Can two lost souls on a mission to fulfill a deathbed promise find their second chance at love?
When Julia Bellerman loses her husband to cancer, she’s cast adrift. For ten years, her whole life has been about caring for him. Now, before she can move on with her life, she must fulfill her husband’s deathbed wish to scatter his ashes in Provence. And to let Ryder Wilding go with her.
Ryder, her husband’s best friend. And the man she fell in love with a lifetime ago.
Ryder’s first mistake was walking away from Julia. His second mistake was marrying the wrong woman—a marriage that ended in a nasty divorce. He’s spent all the years since wrestling with the guilt of loving his best friend’s wife. Now Ryder must take Julia to Provence to scatter her husband’s ashes. He thought losing his best friend was painful, but keeping his hands off Julia will be the hardest thing he’s ever done.
Can love overcome grief and guilt to give them a second chance?
A later in life, friends to lovers holiday romance set in the beauty of Provence…
All books in the Once Again series are stand-alone stories. No cliffhangers!
What Readers Are Saying:
Dreaming of Provence
© 2021 Jennifer Skully
The house was as silent as a tomb. Will’s tomb. Where they’d lived, where they’d loved. And where yesterday he’d died.
The doorbell pealed through the house like thunder. Julia’s heart pounded as if all the walls had rattled around her. It took three seconds to gather her wits. She hoped to God it wasn’t another sympathetic friend, or a flower delivery. She might just break down if it was. Why did people send sympathy flowers anyway? Were they supposed to cheer her up? Or maybe they were something she was supposed to cling to while she wept. Then again, she’d always sent flowers, mostly because it was the easiest thing to do.
But she would never do it again.
When the bell rang once more, she expected it this time and didn’t jump. But she still hadn’t decided whether to answer or not. The delivery company could keep the flowers. The sympathetic friends could come back for the memorial. She didn’t want platitudes. She didn’t want a hug. She didn’t want someone to ask how she was holding up. She didn’t want to cry in front of anyone. She didn’t want to not cry. There was too much guilt, too much pain.
Worst of all, there was too much relief. How could she ever explain that?
As the doorbell chimed a third time, she wondered who on earth would be so persistent. Taking the last few steps into the foyer, she opened the door just to shut them up.
The man was short but muscular. His head was bald, and his teeth were shiny white. He tapped a clipboard he’d balanced against his flat stomach. “Mrs. Bellerman? I’m so sorry for your loss.” His smile was perfect, with just the right touch of empathy, as if this were something he did all the time and knew exactly what the grief-stricken needed. “Hospice sent me to take everything off your hands.”
Ah yes, he did do this all the time.
Will had in-home hospice care, including the hospital bed, the commode, the medical equipment, all the necessities to help a forty-five-year-old cancer patient pass out of this world as comfortably as possible.
And this man was here to take it all away now that Will had no further need.
He held out his hand. “My name is Isaac. I’m here to help with whatever you need.”
Julia shook, his grip firm, his skin warm, his smile sympathetic. And the genuineness of that smile blurred her eyes.
“Is there anyone here with you, Mrs. Bellerman? I can call someone for you.”
His job was dealing with grief, grieving husbands and wives, grieving sisters and brothers, grieving children, grieving friends.
“No, thank you.” She blinked rapidly to clear her eyes. “Honestly, I’m fine.”
“Sometimes it’s good to have family with you. Or a friend. I can call anyone you’d like.”
The family had been here yesterday when Will passed. His parents and Ryder and Julia’s sister Felicity. They’d stood beside her when the hearse arrived at the house to take Will away. They’d fed her, rallied round her. She’d talked to her parents in Florida, and Will’s parents had called his brothers, one in Atlanta, one in Chicago. Everyone was flying out tomorrow, though they’d all been here a week ago to celebrate Will’s birthday.
He’d turned forty-five. Everyone knew he’d never see forty-six.
Of course, Felicity hadn’t understood why Julia wanted Ryder Wilding, Will’s friend and not even a family member, to be there for Will’s final moments. Julia had called her sister, but only after Will was gone. She couldn’t deal with any tension, and her sister was always tense about something.
Eventually last evening, she’d begged them all to go home, saying she was fine, she just needed to sleep.
But she could call Ryder now, ask him to sit with her while Isaac cleared out the bedroom. Ryder would be here like a shot. Will’s best friend since junior high school and best man at their wedding, Ryder had been a lifeline from the moment Will got the diagnosis ten years ago. Will had survived for ten long years.
“Ma’am?” Isaac’s deep voice rumbled over her, breaking her spiraling thoughts.
She’d stood there blocking the doorway, for how long she didn’t know.
“I’m sorry. Come in. I don’t need to call anyone.” She waved him in. The truck sat on the driveway, the name of the medical supply company emblazoned across its side.
Seeing that name made everything real. At least hospice hadn’t sent them out the same day to retrieve their equipment. Hospice had been good to them. A blessing, as much a blessing as Ryder had been.
“The bedroom’s back here.” She pointed toward the hall that headed down the bedroom wing of the T-shaped house. It had been their San Francisco Bay Area dream home when they’d moved to the suburbs after seven years of marriage. When they were searching for the perfect place to raise their children.
There’d been no children. There’d only been cancer.
They’d converted one of the four bedrooms into a den, another to a home office they both shared, where Julia did the household finances and Will had written up his patient notes.
She led Isaac past the guestroom to their master suite at the end of the hall. Bright and airy with a large bay window on the far end, it more than accommodated the hospital bed along with their king-size. Despite Will’s illness, they’d slept in the same bed until they’d had to face that he needed hospice. Even when they brought in the hospital bed five months ago, setting it up in front of the window, she’d still stayed in the same room. She needed to hear him breathe while he slept. She’d looked after him every day and stayed with him every night.
Until last night, when Will was gone, body and soul, and she’d fled to the guestroom.
This room had ghosts, not Will’s, but the ghosts of their lost dreams.
She wondered if their bedroom could ever become her bedroom, even once all the equipment was gone.
“It’s all there,” she said in a soft voice, giving Isaac permission with a flourish of her hand.
He passed her in the doorway with a politely murmured, “Thank you.”
She stood for a few moments watching him break down the bed. Until she escaped to her office.
There were arrangements to make, the obituary to send out. At Will’s request, she and Ryder had written it weeks ago and submitted it to Will for his review. He’d made his tweaks and it was done, ready to go. Just waiting for Will to go, too.
There were trust details to look at, the lawyer to call, and authorities that had to be informed, social security, disability, insurance companies. And all Will’s friends to contact, as well as his associates at the hospital where he’d once practiced medicine before it became too much for him. His parents were already making calls, and his brothers would also help with that when they arrived tomorrow. There were so many things to be done.
Yet she sat at her desk barely moving as the sun crept slowly across the rug. It seemed odd that the sun should still be shining the day after Will died, that this day in mid-March should be so cloudless and pretty. It usually rained in March in the Bay Area. It should have been raining.
Isaac wasn’t loud, he was respectful. But she heard every clink and clank of metal. The dismantling of their life together.
There was no longer Will and Jules. Now there was just her. It seemed that she’d looked after Will forever. She couldn’t remember what life had been like before he got sick, ten years ago, when they’d still had dreams of a future and a family.
Back then their lives had been filled with work and plans and house-hunting and friends and trying to have a baby.
Then her life had become filled with only Will.
Finally she turned on her computer, the facial recognition looking for her. Not finding her. As if she were a stranger.
She was aware of the slight puff of Isaac’s breath as he carried disassembled pieces out to the truck.
The computer gave up and told her to sign in with her pin number.
Her desktop background popped up, a photo of her and Will at the beach with the dog. God, she missed that dog. They hadn’t gotten another pet after Star died. By then, Will had been diagnosed. There was no room for dogs. No room for children. No room for anything but his cancer and her fear.
Maybe now she would get a dog. Or a cat.
The realization hit her like a sharp stab right behind her eye. She was already planning her life without Will: She could do this and she could do that, get a dog, get a cat, when really, she had no idea what she’d do. For so long life had been only about Will. She had no clue how to adjust.
She’d scared herself yesterday with her thoughts when the hospice aides had come to bathe Will. When they’d told her his time was close.
She remembered the thump of the woman’s words in her chest. If they turned Will, the aide said, he would pass, that’s how close he was to the end. Then came the awful thud of Julia’s thoughts inside her head. Turn him. Just turn him. And finally shame when she realized what she’d been thinking, what she’d been praying. As if she wanted him to die.
The truth was that Will had already checked out. He’d had a host of visitors a week ago. His brothers had flown out to see him, his parents had visited every day, so many of his friends had dropped by. No one had expected it to happen so fast, yet it was clear now that Will had been saying goodbye.
The moment they were all gone, when the house was quiet and empty, Will seemed to turn himself off. Within two days he was in a comatose state. And three days later, the hospice worker was telling her that Will’s time had come. But her Will had already left.
She’d taken the time only to call Will’s parents and Ryder. When they arrived, the aides had begun the ritual bathing as the family crowded round the foot of the bed. Just as the nurse had said, when they began to turn him, Will’s body finally gave up. Julia saw the moment his soul rose from him in that last puff of his breath. There had been something visible, tangible, a shimmering in the air above him.
She’d looked at Ryder then. There’d been so much written in his gaze. Pain, grief, loss.
She had felt only relief.
And now she felt only guilt.
She’d tried to tell herself the relief was for Will, that he was no longer suffering. But she was out of her misery, too. And that was where the shame and disloyalty surfaced.
She heard Isaac as he once again passed down the hall, but this time the footsteps stopped outside the office door. She forced herself to turn, making sure nothing showed on her face. But she knew that without the shame and guilt, there was no grief in her expression either. He probably thought she was a heartless bitch.
Yet his voice was gentle. “I’m all done, Mrs. Bellerman. Is there anything else I can do for you?” He waited a beat, like the flutter of butterfly wings in the air, then added, “I could make you a cup of tea, if you’d like.”
It was the kindness that almost shattered her. The generosity of his smile. The understanding in his deep brown eyes. Maybe it was because he was a stranger, but she wanted to throw herself at him and cry out every second of the last ten years. All the heartache, all the lost dreams, all the pain.
But in the next brief second, the moment was washed away. She could never tell anyone. Because then she’d have to admit to the relief she felt, too.
“Thank you so much, Isaac.” She used his name to acknowledge her appreciation for what he was trying to do for her. Even if she couldn’t accept. “You’re so kind. But I’ll be okay. Thank you for the offer, though.”
He nodded, his bald head shiny in the light that fell through the floor-to-ceiling windows along the hallway.
Rising, she walked him to the door, tried to tip him, but he refused. Then he shook her hand in both of his, holding on one second longer, letting a sense of healing warmth pass between them.
Julia stood framed in the open door, waved as he pulled away, as if he were a lifelong friend she was sending off on a long journey. She wondered how many souls he’d comforted with that sympathetic smile, soft voice, and gentle manner.
She knew he was an angel, that he did this job because it was a calling, because he could offer comfort in a way friends and family could not.
She only wished she could have taken it.
Once again the house was too empty, too silent. When she trailed back to the bedroom, it felt vacant, unlived in. Will was gone. And so was everything that had become a natural part of their lives—the hospital bed, the medical equipment, the shower chair, the portable commode.
In the bathroom, she found the evidence of what was left of Will, an array of pills and tubes. She billowed the sweatshirt she was wearing, piled the bottles into the pouch she’d made, carrying them all to the kitchen. Leaning over, she shook the sweatshirt, dumping everything onto the counter, then fished a plastic bag out of the drawer and began opening the child-protective tops, dumping the contents into the baggie for disposal. She ended up needing three bags before every pill was packaged.
She didn’t know why she was doing it today, of all days. It was just that there was nothing else to do. Or maybe she just couldn’t think of the best thing to do. She couldn’t talk to anyone, but she couldn’t do nothing either. She couldn’t look at her computer with all the pop-up messages telling her so-and-so had emailed her or messengered her or tagged her on Facebook.
For so long, everything had been about Will. And now, without Will, she had no purpose.
When the bottles were empty, she tore off the labels and ripped them up, which was probably some OCD thing she’d developed. She’d become obsessive-compulsive about not having a list of their prescriptions just thrown in the trash. Like someone was actually going to paw through the garbage to find all Will’s pill bottles… and do what with them? Sometimes she thought she was going crazy.
Haunting the hallway again, she passed her office. But she didn’t want to fill out all the death certificate information. It was too much to think about right now. In the bedroom, she began opening the bureau drawers. They’d long since gotten rid of Will’s suits and dress shirts and ties. At the hospital, before he’d stopped being able to practice medicine, he’d mostly worn casual clothes, and his drawers were filled with polo shirts and T-shirts and shorts and jeans.
She wondered if Ryder would want any of it. It was all fairly new. Will had lost so much weight, they’d had to buy him a new wardrobe.
What was she thinking? Of course none of it would be good for Ryder. He’d always been more muscular than Will. Taller and broader and healthier than Will. Even in college, when she’d first met them both, Ryder had liked the workout room and his rowing team, and Will had liked his junk food. He’d never been overweight, but after thirty, he’d started to show a little paunch. She’d teased him, telling him it was cute.
But Ryder never had a paunch. During the couples’ vacations they’d taken together before Elaine and Ryder had children, Will had always joked that Ryder was the eye candy. Julia had never regretted that she ended up with Will and Elaine got Ryder. Not even on the worst days with Will. Sure she’d been jealous in the beginning; she’d dated Ryder first and maybe things would have been very different if Elaine hadn’t walked into their scene.
But now Elaine and Ryder had divorced. And Will was dead. Their paths had turned out so very differently than they’d expected during their college days. In the last ten years, she’d needed Ryder so much more as a friend than anything else. He’d been her lifeline. He’d gone through everything with her. She couldn’t have been as strong without him.
So many nights, they’d sat on the couch talking quietly, sharing a bottle of wine at the end of a long, long day after Will had finally fallen asleep, sometimes restful, sometimes fitful. She’d never wished that she’d married Ryder instead. She’d never wished Elaine hadn’t broken them up. And if she’d had one or two erotic dreams about Ryder, they were only because she was lonely, only because Will couldn’t manage the physical intimacy she craved. She and Will had become intimate in so many other ways, but she couldn’t deny that sometimes she’d wanted a man’s touch.
That’s all those dreams of Ryder had been, a need for something physical. She never would have acted on them.
She stared down into the drawer. The colors hadn’t faded with too many washings and the jeans were still crisp.
But Will’s clothes would never fit Ryder.
In the quiet, quiet, quiet house, the front door opened.
Her heart leapt as Ryder’s deep voice carried down the hall. “Hey Julia, where are you?”
She told herself the leap of her heart had nothing to do with Ryder. His voice in the quiet had simply startled her.
But in that secret room she kept locked deep inside her, she knew it was a lie. That she’d been lying to herself about a lot of things.