There once was a girl who’d been praying for a husband since the fourth grade. Over the years she’d prayed for his health, his happiness, his protection, and—okay—sometimes for his good looks. She’d prayed that she would meet him when she was meant to.
Except that she hadn’t.
She’d been avidly expecting and watching for him all this time, from the fourth grade straight up to the age of thirty-one. And though she tried hard to be positive, the truth was that she’d grown tired of waiting. Tired of dating. Tired of breaking off just two bananas from the bunch at the grocery store. Tired of the singles group at church. Tired of living alone.
Worse, she was beginning to doubt that her nameless, faceless husband existed at all. Maybe, late at night in her kid bed, her college bed, her adult single woman bed, she’d been praying for someone who wasn’t coming. Ever.
Perhaps her husband had run in front of a bus as a child. What did God do in that situation? Swap in an understudy? Or maybe she’d missed her husband during the bustle of her college years, never knowing that the shy guy from physics class was the one. Or perhaps, right from the start, God had never intended for her to marry.
Or maybe, just maybe—and this was the hope she still clung to despite the evidence to the contrary—her husband was still on his way.
There once was a mother who’d been praying double hard for her son ever since he’d stopped praying for himself.
From earliest childhood, he’d been extraordinary—a perfect, miraculous blend of athletic ability and focused determination. She and her husband had supported and loved him, but never expected of him what he’d made of himself. How could it even have entered her mind to dream a dream that big? She’d watched with a mixture of sentimental pride and stunned surprise as he’d climbed up every level of the sport of hockey.
By the age of eighteen he was playing professionally. From there, at what she’d thought would be the pinnacle, his star had only continued to rise. He’d been photographed for grocery store magazines. He’d moved into a house surrounded by a wall of security. He’d married a beautiful girl in a grand wedding ceremony filled with the flashes of cameras, wedding planners, and peach-colored roses.
Her son had accomplished it all. The height of success in his career. National fame. Wealth. Personal happiness with his wife.
And then it had all come apart, crashing and rolling out of reach like a handful of spilled marbles. His wife had been diagnosed with cancer and nothing—not money, not the best doctors—had been able to save her. When she’d died, he’d walked away from his sport, from the big house with the wall, from the fame.
In the years since, he’d retreated inside himself to a place where none of his family or friends could reach him. So his mother prayed. She prayed that God wouldn’t forget about him, this son of hers, who’d gained and lost the world in just a third of his lifetime. She prayed that God would send someone who could find him and save him from his prison of grief. And she prayed that maybe, somehow, in time, his heart would soften and he’d find love again.
Funny thing about prayers. God hears them. But you just never know if, when, or how He’s going to answer them.
Kate Donovan entered the town of Redbud, Pennsylvania, for the first time driving a car packed with her seventy-six-year-old grandmother, a comprehensive set of encyclopedias on American antiques, three sacks of nonperishable groceries, and enough pink luggage to give Mary Kay fits of jealousy. It was the end of their three-day car trip from Dallas but only the beginning of their big adventure together.
“Look at this town.” Gran lowered the passenger window. “Look at it! Just try to tell me this isn’t the sweetest town you’ve ever seen.” The afternoon breeze blew into the car, mussing Gran’s stylishly short white hair and sending Kate’s long red ponytail flying. “Didn’t I tell you it was sweet?”
“You did. And it is.” Quaint brick buildings holding shops and restaurants lined Main Street. Kate spotted one adorable B&B and then a painted wooden sign advertising another. The trees dotting the edge of the sidewalk grew above and across the street, forming a tunnel of branches. Gran pointed left and right, telling Kate who’d owned this building when she’d been young, how that one had been a candy store in 1940, and how so-and-so had burned this one to the ground with a cigarette butt.
Before Kate could manage a single good look at anything, the glossy storefronts ended and neighborhoods began.
“Oh, Kate,” Gran said, “we’re almost there!”
After the endless highways, the endless sitting, and the endless fast food, Kate was finally going to see Chapel Bluff. The house where Gran had been raised had belonged to their family since it was built in 1820. Kate had heard stories of it and its generations of occupants since infancy.
“Take a right here, sweetie.”
Kate turned right and followed the lane as it climbed. Charmingly boxy homes with doors painted red and green and black sat back from the road on lots of an acre or more each. The plots grew bigger still until the houses disappeared and countryside took over.
“It’s beautiful here,” Kate said.
“It is, isn’t it?”
Kate punched a button and the sunroof slid open. The air seemed fresher here, clearer. Leaves, bronzed by the Saturday afternoon sunlight, waved and chattered at them from their branches.
“This is it,” Gran said with hushed anticipation. She motioned toward the shady private drive on their left. “Just here.”
Gravel crunched as Kate maneuvered her Explorer upward along the road. The forest cleared and she suddenly got her first sweeping view of the house.
“Chapel Bluff,” Gran said reverently.
Chapel Bluff. Kate released a whistling breath of appreciation and promptly fell in love with it.
Though the drive continued on to what looked like a barn, Kate stopped next to the house and killed the engine. The two of them sat in silence, simply staring.
The three-story house had been constructed of brown and beige stone. A white door covered by a little pointed portico sat squarely in the center, flanked on either side and above by gleaming windows trimmed with white paint and black shutters. Recessed from the middle section of the house, two wings jutted outward. Both were built of the same stone and graced with the same glinting windows. Two dormer windows and no less than three brick chimneys marked the slate roofline.
It looked like something straight out of the English countryside. All it needed was hedgerows and climbing roses.
It would have been one of the prettiest houses Kate had ever seen, except that it had a scruffy, abandoned air about it. There were no flowers, no bikes propped out front, no flags, hay bales with scarecrows on top, or wreaths. Just slightly weedy planting beds, drawn curtains, and the lonely sound of crickets.
Kate gazed past the house to the barn, and then to what appeared to be a small clapboard chapel in the distance. All three buildings stood on a wide meadow. Where the meadow ended, the forest began, rising hill upon hill into the distance. And all of it, as far as the eye could see, Gran always said, was Chapel Bluff land.
It was more, really, than a house on a big chunk of property. It was too rambling and old to be just a house. An estate, maybe.
“Thank you, Kate.” Gran’s voice wavered, and Kate turned to see her grandmother smiling tearfully at her. “For coming with me. It means so much to me.”
Kate leaned over and hugged her. “I’m glad I could bring you. Glad to be here.”
They clambered out of the car and were greeted by a cool mid- September breeze. Gran struck out ahead of Kate, the hem of her long shirt fluttering. Today Gran had on a black turtleneck, black matte jersey pants, and a wine-colored Asian print shirt. She’d accented the outfit with four bracelets, two enormous rings, one necklace of burgundy stones, and her rectangular rimless glasses.
They paused on the porch while Gran fumbled the key into the lock and attempted to turn it.
Kate tried. Gran tried again. Kate tried and finally, after some serious arm wrestling, got the bolt to unclick. The door swung inward with a rusty squeak.
The smell hit Kate first. Mothballs, must, and stale air.
The dimness hit second. She squinted and made her way inside behind Gran. In the murky light she could just make out heavy pieces of furniture, art, and accessories all so unbelievably retro that it would have been funny if it hadn’t been so tacky. “Whoa,” Kate said. “I thought you were half kidding about the furniture.”
“No. It’s been exactly like this since 1955, when Mother had it redecorated.”
They moved around the room opening curtains, letting in light. “Matt brought people out to fix the pipes and make sure the heat’s working,” Gran said. “The electricity should be on.” Experimentally, she turned the knob of a lamp, and amazingly it switched on. “Ah, good.” Hands on her hips, Gran looked about her. “Velma recommended a housekeeper who came by yesterday. The poor woman probably had a fit when she saw the place.”
Kate had taken a three-month leave of absence from her job as a social worker to help Gran renovate Chapel Bluff. Now that she was getting her first good look at the place, she supposed she should feel overwhelmed at the thought of three straight months of work fixing up this Leave It to Beaver time capsule. But instead, as she took in the hideous brown carpet, the ugly maroon sofas, and the dingy beige wallpaper, something like delight rose inside her. This house was begging for help. Begging. More than any house on any HGTV makeover show she’d ever watched. Three months off work to renovate the place? Heaven.
Her fascination grew as Gran took her on a tour of the bottom floor, which held a mammoth den in one wing and an office in the other. A door set at the back of the living room issued them into the dining room, which had picturesque low ceilings, exposed beams, and a long fireplace. A short hallway from there led to an airy kitchen with windows on three sides. Clearly, the kitchen had originally been built as a separate structure from the main house, then joined later by the hallway.
Like the rest of the house, the floor in the kitchen was wide-planked pine, marked with time and wear. And though the outdated curtains and wallpaper had to go, the bright red ’50s-style oven and refrigerator were quirky but cheery. White tiles stretched across the countertops, and a terrific French butcher block sat in the center of the room.
“The kitchen’s actually pretty cute,” Kate remarked.
“I agree. It’s the best of the lot. Matt got the appliances working for us.”
Kate opened the fridge and, sure enough, cold air rushed out.
“He’s a gem, that boy,” Gran said, “and even though I haven’t see him since he was knee high . . . C’mon, sweetie, let me show you the upstairs.” They made their way back to the living room and up the staircase.
“. . . Even though you haven’t seen him since he was knee high,” Kate prompted.
“Even so, I’ll tell you two things I know about Matt Jarreau.” Gran gained the second-story landing and regarded Kate with twinkling eyes. “He’s single. And he’s a hunk.”
Kate laughed. “You think he’s a hunk based on what you remember of him from twenty years ago?”
“Twenty-five. And also the phone conversations we’ve had about the work he’ll be doing for us. I could tell by his voice.”
“I don’t know, Gran. Casey Kasem has a good voice.”
“No, I’m sure of it. We’re the luckiest two women in this town, because I’m telling you, and mark my words, our contractor is a hunk.”
Kate woke the next morning beneath a mound of quilts. She snuggled down deeper, flexed her toes, and for long minutes simply lay there, luxuriating. Chapel Bluff, like all houses, had its own kind of hum. She listened to the creaks and the muffled bumps of the plumbing and furnace. She smelled old wood in the air and Bounty fabric softener on her sheets.
Kate had picked the third-floor attic bedroom for herself, and through the four dormer windows, two on her right and two on her left, she could see slices of treetops and morning sky. Birds circling and chirping.
As she considered the honey-colored wooden ceiling beams above her, the peeling white wall paint, and the curly brass bed frame, a rush of gratitude filled her chest. She’d needed a break from her rut, from her loneliness, from her job, and God had known. He’d given her three months and this beautiful, beautiful old house.
She showered in a second-story bathroom the color of an avocado, and made her way downstairs. Gran was nowhere to be seen, but in the kitchen she discovered freshly baked apple-cinnamon muffins and coffee. She took her time over breakfast before refilling her coffee mug, pouring one for Gran, and taking both mugs outside.
Kate found her grandmother exactly where she’d known she’d be, on her knees in one of the front flower beds. She wore a turtleneck under her gardening overalls, gloves, plastic magenta clogs, and a straw hat with dangling purple ribbons.
The hat tilted upward, exposing a wide smile. “Morning! Is that more coffee?”
“I thought you might like another cup.”
“Thank you.” She pushed to her feet, peeled off the gloves, and accepted the mug.
Minutes later, they were still standing together discussing Gran’s plans for the garden when a white truck turned onto their driveway. It was a Ford Super Duty, a few years old and slightly dusty.
“That’ll be Matt now,” Gran said, waving and making her way forward.
Kate shielded her eyes and watched the driver park, then walk toward them across the lawn. She moved to follow Gran, then slowed.
He wore jeans, scuffed work boots, and a brown and blue flannel shirt that hung open over a white T-shirt. His battered UNC baseball hat was pulled so low that shade slanted across his face.
Uh-oh for her, because Gran had been right.
He was a hunk.
Not only that, but something deep inside her almost seemed to—to recognize him. Which was ridiculous. Kate faltered and stopped.
Gran greeted the man with her trademark affection, hugging him, exclaiming, and smiling. “Kate.” Gran drew him over to her. “This is Matt Jarreau. Matt, my granddaughter Kate Donovan.”
“Nice to meet you,” Kate said.
“Thank you so much,” Gran said to him, “for taking care of the electrical issues and the plumbing and all the rest so that we could move right in.”
“We’ve certainly got a lot of work ahead of us, don’t we?”
“Is it still all right with you to begin by painting the bedrooms where Kate and I are staying? We’d so like to enjoy those rooms during the renovation. . . .”
Gran’s voice went on, but Kate hardly heard. Matt had a fascinating face. Hard, handsome, and grave. A clean jawline and a firm, serious mouth. His nose looked like it had been broken and expertly reset, and faint scars marked the skin below his bottom lip and above an eyebrow. He had dark brown hair, slightly overlong so that it curled out from under the back of his hat.
What took Kate’s breath away, though, were his eyes. They were dark, dark, dark, almost liquid brown. Thoughtful, long-lashed, shielded, and somehow . . . somehow wounded. All the more startling for being set in such a masculine face.
She studied those eyes as he spoke to her grandmother and she thought, Tragedy.
The conversation between Matt and Gran continued. She stood there feeling vaguely idiotic, holding her coffee mug and finding it hard to look away from him. It was as if something within her had been sleeping and now—the longer she was near him—the more it was waking, becoming alert, jangling. That something seemed to be saying, It’s you.
I’ve been waiting.
Which was crazy. Crazy! Yet her heart, as if it knew something her brain didn’t, executed an awkward double beat, and then started pounding anyway.
“. . . Kate and I have already picked out the paint colors for our rooms,” Gran was saying, “but we didn’t know how much you’d need and so we haven’t purchased it yet.”
“I’ll get it for you,” he replied.
“Oh, would you? That would be wonderful.” Gran led the way up the front walk. “Come on inside, and I’ll get the paint swatches.”
Kate and Matt followed Gran into the house. He was over six feet tall and moved like an athlete. She could sense his coordination and strength. She’d bet money that he had some serious muscle, and that the straight fall of his shirt hid a washboard stomach.
“Can I get you something to drink, Matt?” Gran motioned to the kitchen. “We have coffee.”
“I’m fine. Thanks.”
“No. Thank you.”
“All right, then. Here are the swatches.” She swept them off the coffee table and handed them over with the musical click of bracelets. “Do you need to go up and have a look at our bedrooms?”
“I’ve already measured them so I know how much I’ll need.”
“Oh, good.” Gran crossed her arms, tucking her coffee cup into an elbow. “So tell us about yourself, Matt.”
“Not much to tell.” Even at that innocuous question, Kate could sense him retreating.
“I remember you coming over here to play as a boy. Your parents were just about Mother and Daddy’s closest neighbors. Have you lived in town all your life?”
“I lived in New York a while.”
“Oh, did you? Manhattan is such an interesting place. . . .”
As Gran chatted about a recent trip she’d taken to New York, Kate watched Matt move smoothly to the door and take hold of the handle.
In Kate’s experience, men as hot looking as he was had an ego to match. But Matt seemed strangely guarded, almost introverted. He hadn’t smiled, he’d answered all Gran’s questions politely but with few words, and he’d used his posture and expression like a shield.
“Have you been back in Redbud long?” Gran asked him.
“A couple of years. I’d best be going.” He opened the door and walked off the front porch.
“Certainly. We’ll see you later.” Gran waved cheerfully.
They stood watching until his truck pulled out of sight.
“I told you he was a hunk,” Gran said.
“You were right.”
They made their way to the kitchen and went to work cleaning up breakfast. “I get the feeling that something happened to him,” Kate said.
Gran washed off plates and slotted them into the relic of a dishwasher. “To Matt?”
“Yes. Something . . .” Kate stilled, a dish towel dangling from her shoulder. “Something terrible.”
“What gives you that impression?”
“I’m not sure. I just know.”
“I could see it in his eyes.”
Gran stopped, her wet hands dripping water into the sink, and studied Kate shrewdly. “You were unusually quiet around him.”
“I was dumbfounded by him! I couldn’t think of a thing to say.”
“Well, as previously noted, he is a very nice-looking young man.”
To say the least. Matt Jarreau was in-your-face, big-screen, major-league handsome. But there was something more about him than his mere handsomeness . . . something intangible, that had her by the throat. Her stomach still felt fluttery. Which was not good for her. Not. Good. She’d sworn off the really good-looking ones. Absolutely couldn’t go there again.
They resumed their cleaning.
“I’m an excellent matchmaker,” Gran stated. “Very subtle.”
“Oh yes. You were very subtle when you threw me together with Barry Markman at the Fourth of July picnic.”
“It’s just that his grandmother and I are such close friends. We’d hoped . . . Well, how was I to know he had bad breath?”
“Listen, no one is going to make any romantic overtures toward Matt Jarreau.”
“He’s way out of my league.”
“Yes.” She was ordinary. A thirty-one-year-old redheaded virgin with asthma and genetics that didn’t include either hips or boobs. “Even if by some chance he did want to ask me out, I no longer date guys that look like that. I decided a couple of years ago to save myself the anguish.” Everyone knew—and her own experience had confirmed—that good-looking men were usually taken, emotionally unavailable, or narcissists. “Okay?”
“Okay,” Gran sighed.
With a pang of dread, Kate imagined Gran cornering Matt at every turn, begging him to take her poor, forlorn granddaughter on a date.
“Gran, I’m serious.”
“I am, too,” she answered. “You know I’d never do anything to embarrass you.”
Kate could think of dozens of times when Gran had, nevertheless, done exactly that.
Gran dropped two dirty knives into the dishwasher. “However, I do think you and I need to invite him to dinner. Single men don’t eat well. He probably hasn’t had a home-cooked meal in weeks. His mother and father live in Florida now, you know.”
“Inviting him to dinner is fine.”
“Good. Then that’s settled.” Gran rinsed out the sink and dried her hands. “What’s on the agenda today?”
“Today we’ve got to start sorting through everything. We need to decide what to sell at the garage sale, what to sell on eBay, what to toss, and what to keep.”
“Hmm.” She wasn’t going to nurture a single romantic feeling toward Matt and yet . . . she was painfully curious about him. She wanted—it surprised her how much she wanted—to get to know him, to find out what had made him so sad, and hopefully to establish a friendship so that she’d have some company her own age over the coming weeks.
Everyone who knew her knew she had a wide streak of stubbornness running through her. When something got into her head and took root, she couldn’t get it out. And Matt Jarreau had gotten into her head and taken root. He didn’t know it yet, but she was going to find out his secrets and they were going to be friends. “Tomorrow I’m going to help Matt paint.”
The next afternoon Matt Jarreau wiped his hands on his jeans and surveyed the paint job he’d just finished in Mrs. Donovan’s bedroom. The light purple color was a long shot from anything he’d have chosen. Sleeping in here would be like sleeping inside a purple carnation. Still, the room looked a heck of a lot better without the water stains, cracks, and faded paper that had covered the walls and ceiling before he’d started.
He set about cleaning and putting away the supplies he’d used. Other than the paint colors that she and her granddaughter had chosen for their bedrooms, he liked Mrs. Donovan’s renovation plans. She seemed to have an eye for preserving the character of the old house.
Carrying the paint and tarp with one arm and a fresh paint pan and roller brush with the other, he made his way upstairs to the attic room. Yesterday he’d covered the layers of aging wallpaper with a light plaster texture, and this morning he’d taped off the floorboards and the crown moldings. With that done, painting the attic room wouldn’t take long—
He stopped abruptly in the doorway.
Mrs. Donovan’s granddaughter glanced up at him from where she stood in the center of the room.
He waited for her to murmur something about getting out of his way, and then leave.
Instead, she simply stood there.
“I don’t mean to inconvenience you,” he said after a few moments of strained silence, “but I was going to paint in here now.”
“No inconvenience,” she said. “I’m going to help.” She bent and lifted a brand-new roller brush off the floor.
He liked to work alone. In fact, almost everything he did in a day—eat, workout, buy food, watch TV—he did by himself. The people in this town knew that and left him alone. It unsettled him that this stranger wanted to paint with him, that he was trapped in here with her.
Without letting his irritation show, Matt spread out the tarp, wedged the lid off the first can of paint, and stirred it carefully. The pale pink color she’d picked looked like chewed bubble gum.
“Oh, I love it,” she said.
Matt glanced at her and frowned. “Is it Kate?”
“Yep, it’s Kate.”
“You might not want to paint in that outfit.” She had on a white tank top and black pants, the kind that ended above the ankle. He couldn’t remember what women called those. On her feet she was wearing what looked like black ballet shoes.
“This is my painting outfit,” she replied. “See?” She pulled the shirt to the side and pointed to a few flecks of paint on the fabric. “It’s all right.”
He wanted to tell her to take her roller brush and her crazy painting clothes downstairs and out of his space, but she was his client. So instead he nodded, poured the paint, rolled his brush, and went to work.
Out of the corner of his eye he watched her paint a big N on the wall, and then use her roller to fill the space between the two uprights. “I saw them do it like this on Designed to Sell one time.” She smiled.
He grunted and tried to ignore her.
After a while she paused, and he could feel her attention on him. He kept on painting.
“I’m really glad you’re able to help us with this renovation.”
“Gran has been wanting to update this place for a long time.”
He didn’t say anything.
“How long have you been doing this kind of work?”
A few moments of quiet. “So you knew my great-grandparents?”
“I did. They were nice people.”
“Yes, they were. I miss them.”
He kept on painting, hoping she’d drop the small talk.
“You grew up in Redbud?” she asked.
“Just down the road from here?”
He nodded again.
“You know . . .” She paused, studying him. “Having a conversation with you is a lot like having one with myself.”
He met her gaze, frowning.
Her lips twitched, then spread into a big, wide smile. Genuine warmth glittered in her eyes.
He . . . he wasn’t sure what to make of her. He was accustomed, in a way, to women hitting on him. But she wasn’t hitting on him. Teasing him, maybe. Whatever she was doing, he didn’t like it. Didn’t like her questions or the directness of her gaze.
“You seem to be a pretty serious person,” she observed.
He refocused his attention on the wall and resumed painting. “I guess I am.”
“Do you smile much?”
Pain took a slice at his heart, but he managed to deflect the blow so that it only scored a glancing hit. “I don’t know.”
“Hmm. What would it take to make you smile, I wonder? Have you ever seen a skinny girl do jumping jacks? I look like a praying mantis when I do them. But I’m willing to embarrass myself and give it a try.”
“Thanks for the offer. I think I’ll pass.”
“You’ve no idea what you’re missing.”
“I’m sure I don’t.”
She threw back her head and laughed. “Okay, we’re doing better. We’re sort of talking back and forth.”
The squishy sounds of dipping brushes and rolling paint filled the room. He was used to those sounds, familiar with their kind of silence.
He couldn’t remember Kate saying anything at all when they’d met yesterday. She’d been so quiet he’d hardly noticed her. What had happened? He’d liked her better quiet.
Matt shot a glance at her. She reminded him of that movie star from way back . . . the one who was famous for wearing the tiara and shopping at Tiffany’s or something. Audrey? Yeah, Audrey Hepburn. Kate had long dark red hair pulled into a low ponytail, but otherwise they looked alike. She was slim like Audrey Hepburn, with little features and big eyes.
“What do you do for fun?” she asked.
Good grief. “Not much.”
“Well, since you seem so fascinated by the subject, I’ll tell you what I like to do.” She squatted to roll a section near the baseboard. “I’m into antiques. I like going to flea markets. I read. I go to movies and dinners with friends. So . . . now you have to tell me what you do for fun.”
“I work out.”
He caught a glimpse of her wrinkled nose. “Doesn’t that fall more under the category of agony?”
“I watch sports.”
She tucked a long strand of red hair behind her ear. “If there’s not a game on tonight, Gran and I would love for you to stay and have dinner with us.”
“Thanks, but I can’t.”
“She’s a great cook.”
“I’ve got plans,” he lied.
“Maybe another night.” After about thirty seconds of peace, she continued. “So you’re wearing a UNC hat. Did you go to college there?”
“Listen, no offense”—he’d had all of her chatter that he could take—“but I like to work with it quiet.”
She studied him with those eyes of hers—they were hazel with long lashes. He didn’t see any anger in her expression, just curiosity and something that looked like understanding. “Okay,” she said, a dimple flashing in one cheek. “I hear you.” Then she amazed him by returning to work.
She wasn’t going to leave? He watched, frustrated, as she continued painting. A redheaded Audrey Hepburn in ballet shoes, concentrating hard on covering her walls with pink paint.
Kate sat in the middle of the downstairs library the following afternoon, surveying the piles that encircled her. She deposited a folder of what looked like ancient receipts into the throwaway pile, and then set a porcelain sculpture of a milk cow with a daisy behind its ear in the garage sale pile.
As expected, the job of organizing the contents of Chapel Bluff was huge. Huge! Because she and Gran were so thorough, leaving no drawer uninspected, they were making painfully slow progress. First thing this morning, Gran had called Velma Armstrong and Peg Lawrence and enlisted their help.
Velma and Peg had been close friends of Gran’s since their days together at Redbud Elementary. Gran always referred to them as “the girls,” a term that had, in Velma and Peg’s case, long ago expired.
“Good gracious, Beverly, this job is overwhelming!” Velma emerged scowling from the closet where she’d been buried. Dust hovered in the air around her, sparkling in the sunlight.
Gran looked up from her spot at the desk. “I know. That’s why I called you.”
“I’m about to choke to death on all this dust!” Velma marched over to a window and forced it open. She was dressed for the day’s work in a teal and white velour sweat suit. Her white high-top Reeboks looked like they’d come straight out of 1985 but didn’t have a scratch on them. She’d twisted her long hair, an unlikely shade of nut brown for a seventy-something woman, into a rectangular bun secured with white plastic combs encrusted with rhinestones.
Crisp afternoon air flushed into the room, and they all sighed with relief.
“How much more have we got?” Velma asked, eyeing the stacks venomously.
“We haven’t even started on those,” Gran said, pointing to a wall of shelves.
“Good gracious,” Velma muttered.
Gran laughed and slowly pushed herself to standing. “I think we could all use a break. C’mon ladies, the cookies should be just about ready.”
Gran led them into the kitchen, then bustled around, scooping cookies off the cookie sheet with a spatula and giving them each something to carry back into the dining room for high tea.
Velma, Peg, and Kate settled at the table, which was set with china teacups and saucers, tea plates, napkins, silverware, and a tiny crystal vase filled with flowers.
Velma eyed Kate assessingly. She swiped at her hairline with fingers decorated with several diamond-studded gold rings and long nails shellacked with opalescent pearl polish. “Kate,” she said in an ominous tone, “how old are you now?”
Ah, Kate thought. Here it comes. Though Velma and Peg had spent their entire lives in Redbud, Kate knew them well from their annual trips to Dallas to see Gran. “I’m thirty-one.”
“Why in the world haven’t you married anyone yet?”
“Well . . .” I’m holding out for Prince Harry. I have cooties, so that makes it hard. Shark attack killed the last prospect.
“What’s the holdup? I mean, you’re a pretty girl; there must be plenty of men who are interested in you.”
“There’ve been a few.”
“So none of them worked out.”
“What ever happened to that big, tall, handsome boy from way back?”
In the past ten years, she’d had two major and a handful of minor boyfriends. The first major one, Rick, Kate had met her senior year in college and taken with her into the working world. She’d thought they were on the same page, that they’d wanted the same things. But three years in, when she’d finally made the merest and most casual mention of marriage, he’d bailed instantly. She’d felt like a fool for not realizing that he’d been with her strictly because it had been convenient and fun for the short term. “Unwilling to commit,” Kate answered.
“How about the nice-looking blond one we met in Dallas a few years ago?”
Her second major boyfriend, Trevor, had seemed great on the surface. After being together two years, right at the point when she’d started dreaming of a diamond ring and a white dress, she’d found out that he’d been cheating on her. Multiple times. Multiple people. “Unfaithful,” Kate replied.
“So you broke up with both of them?” Velma frowned.
“Rick broke up with me and I broke up with Trevor.” A simple explanation that didn’t come close to the iceberg-sized contents of what lay beneath. She’d thought herself in love with each of them. The ending of both romances had completely and thoroughly broken her heart.
Velma grunted. “Well, Rick and Trevor are bad names anyway. You’re never going to find a husband dating men with names like that. Look for a man with a good name.” Her heavily penciled eyebrows lowered. “And look fast, because if you ever want to have children you need to find someone soon.”
Ouch. Kate wished she could shrug off Velma’s words. She tried. But despite her efforts, the words stung and stung hard. “I’ll try to get a move on,” she said dryly.
Gran breezed in with a plate full of oatmeal chocolate chunk cookies. “Hats, everyone!” She lifted the top of a nearby window seat. From the storage compartment beneath, she pulled out four of the many hats they’d uncovered in an upstairs bedroom yesterday.
No one expressed surprise. Gran frequently served high tea. And she almost always insisted on wearing big, gaudy hats.
After some debate about who looked best in which, they started in on the tea. “It’s Victorian Garden,” Gran pronounced as she poured, “and it tastes like a flower.”
Kate watched Peg take a delicate sip of tea, then set her cup back on its saucer with an inaudible click. Peg was, and always had been, a beauty. Her makeup was impeccable, her pale gray bob beautifully cut and styled. Today she looked almost casual in leather loafers, gray slacks, a white collared shirt, and a red knit sweater tied around her shoulders. The gold charm hanging from her necklace exactly matched the gold charms on her earrings.
“You look thoughtful, Peg,” Gran commented.
“Peg’s always thoughtful,” Velma said.
Peg laid her napkin gracefully in her lap, taking her time. “When you were in the kitchen, Beverly, Velma was telling Kate to hurry up and get married. I’ve been sitting here ever since trying to think of one good reason why Kate would want to.”
“What?” Velma squawked.
“Girls these days don’t need to get married, Velma,” Peg said steadily. “They have their own careers and make their own money. They can adopt a baby from China if they want a child. Why do they need a husband?”
“Exactly!” Kate said gamely, though she didn’t feel the least bit excited about a life of singlehood and a Chinese baby.
“Why would they want a husband?” Velma repeated incredulously. “Why, Peggy Elizabeth—”
“Men are messy,” Peg serenely interrupted. “And bossy. And sometimes they refuse to go on a cruise to Alaska and instead insist on taking a cruise to the Caribbean for the sixteenth time.”
“Ah,” Velma said. “So that’s the bee in your bonnet.”
“Well . . . yes. I simply can’t understand what William has against Alaska.” Peg gently squeezed Kate’s forearm and smiled. “You have to understand, Kate, my husband is still around, so I’m allowed to complain about him.”
Velma let out a hoot of laughter.
“They become saints, of course, once they’re gone,” Peg said. “But let me tell you, the reality of a husband is at times very trying.”
“Of course husbands are trying! But Kate should still marry.” Velma peered at Kate through her big glasses, the kind with earpieces that started at the outside bottom of the lenses and swirled back over the ears. “Herb was a nincompoop. I divorced him after fifteen years of his nonsense, and I’ve been a single gal ever since. Even so, I’m glad I married the big dope because he gave me four sons.” Her attention swung to Gran. “You adored Arthur.”
“Yes, I did,” Gran agreed.
It had been obvious to everyone who’d known them that Kate’s gran and grandad had indeed adored each other. They’d been happily married for more than fifty years. At the end of his life, her grandad had fought valiantly against leukemia before God took him home a year and a half ago.
Losing him had made Kate more determined than ever to bring Gran here before it was too late, to embark on something new and promising together, and to fulfill Gran’s lifelong dream of restoring her beloved Chapel Bluff.
“And Peg,” Velma continued, “might complain about William, but that man has loved her since the day they met our junior year at Westfield High. He spoils her rotten and just about lives to make her happy. If she wants to go on a cruise to Alaska, that’s exactly where he’ll end up taking her.”
Peg glanced at Kate. “I’m still tired of picking up his dirty socks.”
Just then footsteps sounded and they all looked up as Matt filled the dining room doorway.
Goose bumps slid down the back of Kate’s neck and all the way along her arms. She’d spent time chatting with him again this morning. It had gone about as poorly as their conversation yesterday. She’d tried to be warm and charming, but she’d felt the whole time like she was annoying him royally.
He didn’t so much as raise an eyebrow at the sight of the four of them in their enormous hats.
“Matt!” Gran exclaimed. “Please join us. It’ll only take me a second to get you a cup.”
“No, thank you, though. I came to tell you that I’m finished for the day, Mrs. Donovan.”
“Beverly. I’ll be back in the morning.”
“I’m going to fry chicken tonight. Would you like to join us for dinner?”
“Thanks for the offer. I can’t tonight.” He nodded to them, turned, and left.
The four ladies listened until the front door closed and his truck engine turned over. Velma leaned forward. “Now, I have told you about Matt Jarreau, haven’t I?”
Kate shook her head.
“Tell us what?” Gran asked.
“I didn’t tell you about his history, Beverly? That time on the phone when I recommended him to you?”
“No, I don’t believe so,” Gran answered.
“You’ve heard of him, though? Our local celebrity?”
Celebrity? Unease trickled through Kate. “No,” she said slowly. “All we know is that he grew up down the hill from here and that he knew Great-Grandma and Grandpa.”
“Good gracious! They don’t know who he is, Peg.”
“I’m as surprised as you are.”
“Matt Jarreau,” Velma said, looking at them gravely, as if imparting a momentous secret, “is famous. Certainly the most famous person ever to come out of Redbud, Pennsylvania.”
“Famous for what?” Kate asked. Drywall?
“Hockey. He was a great hockey player for the New York Barons in the . . . what’s the name of that professional league?” she asked Peg.
“Right, the NHL. When he was with the Barons, they won two of those . . .” She shook her fingers impatiently. “The big trophy?”
“The Stanley Cup,” Peg supplied.
“And he was their leading score person the times they won it. Their star.” Velma leaned back, looking pleased with herself, and took a triumphant sip of tea.
Kate just stared at her, frozen with surprise. Theircontractor was a hockey legend?
“What happened?” Gran asked. “Why isn’t he playing anymore?”
“Well, that’s the sad part,” Peg said. “About five years ago he married a former Miss America. Beautiful girl named Beth Andrews.”
“It was about ten years ago that she won Miss America,” Velma added. “Any chance you remember the tall, gorgeous blonde who did the ballet act?”
Kate and Gran shook their heads.
“Had hair down to here?” Velma indicated the middle of her back. “Lovely, lovely girl. And sweet, too.”
“Wait, wait, wait,” Kate said. “You’re telling me that he married an actualMiss America?”
Peg nodded. “That’s right.”
“Of course, she’d completed her reign by the time they met and married,” Velma said. “Can’t remember what her cause was now. Blind people, maybe? Anyway, she and Matt had a big society wedding down where she was from. Georgia, wasn’t it?”
“Yes. There were pictures of it in People magazine,” Peg said.
“At the time it was a big to-do. Ritzy, you know.” Velma popped a section of cookie into her mouth, chewed. “Anyway, they were only married a couple of years. And the last six months or so of that Beth was very sick.”
“Sick with what?” Gran asked worriedly.
“With brain cancer,” Velma answered. “Poor thing. It was awful. Here’s this beautiful young girl with so much to live for, and she’s diagnosed with brain cancer. She was only twenty-seven years old when she died.”
“I’m so sorry to hear that,” Gran murmured.
Kate’s heart sank for Matt. She’d wanted to uncover his secrets, to know what had caused the tragedy she’d seen in his eyes. But now that she did know, she was sorry she knew, and terribly, terribly sorry about what he’d been through. She couldn’t believe she’d had the gall yesterday to tease him for not smiling, for being so serious.
“When she died, Matt quit playing hockey,” Velma said. “Right there at the top of his career. Nobody knows why. Most people thought he’d want to keep playing even harder afterward, you know, to take his mind off things. But nope. He just left it. Then he came back to Redbud, I think, because he knew nobody here would bother him.”
“He’s not seen much around town,” Peg said. “He concentrates on his work.”
“But he must not need to work.” Kate was struggling to understand. “He must have a fortune.”
“Oh, indeed,” Peg answered. “A fortune.”
Velma made a tsking sound. “For all the happiness it’s brought him. I wouldn’t want to speculate. . . . Oh, who am I kidding? I’ll speculate. I think he needs something to do with himself. He likes fixing up old houses, so he works.”
Silence descended over the ladies like spring rain. They were all somber faced, considering Matt and his young and lovely dead wife.
Kate looked at her tea and the remains of her cookie.
She no longer felt like eating.
Ordinarily, Antiques Roadshow and an open bag of peppermint taffy cured all Kate’s ills. But not tonight.
She lay sprawled on her bed wearing a tank and drawstring pajama bottoms, watching the only TV in the house. It had been loaned to her by Peg, and thanks to today’s visit from the cable company, both it and the Internet connection on her laptop were up and running.
She’d seen this Roadshow episode before. They were in Tucson oohing and ahhing over Native American finds.
She tapped the brass footboard with her big toe and popped another taffy into her mouth, trying hard to find enjoyment in it. Her romantic’s soul was still reeling with sadness for Matt and his wife. Imagining the realities of what losing his wife must have been like for him made her shiver with sorrow.
The longer she contemplated his grief, the more it mingled into her own personal grief. If he, of all people, wasn’t enjoying happily-ever-after with someone, then what earthly chance did she have?
Over the years, she’d developed a pretty thick skin. People’s comments about her singlehood ordinarily rolled right off her back. But Velma’s words from earlier today hadn’t.
“Look fast, because if you ever want to have children you need to find someone soon.”
Velma had merely stated the obvious fact that Kate, and everyone else in the world, already knew. At thirty-one she wasn’t old, not by a long shot. But she, her ovaries, and her eggs were all older than they used to be.
She let her head sink into the jumbled quilts and lay staring blindly at the ceiling. It was un-P.C., but she wanted—had always wanted—to be married and to have children. Maybe because her grandparents on both sides and her parents had such great marriages. To this day her mom and dad did everything together—grocery shopping, tennis, movies, trips. They still held hands, they still whispered secrets. They were partners and best friends. They were the fairy tale.
There had been lots of times when Kate, as a knobby-kneed kid and then as an awkward teenager, had watched them together and felt left out of their little circle of two. All those times she’d thought, Someday. I want that for me someday.
As a girl she’d forced her younger sister to play Ken and Barbie with her, inventing elaborate stories of their devotion to each other, their happy house, their numerous children. As a young teen, she’d read dozens of those skinny romance novels in the juvenile fiction section. As an older teen she’d made trips to the video store to rent and re-rent movie love stories.
Fall in love. Marry. Be blissful. Have babies. That had always been her plan. The fact that she was thirty-one and single left her feeling in weak moments like this one as if she’d somehow missed the train going where she’d wanted to go in life.
Part of the problem? She had the most disastrous penchant for liking the wrong guys. Why couldn’t she just fall head over heels for someone from the singles group at church? What was wrong with her that she couldn’t go for someone open and wholesome—someone who was attending seminary or who carried their Bible to church in the little leather case with the handles? Why?! Was she self-destructive and didn’t know it? Horribly shallow?
She’d always been the responsible eldest child. Outgoing, yes. But never one to swerve from the Road of Right Priorities. No booze, no drugs, no promiscuity.
Yet in this one area of her life, the arena of men, she didn’t understand herself. In the two years since she and Trevor had broken up, she couldn’t figure out why her heart remained unswayed by guys who were obviously the right, smart, practical choice. She desperately wanted to fall in love with a good guy. But try as she might, her stubborn heart resisted every candidate. And as long as this trend continued, she knew very well that she was going to stay single.
Loneliness, her old enemy and companion, slithered around her middle and squeezed.
Kate sat up, frustrated with herself. She’d learned today that Matt had lost his wife, and she was still managing to throw herself a pity party. She shoved her feet into her pink UGG slippers and made her way downstairs. She let herself out the back door and walked across the grass in the moonlight, taking deep breaths of the woodsmoke-scented night air. In the distance, the chapel gleamed. Her ancestor, the one who’d built Chapel Bluff, had taken care to put that little building with the cross on top right at the heart of their property. It reminded her that this family had been founded on what was important. Every generation had carefully instilled their faith in the next, right on down to her. She’d been raised in the church, and her relationship with God was long-standing, close, and easy. He should be enough for her. She knew He was enough. She was only sorry and guilty that at times like this He didn’t feel like enough.
She crossed her arms, slowly drinking in her surroundings. The stone bulk of the house. The building doggedly known as the “barn,” though it contained parking spaces for several cars but not a single animal. The black hills in the distance. The starry sky. And again, the white-washed chapel in the center of it all.
She began to walk, enjoying the crunch of the driveway and then grass under her slippers. She could feel God in the night.
Jesus’ words in Matthew popped into her mind. If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, nothing will be impossible for you.
It was humbling to have faith tinier than a mustard seed. Kate stopped walking, sighed, and let her eyes close.
I have a plan for you, God seemed to say.
It would be nice, Lord, if it could include a man.
The hardest and the truest thing was the supremacy of God’s will, which meant that no matter how much she prayed for a husband and a family, she wasn’t guaranteed that she’d ever receive what she asked for.
She began to stride forward again, praying, feeling the cool air on her skin, in her lungs. Her mind drifted to Matt.
Okay, so there was a magnificent-looking hockey legend currently renovating her grandmother’s house. Okay. She could handle it. She could absolutely resist the temptation he presented.
She was a social worker and it was in her DNA to reach out to people who were hurting and do her best to make things better. Now that she knew what he’d been through, she was even more firmly set on befriending him.
It wouldn’t be easy.
But she could try.
If she stuck with it, maybe she could eventually force him to smile. Bring a little bit of fun into his workweek. Nothing that would begin to ease his loss, of course. But something.
She took a deep breath.
She could try.
She found him the next morning at work in one of the second-story guest bedrooms. He’d ripped away a section of the wall, revealing the wooden framework beneath. Brittle plaster lay around his feet like rubble.
“Wow,” Kate said, taking in the mess.
Matt stopped what he was doing and glanced at her. He was wearing khaki cargo pants and a long-sleeved cotton T-shirt that said Abercrombie and Fitch across the chest. His baseball hat rode low over his eyes.
“I brought you a bottled water,” she said. “Thirsty?”
He hesitated. “Sure.”
She picked her way through the clutter and handed it to him.
“What’re you working on?” she asked.
“There was a leak.” He pointed to a crack in the metal plumbing line.
“Looks like it rotted all the wood around it.”
“And your plan is . . . ?”
“I’ve got to replace this section of plumbing. Frame in new wood. Put up drywall.”
“Could you use some help?”
He eyed her critically. “Not really.”
She couldn’t resist. She had to smile. He was intimidating, he truly was. Big and brooding with eyes like a blade when you irritated him. She was certain that he scared off almost everyone. Yet for some reason, he didn’t scare her. “I understand. I’d probably just get in your way.” She went and sat cross-legged on a clean patch of floor. “I’m taking a break, so if you don’t mind I’ll just sit and hang out for a little bit.”
He didn’t give her permission to stay, but he didn’t tell her to get out, either. She took that as a promising sign. “I love working on old houses,” she said. “I have a duplex back in Dallas, and I did some of the work on my half when I bought it.”
He concentrated on peeling off plaster.
“Even though Gran’s told me about it for years, this is my first time to visit Chapel Bluff.”
“I’m glad I was able to get the time off from my job,” she said, “so that I could come here.”
He still wasn’t responding. She racked her brain for something else to say.
“Where do you work?” he asked without looking at her. “Back in Dallas.”
She felt absurdly pleased at his question. It was the first one he’d asked her about herself. “I work at a place called Christopher’s House. We provide a temporary home to kids who’ve been abused or abandoned.”
He took that in for a few moments. “Kids who’ve been removed from their homes?”
“Right, by Child Protective Services. We’re called an emergency residential shelter. We give the kids a place to stay and recover until they’re placed with a foster family.”
“What do you do there?”
“My official title is case manager. I’m assigned to children as they enter Christopher’s House, and I manage their cases until they’re taken away.”
“Manage their cases?”
“I spend time putting together welcome baskets, talking with the child, arranging for clothing, organizing a doctor’s or a psychologist’s care if they need it, planning how long they’ll stay and where they’ll go next. That kind of thing. I’m in touch a lot with their CPS case workers and the foster families.”
He used a saw to cut through the leaky pipe, removed the broken section, then took out his tape measure and noted how long the new pipe would need to be. “How many kids do you handle a month?”
He was actually talking to her! “Well, I work with another woman who’s also a case manager. It varies, but between us we do about sixty every month.”
He gazed at her then, looking grim. “Sixty kids a month?”
“Newborn on up. We have a nursery with cribs for the littlest ones.”
His chocolate brown eyes, always so sad, seemed to ask her the questions she’d asked herself for years. Who would hurt a baby? Who would leave a little boy or girl alone to fend for themselves? Who would beat a child?
She had no trite reassurances to offer.
He went back to work and she watched him, her thoughts on her office back home, her co-workers, the kids, and what they’d be doing this morning.
Despite the depressing aspects of her job, she’d managed to stay positive about it year after year. It had been clear in her mind that while she couldn’t change the past for the children she worked with, she could influence their future for the better.
No matter how boring or lonely her personal life had been, she’d always believed her job was something she’d gotten right. She’d known she was exactly where God wanted her to be. Then about six months ago a girl named Gabriella had committed suicide.
Just the thought of it caused Kate’s heart to twist. She looked down, picking at a bumpy thread in her jeans. She could clearly picture Gabriella’s curly dark hair, her glittering eyes, her expression—so tentative and so sensitive despite everything she’d been through.
Gabriella had stayed at Christopher’s House twice: once when she’d been an elementary student and Kate had been a new employee there, fresh off her degree, and then again a year ago when Gabriella had been fourteen. Both times Kate had managed her case. After Gabriella’s first stint at Christopher’s House she’d eventually been returned to her father. After the second stint, Gabriella had been placed with a foster family. Outwardly, it had looked like things were stabilizing and improving for the girl.
And then, in the middle of the night one night, she’d swallowed a bottle full of pills.
Her suicide had struck Kate like an earthquake. She’d stood graveside as the girl was lowered into the earth, asking herself then and a million times since if she could have done more. If she should have done more.
After Gabriella’s death Kate had started to lose her joy in her job. At first she thought she’d just misplaced it, like a set of keys, and that she’d find it again shortly. But her enjoyment of her job had stayed lost. Every scared young face, every terrible story, every mental picture of the circumstances the child had come from weighed heavily on her. She began to feel powerless to help them—any of them. For the last six months she’d been going through the motions of her job out of habit instead of real motivation.
When Gran had asked her to come away with her to Chapel Bluff for three whole months, Kate had known God was offering her a lifeline. She’d taken it.
She glanced up and found Matt watching her.
She met his gaze directly, which sent her heart thumping. Just a friend! she reprimanded her heart. Just a friend! “Well . . .” She stood up and dusted off her butt. “I better get back to work. Would you like to join us for dinner tonight? If Gran could cook for you she’d think she’d died and gone to heaven.”
“Can’t. Thanks, though.”
“No problem.” She made her way downstairs. Her pulse was still speeding. Just a friend! Just a friend!
On Thursday Kate sorted through three closets and the fourth of Chapel Bluff’s five bedrooms. She pried some small talk out of Matt and invited him to stay for dinner. He declined.
On Friday morning Kate sweated through a yoga class. She organized the entire contents of the kitchen. She forced Matt into more conversation.
On Friday afternoon Kate finished categorizing the house. Much had been thrown away. Much was waiting for their upcoming yard sale. Kate worked to post the remaining twenty-three items on eBay. She invited Matt to stay for dinner. He declined.
On Saturday Kate and Gran slept late, then toured the town. Kate convinced Gran to buy a watercolor by a local artist to hang above the fireplace mantel in the den. They had bowls of soup and French bread at a restaurant called The Grapevine on Main Street. They visited some of Gran’s old friends in the afternoon. Matt wasn’t around to invite to dinner.
On Sunday they went to church at First Baptist, then to lunch at Peg’s house. Peg’s husband, William, was there—distinguished and adorable in Ralph Lauren from head to toe. Someone named Morty was also present. Kate couldn’t divine his connection to the group except that he was a retired Redbud police officer and clearly had the hots for Velma. Matt still wasn’t around to invite to dinner.
On Monday morning Matt showed up right on time in faded jeans, a flannel shirt, and his UNC cap. Kate ruthlessly refused to be moved by the sight of him. She stripped all the dingy curtains throughout the house and began the arduous process of removing the wallpaper in the kitchen and dining room. Gran made enchiladas for dinner. Kate invited Matt. He declined.
On Tuesday Gran informed Kate that Gran’s mother and grandmother had used the attic of the barn for storage. Sick of sorting and organizing, Kate decided to procrastinate on the barn for a few more days and continued battling the wallpaper. She invited Matt to stay for dinner. He declined.
On Wednesday Kate strained and stretched through another yoga class. Upon her return to Chapel Bluff, she was squeezing conversation out of Matt while he was installing drywall in one of the upstairs bathrooms. She invited him to stay for dinner. And wonder of wonders. Miracle of miracles! On what had seemed like an ordinary day until that very moment . . .
He said yes.
Matt wasn’t sure why he’d said yes. He’d never made the conscious, thought-out decision to agree to dinner with Kate and Beverly. In fact, in his head, he’d made the opposite decision. The decision to stay away from them.
Today when Kate had come to talk with him, she’d been wearing her yoga clothes and flip-flops, with her red hair up in a ponytail. She leaned against the doorjamb of the room where he was working. “How’s it going?”
“It’s going okay.” Her frequent visits no longer annoyed him as much as they once had. With a bolt of shock, he realized that he must have actually come to like her a little bit.
She chatted for a while about the renovation, the town, the TV show she’d watched last night. Then she invited him—again—to dinner. Any regular person would have taken the hint and stopped inviting him days ago. But Kate asked him every single day. She might be petite and friendly, but she was also unbelievably persistent.
“C’mon,” she said. Threading her fingers together, she raised her joined hands to him, mock begging. “Please.” She cocked her head and smiled persuasively. “Just one little dinner, Matt. It would make Gran so happy. What do you say? Just one dinner? Please?”
In that moment, looking into her hopeful expression, he’d been unable to say no. His vocal cords had agreed before his brain had any say.
Afterward, he couldn’t believe he’d said yes. Just thinking about eating dinner with them made him uncomfortable. Should he dress up? Bring something? Were they going to ask him questions he didn’t want to answer? He’d much rather stay home and eat a sandwich.
But it was too late for that. He had to go.
When Matt knocked on the kitchen door that night, Kate hurried over to answer it and found him on the threshold, holding a bouquet of flowers and looking completely unsure of himself.
Tenderness stirred within her. “Hi,” she said, trying to act like having him over for dinner wasn’t the huge deal that it was. “C’mon in.”
“Matt!” Gran bustled over to greet him. “Welcome, welcome. My fingers are covered with food, but here,” she leaned into him and wrapped her upper arms around him while keeping her hands safely splayed in midair, “let me hug you.” She pulled back, beaming.
Without his ball cap he looked different to Kate, more formal. The cheery kitchen light picked out glossy strands in his dark hair, still damp from a shower. He was wearing a brown knit sweater that had a short zipper at the neck. Through the V of the zipper Kate could see the neckline of a white T-shirt underneath. “Umm . . . these are for you both,” he said, extending the flowers.
Because Gran’s fingers had crepe stuffing on them, Kate moved forward and took the flowers from him. “Thank you. Wow, they’re beautiful. I’ll find a vase.”
“Oh, they’re lovely,” Gran said. “Just lovely! Thank you so much.”
He nodded, put his hands in his pockets.
“Well, come on.” Gran motioned for him to follow her to the kitchen counter, where she was fully in the throes of cooking. “Wash your hands so I can put you to work.”
He hesitated for a moment, but did as he was told.
Kate smiled to herself. Poor, poor Matt. He may once have been a warrior on the ice, accustomed to body-slamming giant men, but he wasn’t equal to the coming onslaught from Gran. He was going down.
She located a crystal vase, filled it with water, and pretended she knew how to arrange the bouquet of ivory hydrangeas and white roses.
Gran resumed stuffing crepes with a mixture of sautéed mushrooms in a creamy sauce, chicken strips, and Monterey Jack cheese. Her two stone bracelets clicked together rhythmically. Just this week she’d made herself a long string of mauve and purple beads, which she wore behind her neck, the ends attached to the earpieces of her glasses. She’d taken to whipping her glasses off and letting them drop down, only to slide them back on a half second later. At the moment the glasses were in the “on” position and the beads were swinging from side to side. “I could use three or so more crepes, Matt. Would you mind cooking them up for me? The batter’s just there.”
Matt paused in the act of drying his hands. He eyed the oiled skillet, the spoonula, and the mixing bowl of batter the way a kindergartner might an algebra problem.
Kate swallowed an unkind giggle and went to work setting the kitchen table.
“I . . . uh . . . I don’t cook,” he finally said.
Gran whirled on him. “Don’t cook?”
“Whatever do you eat?”
“Uh, sandwiches and frozen meals, mostly.”
He tilted his head as if trying to understand. “Yes, ma’am.”
“Not while I’m living at Chapel Bluff you’re not.”
He just stared.
“You’re going to be eating dinner here from now on, and mark my words, young man, I’m going to teach you to cook!” Gran’s white hair stuck up in artful tufts. Her blue eyes narrowed. “I will not take no for an answer.”
“I . . .”
“I insist.” Gran turned back to her cooking.
Matt glanced at Kate. “Uh . . . Maybe Kate could handle the crepes.”
“Don’t look at me,” Kate said. “I don’t cook.”
“Blasphemy!” Gran said.
“I’m the person at family meals that sets the table and puts ice in glasses and takes drink orders,” she explained.
“How about I be that person tonight?” Matt said.
“No, no, no, no, no,” Gran replied vehemently. “Despite years of effort on my part, I’ve resigned myself to the truth that Kate’s talents lie in areas other than cooking. I haven’t even begun to work on you, however.”
He knit his brow and faced the stove.
“Now, Matt,” Gran continued, her eyeglass beads a-swaying, “begin by warming up the skillet. . . .” She kept up a steady stream of chatter, talking him through the meal’s preparation step by step.
Three times in a row Matt poured too much crepe batter into the skillet. But to his credit, he tried a fourth time, saying little, clearly concentrating hard. Kate watched him surreptitiously as she opened windows to let in the evening breeze, set the table, and made iced tea. The only mishap came when Gran asked him to slice a tomato for the salad. His knife slipped off the tomato’s smooth skin, which sent it skittering along the countertop and over the edge of the sink. It plopped into a dirty mixing bowl full of suds.
“Shoot,” he whispered.
Kate couldn’t help herself. She laughed.
He glared at her.
“I’m only laughing because that’s exactly the kind of thing I’d have done,” she said.
“Care to try your luck?” He extended the knife to her, one eyebrow raised menacingly.
“When I’m having so much fun watching you? No thanks.”
He actually ground his teeth.
More laughter burst from her. She swiped a fresh tomato from the bowl on the chopping block and placed it in front of him. “See? No harm done.”
“You wouldn’t say that if you were that last tomato,” he muttered darkly.
Matt had stopped enjoying food. He hadn’t meant to. But somewhere along the way he’d gotten out of the habit of eating a good meal, apparently. Because tonight’s dinner—the stuffed crepes, the homemade bread rolls, the salad, the asparagus with butter and salt on top—was the best-tasting food he could remember having in months.
And now, after all that, Mrs. Donovan leaned over his shoulder and placed a dish of blackberry cobbler in front of him. Straight out of the oven, a scoop of vanilla ice cream melting in white rivers on its crusty top. Kate poured a mug of steaming coffee for him and set it next to his cobbler.
As stuffed as he was, he couldn’t make himself stop. He waited for them to find their seats, then followed their lead by picking up his spoon and digging in. Eating this food in this old-fashioned kitchen was like visiting a land he’d loved once but hadn’t been back to in a long, long time. As pained as social interaction had become for him, it surprised him to admit that he didn’t hate being here as much as he’d thought he would. It was hard to hate an evening filled with such amazing food.
“This is delicious, Gran,” Kate said.
“Yes, it is.” Matt put down his spoon, trying to pace himself. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome.” Mrs. Donovan reached across the table and squeezed his hand. “I’m glad you like it. And I’m glad you’ll be joining us from now on.” Before he could correct her on that, she pushed back her chair and went to set her dish in the sink. “And with that,” she said, “I’m off to bed. Early to bed and early to rise.” She winked at him. “Another reason to learn to cook, Matt. Then, by rights, you shouldn’t have to clean.” She sailed toward the dining room. “Night, Kate.”
He rose to his feet. “Good night.”
Mrs. Donovan shot him a parting smile and disappeared.
Kate went back to work on her dessert.
He lowered to his seat, took a few more bites. What had just happened? Mrs. Donovan had left and now he was alone in the kitchen with Kate, eating together. It felt a bit like a date.
A date. Just the thought tightened his gut with dread.
He didn’t like her like that. Mostly what he felt toward Kate was caution. And yet . . . he was here, wasn’t he? He’d admitted to himself earlier that there was something about her that he liked a little.
He studied her bent head. So what was it? What was it that he liked?
To look at her, you’d think she’d come from old money. She was understated and sophisticated like that. Except her watch wasn’t Rolex and her diamond earrings, though probably real, were tiny. She was an unusual mixture of other things, too. . . . She was no bigger around than his wrist, yet he’d seen her work all day stripping wallpaper and hauling boxes. She laughed easily, yet he could sense that she’d dealt with sadness. At first he’d guessed that she had an event planner kind of job, but instead she was a social worker who spent her time with struggling kids.
He admired some of those things about her. But still, none of them was the thing that drew him.
Since Beth died, he’d been living with a cold ball of grief square in the center of his chest. He took it with him everywhere he went. It clouded every thought he had. It motivated every decision he made. The people in his life couldn’t touch that cold ball. Nothing and no one had. Nothing and no one could.
Except maybe . . . her.
He couldn’t explain it, but Kate had the power to thaw some of the coldness inside him. Just barely.
He didn’t want her to have any effect on him at all. That she did made her dangerous. He was just barely surviving. It was all he could do to simply get through each day, just the way he’d been getting through every awful day since Beth died, by going through the motions. He did the same familiar, necessary things in the same way every day. If he kept everything the same, at least, he trusted that he could make it from morning to night, that he could hold on to his equilibrium. If he stepped away from what he was used to, he might not be able to keep it together.
She happened to look up and caught him staring. “What? Do I have food on my face?” Tentatively, she used a hand to shield her mouth.
“Are you sure? Please tell me, because I’ll be mortified if I look in the mirror later and see blackberries in my teeth.”
“Okay.” She scooted her chair away from the table, leaned back in it. “I’m stuffed. I can’t eat another bite.”
He ate his last spoonful.
She regarded him with a sympathetic half smile. “Gran’s expecting you to eat dinner with us from now on.”
He didn’t answer.
She assessed him for a few moments, the ticking of the kitchen clock loud in the silence, then rose and began stacking dishes and silverware. “So you said earlier that you usually do frozen food and sandwiches for dinner.”
“Me too. Do they have a Potbelly Sandwich Shop in town?”
He nodded. “Over on the south side near Fourth and Riverbend.”
“Oh good. Have you had their Italian on white bread with the pickles and hot peppers?”
“You should, it’s incredible.” She carried their dishes to the sink. “What about cereal? You ever eat that for dinner?”
“About once a week.”
“Me too. What about canned vegetable soup?”
“Same here. Chinese takeout?”
“Sometimes.” That was a lie. He didn’t want to tell her that even stopping at a restaurant for takeout got him all kinds of attention he didn’t want.
She started wiping off the plates with a long-handled scrub brush. “At home in Dallas I’ll get Chinese some, but I get Mexican more. We have unbelievable Mexican food in Dallas. There’s none here in Redbud, though, right?”
Matt took a sip of coffee, torn. He wanted to hightail it out. But just how rude would it be for him to leave her with the entire mess to clean up? He eyed the pile of dishes and could hear his mother in his head, schooling him on manners. She’d be devastated if she knew he’d left without at least offering to help.
Resigned, he walked to the sink and nodded to the dirty dishes she was working on. “I can do this part.”
“It’s okay, really. You don’t have to help me clean up.”
“I don’t mind.” Another lie. And another thing he’d gotten out of the habit of—saying what he really felt.
He rolled up his sleeves and began slotting the dishes into the dishwasher while Kate moved around the kitchen putting things away. They worked in companionable silence until the job was done.
As he drove home afterward, he thought back over the evening. Cooking. The way the food had tasted. The things they’d talked about. Mrs. Donovan. Kate. He’d come away from it all okay. But his instincts were telling him that it would be safer, much safer, for him to refuse their dinner invitations from now on.
The two of them were welcome to their nightly dinners, but they were going to have to count him out.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Despite Matt’s good intentions, he came for dinner the next night.
And the next.
Mrs. Donovan, a lady he’d thought to be a sweet and gentle person, flatly refused to accept the fact that he wouldn’t be coming for more of her cooking lessons. Try as he might, he couldn’t convince her otherwise.
On Saturday and Sunday he gratefully retreated to his solitary life. He didn’t have to go to Chapel Bluff for two whole days, didn’t have to cook, didn’t have to speak, didn’t have to shield himself from Kate’s hazel gaze.
Nothing like a brisk walk in the company of seventy-year-olds to make a person feel like a fitness slacker.
It was Sunday, and Kate and the others had been to church that morning. Gran, Velma, and Peg went to different congregations because they each had to attend, obviously, the church they’d gone to since babyhood. Next they’d done what any sane Christian rushed to do after worship: They’d changed out of their church clothes. Then they’d met at Peg’s for lunch. And now, because it was a pristine day and because the older people got, the more they grumbled after big meals about needing to “walk it off,” they’d set out into the woods behind Peg’s house. Their party included the regulars: Kate, the three “girls,” Peg’s husband, William, and the still-haven’t-figured-out-how-he-fit-into-the-group Morty.
The weather was painfully pretty. Sunny and clear, with a clean brisk wind that rustled the grass and lifted Kate’s hair away from her face. The forest that surrounded them smelled like a Girl Scout campout—damp and woodsy and comforting.
Fall. Kate loved it. Loved the holidays. Loved wearing jeans and her quilted trench coat that she’d saved and saved for. Loved the temperature.
Predictably, Velma had charged into the lead. William, in his good-natured way, was attempting to keep up with her both in pace and conversation. Gran and Peg came next, walking arm in arm, heads bent toward each other. Which left Kate, huffing and puffing ever so slightly, to bring up the rear with Morty.
“So where do you live down there in Dallas? You have a house?” Morty asked.
“I do, actually. It’s a duplex I bought four years ago.”
“Oh yeah? Who’s living in the other side?”
“A really nice lady. She’s a librarian at SMU.” Her renter had been living in the right half of the duplex for thirty-five years, so Kate had simply inherited her when she’d bought the place. Judy was quiet, scholarly, had two cats and loads of potted plants. Judy’d never been married. As much as Kate liked her, she couldn’t help occasionally thinking that their duplex was like a before and after snapshot. Kate was the “before,” but frequently felt like she was sliding inexorably toward the exact same fate as Judy. Cats and potted plants.
“Your tenant isn’t making meth, is she?”
She glanced abruptly at Morty. “Meth?”
“Yeah. I’m retired from the force, but I keep up with things pretty good. All kinds of people making meth in their kitchens these days. Selling it right from their home.”
“Ah . . .”
“Strangers coming and going at all hours?”
“Suspicious people parked out front?”
“Nope. I’m pretty sure my tenant isn’t making meth.”
He harrumphed. “Well, good then.”
Morty looked like Elvis might have looked at seventy-seven. Hair dyed black and glistening with gel. White T-shirt over a barrel chest and a stomach that wasn’t quite a potbelly. Ironed jeans. White socks. Black penny loafers. When they’d left the house he’d pulled on a gray Member’s Only jacket.
“Do you do much bowling down there in Dallas?” he asked.
“No, I’m afraid not.”
“Well, come on out while you’re here. Bring Beverly there. I’m at the lanes every Tuesday and Thursday at ten. Be happy to give you some pointers.”
They walked, shoes crunching over twigs and leaves.
“Play any poker?” he asked.
“Not much these days.”
“Well, these here and I,” he motioned to the group ahead, “we get together on Friday nights for poker.”
“Was that your idea?” She couldn’t imagine anyone else in the group coming up with it.
“Yeah. But the rest of ’em are getting pretty good.”
“I talked with Beverly about it at lunch, told her to come and bring you this Friday, but she said Matt Jarreau eats with you on Fridays and she didn’t want to leave him.” He dug his hands into the pockets of his jacket. “So I was thinking that if you and your grandmother are interested in playin’, we could all meet up over at your place there at Chapel Bluff on Fridays.”
“Sure, that would be fine.” Sorry social life when this prospect excited her. “What do ya’ll play for?”
“Money. But the buy-in’s just five dollars each.” He nodded disdainfully toward the others. “These here don’t want to play for big money.”
Quiet stretched as they ambled along the dirt path. In the distance, Kate could hear the gurgle of a stream.
“There’s something I’ve been wanting to talk to you about.”
She couldn’t imagine what, since they’d already covered meth, bowling, and poker. “Okay.”
“You’re young. You know all about romance and such.”
Who did Morty have to offer, she wondered. Commitment-phobe grandson? Geeky neighbor? Self-obsessed nephew? “I’m not sure I do know that much about it, unfortunately.”
“Well, I . . .” He scowled. Alongside the trail, the creek came into view—clear and cold looking with a few leaves floating on top. “Young girls your age—you like going to the, what do you call it? Spa? Getting your nails done?”
She looked at him, befuddled.
“What I’m trying to say— What I mean is—” He growled in frustration, stopped walking, and turned to face her. “I love Velma.”
His faded green eyes filled with earnest sadness. “She won’t have me, though. Won’t even agree to a date.”
Kate winced. “I’m sorry.”
“And I’m sick of waiting for that woman.” He began to gesture, warming to his subject. “My wife’s been gone twenty years and a man has needs. . . .”
If he finished that thought, Kate was going to hurl herself into the stream.
“Velma’s a spirited one,” he continued. “I know that. Heck, I like fire in a lady. But I must’ve asked her out fifty times now and still nothing. Nothing!”
“I have my pride, you know.”
“Yes, of course.”
“I’ve about had it up to here with her.” He vehemently indicated his forehead.
He stared moodily at the stream, cracked a few knobby knuckles. “I’ve got a couple of tricks left up my sleeve, though.”
Kate waited, curling and uncurling her toes in her sneakers.
He indicated the path ahead. “Shall we?”
They began forward. “I’d like to offer you a deal,” he said. “I’d like you to help along my pursuit of Velma. You know, get her to go on some proper dates with me.”
“I don’t think I have much influence with her, Morty.”
“Oh, I reckon you do. I can tell that she thinks highly of you.”
This was news to Kate. Apparently affection and grim acceptance were, coming from Velma, indistinguishable.
“She only has sons and grandsons, you know. Freeloaders, the lot of them. Compared to them, you’re a peach.”
“So here’s the thing. Bring her around to me, and I’ll give you some certificates—gift certificates, you know—to the spa.”
Now he was talking her language. “How many gift certificates?”
“One for each date.”
“How much would each of these certificates be worth?”
He peered at her, eyebrows lowered.
She grinned at him, shrugged. “Velma’s not going to be easy to convince.”
“Fifty dollars per certificate and not a penny more.”
“Done.” She extended her hand.
He received it with a firm shake.