Unforgettable

Unforgettable

A No Ordinary Family Novel - Book 1 is FREE!

After a tough beginning, single career woman, Jennifer Delaney, has life all figured out. A rocking career in finance, a great group of friends and singing with the community chorus fill her calendar and provide her with total satisfaction. Until the phone rings. Until an upbeat familiar voice from the past reawakens her heart and reminds her of what she’s been missing.

Playwright Doug Collins has never forgotten the girl he left behind. Even though it was Jennifer who’d made that final decision. “Go to New York and have a wonderful life,” she’d said before running back to her family, a family that still needed her. But that was five years ago. Five years of Jen in the back of his mind, nestled in his heart. Now memories are not enough! Doug packs up his car and heads to Boston in search of that “wonderful life.”

Most reunions have bumpy beginnings and not all end well. Jennifer and Doug have a lot to figure out. But they’re smart, honest, and were once madly in love. Do they have a chance at finding the ending they so richly deserve?

Chapter One

April—New York

Doug Collins paced the floor of his small apartment in New York City, his eyes drawn repeatedly to the pile of papers on his desk. Two hundred sheets, stacked neat and square, title page on top.

Stepping closer, he loomed over his work. Not the usual fare for a playwright, this novel--but it was finally complete. Finished. His fist came down hard on the manuscript. Finished? Then where was the satisfaction he longed for? Where was the closure? He stroked the top page in atonement and smiled ruefully. Closure? Not with that title:

 

STRAIGHT FROM THE HEART…

…a love story in search of an ending…

 

He and Jen. How could the story’s inspiration be anyone else?

Jennifer Grace Delaney. She was either his inspiration or his albatross. While students together at Boston University, she’d been the quiet girl in the back of the English class who’d captured his heart with her first essay--writing filled with pain, strength, and wrapped in love. Goosebumps had covered his skin as he’d read her words aloud to the class in a random exchange of student essays. They covered him now, as he recalled their honesty. But she’d hated that class. Said personal stories belonged in a private diary, not exposed to a bunch of strangers. She’d stick to numbers.

She’d loved him, too. Believed in him. They’d planned a future…at least he’d thought they had…but in the end, she wouldn’t leave her siblings.

His breath jerked at the memory. They could have had the perfect life: Wall Street for Jen; Broadway for him. Or rather off-off Broadway back then. Serious theater. He’d lined up a bartending job at night, too. He’d thought Jen was onboard.

But on the day after graduation, she’d met him in Boston Common with shadowed eyes and a forced smile.

“What’s wrong, Henny-Penny?”

Avoiding his gaze, she’d said, “I’m not good at beating around the bush, so I’ll just come out with it.” She’d finally looked at him. “I’ve taken the position with Fidelity here in Boston. I can’t leave my family. I can’t move to New York.”

He stared, frozen. “How could you make such an important decision without discussing it first—with me? We’re the two that count here.”

“I know,” she said softly, “but I couldn’t take the chance that you’d change my mind. I’m so torn inside. I want to go, but I just can’t leave Lisa to manage everything. The boys are a teenage handful and Emily…well, you know sweet Em. Still not the most confident kid on the block.”

Her generous heart. He loved her for it, but… “Sometimes, Jen, loyalty can go too far. Your big sister’s not alone. There are two adults in that house.”

Her mouth wobbled, and she reached for his hand. “Technically, yes. But Mike and Lisa…? I don’t know. Something’s not right between them. I can feel it. I’m uneasy. They leave notes for each other and don’t talk. Mike comes home late often, and I think he’s out with his team, hitting some clubs. He never used to do that. He and Lisa…”

She paused, and he saw her gasp for breath.

“…seem to be living two separate lives in one house. I don’t know what’s happened or what’s going to happen, and I-I just can’t leave my brothers and sisters now. They’re too young. They need me.”

Silence pulsed against his ears. “Have you spoken with Lisa directly?”

“I can’t,” she whispered. “Lisa’s so private. She thinks she’s protecting us. And really, their marriage isn’t my business. Mike’s been very good to me. To all of us.” She shrugged. “It’s just…he’s gone so often during the season, and now he’s gone at night in the off-season. All I know is that Lisa’s got too much on her plate.”

“All marriages have tough times. They’ll work it out.”

“Maybe so,” she admitted, “but I know what I see and feel. Threads are fraying--again. She rose from their bench and gazed into the distance. “The timing is wrong for us. But maybe we can find some weekends to visit. It’s a short flight, right?” She faced him again, her eyes welling. “Maybe when the kids are older, I’d feel better about leaving them. Please, Doug, please don’t argue with me.”

Damn! Was she just going to fold like that? She was twenty-two now, a college graduate. An adult.

“What about us, Jen? An occasional weekend is not a real life! You’re entitled to your freedom.”

Her chin had come up, the threat of tears gone, her violet eyes now almost sizzling black. “Am I really? After everything she’s given up for us--me and the little ones? I-I can’t leave her to cope alone. I’m the next oldest. I love them, and I…owe them!”

His blood ran hot, but his stomach knotted in cold fear. If he was going to lose this argument, he wouldn’t go down easy.

“Can’t leave them or won’t? Tell me, Jen, for how many years does the accident reverberate? For how many years is it allowed to control you? You’re the math genius, so what’s the answer?”

She froze for a moment, then cupped his cheek. “You already know the answer,” she whispered. “Deep inside…that place where truth lives.”

He flinched now as he recalled her words. His words. He’d used them on her after reading that essay, the one that had blown him away.

Now the tears ran down her cheek as she spoke. “I’m so sorry, Doug. I’m sorry for us both. But my family has to come first. The Delaney siblings either stick together or fall. That’s what I’ve learned. If we’d been separated back then, after the accident…well, we wouldn’t have survived, not as a family.” She kissed him quickly. “It won’t be forever. Maybe one day, you’ll be able to write again in Boston. We’ll talk on the phone. We’ll visit on weekends.”

He knew she was grasping for a thread of salvation, but he was, too. “I love you, Jen. Don’t disappear on me.”

Then she’d kissed him and run off, leaving him to stare in disbelief.

He rubbed his damp forehead as the image of a racing Jennifer, long hair flying, remained in his mind’s eye. The emotions remained, too. Love, disappointment, anger, frustration—he’d wanted to smash something. Writing a scene, he’d discovered, was a hell of a lot easier than living through one.

Patting the manuscript on his desk, he collapsed into the chair in front of the computer.

He’d called Jen every Sunday in the beginning. She flew down once, met a couple of his friends--other writers. He’d hoped to change her mind, convince her to take a chance in the Big Apple. “You could have stayed in Boston,” she’d countered. But that wasn’t true. Not with his hard-won residency with Playwrights’ House—an opportunity of a lifetime.

The visits became fewer, the phone calls less frequent. Busy careers. Busier lives. Both trying to make their marks.

But dammit! Five years in limbo was long enough!

He tapped the keyboard and composed an email to his friend, editor Steven Kantor. The man was doing him a favor by reading a manuscript not for publication. Steve wouldn’t earn a dime, even if he loved it. But maybe that’s what goosed the editor’s curiosity. He knew Doug’s plays—his emergence as a serious playwright—heck, the guys had been friends for five years, hitting New York at about the same time, both craving success and working non-stop.

“If you wrote it,” Steve had said, “it won’t be a time-waster. Just send it when you’re ready. Maybe I’ll learn something.”

A compliment like that couldn’t be bought. Doug gifted him with tickets to any Broadway show he wanted.

He skimmed the manuscript pages one more time. Then, attaching the electronic file to his email, he took a deep breath and hit Send.

It was time to let Jen go. Or find her again.

##

One month later—Boston

On a late Friday afternoon in May, Jennifer Delaney hung up the phone—hopefully the last call of the day—and walked to her office window, amazed, as always, at how lucky she’d been. A wonderful career, great friends…not to mention the stunning view of Boston Harbor.

The huge investment firm where she worked suited her to a T. Helping to manage funds and advising clients about risk soothed their money worries as well as her own. Sighing, she acknowledged how ridiculous that seemed now. Her checkbook, her personal investments were sound. She wondered why childhood scars were so hard to heal.

Losing loving parents at sixteen…unspeakable pain. But she’d survived. Her older sister and brother-in-law thought she’d thrived. Her younger siblings thought she was cool. Maybe she was! Regardless, they’d had each other’s backs from the beginning of those rough days and always would. She couldn’t imagine her life without them. Her life was good. Calm. Balanced. Like her checkbook. “Just the way I want it to be,” she murmured.

Her phone rang again. Shaking her head, she raced back to her desk. “Jennifer Delaney speaking.”

“How are you, Henny-Penny?”

That voice. The receiver slipped from her hand and hit the floor. That warm voice. That nickname. Once upon a time…

Retrieving the phone, she said, “I’m well. Doing very well, thanks. It’s been a long time…so, how’s New York?”

“New York was humming along the last I saw it. And that’s the thing, Jen. I’m back in Boston now, and I’d love to see you. Any chance you’re free tonight? The workday’s almost over.”

Back in Boston? Like forever or just a quick visit? Their parting might have been her decision years ago, but the pain afterward? She couldn’t go through that kind of heartache again, she decided. Better to bail quickly.

“Sorry, I’ve already got plans for tonight. But I hope you enjoy your visit.”

She disconnected and took a deep breath. She’d been polite, her voice steady. Good job. When the phone rang again, she glanced at the readout, took another—deeper—breath before answering. “Let’s blame a poor connection. I’ve got plans for tonight,” she repeated.

“How about tomorrow? Saturday.”

She gripped the receiver as though it were a life preserver. “Afraid not. I’m booked.”

“Is that right?”

“In fact, I’m looking at my calendar right now,” she said, with a quick glance at it, “and every day has something scheduled. I’m sorry, but I’ve really gotta go. As I said before, have a nice visit.”

Replacing the phone gently in the cradle, she shivered. A whole body shiver. She hadn’t lied. Her life was busy—and calm—just the way she liked it. She and Doug had simply drifted apart, following their own paths in their own worlds. At this point, she didn’t need any emotional upheavals. She studied her computer screen, and in minutes, she was once again Jennifer Delaney, happy career woman.

##

At five-thirty, Jen was surrounded by co-workers who’d become friends, all set to kick back and hit the clubs. That’s what twentysomethings did on a Friday night in Boston. And she loved a good time as much as anyone.

“I’m just about ready,” she said, smiling, as she logged out of her computer. They stood outside her office door—two guys and two gals—all trying to prove themselves, but still believing the theory about all work and no play. Her friends were certainly not dull. Not these bright, energetic, career-minded people. They were her friends for a reason!

She changed her high heels for flat sandals, grabbed her purse, rose and joined the others. “I’m hungry. Where are we eating?”

Alexis laughed, her brown eyes shining. “You mean we’re not sampling the freebies at every bar’s happy hour and saving on dinner?”

“Oh, geez. I’m not that bad, am I?” Jen protested.

Her friends simply stared. “When it comes to spending money, let’s just say—you’re frugal,” said Alexis.

She held up her hands. “Okay, okay…guilty as charged.”

“Not that we’re complaining,” chimed in Liz, with a chuckle. “Living in Beantown is expensive, and saving is a challenge.”

“Well, I’m conceding right now,” said Matthew. “Some of us need real food! Not just peanuts.”

“Then go home to your mama, and get a good meal,” said Liz, reaching up to pat him on the shoulder.

Everyone laughed as they piled into the elevator, but Jen sensed new vibes. Matt and Liz. The young woman’s gentle teasing, her tender touching was becoming a habit.

The elevator deposited them in the spacious marble lobby of the building, and the group headed toward the plate glass doors leading to the plaza outside.

“The days are getting longer and warmer,” said Matt, holding the door open for the others, “which means our playtime is longer, too.”

The chatter continued, but when Jen stepped outside, she heard nothing more, and saw nothing except the tall man with a hank of dark hair falling over his forehead, the man whom she’d once labeled skinny but wasn’t anymore, the man who’d once held her heart. Surprise held her frozen until a slow anger warmed her up.

She watched him, and by his stillness, identified the moment he spotted her. One second, two seconds. He waited, but made no move toward her, as though afraid she’d disappear.

Then came the smile, the smile that once had melted her heart. She used to run her fingers over his mouth, outlining his lips, kissing them. But that was then…

Her hands clenched into fists as he finally approached. She moved closer to her friends.

“Hang on a sec,” she whispered, her throat dry.

They halted instantly.

“What’s wrong, Jen?”

She couldn’t speak. Doug was only six feet from them now, filling her vision. And suddenly, he was there. Right in front of her.

“Hello, Jennifer Grace Delaney. I’ve missed you.”

No! Taller, bigger than in her memory. And his eyes, still so dark, darker than a moonless night is how she used to think of them. A kaleidoscope of remembrances hit her at once, and her initial anger ebbed, replaced by an eon of past loneliness and disappointment. And right now, fear. She wouldn’t survive a repetition of the past.

“Who is this guy?” Her four friends surrounded her.

She gulped some air, raised her chin. “Someone I used to know. An old college…uh…classmate.”

##

Her friends were astute. Their eyes focused on him, then Jen, their curiosity apparent. He didn’t care about her friends—what they saw, heard or thought. Only Jen was real. And more beautiful than in his dreams.

“An old classmate, huh?” he repeated. “That’s a funny way to describe what we had.” He focused on her face. “This guy,” he said, echoing her friend’s question, “is the man who can’t forget you.”

Her eyelids slammed shut, her mouth trembled before tightening. When she opened her eyes again, however, her gaze was steady. “It’s been years, Doug. As the saying goes, ‘that was then, this is now.’ Maybe you need to try harder to…ah…forget.”

“I’ve moved back, Jen.”

“No, no, you haven’t,” she countered, her surprise laced with confusion. Returning didn’t make sense at all. “Playwrights live in New York. We tried once, and it didn’t work. I’m sorry, Doug, but I’ve moved on. She turned toward her friends. “It’s time to leave. We’re all starving.”

Not yet. Not without him. He held out both hands, palms up. “Eight million people in New York,” he said, slightly bouncing his left hand. “And one Henny-Penny here.” He lifted his right arm high. “No contest.”

She shrugged. “You didn’t think so back then. You’re very good with words, images and make-believe. While I, in case you’ve forgotten, deal with real people.”

“I know.”

She stepped toward him, her purse falling to the ground, her friends closing ranks behind her. “Real people, Collins, like the Delaney family. Not your ordinary kind of family. Just a bunch of kids trying to survive.”

Good. Talk to me. Keep on talking. Communication is everything.

Before he could say a word, she turned to her friends again. A girl handed her the purse. “Sorry for the drama,” Jen said. “It’s the way he makes his living. He’s good at it.”

“Him? What about you?” a guy said. “A new side of the mysterious Jennifer Delaney.”

So, he’d gotten to her, past her defenses. He wanted to cheer. The men were merely co-workers. If they thought of her as mysterious, she’d kept her private life private. Which meant no boyfriends. Regardless of what she’d said earlier, she hadn’t moved on.

Which gave him hope.

Now all he needed was a little chutzpah to make his next move and be accepted by Jen’s friends. “I remember a great club near here,” he said, deliberately placing himself in the middle of the group. “Lots of eats, lots of music, and a karaoke bar.”

Jen had turned away, but he saw her stiffen. Tapping her on the shoulder, he said, “You know we’ll have fun. At least a song or two. Come on, Jen…I dare you.”

##

Dare her? Like in the old days, except those were happy times with music and a microphone. Right now, she wanted the privacy of her own apartment. She needed to regain her equilibrium, to brace herself for whatever came next. But if she left, Doug would accuse her of running away. Again.

Pasting a smile on her face, Jen said, “All that goofing around in college? Nah. I don’t do that anymore.”

She threw a speaking glance at her girlfriends. They loved to kick back at the sing-along karaoke bars. Jen had the real voice, but they all had fun. Now, however, she knew her pals would cover for her.

“Then prove it,” said Doug.

“What?”

He was shaking his head. “You always enjoyed being on a cozy stage. I can’t believe you’ve changed that much. And you’re good! Let’s go to a club, Jen. For old times’ sake. After all, I am new in town….”

“Oh, pu-leeze,” she shot back. “You know this city like a native.”

“It’s been a few years.”

She turned to the others. “I’m sorry about all this. Do you mind if we skip the pubs and go right to Maguire’s? Real food for the starving plus live music, and then I’ll go home. I’ve got an early choir rehearsal tomorrow anyway.”

“I don’t like this situation,” said Evan, a quiet type who missed nothing. “Just say the word, Jen, and we’ll get rid of…”

Oh, no! She patted the man’s arm. “I’m fine, Evan. Really. He’s not dangerous, except with a pen!” She smiled at him. “But thanks.”

Five years building a life, and in five minutes, Doug Collins could tear it down. She couldn’t chance another disappointment. Why had he come back after all this time? Glancing at her watch, she sighed. One hour or so was all she’d have to endure.

##

The Irish bar was filling up, but they managed to get a booth for six immediately. Jen sighed again, happy with their good luck, happy to keep to her one-hour plan.

Almost as immediately, Doug seemed comfortable with the group and made her friends feel comfortable with him. Not surprising. He had always been the proverbial “people person.” She’d credit his many psychology courses.

Evan’s quiet voice, however, managed to interrupt the general conversation about the menu and music. “So, Collins, what brings you back to Boston?”

A curious silence descended, and for the first time, Doug seemed to search for words. Jen’s ears perked up.

“Let’s say,” he began slowly, “a couple of new projects and one item of unfinished business. Very important unfinished business.” From diagonally across the table, he shifted toward Jen, his eyes capturing hers.

She sat straighter. “If you mean me, you’re mistaken,” she said, leaning forward, arms on the table. “Our ‘business,’ as you call it, is over. Nothing personal—though I guess you’d think it was—but I’m not looking for a relationship with you or anyone else. Just not my thing.” Not anymore.

The quality of the following silence morphed from curious to deafening. She realized that in all her years with the company, she’d revealed more about herself just then than ever before. And now to prevent speculation—and gossip—she’d have to explain.

She glanced around the table, finding sympathy laced with curiosity in her friends’ expressions. Okay. She could handle that. Her message, however, was meant for Doug. She returned her gaze to him.

“In my world,” she began, “people leave. First my parents—and you have no idea what that was like—and then you, and I wasn’t sure about Mike and Lisa staying together either. I know you have to accept what’s out of your control, like a car accident on an icy road. But I’m not going to volunteer for more heartache and grief. My life is great as it is. Your being in Boston is totally immaterial to me.”

“Then it seems,” he said softly, “that I have a lot of work to do.”

The waitress approached, and conversation turned to food and drink. “Just a cup of chicken soup,” said Jen. “I’ve lost my appetite.”

“Maybe him tagging along wasn’t a good idea,” said Evan, nodding toward Doug. “You’ve managed to upset Jen, who’s a very cool woman. So, let’s get the whole picture. Why else are you here? What kind of projects?”

Jen looked at her co-worker. Who would have thought that this quiet guy would speak up now? Still waters….?

Doug shifted in his seat. His gaze swept both sides of the booth. “I’m a writer. I worked hard and got lucky, too. I have a new play, and its debut will be here with the Commonwealth Regional Theater company. And that’s as far as I’m thinking.”

Jen heard nothing after Commonwealth. Her choir, The All-City Chorus, rehearsed at that theater twice a week, and she’d be there in the morning. “‘Of all the gin joints…’” she murmured.

She’d never doubted his talent, and she’d been right. His very first play had been staged in college. A rare honor. He’d been thrilled, of course, but shy about it. He used to say that writers were too insecure to brag. And now, he’d been modest in front of her friends. It seemed he’d been totally focused on his craft while living in New York.

“Congratulations,” she offered. “Sounds like you’ll be busy with rehearsals and whatever—for a little while, and after a successful run here, poof! Back to Broadway. Works well for me.”

“Writing your own script, Jen?” Doug’s eyes gleamed. “Sorry to disappoint. I didn’t renew the lease on my New York apartment because….I’m also this year’s playwright-in-residence at our alma mater. If The Sanctuary goes to Broadway, I’ll commute.”

She needed air.

“I’m back, Jen. And tomorrow I’m hunting for new digs. I can’t stay with my sister indefinitely. Any suggestions?” His glance traveled from Jen to the others, and she sighed in relief at the change of topic. An objective, neutral topic. Boston sported a dozen or more neighborhoods attractive to singles.

“It really depends on your budget,” said Liz. “In this town, a one-bedroom can run anywhere from sixteen hundred to double that a month.”

“I’d like to be close to the theater, if possible.”

“Then that would be downtown,” said Evan slowly. “A great choice.”

Could the night get any worse? First the theater, now Jen’s neighborhood—a walking neighborhood where she could run into him at any time. “I doubt he can afford it.”

In unison, all eyes turned toward first toward her, then toward Doug.

“She’s got a point, man,” said Even. “But there are other great locations.”

“There sure are,” said Jen calmly now. “Many good areas. You don’t need to be downtown.”

Doug’s eyes narrowed. “Any particular reason, Henny-Penny?”

Liz coughed and hid her mouth. Matt looked away. Not a shred of acting material in them.

“No reason at all.” Jen waved her arm in dismissal. “Search the whole city. Means nothing to me if you go into debt.” Deflection might work.

“For crying out loud, I might have known,” said Doug with a sigh. “The starving playwright thing…. Well, I’m not quite there, and you don’t have to worry I’ll be asking for a loan. I do know how to budget.” He chuckled and looked around the table, making eye contact with each person for a moment. “Although I seem to be in a minority among the financial whizzes here.”

Everyone laughed. “Financial whizzes believe in budgets, too,” said Liz.

“Who knows?” Doug said. “One day soon, I might be asking for advice.”

And that’s when Jen knew that Doug had turned her friends into his friends, too.

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