A Thousand Sunsets
by Jannie Lund
Struggling to be a dad and a son, Alexander didn't know he was lost. Living her dream, Sarah didn't know she needed to be found. Enter cupid in the form of a dying man, who hasn't had much contact with his children and grandchildren in the years after his wife's death. In the meantime, however, a new family has formed around him. Patrick McCullough's staring contest with death and wish to unite the family of his blood and the one of his heart kindles love meant to last, causes tempers to flare, and creates second chances that are given, taken, and thrown away. In the middle of the chaos, a young boy struggles to stay afloat.
Release Date: August 7, 2014
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Patrick smiled as the sound of laughter drifted through the open window from the garden below. It was a beautiful day outside. The sun shone from a clear-blue sky, and the gentle breeze was warm and fresh. If he’d been able, he would have liked to spend the afternoon in the hammock while enjoying the sound of the waves and his boys having fun.
It was a damn shame that it took a man so long to figure out what the important things in life were. If he hadn’t spent years being clueless and chasing empty dreams, he would have had more time to enjoy what really mattered. He sighed. Time was running out. He had known it for some time, and while he had accepted it for the most part, he still managed to forget about it sometimes. Then when he remembered it again, it took him by surprise, wrapping his heart in numbing fear for a moment or two.
He’d accomplished more than he had ever dreamed he would, only now it felt like he had gone about it all wrong. He’d certainly made something of himself, starting from a poor farmer’s son in County Wicklow, Ireland, but he hadn’t stopped at that. After finding his good fortune in Virginia, he’d kept working when he should have spent time with his family, kept powering on when he should have slowed down, and neglected Niamh and the children just so he could make more money than any of them would ever spend. Out of everything he had ever done, that was his biggest regret. Unfortunately, life didn’t come with do-over.
Then again, in some ways, the two boys laughing down in the garden were his do-over. All the time and attention he’d failed to give his own children, he’d lavishly poured onto Alexander and Nathan. Heaven knew they’d needed it, both of them, and he’d had plenty of it to spare after finally realizing what was important.
Oh, he knew that there where whispers and gossip in town about why he’d taken in the boys, but he wouldn’t have gotten as far as he had without doing things his way. He had also learned not to give a damn about what people thought or said about him. So, if the nosy gossipers in town thought Alex and Nathan were his bastard children that he’d kidnapped from their mothers, it just meant that he had something to laugh about, and he’d taught the boys the same thing. He might not share an ounce of blood with them, but they were his boys in every way that mattered.
“What’s put a smile on your face?”
Patrick started. He had been so caught up in his own thoughts that he hadn’t heard Joanna come in. It was quite a feat, too, as the tray she carried rattled with a teacup in a saucer, and her heavy breathing after maneuvering the stairs should have given her away even before she’d entered the room.
“I was just thinking about the boys and listening to them through the window,” he replied, scooting up so he was sitting more comfortably against the pillows. “They sound like they’re having fun.”
She put the tray down on the bedside table and plopped down in the chair next to the bed. With a sigh, she ran a hand through her short, chemically enhanced curls. “I’d say. They’re throwing a football around, and every time it ends up tangled in the sheets I have out on the line, they laugh like a couple of hyenas. I had to threaten them with broccoli instead of apple pie to get them to mind my laundry.”
“Boys will be boys.” Patrick chuckled and looked longingly at the window, wishing he could watch them have fun. He still remembered when there had been nothing but fear and sadness in their eyes. Nathan, especially. Then he looked at Joanna. “And don’t lie. You haven’t the heart to deny them pie.”
She snorted with laughter. “That’s the truth, and they know it just as well as you do.”
Patrick leaned back against the pillows with a smile. Joanna was a gem and the sole reason that he’d been able to take Nathan in. His health had already started failing around this time the year previously, but he’d wanted Nathan just as fiercely as he’d wanted Alex sixteen years earlier. The boy’s real parents hadn’t given a damn about him, exactly like Alex’s, and it had mattered a great deal to Patrick to be able to make a difference for the boys.
Niamh had just died when he’d found a twelve year old Alexander Dane sleeping behind a dumpster outside one of his own McCullough factories in Richmond. The boy had been scared, hungry, and reluctant to admit either. Patrick had taken him into the cafeteria and fed him while he’d tried to find out what the kid’s deal was. Even if they’d both been less than enthusiastic to admit it, they’d needed each other.
Gaining Alex’s trust had taken a long time. The kid had done a great deal of pushing Patrick and Joanna away until he’d realized that they were to be constants in his life, and it had taken nearly as long to get rid of all the bad habits he’d picked up on the streets after he’d run away from his abusive mother and drug addict father, who hadn’t even wanted him back. He rarely spoke about the first twelve years of his life, but over the years Patrick had pieced together the whole story. Alex had become a fine man. He’d thrived after realizing that he finally belonged somewhere safe and with people who loved him. Patrick could never be sure if the emotional scars from his childhood had healed or if Alex just hid them well, but at twenty-eight, he was a well-respected doctor in a Richmond hospital and a wonderful role model for Nathan, who, at age ten, battled some of the same things Alex had at that age. Patrick couldn’t have been prouder.
Though, how the boys might have turned out without Joanna at the helm was not even worth thinking about. Patrick had hired her to run the kitchen, but pretty soon she’d been running the house as well as its inhabitants. It was an arrangement that had the people of Rosehip Cove both wondering and gossiping, the old business tycoon, the middle-aged housekeeper, and the boys they’d taken in. What other people thought had never worried Patrick. He knew it worked for the four of them, and that was what mattered.
“So, how are you feeling today?” Joanna interrupted his thoughts, handing him a cup of tea.
He smiled at her. You could take the boy out of Ireland, but you couldn’t take Ireland out of the boy. And Irish boys drank tea, at least when they didn’t drink whiskey. He’d even turned Joanna, who had been a die hard coffee drinker, into a tea drinker. “It’s a fine day, and the boys are having fun. It’s difficult to feel bad.”
“Difficult maybe, but not impossible. I think you’re evading my question, you old rascal,” she claimed.
“That sounds like something I’d do without as much as batting an eyelash,” he admitted with a wink. “But as it turns out, I really am feeling fine today. Fine enough to broach a subject with you that I’ve been dreading.”
“Oh dear. I swear to God, if the boys broke any of the pretty Waterford crystal you give me for my birthdays, they can smile as charmingly as they want, but th – ”
Patrick chuckled. “No, no. Nothing is broken. Well, at least not that I know of.”
“Thank heavens. I do hate to scold them, even when it’s necessary.”
Patrick sipped his tea and wondered if he should chance one of the sugar cookies on the plate. He knew they’d be delicious as all of Joanna’s cooking was, but they made him cough, which in turn made his chest hurt something awful. He sighed. Better not tempt fate.
“I was thinking of inviting the family,” he said, focusing his attention on her reaction instead.
She frowned. “What family?”
“My family,” he replied, trying not to grimace at the mere thought. Niamh had been the glue that held the McCullough family together, and when the cancer had taken her, it had been the last he had seen of the family he had failed. In sixteen years, the only one of his kids he’d seen was his oldest son when they’d run into each other in a restaurant in Richmond. They’d both been there with business associates, so they hadn’t exchanged more than an awkward hello.
Most days, Patrick was able to convince himself that sometimes life just took unexpected turns that you had to live with. Some days, however, he dealt with blame, guilt, and longing. It just seemed that the more time that went by, the more difficult it became to try to change things. He’d been putting it off for sixteen years, and now he was almost out of time. He couldn’t afford not to try to make an effort.
“I’m not sure I know what you mean,” Joanna said, frowning. “Do you actually want to invite your family? The people you haven’t seen or spoken to since your wife passed away?”
“I think I do.” He had thought a lot about it in the previous months, and there wouldn’t be any more chances to reconcile with them. This was it.
She seemed to think it over. “Well, then. Invite your family, Patrick McCullough, and let’s see what kind of people they are.”
“You know, I’m wondering that myself.” And since the thought of his family suddenly filled him with dread and anxiety, he grabbed a sugar cookie. A man only lived once.
* * * *
After dinner, Nathan came to see him. Patrick enjoyed listening to the boy chattering on about what he’d accomplished during the day. Not that long ago it had been difficult to get him to say anything at all. He had been so closed off, sad, and afraid when he’d arrived a year earlier.
“And then Alex said that he might take me to a football game soon. I mean, if it’s all right with you. He also said that we could go hiking for a few days now that school is almost out for the summer. That would be so cool.” Nathan took a deep breath. “Hey, did you have some of Jo’s apple pie for dessert? How come it gets better every time she makes it, huh?”
Patrick chuckled. The boy was practically vibrating, and his brown eyes sparkled. It had hurt to see them dull and almost lifeless, and seeing them now was a blessing worth counting. “Yes, I tasted it, but I’ve given up trying to figure out why Joanna’s wasting her culinary talents on us instead of having her own restaurant somewhere.”
“Make her stay, please?” Nathan pleaded, wide-eyed and apparently afraid for his future meals.
“I’ll do my best, son,” Patrick promised him, solemnly. “Now, have you done your homework for tomorrow? It might be the last day of school before summer, but that’s no reason to slack off.”
Nathan frowned. “Almost.”
“Almost isn’t good enough if you ever want to make all your dreams come true. Hop to it, and then maybe we can squeeze in a chess lesson before bedtime.”
The boy nodded, but didn’t do a very good job of hiding his disappointment. Early on, Patrick had discovered that, like with Alex, there was nothing wrong with Nathan’s head. He just didn’t find any pleasure in his schoolwork like the way Alex had. In fact, it was his fascination with science that had put Alex on the path toward becoming a doctor in the first place. The only thing Nathan willingly read were those fantasy books of his full of dragons and sorcerers and whatnot. Patrick encouraged it, as he was still Irish enough to appreciate a good tale, and good tales often came with all kinds of imaginative beings. He was used to leprechauns and fairies, but dragons weren’t bad.
“Jo told me that I might find you in a speculative mood,” Alex said when he came in a few minutes after Nathan had left. He was carrying the small tray with the cups of tea they often ended the day with together when Alex wasn’t in Richmond.
“Did she tell you why?” Patrick asked.
Alex put the tray down and sat in the chair next to the bed, slipping his feet onto the bed to relax. The boy was so at ease with himself and always seemed to relax into his surroundings. It was something that Patrick both admired and envied. “No, she was all mysterious and told me that you’d either tell me or I’d see for myself. I had no idea what she meant, but figured that since she’s a woman I can’t really be blamed for that.”
Patrick laughed. “Took me years to get to that conclusion. Give me that tea cup, will you?”
Alex reached for the tea and got comfortable again. Even without looking, Patrick knew that he was curious. “I told Joanna earlier that I’d like to invite my family out here.”
Chuckling into his tea over Alex’ reaction, Patrick gave in and elaborated. “I could walk right by my grandchildren on the street without recognizing them. You know, if I wasn’t chained to this damn bed and all. I don’t know my family, Alex. I have great-grandchildren that I’ve never even seen. Now time’s running out, and I’m going to need your help getting them out here because a simple invitation won’t work.”
“I’ll do whatever you want me to, you know that,” Alex replied without hesitation. “Even if you want me to go kidnap every last one of them.”
To himself, Patrick could admit with a sly smile that he liked the idea. “I think we’ll try something a little less violent,” he said just as a chuckle got caught in his throat. He coughed and spluttered, grateful that Alex was there to take away the tea and help him sit up before getting the oxygen mask.
Patrick was exhausted when he was finally able to get his breath again. Coughing took so much out of him these days, and he often cursed his lungs to hell and back.
“Are you okay?” Alex asked, concern marring his face.
Patrick nodded and removed the mask. He hated worrying Alex, but at the same time there was no one in the world he trusted more with his health, with his life, with anything. That was why he’d swallowed his pride and asked him to spend less time at the hospital in Richmond and more time at home. Alex had readily agreed, and Patrick was satisfied that he’d be getting the best care in whatever time he had left.
He carefully lifted his tea and drank again. Alex was patiently waiting for him to talk, so he could take his time and find the words he needed. “It’s important to me that you know my reasons for wanting to see my family.”
Alex shook his head. “Patrick, they’re your family. You don’t need reasons, and you certainly don’t need to explain them or justify them to anyone. Least of all to me.”
“But I do,” Patrick insisted. “At least as far as making sure that you and Nathan know that it’s not because you’re not enough.”
“Don’t be silly. We know that.”
Alex’ face showed that he did know, but it was important for Patrick to continue. “Son, you and Nathan mean the world to me. You have from the moment I laid eyes on you. You brightened up my life at a point where I thought I had nothing left. I never thought I’d be happy, but I am, and in my eyes, you and Nathan are every bit as much family as my blood kin. Nothing can change that.”
“Nathan and I both know that.” Alex’s smile was genuine. “You’ve changed our lives, and we’ve never doubted your love. I truly believe that you and Joanna are the only reasons I’m even alive today.”
“You’d have managed. You’re a fighter.” Patrick reached out to pat his hand.
Alex shrugged. “I’m not so sure.”
“In any case,” Patrick continued as he knew they’d never agree. “You know I’ve had basically no contact with any of them since Niamh died. In almost every way, she was the one to make sure we put in the effort to be a family, and when she was gone, none of us knew how to go about things. My children probably also blame me for not being around much when they were growing up. I was so busy with work, and it wasn’t until Niamh got sick that I realized how wrong my priorities had been and how poorly I had made my choices. By then it was just too late.”
“You don’t think they’ll come if you just ask them?” Alex asked.
Patrick sighed. “No. They resented me for being gone, but unfortunately they turned out to be too much like me. Liam and Logan were obsessed with their careers and making money last time I saw them. Layla ... well, she’s different, I suppose. Though, after all these years I don’t even know, but I fear that in order to get them to come, I’ll need to lure them with just that – money. Or, more specifically, a large inheritance. It’s a cheap trick, as I have more than enough money to go around, but I just want a chance to ... well, to get to know them again. Apologize. I don’t know. I just feel as if I have to see them.”
“Then see them you shall,” Alex said decidedly and reached for pen and paper. “We’ll compose a letter to your children, saying whatever we need to in order to get them here. I’ll even add a very professional sounding note as your personal physician. If that doesn’t work, I’ll go pick them up personally.”
“Thank you.” Patrick smiled and patted Alex’s arm while the boy started writing.
* * * *
A weight had been lifted from Patrick’s shoulders as he lay ready to fall asleep that night. He was relieved that Alex understood and was willing to help him. Hope started to grow in his chest that he might get the chance to reconcile with his children, get to know his grandchildren, and meet his great-grandchildren. Sure, they’d arrive with a different agenda than his, if they arrived at all, and he didn’t even know if he had time enough to find some common ground with them, but he was eager to try. Sixteen years was a long time to be at odds with those who were supposed to be closest to him. Too long.
Sometimes he feared his children doubted his love and that they’d grown up doubting it. Then, too late he supposed, he’d realized that he had shown it in all the wrong ways – ways children couldn’t understand, but his dedication to his work had come from one source only. It hadn’t been ambition or greed for money that had made him work through too many holidays and birthdays. It had been the burning need to make sure that his family never felt the cold because of a leaky roof or felt the hunger because of a failed crop.
Patrick’s own father never had the opportunity for success in rural Ireland. Too set in his ways in a country that was much the same, he’d simply been stuck. Patrick never blamed him, but from a very early age, he had been determined to do better for himself and his own. And for a long time, he believed that he’d done just that, but then realized that he hadn’t been successful in doing better than his father in the ways that mattered.
For sixteen years he’d only had the memories. The memories of Liam and Logan arguing like only brothers could and his little peacekeeper, Layla, trying to force them to get along. The memories of bright-eyed and giggling grandchildren adored by himself and Niamh – only he’d never shown it like she had. Memories of a beloved woman filled to the brim with so much love for her family that it had kept them all together. Memories of a large family that filled the house he’d built for them with laughter and love.
Often, an old man wondered why. And he wondered how.
* * * *
A week later, in Los Angeles, Sarah Forrester was looking through the photographs and sketches a three day trip to Napa Valley had produced. The beauty she’d found there and had been able to capture made her smile. Her fingers were itching to start painting, but she knew that if she got started, she’d never get through the list of practical chores that she needed to accomplish first. Like shopping for groceries since she had practically nothing edible left in the house. Cleaning. Sorting through the mail. Not nearly as alluring as painting the beauty she’d just seen, but necessary.
The phone ringing gave her an excuse to procrastinate for another minute. Or maybe more than a minute since the caller ID said it was her mother calling.
“Hi, Mom.” Sarah got comfortable in a chair. Layla Forrester often gave off the impression that she’d invented talking, so her doting daughter figured that she might as well get comfortable.