Romance First Place Winner: "Just a Little Push" - Writer's Digest

Romance First Place Winner: "Just a Little Push"

Congratulations to Leslie Wibberley, first place winner of the Romance category in the 15th Annual Writer's Digest Popular Fiction Awards! Here's the winning short story, "Just a Little Push."
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Congratulations to Leslie Wibberley, first place winner of the Romance category in the 15th Annual Writer's Digest Popular Fiction Awards! Here's the winning short story, "Just a Little Push."

Leslie Wibberley

[See the complete winners list.]

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Just a Little Push

The choppy waves toss the ferry back and forth as we approach the shore. I wonder again why I thought this was a good idea. Nantucket in summer is happy crowds, cerulean skies, and sandy beaches. Nantucket in November is slate-colored water, dried, brown grass, and icy winds—a far less inviting prospect.

The scenery might be spectacular, especially for a photographer like me, but that's not what brought me here. I came because of a strange, almost mystical dream. One I've had every night for a month now, since the second anniversary of my husband Danny's death.

My best friend Jayne tells me Danny sent the dream. Because there's something he wants me to do before I can move on. I laugh and tell her no, it's because I read too many ghost stories.

This dream, though, is too vivid to ignore.

In it, I'm striding down a cobblestone street toward a two-storied clapboard with dusty grey shingles and a sapphire colored door. Elegant blue script set in a white sign announces: The Magnolia House Bed and Breakfast.

I always wake as soon as I step through the bright blue door.

The dream leaves me with an urgent longing to visit Nantucket, the island of my ancestors, and the uncompromising certainty that if I do, the peace that has eluded me since Danny's death will finally be mine.

So, here I stand, bones turned to ice despite a woolen coat and thick red scarf, while the wind attempts to turn my auburn curls into a bird's nest. All the while questioning my sanity. The ferry docks with a bump and, for good or bad, I've arrived.

I fully expect to wander the streets aimlessly. Instead, the instant my feet hit solid ground, my legs propel me toward some unknown destination.

The cobblestone street is lined with trees that arch gracefully overhead. No doubt they provide blissful shade during the heat of summer, but on this cool, grey day their barren branches fill me with a sense of unease. Many of the shops are closed for the season, dark windows adding another layer of discomfort to my expanding trepidation. I shake my head at the folly of this trip, but keep walking.

Ten minutes later, and there it is, The Magnolia House Bed and Breakfast. Brick steps lead up to the sapphire door. Beside the stairs, almost hidden by a patch of ivy, a winding ramp runs up the side of the building.

Shock steals my breath. There's no way I should know this place exists. I've never been to Nantucket. And I'd found no place with this name when I searched online.

The world spins in a dizzying circle. I have to grab the wooden railing at the side of the steps to stop from toppling over. I take slow breaths to calm myself. When the spinning stops, I climb the stairs and twist the handle of the bright blue door. A bell dings as I step hesitantly through the doorway.

The light in the entrance is dim, the air filled with a calming mixture of lemon and lavender. I scan the space. A long rectangular rug in shades of crimson and blue covers a wide planked floor. At the far wall is a wooden counter backed by a shelving unit.

A woman walks in from a back room and stands behind the counter. Tall and angular, with silver hair swept up in a tidy bun, her face is wreathed in a wide smile.

"Good afternoon, Miss. May I help you?" she asks, her accent proper and precise. "I, I think I want a room," I stutter, my voice a thin thread. "Do you have any available?"

The woman laughs, a soft musical sound. "It's November, my dear. All my rooms are available." She flashes a wry smile. "Did someone recommend us to you?"

I shake my head, unwilling to share my odd dream.

"I'm not sure how you found us, though I'm happy you did. I don't advertise online. I'm not big on such things. Word of mouth recommendations keep me plenty busy in the summer, and I appreciate the quiet of the off-season."

My gaze travels across the wide entrance. "This place is beautiful."

Her eyes light up. "Yes. It belonged to my husband's family. They're all gone, now. There's only my son and me. He moved here two years ago." She picks up a pair of wire-rimmed glasses and slips them on. "Have you been to Nantucket before?"

"No. This is my first visit."

"I should probably warn you. Nantucket is one of the most haunted places in the country. Though, most say our ghosts are the friendly sort."

"I've read a bit about the island's history. My family lived here a few generations back. And I wouldn't be afraid if I met a ghost. I've always been fascinated by stories of the supernatural."

She smiles, a glint in her eyes. "Well, if that's the case, you should enjoy your time on Nantucket." Opening the registry, she asks, "How long are you planning to stay?"

"Uhmm, I…I'm not sure."

"No need to fret. As I said, all our rooms are available. You can stay as long as you need. We have a lovely room overlooking the water. Includes all meals, plus wine or beer, and snacks each afternoon between three and six. You're welcome to enjoy those on the back porch. My son had some fancy propane heaters installed, so it's quite nice with a blanket tucked around you." Giving me no chance to reply, she adds, "Yes, this should suit you just fine." She names a price and slides the registry towards me. "You can pay when you leave. I just need a credit card to put on your account." She hands me an old- fashioned brass key.

"Thank you," I say, thrilled at the reasonable price. I give her my card, and take the key, its solid weight comforting in my hand.

#

The room is on the second floor, bright, spacious, and decorated in shades of cream and rose. I flop down on the king-sized bed with its fluffy comforter and giant pillows. The mattress is divine. I'm tempted to curl up and take a nap, but when I peek at my watch, I see that it's five o'clock, just enough time to enjoy the promised refreshments. And more importantly, try and figure out what has brought me to this place.

I head downstairs and through the wide French doors at the back of the house.

The covered porch faces the restless sea. The sky is just beginning to transition to a deep cobalt as I step outside into the brisk wind that whistles and keens. Overhead, gulls scream a countermelody to the crash of waves against the shore. The slow rhythm tugs at something in my belly. It melts a little more of the tension I've carried…forever, it seems, though only since Danny's death.

Wrought iron tables are scattered across the wide porch. White wicker chairs with plump cushions in shades of aubergine and mauve invite me to sit and forget my troubles. I settle into a chair beneath a glowing red heater, wrap myself in a blanket the color of new heather, and wait. After a minute I begin to wonder if I should've ordered something before coming out.

"Good afternoon, Miss. I've brought you some refreshments," says a deep voice from behind me. I jump, almost slipping from the chair.

An elderly man with a receding hairline and solemn face glides to the front of the table. He's impeccably dressed in an old fashioned black tuxedo complete with a jaunty bow tie. I stare at his pristine white gloves, taken aback by his formal appearance.

Good heavens, they have a butler?

He gives a little bow and sets a tray filled with an assortment of tiny sandwiches and petite fours on the table. My stomach grumbles. I hadn't realized how hungry I am. He removes a small teapot covered with delicate blue flowers from his tray. He adds a matching cup and saucer, and lays a linen napkin across my lap.

"Would you care for some tea?"

"That would be lovely, thank you." Something about his lined face seems familiar.

"Very well," he says and pours my tea.

The wind tugs the blanket from my lap. I bend to retrieve it, and when I straighten, he's gone. He certainly moves fast for an old man.

The sandwiches are wonderful, watercress and cucumber, just like a traditional high tea. I eat three, and four of the small cakes that taste of cinnamon and vanilla, and take a sip of my tea. Pure heaven.

I lean back and inhale the fresh air, savoring the faint scent of seaweed and salt.

The heater radiates warmth against my face, and the blanket is cozy. Surprised by a sense of homecoming, I close my eyes and smile as the last remnants of tension release.

Perhaps this wasn't such a bad idea after all.

#

The rumbling of rubber tires rolling across the wooden floor tugs my eyelids open. A man in a wheelchair, possibly in his early thirties, moves toward my table. A tray with a single glass of white wine and a plate heaped with fruit, several kinds of cheese, and crackers is balanced on his lap.

"Mom guessed you'd want white wine," he says without bothering to introduce himself. "So don't blame me if this isn't what you want."

Ah, the son, I presume. His manner is rather abrupt, almost rude. So why on earth does his voice do something odd to my knees? My palms are suddenly sweaty as I press them against my trembling thighs. The odd sensation builds as he hands me the glass and plate.

"Thank you, white wine is perfect." I take the wine and snacks and set them on the table. All evidence of my tea has vanished. The butler must have been back while I dozed. I wonder why he didn't bring me the wine, but perhaps he's on a break.

The man in the chair nods without really looking at me, and wheels away. Moody fellow, I think, still wondering at my odd reaction to him. But I refuse to let his less than welcoming attitude ruin my evening. I still have no idea why I'm here, but I'm glad I am. I close my eyes again and let the symphony of the sea wash over me.

"Will you be needing anything else, Miss?"

It's the butler again, once more startling me with his stealth. Good heavens. This man must have been a cat burglar in another life.

"No, I'm good, thanks." He feels so familiar to me, so kind, I find myself smiling and patting the chair beside me. "Please join me for a minute? I'd love someone to chat with." I don't expect him to sit, but if I'm the only guest, what could he possibly need to do?"

He surprises me by perching rigidly on the edge of the chair. "It would be my pleasure, Miss." That sense of familiarity grows even stronger.

"Have you worked here long," I ask, curious as to why he's still working when he must be at least seventy.

He nods. "You could say that, yes."

"You must enjoy the job to still be working at your age." My cheeks flame as I realize how insulting that must have sounded. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to suggest that you're old."

He chuckles. "It's quite alright, Miss. There's no denying the truth. I am old. Much older than you might believe." He slides back in his chair, his posture softening. Inviting me to continue.

Realizing I don't know what to call him, I say, "I'm sorry, I forgot to ask your name." I hold out my hand. "Emma Stonehurst."

"Geoffrey," he says, but doesn't take my hand.

Embarrassed, I let my hand drop. I wonder if it's not considered proper for a butler to shake hands with the guests. "Can you tell me about Magnolia House? I'm curious to know how old it is."

"The house is over two hundred years old, built by a family who made their living in shipping."

My eyes widen. "My great, great grandparents lived on Nantucket, and according to my gran, they worked for a family like that."

"Interesting," he says, "but not all that surprising. Many people on Nantucket made their living off the sea in those days."

"That's true. What else can you tell me? I don't suppose the house is haunted? I love a good ghost story. Perhaps one about a woman with a horribly tragic past?"

"Not all ghost stories are tragic, Ms. Stonehurst," says Geoffrey, his eyes sparkling. "Sometimes the dead linger simply because of a powerful love for a place they can't bear to leave. Other times, they stay to help the living find happiness. And sometimes, it's both."

"How romantic," I say wistfully.

Geoffrey continues in his low, proper voice. "In my experience, some people need a little push to discover what it is they truly need."

I sigh, unable to deny the truth in his words. I'm inexplicably happy to be here, but if not for my strange dream, I wouldn't have come.

"You're here alone." He says it as a statement, not a question.

"Yes," I answer, and in the next moment I'm telling him all about how my husband died in a car crash. I'm not sure why, it's not something I typically share.

"I'm sorry for you loss," says Geoffrey, his brows dipping. "Young Jonathon has a very similar story. The car accident that killed his wife also left him paralyzed.

His words hit me like a punch to the gut. Suffering the loss of a beloved is one thing, but to be paralyzed, too?

Geoffrey leans forward. "It was his writing that saved him." "Writing?" I ask.

He nods. "Jonathon is a well-known author. You might know his work. He writes under the pen name Jackson Avery."

Surprise renders me speechless. I think about the novel upstairs in my bag, Jackson's latest ghost story. I blink a few times before I'm able to speak. "Yes, as a matter of fact, I do. He's my favorite author."

"Some might call that an unusual coincidence."

All the strangeness of the past few weeks rushes at me like a runaway freight train. I feel sick to my stomach, but all I say is. "I suppose they might."

Geoffrey stands. "It would be best if you didn't mention that I shared this information with you. Jonathon values his privacy. That's why his picture is never on any of his books." Giving me another little bow, he says, "I hope you enjoy the rest of your evening, Ms. Stonehurst."

After he leaves, I glance at my watch and see that it's already past seven.

Strangely exhausted, I decide to miss dinner. I head up to my room for the night, hoping a good sleep will help me sort things out.

#

The morning light slides beneath the shades covering the large window at the east end of my room, bathing everything in a golden glow. What a lovely surprise after the bleak, grey weather yesterday. I feel much less overwhelmed this morning, thanks to a deep and refreshing sleep. Not a single dream. I stretch my legs beneath the quilt, not quite ready to get up yet, and wonder again why I was drawn to this place. Is it something to do with the butler? He seems so familiar.

A knock on the door interrupts my pondering. A male voice calls out. "I'm sorry to disturb you, but breakfast is ready in the dining room."

Jonathon. I'm surprised that he's on the second floor. They obviously have an elevator, though I didn't see one yesterday. "Thank you," I say, opening the door just enough to peek out. "I'll only be a minute."

"Okay. See you soon," he says, and wheels away." He seems less…miserable, than yesterday. I rather like that he told me in person instead of just calling my room. Probably because I'm the only guest, but still, it's a nice gesture.

I dress quickly and head downstairs. The dining room is easy to find. I simply follow the scents of fried bacon and fresh bread. Bright sunshine streams through the tall, narrow windows, reflecting off the polished surface of the table and matching buffet.

Jonathon is seated at the table while his mother bustles about. I wonder where Geoffrey is this morning.

"Good morning, Emma. I hope you don't mind if I call you that? Miss Stonehurst seems too formal," says the woman as I walk in.

"No, of course not."

"I'm Maggie." She smiles and says, "We missed you at dinner last night. I hope you slept well."

"Sorry about that. I should've let you know I wouldn't be eating. I was just so tired."

"Not to worry, my dear. The sea air has that effect on some people." Maggie waves a hand toward Jonathon. "This is my son, Jonathon. You two met yesterday I believe?"

We both nod, and she points to the chair beside him. "Have a seat." I sit, a little uncomfortable to be joining them. But I suppose it would be silly to eat all by myself.

Jonathon smiles at me. His eyes are stunning, a brilliant green, lined with thick, dark lashes that match his curls. They stare into mine, and the world drifts to a halt.

"We're so pleased to have you," says Maggie. "Now, would you like bacon, eggs, or some fruit and yoghurt? And I've got some scones baking in the oven."

Her words pull my gaze from Jonathon's. My heart races, as if I've run a marathon in the space of a minute. "Bacon and eggs would be wonderful, thank you," I answer in a shaky voice. I dart a glance at Jonathon. He's still staring at me.

Maggie clears her throat and announces in a loud voice. "I think I'll go check on the scones. They should be finished by now."

After she leaves, Jonathon exhales a long breath. His shoulders relax. "I'm sorry about yesterday. I'm not normally so rude, but Mom kind of just sprung you on me. I hadn't expected anyone to book this late in the year. I'm used to solitude in the winter."

I shrug, still bemused by his green gaze. "It's fine."

Taking my hand, he says, "Let's start over, shall we? I'm very pleased to meet you, Emma Stonehurst." He brushes his lips against my knuckles. My body explodes in a rush of tingling, and it's all I can do not to tug my fingers away.

He releases my hand, a stunned expression filling his eyes.

My heart picks up speed again, breaths so shallow I can't pull enough air into my lungs. My cheeks prickle and I close my eyes, worried I'm about to faint.

"Are you okay," Jonathon asks.

When I open my eyes again, his face is so close I can see the network of fine lines branching out from the corner of each eye. Smile lines, according to my gran, the sign of a happy soul. He's a bit overwhelming at this distance, so I shift away. "I'm fine. Low blood sugar, perhaps?"

Passing me a plate laden with scrambled eggs, he says, "Eat. You need some protein."

I fill my plate, trying to control the bizarre sensations flooding my body. It's been so long since I've felt the touch of a man's lips against my skin. That must be the reason I'm overreacting like this.

Jonathon piles food onto his own plate, and to my amazement, we eat in a comfortable silence. As if sharing a meal is something we've done a thousand times before.

When we finish, he asks, "Feeling better?"

"Much," I say, filled with a powerful sense that this, right now, is exactly where I'm supposed to be. His eyes are so—what are they anyway, deep, soulful, beautiful? I stare at him for a long moment before managing to speak again. "Your mom is a great cook. The high tea yesterday was wonderful. And your butler is so charming. Is today his day off?"

"Butler?" asks Jonathon.

Maggie walks into the dining room before he can reply. "Here you are," she says, placing a basket filled with steaming scones on the table. The buttery scent makes my mouth water."

I take a scone. "I was just telling Jonathon how much I enjoyed the high tea yesterday."

Maggie's expression is confused. Her gaze shifts to Jonathon before returning to me. "High tea?

"Yes, the one Geoffrey served me on the porch."

"Who's Geoffrey," asks Maggie.

My stomach gives a funny little twitch. "Your butler, the elderly man with the old-fashioned tux."

"But we don't have a butler," says Maggie.

Jonathon stares at me, an odd expression flitting across his face. Without breaking his gaze from mine, he says, "Mom. Would you mind if I speak to Emma in private?"

Maggie looks even more confused. "Please?" he says.

"I've no idea what's going on here," she says, shaking her head. "But I'll leave you two alone to figure it out."

"Thanks," says Jonathon as his mother leaves. Once we're alone, he asks, "Would you mind telling me why you came to Nantucket this late in the season?"

I decide to tell him the truth. After all, who better to believe my peculiar story than a man who writes about supernatural things for a living?

Jonathon listens without interrupting. When I'm finished, he wheels his chair back from the table. "I'm sure you're not aware of this, but I'm an author. I write paranormal fiction."

"Actually, I did know. Geoffrey told me."

He shakes his head, his expression unreadable. "I have something you need to see."

My eyebrows rise in question.

"My new book," he says. "I've got a box of ARCs in my room. I'll go get one for you."

"ARCs?"

"Advanced reader copies. This is my new book, soon to be released into the wild."

"And you're going to give me a copy, before it's available to the public? Why?" "You'll understand when you see it."

He leaves, and I rub my forehead, trying to push away the headache that suddenly thrums. This is all too much. First the dream, then a butler who doesn't exist, and now whatever strange thing this promises to be.

A few minutes later, Jonathon wheels back into the room with a book on his lap. He offers it to me.

I take it, smoothing the glossy surface with trembling hands. "Nice cover," I say, admiring the picture of stormy skies and slate grey waves crashing on a rocky shore.

"Read the blurb on the back." I turn the book over and read:

A young widow has a recurring dream that sends her to the island of Nantucket. When she meets the ghost of her ancestor, her past and future collide, bringing the peace she's been seeking, along with a new chance for love.

I flip through the pages, trying to make sense of what I'm reading, because it can't be real.

I look at Jonathon, certain his wondering expression is mirrored on my own face.

We stare at each other in silence, and then I say, "Ancestor?" He nods, "The protagonist's great, great, grandfather."

"But this is impossible."

"Yes, it is."

A soft puff of air lifts the hair at the back of my neck. I spin around, almost knocking over my coffee cup in the process.

"What's wrong?" asks Jonathon.

I don't answer. I'm too busy staring at Geoffrey, albeit a rather transparent version of him. A satisfied expression flashes across the butler's features.

He whispers, "Just a little push," and vanishes into a cloud of dust motes that swirl and dance in the bright swath of sunlight.

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