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Every Time We Fall in Love 19


  That was when Molly started laughing. "You guys are the best."

  "I'm assuming by best you mean dysfunctional screw-ups?" Drake said in a dry voice that had everyone else joining in with laughter.

  "You're family," Molly said, her words serious now. "Through thick and thin. Good and bad. I always wanted Amelia to have what you do, even though it was just me. Knowing she has all of you too--it's the best feeling in the world."

  "You have us too," Suzanne said. "We're going to be there for you from now on." She gave Molly a crooked grin. "Even during those times when you wish we would just get out of your business already."

  "Family is all I've ever wished for." There were tears in Molly's eyes as she turned to Alec and said with a smile, "Okay, I'm good now."

  Though he grinned back, his eyes looked suspiciously bright as he raised his glass in a toast. "To you and Amelia and Harry."

  And as the eight of them clinked glasses, it truly was the best birthday of Molly's life, a thousand times over.

  CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

  At six thirty, after settling Aldwin on his big pillow in the corner of the living room with a chew toy Drake and Rosa had brought for him, the eight of them arrived at Amelia's school. So many phones were pulled out for pictures of them that it felt more like a movie premiere than a local high school musical.

  "I'm really sorry about this," Molly said as she tried to usher them inside to their seats. "I'm afraid our little community hasn't seen this much excitement in, well, ever."

  "I just hope they got my good side," Alec joked.

  Rosa put her hand on Molly's shoulder. Though the rest of Harry's family was successful and well known in their fields, it was clear that Rosa was the main focus due to her notoriety from her years in reality TV. "Don't worry," she said. "We're all fine. I'm sure everyone here is really nice."

  "They are," Molly said. "Once they meet you, they'll be less star struck. At least, I hope so."

  Suzanne laughed. "This is nothing. You should see what happens when our cousin Smith tries to go somewhere. It's insane. No wonder he and his wife, Valentina, honeymooned deep in the Maine woods. Our cousin Cassie has a place there."

  Harry couldn't wait to introduce Amelia to the Sullivan crew in Maine, and San Francisco, and Seattle, and London--they had family pretty much everywhere, actually.

  "You're here!" Amelia ran down the aisle, grinning madly.

  Everyone moved in for a hug, telling her how great she looked in her costume and braids and how they couldn't wait to see her shine on stage.

  "Is Grandpa here yet?" She craned her neck.

  "Not yet," Harry said. "He texted and said he's about five minutes out."

  Though Harry's siblings had told him everything was fine with their father, he still couldn't keep from worrying. Not after all the difficult years that had come before this one.

  "Oh good," Amelia said. "I can't wait for you to guys to see our sur--" She clapped her hands over her mouth. "Actually, I've got to go backstage now. Hope you guys all love the show!"

  She blew them kisses, then ran back up the aisle, all long legs, flying braids, and effervescence.

  "Your daughter is the coolest," Suzanne said, then looked at Roman. "I want one just like her."

  "You took the words right out of my mouth," he replied, then kissed her.

  Harry shot a look at Alec to see how he was taking the open show of affection between their sister and their friend. Amazingly, his brother seemed more relaxed about it than usual. Granted, that might be only because Cordelia was distracting him by whispering something in his ear. Among her many gifts, Alec's wife had a knack for knowing exactly when to step in with her often bullheaded husband. They really were a great fit.

  Just the way Harry knew he and Molly were.

  "Traffic was a nightmare!"

  Harry looked up to see his father coming toward them, looking harried--but not like he was about to lose it.

  "Dad." Harry and Molly both stood up. "I'd like you to meet Molly Connal."

  Harry had had more than his fair share of surprises in his life. But none bigger than seeing his father give Molly a big bear hug.

  "It's an honor to finally meet you." William put his hands on her shoulders and held her at arms' length. "The picture was good, but it didn't do you justice."

  "It's wonderful to finally meet you too." Molly paused. "What picture would that be?"

  William laughed, the sound slightly off--or maybe it just sounded that way because Harry was looking for any sign that he might fall apart.

  "Just something Amelia posted," William said. "And I have to tell you, she is an absolute joy. Thank you for giving me the best granddaughter in the world. We couldn't have asked for her to have a better mother than you."

  "Thank you for saying that," Molly said, obviously choked up. "And thank you for welcoming her into your family so wholeheartedly."

  Were it not for the fact that hundreds of strangers were craning their necks to listen in on the conversation, Harry wouldn't have interrupted the beautiful moment. But the last thing either Molly or his father would want was to share their private drama with the entire world. Lord knew, their family had done more than enough of that over the years.

  "Dad," he said, "come sit down. The show is about to start."

  As the lights went down, Harry thought William smelled faintly of turpentine, which was strange considering his father rarely painted the houses he worked on with oil paint, preferring to use water based. But before he could ask his dad about it, the first strains of the overture began to sound through the auditorium.

  Harry was a fan of Rodgers and Hammerstein's musicals, but he'd always found it difficult to enjoy The Sound of Music. It wasn't that he questioned the excellence of the music or the script. It was simply that the story was so close to his own. Too close, with a widowed father who no longer knew how to connect with his children.

  As a child, though Harry had known better than to dream of a nanny appearing who would make everything better, he couldn't help but hope for the impossible. When it didn't happen, every time the movie came on TV over the years, the ache inside his chest, the knowledge that there were no magic answers to their problems, had him switching the channel.

  This week, as he'd worked on the sets during Amelia's dress rehearsals, he'd been able to keep his personal feelings about the story separated from his pride in Amelia's performance. But tonight, the barriers that he'd always put up to protect himself were nowhere to be found.

  Especially with his father and siblings here with him tonight.

  Harry turned his gaze to his father, who was utterly rapt as Amelia sang and danced on stage. If someone had told him even one year ago that his father would be here tonight looking remarkably secure, instead of enduring one of his annual breakdowns--that all of them would be here together with their partners, moving happily forward rather than remaining stuck in the past...

  Harry wouldn't have believed it could be possible.

  Any yet, here they were. More close-knit, more connected than ever before.

  He squeezed Molly's hand tightly, finally understanding just how powerful love really was.

  And as he looked over at his father again, Harry couldn't help but hope that one day, love would finally be enough to heal William too.

  *

  "Amelia was amazing!"

  Suzanne wasn't the only one gushing over Amelia's performance. Alec had been so impressed that he'd already sent a video clip to Smith, just in case their cousin had any female teenage roles to cast in the future.

  Harry wasn't sure how he felt about his daughter being a part of Hollywood, which could be so harsh. He'd support her no matter what, of course, if that was what she wanted to do. Still, he couldn't help but hope that his and Molly's passion for history--and the careers they'd built from it--would end up being more enticing to their daughter than the lure of the spotlight.

  The house lights went up for the third curtain call, and
the teens did their final bows. But just when it looked as though the audience members were about to leave their seats to congratulate the kids on their performances, the director handed the microphone to Amelia.

  "Thank you again to everyone who came to our show tonight," she said, glowing from the thrill of having put on a great show. "Grandpa, are you out there?"

  "I'm here," William called back.

  "Come on up. It's time for our surprise."

  Harry looked at Molly. What surprise? she mouthed, exactly echoing his own thoughts.

  Strangely, however, none of his siblings seemed to be asking what was going on.

  What did they know that he didn't? They'd promised to look after their father this week, but could William have fooled them into thinking he was doing better than he actually was?

  "My grandpa is a really famous painter," Amelia said to the audience as Harry's father made his way up the aisle to the stage. "Some of you might have heard of him--his name is William Sullivan."

  Gasps came from the crowd, and phones went up yet again as people were compelled to film more footage of the Sullivans.

  "He hasn't painted anything for a long time," she continued, "but we both wanted my mom to have an extra special birthday present this year." William walked up the steps and went to stand beside Amelia. "Do you want to say anything, Grandpa?"

  He grinned at her, his voice echoing out into the audience though he didn't use the microphone. "I think you've said it all quite eloquently, thank you." Then he turned to the audience. "Happy birthday, Molly. We hope you like your gift."

  Something covered in dark velvet was being wheeled out from the side of the stage. Carefully, Amelia and Harry lifted the fabric. The gasps from the people sitting around them became excited chatter.

  William had painted Amelia, Molly, and Harry together.

  In the back of Harry's mind, he realized the picture his father had painted must have been from the one Amelia had taken of the three of them in the kitchen that first night he'd come to stay at their cottage.

  Molly gripped Harry's hand. "Did you know he was going to do this?"

  "No." Harry could barely believe his eyes. "I had no idea."

  No wonder William had smelled like turpentine. It wasn't because he was painting a house. It was because he was painting a canvas. His first in more than thirty years.

  "He painted." Harry realized Alec, Suzanne, and Drake were all staring at him and smiling as he whispered it again. "He painted."

  CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

  "Did you guys like the show?" Amelia was standing arm in arm with her grandfather backstage. "And what about the painting?"

  "The painting is incredible, William. Thank you." Molly gave him a hug, then pulled Amelia into her arms. "And you, my love, were amazing."

  "You really were, sweetheart." Harry hugged his daughter tight. "I've never been so proud in all my life."

  "Thanks." After everyone else congratulated her, she said, "There's a big cast party at the Bonnie Castle Resort. Can you guys come?"

  "We wouldn't miss it," Drake said.

  Molly squeezed Harry's hand. "I'm sure your father would like some help getting the painting safely home. Why don't the rest of us go on ahead and leave you two to come to the party once you're done?"

  Harry was grateful that she not only understood just how big a deal it was for his father to have done the painting, to say nothing of unveiling it in such a public way, but also that after so many years of spending this night with his father in far less happy circumstances, Harry and William needed some time alone.

  "Thank you." He gently touched her cheek. "Don't think I've forgotten it's still your birthday. I promise I haven't."

  She kissed him, then left with her arm around Amelia, their heads bent together as they talked and laughed.

  "How about we take your painting back to the cottage?" Harry said to his father.

  Together, they loaded the large frame into the back of Harry's car. The worth of any of William Sullivan's paintings was staggering, with several having been valued into the millions. But his first new painting in thirty years? A painting no one had thought would ever come to be?

  The dollar figure would be astronomical. If art collectors knew it had been sitting backstage in a high school auditorium for two hours, they would lose their minds.

  But for Harry, the value of his father's painting had nothing at all to do with money.

  The two men drove the handful of blocks to the cottage in silence. "Why don't you get Aldwin?" Harry suggested. "We don't want him to jump on the painting. I don't think I'll have any problem carrying it into the cottage on my own."

  "Don't worry, Aldwin," William said when he greeted the rambunctious dog at the front door. "I won't leave you out of the next one."

  The next painting?

  Though his father had already done the world's most unexpected thing by creating the painting in Harry's hands, he still found it hard to believe that William had truly turned a corner.

  Until he and Molly decided where to hang the painting, Harry realized there was only one place he could be sure it would be safe from Aldwin's big paws and curious muzzle: on top of the dresser in the guest bedroom. The bedroom where Harry had spent only one night, because he'd spent all the rest with Molly.

  Though Harry propped the painting in front of the mirror, he still saw himself staring back. And amazingly, though it should have been less accurate than real life, instead it somehow seemed more true.

  His father had managed to capture the full range of Harry's feelings in the moment Amelia had taken the picture in the kitchen. Pride, happiness, hope--but also some confusion and frustration. Beside Harry, Amelia was pure light. As for how his father had portrayed Molly, with her arm slung over their daughter's shoulder and a smile on her face?

  Just as she had always been, Molly was pure love.

  "I never thought you'd paint again, Dad."

  Harry had heard his father walk into the room, mostly because Aldwin came skidding in behind him. They'd never had this talk before, but just as he and Molly had laid everything out on the table with each other, now it was time to do the same with his father. Even if it had always felt easier not to talk openly about this, the truth was that none of them had benefited from that. Not at all.

  After a few moments of silence, his father replied, "I didn't think I would either."

  "It's Amelia, isn't it? She broke the cu--"

  Harry had been about to say curse. But their mother's death--and their father's long decades of grief--hadn't come about because of some evil witch's spell. Lynn Sullivan had never been able to cope with her life, even before she became a wife and mother. Unfortunately, rather than seek a therapist's or doctor's help, she'd decided that it was easier to leave them all behind.

  "The first time I set eyes on Amelia," his father said, "and knew that she was my granddaughter, something sparked to life inside of me. Something I hadn't felt since your mother was still alive. But that isn't the full reason why I suddenly had to paint again." William paused. "You are."

  "Me?"

  "Yes, and Molly too."

  "But you only just met her tonight."

  "I knew about her, though. Back when you were dating in college. I knew she was special to you. I knew you were in love with her. We all knew that." Suddenly, William looked bleak. "And I also know that I'm the reason you didn't stay together."

  "Dad--"

  "No, listen. Please. This is something I should have owned up to, and apologized for, a long time ago. I can never undo the damage I did to your life all those years ago--how every time I fell apart, I knew you would be there to put me back together, even if I tore your life to shreds as well as my own. But I hope you will accept this gift, at least. Not just the painting, but the fact that I'm taking care of myself for once. Not leaning on you, or your brothers or sister either. The anniversary of your mother's death will always be a difficult day, but I've made a promise to myself that I will
make it through to tomorrow without self-pity or alcohol. From here on out, I want to celebrate the present, and the future, instead of continuing to mourn the past." His father paused, his expression raw with guilt, with anguish. "But just because I'm making these proclamations doesn't mean I expect you to forgive me. Not when I stole fifteen years from you and Molly. From Amelia. From everyone."

  Harry didn't think. He simply put his arms around his dad. It wasn't rare for William to break down sobbing on this day every year...but this time his breakdown had nothing to do with losing his wife.

  "Tonight," Harry said, "you and Amelia proved to all of us that we don't have to do this anymore. We don't have to keep blaming ourselves, or anyone else, for what happened in the past. We don't have to feel guilty anymore. We don't have to keep hurting ourselves or each other. You're absolutely right: It's time to let go of the past, and celebrate the present, and the future." He smiled at his father. "I love you, Dad. That's all that matters, both then and now."

  "I love you too, son. More than I've ever been able to show. Although I swear to you that I'm going to get better at it. I promise you that."

  Both men wiped away tears, then turned back to the painting. "Your work is brilliant, Dad. Once news gets out that you're painting again--which it must be already, given how many phone cameras were flashing during its grand unveiling--you're going to be inundated with requests from galleries."

  "Actually, I've already chosen a gallery for a show of new work. If I can manage to create enough work to justify a show, that is."

  "I remember how much you loved working in your studio when I was little. I have a feeling you're going to love it even more now and be even more prolific while you're at it." Earlier that year, his father had taken the huge step of allowing his previously unseen work to be shown at a festival in Summer Lake. But creating and showing new work was his father's fresh start--and Harry was one hundred percent confident that William Sullivan was going to prove to the world that he was an even better painter the second time around. "Where's the gallery located?"

  "Here."

  "In Alexandria Bay?" Harry couldn't have been more surprised.

  "Yes. I'm going to open my own gallery. Both for my work--and to support local artists." His father was clearly relishing the fact that Harry couldn't keep his mouth from falling open at the news. "I want to focus on my family from here on out, rather than hiding away from all of you the way I have for so long. And since Amelia will be going to college in a few years, I want to spend as much time with her as I can before she leaves home. Moving here makes perfect sense. Especially as I'm sure your brothers and sister will want to have plenty of time with her too. We can still go to the lake for weekends in the summer, but if Alexandria Bay is going to be the hub for most of our family get-togethers, I don't want to miss any of them." His father paused, looking slightly uncertain. "How does that sound to you?"