Letters from Grace
His daughter has found his old love letters…now Levi Shanahan’s life is about to change.
Jessica Shanahan is off to college next year but she’s worried about leaving her widowed father behind in their small town of Boulder Falls, Vermont. Since Levi’s wife’s death ten years ago Levi has devoted himself to raising his daughter, caring for his elderly parents and running the local General Store. He never takes time for himself, let alone dating, though several eligible women are clearly interested.
When Jessica finds a stash of old love letters from her father’s high school sweetheart, Grace Hamilton, she decides to do a little matchmaking. She and her best friend Max travel to New York City, Grace’s home base for her work as a travel photographer. On the pretext of interviewing Grace for a school project, Jessica convinces Grace to come to the Boulder Falls Foliage Arts Festival.
Grace tells herself it would be fun to check out the old hometown and reconnect with old friends—but it’s really Levi Shanahan she’s interested in. Though her career’s been successful and fulfilling, she’s never met a man who touched her heart the way Levi once did. She’d like to know if the magic is still there. And if it is, can they find a way to make their love work this time?
Publishers Weekly Review
“Carmichael creates a robust cast that’s easy to imagine as neighbors and plots them into eminently believable situations… This adorable small-town romance will appeal to readers who enjoy their romance on the wholesome side.”
Letters from Grace
Woodland, New York, September 2019
As Jessica Shanahan pulled her father’s old college yearbooks from a storage container in their attic, she noticed a shoebox amid the rest of his college memorabilia. On the lid in neat round letters—her father’s script when he was printing—was the word “Grace.”
Jessica set aside the pile of yearbooks and lifted the lid. Inside was a stack of letters addressed to her father at his former residence hall at the University of Vermont. As she flipped through the letters, she saw that all the letters—except the final one—were from the same person: Grace Hamilton.
When Jessica was only two her mother, Maggie, was killed in a car accident. Her dad had often told her the story of meeting her mom in his first year of college, how it had been love at first sight, and that he considered himself the luckiest of men when he asked Maggie Brown to marry him and she told him yes.
He always made it sound like her mother had been the one and only love of his life.
And yet he’d kept this box of old letters from another woman.
“Are they up there?”
Jessica’s best friend, Max Stedwell, was downstairs holding the ladder. Like her, Max had applied to the University of Vermont—though it wasn’t his first choice—and was interested in seeing her dad’s old yearbooks.
“Um…yeah.” She grabbed the books and handed them down to Max. She hesitated over the shoebox. The letters were addressed to her dad, so technically off-limits. But they were so old, he couldn’t really care, could he? Besides, he’d already given her permission to look through his old college stuff.
She tucked the shoebox under her arm and started down the ladder.
Max peered up at her. “What’s in the box?”
“Old letters.” She rested the box on one of the rungs of the ladder as she fitted the attic cover back into place. Then she scrambled the rest of the way down. “I’m going to check them out later.”
She ducked into her room where she tucked the box under her chemistry textbook before joining Max in the family room. He was already sprawled on the sectional, leafing through one of the yearbooks. She flopped down next to him, leaning over his shoulder so she could see too.
“Is your dad happy you’ve decided to go to good old UVM?”
“He doesn’t care that much, as long as I go somewhere.” Jessica didn’t know why her dad was so obsessed with college. If she was going to take over the family general store, why bother? She’d been learning on the job since she was four years old. A business degree wasn’t going to change anything.
“I wish my folks had the same attitude. They want me as close to home as possible.”
Max’s dream was to study geology at the University of Colorado. Selfishly Jess wished he’d stay closer to home, too.
“Dad keeps going on about how college is so much fun and opens so many doors.”
“I like the story he told us the other night about meeting your mother in the campus library,” Max said. “The spider coming down from the ceiling and landing in her hair…and how he heard her scream and came to her rescue.”
“Yeah, and bravely scooped the spider into his hands and took it outside.” Jess rolled her eyes. She might mock her father a little from time to time, but mostly they got along really well.
“Since your dad is so cool, maybe he’d let you come to Colorado with me?” Max gave her his best, beseeching smile.
For many years Max’s smile was something Jess took for granted. But lately it had been having a potent effect on her. Especially when he looked directly at her with that mischievous sparkle in his eyes.
The way he was now.
She knew Max liked her. They’d been friends forever. But did he “like” her? When he smiled at her this way it seemed impossible that he didn’t. But even though she leaned a fraction closer to him, he did not take the next step and reach for her hand. Or kiss her.
“Colorado’s too far.”
“For you or your dad?”
“Me,” she admitted.
“You are such a homebody,” Max teased. “Maybe I should change my mind and go to Vermont, too. It would be cheaper. I don’t want to be drowning in debt when I graduate.”
Jess knew what he meant. All their friends were stressed about how to finance their degrees. Not many had folks who could afford to cover the entire cost. Jess was lucky her dad had started a savings account for her when she was a baby. When she’d started working at his general store officially, as a teenager, he’d insisted she deposit fifty percent of each paycheck into that account.
Of course she was also lucky her dad owned the store and so she had a guaranteed job for as little or as much spare time as she had available. Max wasn’t so fortunate. His father worked at a plastics factory and his mom at a local grocery store—neither one could offer him work on a schedule tailor-made for him. Last summer, when Max couldn’t find a job, he’d started his own dog-walking business. That had been cool—most of the dogs were adorable—but he hadn’t made even half of what she had earned at the store.
“Hopefully you’ll get a good job this summer,” Jess said.
While Jess didn’t have the same financial challenges as Max, she did have her own concerns about college—in particular, leaving her father. Max’s parents had each other and their twin daughters, five years younger than Max. Her dad had no one.
In all the years since Jess’s mom had died, he’d dated only sporadically, and never seriously. He went out of his way to keep her mother’s memory alive—for her benefit Jess thought—which was sweet in a way, but maybe not so healthy for him. For too long his life had been all about raising Jess, working at the family general store and Sunday dinners with her grandparents. He needed to expand his horizons.
Max looked up from the yearbook. “I’m hungry.”
“You’re always hungry. There’s some apples in the kitchen. Grab me one while you’re at it.”
When Max returned he stretched out his legs onto the old pine coffee table, next to hers. After his first bite he said, “Looks like the birds are hungry too.”
Jess glanced through the window to the gnarly red oak tree that had supported Jess’s tire swing when she was little and from which now hung one of the multiple bird feeders her father kept stocked in the yard.
Several house finches were currently jockeying for position so they could feed on the seed and nut mixture. Though Jess wasn’t as crazy about birds as her father was, she did enjoy watching their antics.
Max focused back on the yearbook. After a few minutes he said, “Look, here’s your dad.” He pointed at one square in a sea of faces.
“Huh.” Given that her dad’s hobbies were playing chess and ornithology she’d expected his college photo to be dorky. But he actually looked good. Broad shoulders, friendly eyes, a confident smile.
“Hasn’t changed much, has he?” Max said.
“Really?” She studied the photo more closely. Max was right. Why had she never noticed how good-looking her dad was? She found her mother’s photo next.
Max whistled. “Wow. That could almost be you.”
“Except for the nerdy hair and glasses.” But she was secretly pleased Max thought she looked like her pretty mother.
As Max continued to flip pages, Jess tried to tune out the fluttering awareness she felt at being so close to him. The campus with its historic red buildings really was beautiful, but she got a car-sick queasy feeling when she tried to insert herself into the picture. Which was so lame. All her life she’d been excited for the day when she would be one of the senior girls at high school. But now that it was finally her turn, anxiety about the future was taking all the fun out of it.
She tried to put her feelings into words. “The thing about being in our last year of school, is that nothing has changed, yet nothing feels the same.”
“Yeah, it’s weird. The last time for so many things,” Max said.
“Exactly. Our last year at Woodland High. Last year on cross-country and the track team. Probably the last year we’ll live full-time with our parents.”
“Basically our last year of avoiding adulthood.”
In that moment Jess felt that no one would ever understand her the way Max did. Their connection went back all the way to kindergarten and a mutual love of Legos. Their interests had evolved as they grew older. There was the year they were obsessed with the Harry Potter books and movies, the multiple years they were crazed about Fortnite, and—most recently—their love of long-distance running. Recently they’d made a pact that they would run their first marathon together this spring. Already Max had made a training schedule for them.
She and Max had a wider circle of friends that they hung out with on weekends. Most of them assumed they were a romantic couple. When she and Max were fifteen, she’d thought they were headed in that direction, but then Max had asked pretty, redheaded Hannah to go to a school dance with him. They’d only dated a few months—and Max had still made time for Jess as a friend—but it had been a clear signal to Jess that she would only ever be a buddy to Max.
So she’d tried a bit of dating, too. But it felt weird to her. Most of her girlfriends had had at least one serious relationship by now. She didn’t know what was wrong with her. Was she just an extremely late bloomer?
She glanced at Max, following the line of his long legs to the coffee table where his bare foot was just inches from hers. She imagined shifting her foot, touching her toes to his, and felt a delicious tingle all over her body.
No, she’d definitely bloomed. Unfortunately, the only guy she cared about hadn’t noticed.
* * *
Levi Shanahan generally enjoyed the walk home from work. His route took him down Main Street, past the library and the elementary school, then finally to Lincoln Avenue. Here the sugar maples grew so tall and full that their branches arched over his head. Today the red tinge of the leaves told him, better than a calendar, that autumn was finally here. He could see the evidence, too, in the front yards of his neighbors as he walked by. Formerly lush flowers in front gardens and pots had grown leggy and were beginning to brown.
Autumn was a beautiful time in Woodland. But this year he welcomed the season with mixed emotions. This was the last fall he’d have Jessica home with him. A year from now he’d be heading for an empty house. Levi didn’t know how he was going to manage. He hadn’t expected to still feel so young at this point in his life. But then, he’d only been twenty when Jess was born. Only two years older than she was right now.
He liked Jessica’s friend—boyfriend?—Max a lot. But he hoped Jess was at least in her mid-twenties before she thought of marriage.
Baskets of yellow and orange chrysanthemums and half a dozen pumpkins welcomed him on the small front porch when he reached his home. It wasn’t just to advertise his store’s products that he made this effort. As a widowed father he’d always done his best to make a warm, cozy home for his daughter. He knew little touches made a big difference. And it was all worth the effort when he saw Jessica smile.
As he reached for the front door, he almost collided with Max.
“Hey, Mr. S.”
“Max.” He stepped aside so the teenager—now, at six feet, the same height as Levi—could pass. “Want to stay for dinner?” He’d brought a chicken potpie home from the store, and there would be plenty.
“Thanks but Mom and Dad want me home tonight. We’re having some sort of family meeting.”
“Big news, you think?”
“Last time it was to tell us we needed to do more chores around the house. So probably not.” Max gave a casual salute, then leapt over the three porch steps before breaking into a nice, easy lope. Max would probably run all the way home. Levi wished he still had that kind of energy.
In a way he was glad Max wasn’t staying for dinner tonight. He’d reached the point where he was cherishing every hour he got to spend alone with his daughter. Between her friends, track, and the time she spent studying, it felt like he was lucky to get thirty minutes in a day.
Inside he found his daughter in the kitchen, making a salad as he’d asked her to do in a text just before leaving work. Her pretty, honey-colored hair was gathered in a messy bun and she was chopping a cucumber.
“Hey, kid.” He kissed her forehead when she turned to give him a smile. “Have a good day?”
“We checked out those yearbooks like you suggested. Found your and Mom’s grad photos. Max thought Mom looked a lot like me.”
“Two prettiest women ever.”
“You were kind of a hottie back then, too, Dad. What happened?”
“Smart-ass.” He set the shopping bag on the counter. “I’m going to change. Be right back.”
Once he was in his old jeans and a clean black T-shirt, he washed his face and hands in the small en suite. When he returned to the kitchen he asked, “So what did you think of the yearbooks? Besides checking out the old photos of your parents.”
“Kind of inspiring.”
He was glad to hear that. “It’s a great school. Not that I expect you to go there just because I did.”
“I know, Dad.”
He wanted her to feel free to pursue whatever career or life she wanted. Still, he couldn’t help being pleased that she’d chosen a college so close to home that he’d still see her on long weekends and holidays.
“Say, Dad, did you ever date anyone before Mom?”
He’d been pulling dishes from the cabinet. He set them down and turned to her. “Why do you ask?”
He tried sidestepping the question. “I met your mom just a few weeks after spring break. The rest is history.”
“But what about before that? Like in high school?”
“There was this one girl. But she went to college in New York. We drifted apart.” It was curious how a person could summarize one of the happiest and yet most painful experiences in their life with just three short sentences. He hoped his daughter would drop the subject now. “Are you going to make the salad dressing or should I?”
“I already made it. Tell me more about the girl?”
Levi hesitated. Then realized he was being foolish. After all these years it didn’t matter. “She and her family moved to Woodland when I was in seventh grade. She was in my class and we became friends after working on a science project together. We stayed friends all through high school, sort of like you and Max.”
“So you were just friends?”
Is that all she and Max were? For years Levi had been expecting his daughter to tell him the relationship had turned romantic, but as far as he knew it hadn’t happened yet.
“Well. More than friends, I guess.” Much more. Grace had been his first love as well as his best friend. She’d meant so much to him that it was hard to describe their relationship in words. Certainly not to his daughter.
“What was her name?”
“Grace Hamilton.” Just saying her name made his heart contract. He couldn’t believe it still had that much power.
“Have I ever met her?”
“No.” He fixed his gaze out the kitchen window, at a hummingbird feeder that had been sitting empty for more than a month. He ought to wash it and put it away until next spring. “Her parents moved to Florida shortly after we started college and she’s never been back to Woodland. At least not that I know of.”
Jess put the salad on the table, between their two place settings. “Was she into bird watching and chess like you?”
“Grace is the one who taught me how to play chess. And yeah, she would come with me when I went birding. She was more into photographing them though.”
“So she was just as nerdy as you?”
His daughter loved to tease him about his uncool hobbies. But he’d also played football and being part of the team had brought him acceptance and a measure of popularity. “Grace was too beautiful to be considered a nerd.”
His daughter shot him one of those looks that laid him bare. “Did she break your heart, Dad?”
He swallowed. “That was a long time ago.”
A chirp from his phone distracted the both of them. He took a quick glance at the screen and frowned. “It’s the mayor. She’s reminding me about the festival meeting tomorrow night.” Erin Powers was also suggesting they grab dinner together beforehand. He quickly tapped back his reply. Good for the meeting but having dinner with Jess.
“She likes you. Why don’t you ask her for dinner before the meeting?”
“What are you, a mind reader? That’s what Erin suggested. But I’d rather eat at home with you.”
“I’m going to college next year. What are you going to do then? Eat all your meals alone?”
“You’re not in college yet. And you shouldn’t worry about me. I’ve got lots of friends. And Grandma and Grandpa.” His parents lived just a mile away and Sunday dinner was a long-standing tradition.
“So that’s it? You’re not even forty and you plan to spend all your weekends with your parents?”
Was that what this interest in his ex-girlfriends had been about? “Erin Powers is pretty and smart…but she’s not my type. And for the record I can handle my own love life, thanks.”
“You’d need to have a love life to handle it, Dad.”
Levi hated to admit it. But his daughter had a point.
* * *
That same evening…Sparks Book Store, Manhattan
Photojournalist Grace Hamilton smiled at the gentleman who had just asked her to sign four copies of her newest book, National Park Birds and Their Stories. He was planning to give them to his adult children for Christmas and she had individually inscribed each book.
“I hope they enjoy them, Mr. Bronson.”
“I’m sure they will. We’re real nature lovers in our family. And I’ve always loved your work for Audubon.”
Grace didn’t try to rush the chatty gentleman, even though people were lined up through the front door and down Broadway for two whole blocks. This intel came from her agent, Jeremy Browne, who was currently chatting with her editor at Dover Books: Paula Baton. They looked pleased with the turnout. Grace was thrilled.
The book was the culmination of a five-year project for her. She’d traveled to every national park in the country, woken before dawn and the morning chorus to get the best photos, and stayed up late doing post-production in rustic lodges where guests were required to share bathrooms and forget about cell service or cable TV.
Not that Grace minded the lack of amenities. She was too focused on her work and she would have been happy to camp, except for the need to charge batteries and download her photographs to her laptop.
The next person to step up to her table was a woman, dressed in a smart camel trench coat over a black, silk jumpsuit. Grace lifted her gaze to the woman’s face, and then jumped out of her chair.
“Alicia!” She reached over the table to embrace her best friend from Woodland—the small town in upper New York State where Grace had lived for a time with her parents. She and Alicia Moretti kept in touch via texts and video chats, but between Grace’s travel schedule and Alicia’s responsibilities to her husband, children and yoga studio, they only managed to meet in person about once a year, always in Manhattan.
A few times Grace had offered to meet her friend in Woodland, but Alicia wouldn’t hear of it. While she loved raising a family in a small town, Alicia looked forward to her annual trip to the city and indulging in fine dining, theater and shopping.
Besides, there really was no reason for Grace to go back to Woodland since her parents didn’t live there anymore. This way, too, Grace could avoid the possibility of running into Levi Shanahan and being reminded of her biggest regret. When she was eighteen, she’d thought there’d be lots of guys she’d fall in love with the way she’d loved Levi. In actual fact there’d been none.
Alicia knew about her conflicted feelings for Levi, but by mutual accord they didn’t speak about him very often. Occasionally Alicia injected news of Levi into their conversations, but she always did so casually. That was how Grace had learned of Levi’s marriage, the birth of his daughter, and then just two years later, his wife’s tragic death. Grace had sent a signed book for the wedding—which she hadn’t been invited to—and flowers for Maggie’s funeral and had received a polite thank-you note for both. That was the only correspondence she and Levi had had in about twenty years.
“I wanted to surprise you,” Alicia said. “And it looks like I have.”
Grace laughed. “I’ll say. You look marvelous by the way. When did you get here?”
“Around noon. I’ve already done some shopping. Isn’t this a sweet jumpsuit?” Alicia glanced behind her. “But I shouldn’t hold you up. So many people are waiting. You done good, girl.” She gave her friend a quick hug.
“We’ll have lots of time to visit later, right? You are staying a few nights, aren’t you?” All her friend was carrying were some shopping bags and a stylish purse. “Where is your luggage?”
“Locked up at Penn Station.”
“Great. We’ll pick it up on our way home after the reception. Red wine and artisanal cheeses and schmoozing with the literary and ornithological crowd…” Grace, who had never mastered the art of small talk with strangers and working a room, was not looking forward to it. “Sorry, but there’s no way to avoid it.”
“Why would I want to? Sounds like fun. Is Harvey here?”
“Yes. He’ll be thrilled to see you.” Harvey Peters was both her landlord and closest friend in Manhattan and Alicia loved hearing stories from his former career as a set designer on Broadway.
“Oh good.” Alicia squeezed her shoulder. “You have the most glamorous life!”
“Hardly.” But Alicia had already moved on and didn’t hear her. Since Alicia only visited when she was in Manhattan, she didn’t realize how she spent the majority of her time. Pre-dawn wake-up calls, followed by miles of trudging through forests, marshes and tidal pools. Hours spent waiting in dirty, damp, cold locations hoping to catch the perfect bird in the perfect moment, and then, after a hurried shower and dinner, her nights were not spent reading or binge-watching shows, but at the computer doing post-production work.
It wasn’t a life many could tolerate. But Grace loved it. All except for the part where she fell into bed exhausted—and alone.
Well. Not always alone. Grace had met a lot of attractive and eligible men during her years as a freelance photojournalist and she’d had relationships with a few. But conflicting schedules eventually led to a parting of the ways. Or at least they had so far. Grace hadn’t given up on finding a partner to share her life with. But if she didn’t, she would be okay. That’s what she kept telling herself. And mostly she believed it.