CHAPTER 1 Ellen
Standing beside her daughter’s open grave, Ellen Foster dug her fingernails into her palms as the annoying sound of a kazoo wafted through the wintry, pine-scented air.
At a funeral.
Worse, the kazoo wasn’t playing anything remotely appropriate, like “The Lord Is My Shepherd” or “Amazing Grace,” but instead ABBA’s “Dancing Queen.”
Ellen tried to ignore the other mourners who were silently lip-synching the song as they swayed to the music. Safely hidden behind her large sunglasses, she closed her aching eyes for a long moment. It was all so tasteless. But then, everything Julie had planned for her own funeral was, so far, bizarre and uniquely tasteless. Julie would have loved it. She was always good at irking me. Frightfully so.
Ellen pressed her lips firmly together, holding back both a torrent of tears and the deep desire to shout a curse. She’d never uttered a curse in her entire life. Not once. But right now, it was all she could do to keep it inside. She was discovering that grief was a devious beast, a bitter mixture of loss and regret that ripped its way through her heart not once but over and over again, leaving her exposed and furious.
Two elderly women wearing Game of Thrones T-shirts under their open coats stepped up to Julie’s shiny black casket, which had been painted with outrageous red glitter flames along each side and signed with Julie’s familiar swooshing signature. With military precision, the women unfolded a huge dragon flag and draped it over the casket, nodding at the preacher as they rejoined the other mourners.
The purple dragon flag fluttered in the chilly January breeze, one heavily lashed eye seemingly locked on Ellen. The kazoo began playing once more, the lilting notes of “Macarena” drifting into the air.
Ellen cast a baleful gaze at the sky. That’s not funny, Julie. Not even a little.
The echo of Julie’s hearty, unchecked laugh rang through Ellen’s mind, so immediate and clear that for one glorious second, hope flared and she instinctively looked around, searching the small crowd for her daughter. The almost-instant realization that the laugh was just a memory was followed by bone-crushing disappointment. I’ll never hear that laugh again.
Chest aching, Ellen silently sucked in a deep, shaky breath. I don’t have time for this. I should be thinking about how I’m going to help Kristen. My granddaughter deserves a happy life, and I’m going to make sure she gets one.
To accomplish Project K, as Ellen had labeled it in her Louis Vuitton Noir Epi leather agenda just this morning, she had to accomplish three Action Items. Focus on the Action Items, she told herself as the preacher started tapping his toe to the kazoo’s hum. Kristen is all that matters.
Ellen closed her eyes and ignored everything going on around her.
Item One: Make it through the funeral without crying.
So far, so good, mainly thanks to the heavy cover provided by her sunglasses. All she had to do was fight her way through the next fifteen or so minutes, and she could move on.
Item Two: Fix up Julie’s house and put it on the market.
That would be a big one, as, from what Ellen could tell, Julie’s creaky old Queen Anne–style house hadn’t been updated since the ’70s. Worse, now that Julie had lived in it for the past ten years, every closet and corner was piled high with kitsch. All of it has to go.
That the house wasn’t in the best of shape and was stuffed with useless craft-quality items wasn’t a surprise. It was just one example in a long line of examples of Julie’s refusal to grow up. Not only had she become an artist rather than get a real job, but she’d also deliberately had a child without the benefit of either a father or a steady income. Poor Kristen. The opportunities she’s missed—I can’t bear to think about it.
Fortunately for her granddaughter, Ellen was ready and able to handle things from here on out, and the money made from the house sale would go straight into a college fund.
Which leaves Item Three: Get Kristen out of this backward town and to my home in Raleigh where she can begin living a normal, orderly life. Of all the Action Items, that one would be the trickiest. Ellen slanted a glance to her side where Kristen stood, loudly puffing out “Macarena” on her neon-green kazoo. Ellen tried not to gaze too long at the teenager’s purple-streaked hair or the small diamond that twinkled in her nose.
Don’t stare. Ellen jerked her gaze away from Kristen, away from the dragon flag–draped casket, and instead focused on the trees in the distance. Ellen had to proceed carefully where her granddaughter was concerned, as they barely knew one another thanks to Julie and her stubbornness. But with some time and effort, Ellen was convinced she and Kristen would grow closer and finally have the relationship they should have had all along.
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