It's been two years since Ali Beckett's husband passed away. Still grieving, she needs to get away from the noisy city and the condescending eyes of her acquaintances. Together with his 5-year-old son, Wyatt Ali, he decides to return to the small family cottage at Butternut Lake. There she spent her carefree childhood years and hopes to find solitude and start her life over.
Shortly after she arrives, she begins to question whether she made a mistake in tearing her son away from his familiar surroundings and bringing him to this remote and lonely place.
But the very next day, Ali meets Caroline again, the friendly owner of the local Pearl Cafe, famous for the best apple pie in town. The same as he remembered it from years ago. Caroline has her worries - she's sent her only daughter to college, she doesn't have a man by her side, and she's lonely.
Ally's childhood friend, Jax, also still lives in Butternut, happily married with three children and a fourth on the way. However, her life only seems perfect on the surface. Jax harbors a painful secret that he has jealously guarded for years.
What Ali didn't expect to find in this beautiful place was a new house near her previously secluded cottage. The mysterious and unsociable new neighbor Walker Ford makes an unpleasant impression on her from the start with his arrogant demeanor. His wife has left him, but no one in the town knows why. And he seems to be interested in his beautiful neighbor…
Starting over is never easy. Ali must open her heart and accept his hidden longings, shake off the loss and face her fears. To embrace life in all its excitement and unpredictability.
"Returning to Butternut Lake" is the first in a series of independent novels set in a small town.
About the author
Mary McNear lives in San Francisco with her husband, two children, and her grumpy little white puppy named Cookie. Mary writes her novels at the local donut shop, where she drinks Diet Pepsi, observes the hustle and bustle of the neighborhood, and tries to resist the constant temptation of fresh donuts. Summers spent in a small lakeside town inspired her to choose Butternut as the setting for her novels.
“Come on, sleepyhead, wake up,” Ali said, reaching into the back seat of the car and gently shaking her five-year-old son, Wyatt. - We have arrived. We are in front of the villa. Wyatt stirred but didn't wake up. Ali didn't blame him. It was a long day. It had been a long week, she corrected herself. And if he counted the days, it had been two long years. But he tried, whenever possible, not to count them. It wouldn't make time pass faster, nor would it make the loss any more bearable. She sighed slowly and resisted the urge to put her head on the wheel. She was exhausted and it occurred to her that they might sleep in the car. God is their witness that they were tired enough. However, Ali immediately rejected this thought. It was supposed to be a new beginning. For both. It wouldn't be nice to wake up in the car tomorrow morning with crumpled clothes and stiff limbs. They would spend the night in the villa, which would henceforth be their home. The only problem is that the cottage doesn't look much like a home, Ali thought as she surveyed it in the headlights. And that was putting it mildly.
A few tiles had fallen from the roof. In front of the porch there was knee-deep grass. And the porch itself had tilted menacingly to one side. But still hang in there, Ali told herself. And that was something, wasn't it? It had been over ten years since she last saw the cottage. He supposed she might have disappeared, swallowed up by the surrounding forest. But that, of course, hadn't happened. This was not a fairy tale, but real life. Ali knew it very well. She had learned it the hard way. She turned off the car's headlights and the villa fell into darkness.
Ali unconsciously shuddered. She had lived in a gated suburb for the past few years and had forgotten how dark the dark could be. Maybe he should have kept driving. If memory serves, there was a motel on Highway 169. They would be there in about fifteen minutes. And then what? They would be here again tomorrow morning. And the cottage wouldn't look any better in daylight. In fact, it probably would have looked worse.
– Mom? Wyatt's voice interrupted her thoughts.
– Have we arrived?
– Yes, we have arrived, Ali replied, trying hard to pretend to be cheerful, turned and smiled at her son.
– We are in front of the villa.
– The cottage? Wyatt asked, trying to get out of the highchair.
– That's right. I'll show it to you. Ali took the flashlight out of the glove compartment and lit it. As soon as he got out of the car, however, he saw that the flashlight could not cope with the darkness of the night. Its weak beam barely cut through the darkness. Ali looked up at the sky. There was no moon, no stars. She shuddered again and tried to ignore the feeling that the darkness was palpable, as if some weight was pressing down on her. Even the air was as thick as cotton. Ali opened the back door of the car, unbuckled Wyatt's seat belt and lifted him out of the child seat. Put it on your hip and point the flashlight at the villa.
– Here she is – he said. She hoped her voice sounded encouraging. Especially since she needed encouragement herself. Wyatt frowned.
“I can't see her,” he whispered. – It's very dark.
– It's dark, Ali agreed and her heart sank even more, but she controlled herself. “Stop it. Is that what you wanted? Silence. Peace of mind. Loneliness. And now you're nervous about a little darkness. She pulled out the large canvas bag she had placed on the back seat next to Wyatt. She had filled it with everything they might need on their first night here. He would unload the remaining luggage tomorrow. Right now, the most important thing was getting Wyatt inside and putting him to bed. Poor kid, Ali thought, closing the car door and walking down the grassy flagstone path to the front porch.
She had woken him up at dawn when the movers had come to take the belongings from their home into storage, and except for a few rest stops, he had spent the entire afternoon and evening in the car. Wyatt hadn't complained, though. He rarely did that anymore. And that worried Ali. After all, whining was one of the God-given rights of young children. She stepped cautiously onto the steps in front of the house, testing their strength. They lasted. As well as the crooked and slanted porch. Ali dug the front door key out of the duffel bag and unlocked the rusty lock. As he opened the door, he prayed to himself - God, I hope there aren't three generations of raccoons living here now. But when she turned on the lamp, the cottage looked the same as she had last seen it. She was relieved. Wyatt didn't like what he saw, though. He looked around quickly and buried his face in her neck.
– Hey, what's up? Ali asked, taking him inside with the canvas bag and locking the door. The child refused to raise its head and buried it further into her neck. Ali frowned and looked around the living room. She found it nice, even cozy. There was a layer of dust on the furniture and a few cobwebs in the corners and it was stuffy after not being opened for so long, but for the most part it had stood the test of time remarkably well. There was nothing a little more scrubbing couldn't fix.
Still, she tried to see things through Wyatt's eyes. After all, he had lived his entire life in a three-bedroom ranch furnished with all modern conveniences. By his standards, the cottage looked not only provincial but downright primitive. But scary? Hardly.
– Wyatt – Ali said quietly. "What's up, honey?" I know it's not like our old house, but it's nice here. It's just a little dusty, that's all. And the furniture is old. But you and I will make it right.
The boy shook his head violently and whispered something Ali didn't understand.
– What did you say? she asked, bringing her right ear to his mouth.
“I said he was watching us,” Wyatt replied. Ali felt her body involuntarily stiffen.
– Who's watching us? she asked nervously. He thought of the movie with the boy who sees the dead, but Wyatt had not shown such a gift. At least Ali knew no such thing. She fought back a slight shiver of fear.
– Wyatt, who's watching us? – he repeated, but the child only shook his head and wrapped his arms even tighter around her. She made an effort to remain calm. We are alone here, he told himself. In more ways than one. He looked around the living room again. And this time her eyes almost immediately fell on the antlered stag's head hanging above the fireplace. Of course, she thought, and sighed, shuddering. Wyatt had never seen anything like this and it was normal to be scared.
– Wyatt, did the deer head over the fireplace scare you? she asked and he nodded but didn't look up.
– Oh dear, don't be afraid. Ali pressed him to her. – The deer is not real. I mean he was real but he's not alive anymore. My grandfather, your great-grandfather, brought it from a hunting expedition, she explained. "The head was hanging there before you were born." Before I was born. I didn't notice her when I was little. Probably because I was used to her. But I understand why it might scare you a little.
Unlike her, of course, Wyatt had not grown up in a family of hunters and fishermen. His contact with nature was limited to the fireflies and frogs he caught in their backyard on the outskirts of Minneapolis. With a little effort, Wyatt raised his head and took a quick look at the deer's head, but closed his eyes again and buried his face in his mother's neck. Ali tried another tactic.
“Wyatt, this is a stuffed animal,” she explained. - Only bigger. You have nothing to fear. I promise you. It won't hurt you. The child cupped her right ear and whispered, – But he is looking at us. Ali looked at the stag's head again. Maybe it was the angle at which he was looking at her, or an illusion of the light, but the head really seemed to be looking at them. She sighed. It was a difficulty she hadn't expected. He felt a slight irritation. Not to Wyatt, but to the man who had stuffed the deer's head. Did he have to make her look so real…and fierce? The deer didn't seem at all pleased to be hanging there. In fact, he looked downright angry. There was no doubt about it. He had to get it off the wall.
– Wyatt, I'm going to get him off the fireplace tomorrow, she announced decisively. – But until then, don't look at him that much.
The child raised his head again and looked at her uncertainly.
– I will try. But, mother, where is the rest of it? Wyatt whispered, glancing furtively at the deer's head. – It's just the head.
Ali suddenly felt exhausted. "The rest of the body… isn't here," she replied, choosing to skip the gory details. - And from tomorrow the head will not be here either. Wyatt nodded, obviously pleased. At least for now. And he snuggled into her arms again. Ali felt compassion for his son. She had taken him away from everything he knew-home, relatives, and friends. And all she could offer him in return was this creaky old cottage. She looked at the deer's head again and tried to push the negative thoughts out of her mind. Perhaps she had made a mistake in coming here. But that didn't change the fact that he had to put Wyatt to sleep. And the sooner the better. He looked around for something to encourage him. Something that would help him understand at least a little bit of what she had loved about this place when she was little. She chose the leather couch in the living room. It was old and worn with age, but Ali knew from experience that it was pleasantly soft to the touch. She walked over to the couch, placed Wyatt there and sat next to him.
– This couch was my favorite place to read when I was little, Ali said and stroked her son's hand. – Especially on rainy days.
Wyatt frowned. A thin wrinkle cut across his lovely forehead.
– I can't read – he reminded her.
“I know,” she replied, ruffling his hair. "But you'll learn." In the fall, you will start kindergarten.
The boy shook his head and said sadly:
– There are no kindergartens here.
– Of course there is – Ali smiled. – There are kindergartens everywhere.
The Wyatt looked at her with pity, as if he thought his mother had lost her mind.
– There's nothing here but trees, he said, twisting his body and looking through one of the many windows of the villa. Ali resisted the urge to smile.
– It is true. There are many trees here. And you are right that there are no kindergartens in these woods. She pulled him into her arms and kissed his hair.- But there is a kindergarten in Butternut. I already told you about the Butternut. This is the town after which the lake is named. It's only about fifteen minutes away by car. We'll go there tomorrow morning and I'll take you to the Pearl, the little cafe. And if it's still working, I'll order you the best blueberry pancakes this side of the Mississippi. What do you say?
Wyatt didn't answer. He just sighed tiredly.
– It's time for bed – Ali said cheerfully. He was already fighting the familiar guilt. The feeling that she cheated on Wyatt and that she wasn't the mother he needed. But what's done is done, she reminded herself. They were here now and he had to do everything he could to make them feel good. She helped Wyatt into his pajamas and watched him while he brushed his teeth. He experienced another moment of tension when he turned on the bathroom faucet. There was a disconcerting gurgling noise and then a flow of dirty brown water. After a few seconds, however, the water cleared. And luckily, Wyatt was too tired to notice anything was wrong. Of course Ali did her best to distract him. She told him about all the things they were going to do in the summer-fishing on the pier, swimming in the lake, and boating. When she took him to his room, he seemed relatively content. The room was Ali's during her childhood summers by the lake. She was pleased to see that it, like the rest of the villa's interior, was remarkably well preserved. The room was tiny, with a steeply pitched ceiling and rough pine furniture. The floor was covered with a colorful woven rug. There were pretty bedspreads of red and white check, window curtains in the same pattern, and a lamp with a moss shade that cast a soft light on everything around. Ali felt sad about the past as she was back in her room. The setting meant nothing to Wyatt though, she reminded herself. To him, it was like sleeping in a motel room. He watched her grimly and dispassionately as she opened the windows, changed the sheets on his bed, and lit the night lamp she had thought to put in the canvas bag. Ali turned him around and tried to encourage him, to make him feel closer to this unfamiliar place.
– Wyatt, did you know I used to sleep in this room when I was little? – she asked and sat on the edge of the bed.
The child shook his head.
– And you know what the best thing about this room is?
The boy shook his head again.
– I'll tell you. When you wake up in the morning, you see the lake from the window. You can't see it now because there is no moonlight tonight. But tomorrow, when you look out the window, you'll feel like the lake is so close you can touch it. And if it's a nice day, the water will be the most beautiful blue you've ever seen.
The Wyatt stared in disbelief at the dark rectangle of the window above the bed.
– The lake is over there – Ali assured him. – And you will like it very much.
She reached out and tried to smooth his hopelessly tangled brown curls, but soon gave up. It was impossible. The gesture, however, seemed to calm him down. The child sighed. His eyelids fluttered shut. Ali waited until her son drifted off to sleep. A minute later, Wyatt opened his eyes again. He looked wide awake.
– Mom? he asked with a worried expression on his face.
– Yes, Ali replied and reached out to stroke his hair again.
– What if daddy can't see me here? Wyatt asked so quietly that Ali leaned closer to hear him. At the word "dad" she felt a familiar tightness in her chest, but she made an effort to look her son in the eye.
– How could he see you here?
The Wyatt stirred under the covers.
– You said he would always look after me. But now we are no longer at home, but here. How will he know where to look for me?
Ali felt tears well up in her eyes and blinked them away. She was determined not to cry. Not in front of Wyatt. Later, when he fell asleep, there would be plenty of time for that.
– Wyatt, he always knows where you are, wherever you go, she explained. – Don't worry about it.
– And will he always look at me?
– Always – Ali smiled. The child stirred restlessly again and asked:
– Even if I'm in trouble?
Now it was Ali's turn to frown.
– What if you're in trouble?
– Well, do you remember when Teddy came and we caught that frog? Wyatt suddenly became animated. "And we dropped her in the sink in the laundry room?" To live there. I just didn't tell you. Because I thought you wouldn't let me keep the frog there. But then you found her. And he got very angry. Did dad watch me then? Because if he was looking at me, he must have been angry too. Wyatt rested his head on the pillow, out of breath. Ali shook her head emphatically, still fighting back the tears.
– No, Wyatt. Dad wasn't mad at you. Not at all. Nor do I. It wasn't serious. I was just… a little surprised when I saw the frog, that's all. She smiled as she remembered something. “You know, Wyatt, your dad used to do a lot more mischief to you when he was little. I'll tell you sometime.
Her son nodded, visibly relieved.
– And Wyatt? From now on, let's just say that daddy looks down on you only when you need him. I mean he will always watch over you. But he doesn't need to watch you all the time. He knows you're a big boy now and can take care of yourself most of the time.
Wyatt nodded again, this time sleepily. Ali tried to remember that in the future she had to be more careful about how she expressed herself - her son was still taking things literally. He snuggled deeper into the covers and she looked out the window. He saw the gap between the trees where the lake had been. It was too dark to see the water, but her eyes followed the outline of the shore. About eight hundred meters away, on the other side of the bay, he noticed a lit pier and frowned. The wharf meant a house and the house meant a neighbor. There were no neighbors the last time she came here. The entire bay was available to her family's cottage. She sighed. He should have guessed that there were changes here too. Even in Butternut, Minnesota, time doesn't stand still. But a neighbor? This was not part of her plan, which was to go to a place where there were no neighbors. At least not that close.
Allie thought about their neighbors in Eden Prairie. They were trying to help. They brought her food, raked the leaves in the yard, shoveled the snow from the driveway and mowed the lawn without her asking. She knew she should be grateful. And it kind of was, but she kept asking herself if it wouldn't be easier to grieve in private, without feeling like she'd become a curiosity-inducing curio, someone who was glanced at in the grocery store or talked to a little awkwardly at nursery school. landing. Of course, the news of her widowhood gradually died down, but what replaced it was worse. Then came the advice, sometimes from relatives and friends, other times from casual acquaintances, that maybe it was time for him to move on and resume his life. They emphasized that she was still young and there was no reason why she wouldn't one day remarry and even have more children. In the end, it wasn't the regretful looks, but these conversations that proved to be Ali's breaking point. As they started, she knew it was time to go. And now, as she sat on the edge of Wyatt's bed, she shivered slightly, trying to shake off some of the weariness that had overtaken her. He listened to Wyatt's breathing, which was calm and followed the steady rhythm of sleep. The boy slept soundly and rarely woke up after falling asleep at night.
Ali turned off the lights and left the room, leaving the door open. That way she would hear him from her bedroom across the hall if he needed her for any reason. He made the bed in his room, put on a tank top and pajama bottoms, and brushed his teeth. It wasn't until she lay down and turned off the bedside lamp that she allowed herself to consider the seriousness of what she had done. She had sold their house, the only home Wyatt had known. She had left most of their possessions in storage. And she'd bought out her brother's share of the lakeside cottage left to them by their parents, who now lived in a retirement home in South Florida. And now she was back in a place she hadn't been in years. A place she hadn't spent an entire summer since she was a child. She had no relatives here, no friends as far as she could remember. The few friends he once had here had probably moved on long ago. Ali knew there was nothing here for her now. Nor for Wyatt. And that begged the question of why she had decided to come to the Butternut. He heard a distant sound – haunting but familiar. She hadn't heard it in a long time, but even if you heard it just once, you wouldn't forget it. Howl of coyotes. A common sound in the woods of northern Minnesota, but not particularly comforting. Ali shuddered with fear. The howling was unnerving, even though she knew she was safe in the cottage. Fatigue quickly overtook her, though it didn't completely banish her anxiety. I must be crazy, Ali thought as she drifted off into a restless sleep. "Why else would I think moving here is a good idea?"