of the day sneaking glances at Zach, trying to accustom herself to this new version of her oldest friend. They hadn't had a chance to talk at the wedding; the evening had sped by with her still doing her duty as maid of honor. Now, mellow from drinking and dancing, she regarded him through squinted eyes. It was hard to get her head around the idea that he had been a part of her life since preschool. That, perhaps, was the only reason she didn't swoon sideways when he walked past, the way most women did. Still, it was hard to get used to his unique, striking looks so blond he was sometimes mistaken for an albino, and now built like a Greek athlete, yet oddly oblivious to his effect on the opposite sex.
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