The fluorescent light above the hard vinyl bench where Bristol Quinn sat buzzed like a determined insect against a window screen. The doctor was still talking, but all Bristol could hear was the buzz.
Her sister was dead. Buzz.
“Head trauma… damage too extensive.” Buzz. Buzz.
“Nothing more we can do.” Buzz.
She heard her mother’s stifled sob and mechanically wrapped an arm around the woman’s waist. Her father’s strong arm already rested on her shoulders like a lifeline. Together they would keep her anchored to this world. Bristol’s older sister, Savannah, stood next to her, shaking her head from side to side as she tried to simultaneously process and reject the news.
“I’m very sorry,” the doctor said, sinking down in front of them. “And I know this is a very difficult thing to hear, but Hope could still save a lot of lives.”
Her little sister was the youngest EMT in Hope Falls history and had been studying to become a trauma surgeon. The young woman who had more life in her eyes than most people did in their entire bodies was gone. It wasn’t possible.
Bristol cleared her throat. The words came out in a stranger’s voice. “You’re talking about organ donation?” she asked.
He had tired, sad eyes nearly the same shade of gray as the hair that peeked out from under the green of his scrub cap. Bristol wondered how many times he’d had this conversation in the course of his career. Could someone ever become insulated, if not immune, from tiptoeing into the lives of families only to destroy the reality they’d held so dear?
How was she going to tell Violet that her beloved aunt, the woman who had helped raise her, was gone? Bristol shuddered at the thought. As her mother, it was her job to protect Violet. But there would be no softening this blow for either of them.
He nodded. “I know this is a difficult request to consider, especially at a devastating time like this. But we only have a small window of time.”
Bristol forced herself to look at her father. Big Bob Quinn was a man of few words and a spine of iron. His normally smiling face was now uplifted toward the buzzing light, his broad shoulders shaking as a silent pain wracked his body. His eyes closed, and his lips were moving as if begging to wake up from a nightmare. Her mother, Mary, with her dark chestnut hair and Italian olive skin, leaned unblinkingly against her husband of thirty-one years. Savannah, the oldest of the Quinn girls, clutched the hand of her fiancé, Vincent. Her hazel eyes were red with tears that threatened to never stop flowing.
No one spoke.
“I think we should do it,” Bristol said, mustering up a confidence that she didn’t quite feel yet.
“I just don’t know,” Mary said, her voice as tight and frayed as an old thread. “I don’t know.”
Bristol squeezed her mother around the waist. “Mom, Hope would have wanted this. It’s who she is.” Her voice broke. She wasn’t ready to change the tense of her little sister’s life.
Savannah nodded. “We should do it,” she echoed. “It’s the right thing.”
The doctor, whose name Bristol had forgotten the moment he’d spoken it, looked down at his hands. “I met Hope when she started her residency here. She was a very bright star in the emergency department.”
Mary nodded, her mouth pinched in a tight line as if to hold back the wave of grief that threatened to overtake her. “Please donate her organs. It’s what she would want.”
Bristol’s father reached out and put a large hand on the doctor’s arm. “Please make her matter. Make this mean something.”
“Mr. Quinn, I promise that this is the right decision. You will never regret this choice, and countless families will be grateful to you and your family for life.”
Eight months later…
Dear Hope’s Heart Recipient,
What a strange way to address a letter, but I don’t have a name to go with the person who now has my sister’s heart. In a way, besides our entire town stepping in to help us honor Hope’s life, the biggest comfort my family has had in the past several months is the knowledge that our Hope lives on in you and the other recipients.
But this isn’t a sad letter. I’m going to ask you for a favor, and I don’t want to guilt you into it. Now, back to buttering you up.
My name is Bristol. I’m Hope’s sister, and I hope that your recovery is going well. I thought maybe you’d like to know a bit about the woman whose heart you received because, frankly, she was pretty awesome. Hope was in medical school and planning to become a trauma surgeon, which pretty much put the rest of the family to shame for our career choices. I basically serve coffee for a living, and my older sister is an attorney who specializes in divorce, but Hope has been saving lives since she became an EMT at eighteen.
Of course, that’s not the whole picture. She loved cats, the fatter the better. She hated sweet potatoes with a passion. She had zero interest in fashion and makeup, which the rest of the family joked was her primary reason for wanting to be a doctor. She owned more sets of scrubs than t-shirts. Hope loved slapstick comedy, and she snorted when she laughed. She loved to sing, even though she had the opposite of talent. She didn’t have much time to read or watch TV, but when she did find the time, she preferred scary books and shows and then slept with the lights on.
Her favorite food was chocolate anything, and when she was a little girl, she wanted to be a garbage man when she grew up. She took ballet until she broke out in a spontaneous breakdancing routine in the middle of a recital when she was seven. She made the best pecan pie the world has ever known, and she once fell down the stairs running away from a bird that hopped through an open window in our parents’ house.
So the reason I’m writing is two-fold. I thought you might like to know something about your new heart, and I’m back to that favor.
My older sister is getting married between Thanksgiving and Christmas. She considered postponing it, but to be honest, our family could use a shot of happiness. It would mean the world to all of us if you would consider attending the wedding. The ceremony will take place at Hope Falls Community Church at 4 p.m. on December 15, and the reception will be a huge party afterwards at Mountain Ridge Convention Center.
I hope you’ll consider joining us. Meeting you and knowing that our sister lives on through you would be the best Christmas present I could ask for. But no pressure. Okay, maybe a little bit of pressure. Just kidding. If I don’t hear back from you, I completely understand. There’s something to be said for only looking forward in life, and I hope that your future is full of love, happiness, and all good things.
P.S. If you develop a sudden craving for putting ruffled potato chips on your peanut butter and jelly sandwich, that’s all Hope.
Bristol was already awake and staring at the clock on her nightstand when the alarm sounded. She’d always been a morning person, but she found herself sleeping even less ever since… since.
She afforded herself one long, full-body stretch before putting her feet on the floor and officially starting her day.
She didn’t bother reaching for any light switches as she tiptoed down the hallway until she hit the wide-open living space. Her daughter, Violet, took after Bristol’s ex-husband and preferred late nights to early mornings. Bristol did her best not to wake the cranky, eight-year-old beast until absolutely necessary in the mornings.
She brewed a cup of coffee and took it to her favorite spot in the sprawling apartment. She’d had the contractor add a window seat to the rounded brick turret that overlooked Hope Falls’ Main Street. It was the perfect vantage point for watching the small town hustle and bustle below. Still shrouded in darkness, Hope Falls slept peacefully. But the MMA gym across the street would be opening in an hour for the first round of classes, and downstairs Early Bird would be bustling with the morning breakfast crowd of athletes, firefighters, and high school students and faculty desperate for caffeine and protein.
Bristol had opened the trendy breakfast spot three years ago and never regretted it for a second. She’d bought the building, then a crumbling three-story pile of bricks, with help from her parents and her ex, Nolan, and turned it into a space where she could live and work. Close to her family and Violet’s school and ideally located for the restaurant she’d planned for since college, it had felt like a dream come true.
She’d turned the retail space into a hip and homey spot to grab contemporary spins on traditional breakfast foods and coffees. Upstairs, she’d continued her renovation, leaving the exposed brick and ducting and designing a loft-style apartment around the tall, arching windows that overlooked Main Street and the fire station.
It was a large and airy space, and when her younger sister, Hope, had moved into her spare room during medical school, Bristol had felt like it really was home. Until it wasn’t.
Hope’s accident… her death, Bristol corrected herself, had ripped normal and happy away from all of them. In the days after Hope’s funeral, Bristol had cleaned out her sister’s room, packed away her things, and then had shut the door. That was eight months ago. Neither she, nor Violet, could bring themselves to open it again.
Enough reverie for the morning, Bristol chided herself. Life went on, even if she didn’t want it to. She had a restaurant to open, a daughter to raise, and another day to get through.
She padded away from the window and into the kitchen. Turning on the lights that hung over the island, Bristol flooded the room with a soft glow. With her second cup of coffee, Bristol opened her laptop on the island and ran through her to-do list. Today was Saturday, which meant order day for the restaurant, and Vi had another hockey game in the afternoon. She made a mental note to dress warm. Not only had the cold snap arrived early in Hope Falls, but it had decided to stay. King’s Pond was already frozen solid, and it wasn’t much warmer inside the Kirkwood Ice Arena where the watered down hot chocolate served at the rink’s dingy snack stand only did so much to keep parents warm.
She grimaced at the calendar. Thanksgiving was less than a week away, and Savannah and Vincent’s wedding three weeks. It had been a hard year, and Bristol couldn’t imagine the effort it would take for the Quinns to face the holidays and the wedding with smiles on their faces. Their first Thanksgiving without Hope. Bristol added a new item to her to do list: Find Hope’s recipe for pecan pie.
If her sister couldn’t be there with them, at least her Hope Falls Christmas Eve Carnival-winning recipe could be. A glance at the clock told her she’d dallied long enough. It was time to open up downstairs.
Bristol was still pulling her long brown hair into a high ponytail when she pushed through the downstairs door of Early Bird. The convenience of her commute never lost its charm. One flight of stairs, and she was at work while Violet savored every last second of sleep before school.
Margo, part short order cook, part sous chef, was already there, turning on exhaust fans and starting the first pots of coffee of the day. She was a short, solidly built woman with red hair and cheeks. There was nothing traditionally beautiful about her, but Margo still managed to catch the eye of every man over fifty in town.
“Morning, Margo,” Bristol said in greeting, rolling up her sleeves and reaching up to flick on warming lights near the register. She’d designed Early Bird so she wouldn’t need servers. Customers ordered at the register, and Margo or Bristol or whoever else was manning the beverage station called out names when orders were up. It was an efficient solution to quickly serve both eat-in and to-go customers. The standing queue for those waiting for to-go orders was organized around the community bulletin board that educated customers on everything from Hope Falls events to free kittens to music lessons.
The sit-down portion of the restaurant consisted of wooden tables in varying shapes and sizes surrounded by brightly painted contemporary metal chairs. The original floors, scarred from decades of use, had been sanded down and refinished to their current glossy glory. Shelves held tempting treats and gift ideas as well as books that spilled over from Read Between the Lines two blocks over. The brick walls served as gallery space for local artists. This month, Early Bird was featuring Tessa Maguire’s landscape collection and nearly every one of the photographs had sold already.
“Still not sleeping, huh?” Margo asked as she inventoried the eggs and milk in the cooler.
“I sleep just fine,” Bristol insisted.
“That why you’re wearing two different sneakers?”
Crap. Bristol glanced down at her shoes, one gray and one navy. “You may have a small, tiny, practically miniscule point,” she admitted.
Margo grunted and shook her head. She knew better than to try to talk Bristol into anything, especially taking a day off or coming in late.
“You’re going to work yourself into spinsterhood if you don’t start thinking about yourself for a change,” the cook warned, shaking a metal spatula at her.
Bristol rolled her eyes and busied herself with the register, the espresso machine, and the smoothie ingredients. Spinsterhood, or its opposite, was not on her radar at this point. She’d tried marriage—very briefly—and hadn’t liked it. Her relationship with Nolan had improved drastically as soon as the ink had dried on their divorce papers six years ago.
Since then, she’d managed the occasional date, but nothing serious ever materialized. Or, more accurately, she hadn’t pursued anything serious. She had a daughter and a business. And now?
Now, she had a hole in her heart that no man or similar distraction could fill.
“How are Vanna’s wedding plans coming?” Margo called from the depths of the kitchen.
“Good,” Bristol yelled back. “Had our dress fittings a couple of days ago, and the good news is none of us gained forty pounds and ripped out the seams.” Dress day had been an emotional one. Hope had been there the day Savannah chose her wedding dress, and they’d settled on the bridesmaid dresses. In fact, it had been Hope who encouraged Savannah to try on the fussy lace gown with the beaded bodice. And Savannah, the coolly logical woman who weighed all of life’s big decisions with a detailed pro and con list, burst into tears when she saw herself in the dress.
There’d been tears again this weekend, but of a different kind. Hope’s dress was there hanging on a hanger with no one to claim it.
The generally stoic Savannah had tearfully confessed in a dressing room that she didn’t want to get married without Hope there. She’d hoped that a happy occasion would help the family heal. But now she was worried that what was supposed to be the happiest day of her life would end up being a painful reminder to everyone who was missing Hope.
“Do you still like your dress?” Margo asked, bustling in with a huge mixing bowl of sourdough pancake batter tucked under her arm.
Bristol nodded and bit her lip. “I did something probably really stupid,” she confessed.
“Oh, Lord. You didn’t change your mind and go with that tangerine sequined prom number did you?” Margo asked, mixing rhythmically.
“Oh, this is way worse,” Bristol warned her. “Vanna was feeling pretty down about Hope after the fitting, so I went home and wrote a letter.”
“To who? Hope?” Margo frowned.
“To the organ donation program at the hospital.”
“Uh-huh,” Margo said warily.
“The program is anonymous. So recipients don’t know who donated and vice versa,” Bristol explained. “But they allow both parties to write letters, if they so choose.”
“And you so chose?”
Bristol nodded. “I wrote a letter to her heart recipient, and I…” she started to lose courage and trailed off.
“Yeah. I invited the recipient to the wedding.”
Margo stopped mixing.
“Did I make a huge mistake?” she asked.
Margo began to mix again. “The way I see it is there’s three outcomes. One, you hear back from the recipient and they’re a horrible human being, and your family is devastated. Two, the recipient is amazing, and your family finally gets some peace. Or, three, you don’t hear anything from anyone.”
“Well, let’s hope it’s not option number one,” Bristol said dryly.
Margo patted her arm. “Honey, I think it was a beautiful sentiment and could do you all a lot of good.”
“Thanks, Margo,” Bristol said, feeling relieved.
“On the other hand, Hope’s heart could be beating in some mafia hitman’s chest as he rots in prison and passes the time selling drugs to other inmates.”
“Thanks, Margo,” Bristol groaned.
“I’m just messin’ with you, honey. It’s Hope’s heart. Of course it went to someone who deserved it,” Margo said with a conviction Bristol wished she felt.
There was a knock at the glass door, and Bristol waved a hand at the duo on the other side as she tied on her apron. “Ready for chaos?” she asked Margo with a grin.
They opened at six sharp and closed up at eleven every morning, seven days a week. The hours gave Bristol the flexibility to be there for Violet after school and in the evenings. Not that her workday was ever over in five hours. There was always paperwork, ordering, accounting, and a thousand other things to manage. But Bristol loved it.
She unlocked the door for Deanna and Eli, firefighters just coming off a call from the looks of their tired, dirty faces.
“Morning, guys,” she said, waving them both in the direction of Margo’s fresh coffee.
“Hey there, Bristol,” Deanna greeted her with a tired smile. Her light brown hair was escaping from the low ponytail that had been tied hastily at some point during the night. She had a smudge of soot on her chin.
“There’s a face worth being awake for at this ungodly hour,” Eli said with a wink. He breezed in just under six feet with dirty blond hair and a crooked grin that had the female out-of-towners blushing until closing at JT’s Roadhouse. He was an incurable flirt, but beneath his charming exterior was a really nice guy who’d shoveled Early Bird’s walk every snowfall since Hope died.
Both carried the acrid smell of smoke with them.
“How was the call?” Bristol asked.
“Car fire out on the highway,” Deanna yawned and stretched her arms overhead. “No injuries, thankfully. But there’s no way I’m dragging my ass to Lucky’s class this morning. I need to fuel my body with something cheesy and carby.”
“I think we can hook you up,” Bristol said with a grin.
Bristol hustled back behind the counter and prepared for war as two more customers wandered in. Hope Falls may have been limited when it came to nightlife, but it sure put on a show for the early morning crowd.
She and Margo were Early Bird’s only full-time staff. They filled in the schedule with a handful of solid part-timers who kept the place running at its highest efficiency. By seven every weekday morning, they found themselves running at full speed and stayed that way until nine or ten. Brunch on Sundays was growing steadily, and Bristol had been toying with the idea of adding another cook. But, as with every other decision this year, she’d found herself unable to pull the trigger.
Her world had been shaken, and there was no bouncing back from it. She was still just hanging on. Maybe someday she’d find that energy and drive that had her staring at a dusty pile of bricks and seeing a thriving enterprise, a happy home.
But for now, she’d hang on by her fingernails and hope for the best.