Home to Stay Annie Jones Ëèòàãåíò HarperCollins EUR Country veterinarian Hank Corsaut isn't surprised to learn that the newest folks in town are Newberry women–of the boisterous Louisiana family. A quiet, orderly guy like Hank usually tries to avoid energetic females, though the adorable five-year-old and her pretty single mother are hard to resist.As he gets to know kind, caring Emma Newberry, he realizes she needs a strong shoulder to lean on. Problem is, Emma's returned to her roots only for the time being. Unless a changed man can convince her she's exactly where she belongs. “Call me Hank.” “I have a policy. Once I’ve carried a woman over a threshold in a wedding gown, we’re on a first-name basis from that point on.” A shiver snaked up Emma’s spine. Try as she might she could not contain her own smile. She tried looking away to keep him from seeing how much she found herself drawn to him with his easygoing approach, kind wit and seemingly endless patience. He wasn’t bad to look at either. Emma shut her eyes and drew in a deep breath. The familiar smells of the old kitchen eased into every nuance of her mind and memory. The ever-present hint in the air of Louisiana loam and moss and river grasses, of lemon oil used to polish all the wood in the old house and of fresh cotton from all the kitchen linens aired on the clothesline. It all comforted her but did not blot out the image of Hank Corsaut in faded jeans and a denim work shirt, the sleeves rolled up to expose his tanned forearms. ANNIE JONES Winner of a Holt Medallion for Southern-themed fiction, and the Houston Chronicle’s Best Christian Fiction Author of 1999, Annie Jones grew up in a family that loved to laugh, eat and talk—often all at the same time. They instilled in her the gift of sharing through words and humor, and the confidence to go after her heart’s desire (and to act fast if she wanted the last chicken leg). A former social worker, she feels called to be a “voice for the voiceless” and has carried that calling into her writing by creating characters often overlooked in our fast-paced culture—from seventysomethings who still have a zest for life to women over thirty with big mouths and hearts to match. Having moved thirteen times during her marriage, she is currently living in rural Kentucky with her husband and two children. Home to Stay Annie Jones www.millsandboon.co.uk (http://www.millsandboon.co.uk) But those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint. —Isaiah 40:31 For Natalie and Patrick, for being my inspirations and joy For Bob for being my hero For my family for being themselves, and being my touchstone For my by-marriage family for being so much fun For the next generation of “Joneses”: Ethan, Wyatt, Evie, Waylon and whoever comes along next, Aunt Annie and Uncle Bobby love you always (and will keep the toy closet stocked) Contents Chapter One Chapter Two Chapter Three Chapter Four Chapter Five Chapter Six Chapter Seven Chapter Eight Chapter Nine Chapter Ten Chapter Eleven Chapter Twelve Chapter Thirteen Chapter Fourteen Chapter Fifteen Chapter Sixteen Chapter Seventeen Letter to Reader (#litres_trial_promo) QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION Chapter One “If I’m not mistaken—and the twist in my gut tells me I’m not—that there—” Hank Corsaut fixed his eyes on a puff of dirt stirred up on the road a quarter of a mile in the distance “—is trouble.” The silver SUV went sailing over the bumps in the old dirt road that led from the highway to the sanctuary proper and disappeared down a hill. Hank braced his hand against the dinged-up fender of his old truck and shifted his white straw cowboy hat to the back of his head. He had come out to check on things at the Gall Rive Migratory Bird Sanctuary this morning with all the good humor and enthusiasm of a feral tomcat facing a flea dip. He was a large-animal vet, after all, not a watchdog. The car slid around the last long curve then went whisking by where he had pulled off to the side of the road without so much as the customary “hey, I see ya there” wave of her hand. “Yep. That’s trouble all right. Wavy-haired, heart-stompin’, stubborn-as-she-is-beautiful trouble,” he muttered. This new development was doing nothing to brighten his mood. Not that he had been particularly cheerful since Samantha Jolene Newberry, the woman who single-handedly ran the bird sanctuary and more often than not thought she ought to run Hank’s life, had fainted dead away in his arms. Dead away. In this case it was not a colorful turn of phrase. He wasn’t sure for how long, but being a doctor of veterinary medicine he knew that when her body fell into his arms her heart had stopped beating. And Sammie Jo’s being one of the biggest hearts he’d ever known, it had grieved him like nothing he’d ever experienced. Then her eyes opened again, and she let loose on him a whole new wave of grief—of the bossing him around, getting him to agree to do things he didn’t have the time or inclination to do variety. He had had to agree to do her bidding before she’d let him call for help. Hank rubbed his eyes, clenched his teeth and wondered what he was thinking when he had taken on the task. These acres of untouched natural habitat swept with tall grasses, live oaks hung thick with moss, isolated with nothing but dirt roads to connect them to the highway and nearest neighbors, had withstood hurricanes and the high-strung females that lived here. What could happen in the few days Sammie Jo would have to be under a doctor’s care as she recovered from her near brush with a heart attack? The silver SUV didn’t just make the turn into the drive that most people, even ones who had been out to the Newberry family home dozens of times, missed. It went gliding around the bend and through the crookedly hanging open iron gates like a plane coming in for a perfect landing. Hank’s feet seemed to grow roots, anchoring him in place. He’d pulled over just shy of Sammie Jo’s yard to let the dogs run for a minute to expend some energy so the animals would be less inclined to chase any wounded or unsuspecting birds on the sanctuary proper. That’s what he’d told himself. In truth he’d needed a moment alone with his thoughts, alone with the Lord, to regroup and go back to the place where not twelve hours ago he’d thought he’d lost one of the first people who had ever believed in him. The SUV disappeared over a rise in the sparsely graveled drive. What could happen while the owner was away? The past could come calling, that’s what. Sammie Jo’s past. Gall Rive’s past. Hank’s past. All those pasts wrapped up in the form of Emma Evangeline Newberry, the girl who had run out on him on the eve of their elopement. He pressed his callused fingers against the pale blue oxidized paint of the truck until his skin burned. If he got into that truck right now and drove until he got back to town or maybe even all the way back to New Orleans, where he had lived before he ever heard of the Newberry family, no one would blame him. But Sammie Jo had asked him to help out, and he had vowed to do it. Unlike some people he could think of—that he often thought of over the past ten years—he would not turn his back on someone just because things did not go according to the plan. With a snap of his fingers, Hank directed his pair of rescued shelter dogs to get into the extended cab behind the seat. “Gotta go, boys.” He climbed in behind the steering wheel and slammed the door. “Looks like Emma Newberry has finally come home to Gall Rive. Let’s go welcome her, shall we?” Earnest T, a lanky, scruffy-looking Australian shepherd and Airedale mix, stuck his head between the seat and the passenger-side window and gave a gruff woof. Hank cranked the engine and shifted into Drive. “Don’t worry. I have no intention of getting involved with her.” A doctor of veterinary medicine for about a decade now, he didn’t hold much with the idea some folks had of carrying on conversations with the creatures in the animal kingdom. Particularly when those people took it upon themselves to hold up both sides of that exchange as if they knew the minds of the animals themselves. But as a man who had landed wounded and weary in this small town hoping to put his lonely and painful childhood and family life behind him, he also embraced the notion that sometimes a man needed to think things out loud, to unload a bit to a sympathetic ear. All the better if that ear didn’t have a direct connection to a pair of lips that might blab it all to the neighbors. “No, I’ve learned my lesson as far as Emma Newberry is concerned,” Hank said. Otis, Earnest T’s bulldog best buddy, snorted. “I mean it.” He pulled the old truck onto the well-rutted road and headed after the SUV. “I won’t give her the chance to get to me again. Not that she would be interested… She made that perfectly clear when she left me without even saying goodbye.” The truck hit a dip in the road. The dogs bounced into each other. Earnest T laid his ears back and gave Hank a look someone else might have described as scolding. Otis lapped his tongue out and slobbered. “Almost there, right through these trees, boys.” He wasn’t talking to the dogs, he justified inwardly. He was talking…to keep from thinking about what waited for him through those trees, what had his pulse racing and his mouth dry. He eased out a long, resigned breath then gripped the steering wheel to maintain control over the last bit of broken road. Up ahead sat the silver SUV framed by a yard scattered with live oaks. Hank thought the moss hanging from their branches looked like streamers, as if the very landscape had arranged itself to welcome home this too-long-absent member of the family. Movement in the driver’s seat drew his attention, but the SUV’s tinted windows kept him from seeing the driver clearly. He reached across the seat of his truck to the passenger-side door and yanked the handle. When she opened her door, he would call out to her. Better that than jumping out of a truck and striding up to her. He was only thinking of her feelings. Which meant he had completely forgotten to take into account his dogs’ eagerness to get out and get an eyeful and a snout full of Gall Rive’s newest arrival. As soon as the passenger door of his truck came open just a crack, Earnest T gave Hank’s elbow a hard nudge. The truck door swung outward. The already banged-up truck door went clanging into the cautiously opening door of the SUV just a few feet away. The wham of metal against metal rang in the quiet of the slowly spreading daylight. Earnest T leaped out. Otis came clumping along after. A flurry of waves of rich brown hair whipped forward and back from the SUV’s open door. The lower part of a tanned leg kicked outward. A high-heeled shoe went somersaulting into the shaggy, damp grass. A glimpse of black fabric, a flash of something shiny and a hand grasping nothing but air. That was all Hank saw of her. That was enough. His heart lodged in his throat, sending a hard, expectant pounding beat all the way to his temples. She let out a sound that, as a vet, Hank was prone to call a yelp followed by a series of unfinished thoughts that went something like, “My car! Dogs? Where did… This is my family’s property… Keep these vicious animals…” At that point she lunged from her seat to grab the door handle. That was her first mistake. She leaned out and down and right into the path Earnest T’s ice-cold nose, extended in the enthusiastic reverie of doggy greeting. Otis’s unfurled ribbon of a tongue was not far behind. “Yeah, they are pretty vicious.” Hank laughed. “That one licked the scowl right off your face. If you’re not careful one of them might actually get you to smile.” Earnest T and Otis went loping back and forth, sniffing at the tires and underside of the new vehicle. As soon as they moved away from her, Emma jerked her head up. Her hair bunched against her slender neck and over her bare upper arm but mostly it covered her eyes. Hank could hardly see her face, or anything but bits of her—a bare foot, an arm, the wink of gold and diamonds on her wrist. Still, just being this close to her made something in him feel suddenly… Lighter? Not exactly. Love struck? Hardly. As if he’d come home. He pushed the fleeting and foolish thought aside. Closed the lid on it. Locked it down. That’s how he had survived his childhood, how he dealt with the hard realities of his work, how he had coped all those years ago when this very woman had broken his heart. “This is private property. You should take your dogs and get off it before I call…” Emma pushed the tangle of hair back from her face with one hand, lifted her chin and her gaze met his. “You.” “No need to call me, Emma. I’m already here.” Had he thought she felt like home? Hank got out of the truck. He should have been suspicious at the tenderness and warmth he’d associated with the term. Those things had nothing to do with the home he’d grown up in. Maybe there was more warning than welcome in his first thoughts about the youngest Newberry. The dogs rounded the SUV and headed for Emma again. Hank strode to the back of his truck to better take command of the situation—at least the situation with his dogs. He had not quite gotten between the two vehicles when a squeal of pure delight caught his attention. Layers of pink-netting stuff flipped and flapped and fluttered above the tops of clunky green rubber boots that were clomping over the overgrown grass of the yard. A purple knit scarf bounced over the orange-and-yellow swirls of a tie-dyed T-shirt. A small girl with tufts of blond hair sticking up here and there on her head stumbled over Emma’s lost shoe. Arms flung wide she shrieked, “Dog-friends! Dog-friends! Here I am! I want to hug you, dog-friends.” “Ruthie, no!” Emma’s arm shot out, but between Earnest T and Otis and her own safety belt restraining her she couldn’t climb out of the driver’s seat fast enough. “You don’t know these dogs. They might bite you.” Hank clenched his jaw at her frantic tone, knowing it was doing nothing to calm the dogs or educate the child. He stepped in front of the girl rushing headlong toward the animals who had spotted her and turned to bound her way. He gave a quick, sharp whistle, held out his hand and said, “Cool it.” The child pulled up short in her tracks. “You have no right to yell at my daughter.” The click and clatter of the seat belt releasing underscored Emma’s indignation. “I wasn’t yelling.” Daughter? Emma Newberry had a daughter? Even without looking at the child’s bright hair and pale skin or guessing from her slight build and barely-out-of-first-grade behavior, Hank knew the child was not his. That meant Emma had…married? He’d told Emma’s aunt shortly after Emma left never to mention her to him again, and Sammie Jo had honored his wishes. Now he wished he’d have at least asked about the big stuff, marriage, children, that might have prepared him for this moment. “I never yell.” He adjusted his hat and tipped his head back, not quite making eye contact as he said, with as much quiet grace as he could muster, “And I wasn’t talking to…your daughter.” He had no problem believing that Emma had become a mother, though. Not after the talk they had had the last night he had seen her. He nodded toward Earnest T and Otis. “I was giving a command to my dogs.” Emma tipped her face down toward the pair of dogs lying in the grass between the vehicles with their expectant gazes trained on Hank. “Oh.” Hank bent at the knees to lower himself eye to eye with the child to better impart a little heart-to-heart lesson. “Your mom is right about running up to strange dogs, sweetheart. You should never do that. Not all dogs are your friends.” “All dogs are my friends,” she said back at him, her tone decidedly stubborn as he might have expected of Emma’s child. Still, something was off about the cadence…the sentiment…the “not quite connecting” of it all. Hank studied the girl, carefully, methodically, which was pretty much how he approached everything and everyone. “I know you want to think that but—” “There’s no point in arguing with her.” The distinct swish-thump-swish of Emma walking one-shoed up behind him alerted him to her closing in on him. “She’s—” “Yeah, I know.” Hank held up his hand to cut her off. “She’s a Newberry woman. And when a Newberry woman makes up her mind about something, then she expects the rest of the world to order itself according to her….” He stood and turned to face her at last, prepared to see a cool, aloof, polished professional woman ready to fiercely protect her child. Instead he saw an almost frail figure with uncombed hair blowing in the breeze, dark circles blended with smudged makeup beneath her luminous eyes, wearing… “What are you wearing?” “What?” She glanced down as her fingers flitted over one slender strap. She adjusted the sparkling belt then tugged at the hem just above her knees. “It’s your basic little black dress. Every woman needs one.” “Not in Gall Rive.” He shook his head. “And certainly not at a bird sanctuary at half-past dawn.” “You know us Newberry women. When you live your life expecting the world to bend to your every whim, you have to be prepared for anything.” She pushed past him in a way that let him know that she neither appreciated his opinion of the women of her family nor was she inclined to explain her attire to him. She held her arms out to her child. “You never know when you might get an impromptu invite to a glam party.” “Obviously, this isn’t one of those times,” he joked in a way he hoped sounded casual not combative. “Obviously.” She stood there holding her daughter by the hand. Their eyes met for a moment. Color washed up over her warm-toned skin, rising into her cheeks and the tip of her perfect nose. There was that feeling deep in his gut again. The welcoming one, not the warning one. He didn’t like it. Not one bit. And he didn’t intend to endure it any longer than he had to. “Emma, I—” “I’m sorry, Hank. I’ve been driving all night and I just…” She blinked and tears washed her eyes but did not fall. That got to him in ways he was totally unprepared for. Still, he should say something. He wished he still knew her well enough not to have to say anything at all. He settled for a softly spoken “It’s okay.” “No. It’s not. I’ve acted like a brat, ordering you off the property without even asking…” She glanced down and suddenly seemed enthralled with something. She took a step, a lurch really, then bent and picked up the shoe that had flown off her foot when she had ordered him off the property. She held the elegant black pump up and turned it one way then another, as if trying to discern exactly what it was and what she should do with it. “Huh.” “I want that!” The little girl, her arms held up, fingers straining to wind around the slender heel, danced and leaped around her mom, who seemed to have completely zoned out. “Emma? You okay?” he asked. “Can I have your shoe, Mommy?” The girl tugged at the hem of Emma’s too-chic black dress. “When did that come off?” she said, relief easing over her pinched features. She laughed lightly. “I made it all the way from Atlanta in heels, survived pit stops for coffee to keep me awake and moving and snacks for Ruth. But as soon as I get to Gall Rive, I start falling apart!” She looked better when she laughed, even at a shoe. Hank rubbed the back of his neck, not exactly sure what to do next. “Look, if you need—” “No. No. I’ll be fine. I always am. I have to be, it’s all on me, after all. Not like I have a choice. Unless, of course, I chose to accept…” She didn’t even attempt to finish her thought, just looked down and swept her hand along the round cheek of the child beside her. Then she sighed, gave a wave of her shoe, bent to scoop up her child and began to walk away. “C’mon, sweetie, I don’t know how much longer I can stay upright. I am totally exhausted. Let’s go inside.” Hank watched her go, not sure what to do. Something was not right in all this, not right with Emma, not right with her child, not right with her showing up now and not asking about Sammie Jo. She had come back because her sister, Claire, had called her about their aunt, right? Hank had assumed, but… “Buh-bye, dog-friends. Come see me some more soon.” The child waved over her mother’s shoulder. Like her mama, the little girl got to him on some level Hank couldn’t quite yet explain. “Why is she here, boys? Did she come for her aunt or is she looking for something?” Earnest T whined. Hank knew that was the dog’s way of reminding him they were still in their “stay” positions and would very much like to get up and romp after the pair of strangers. Hank kind of knew how the animal felt in that respect. He wanted to follow them, not to just let them go off and try to sort whatever was going on with them alone. Emma walked with an uneven gait as she made her way toward the large old house that sat at the center of the migratory-bird sanctuary. Then, just as suddenly as she had taken off, she stopped and called out, “Did I ask you why you’re here? I don’t—” she gave out a huge yawn “—think I did. Do you, um, did you need something?” I need to get away from here, process a few things, he thought. What he said was, “I came as a favor to your aunt.” “Oh. Yeah. Not like you’d be here for me. Not like I told anyone I was coming home.” She took another staggering step toward the house. Her daughter waved the shoe around and hit her mother lightly along the side of her head. Emma didn’t even seem to notice. Another yawn. “Home.” Something changed about as she said the word. The angle of her shoulders eased. She pushed one hand back through her hair and laid her cheek against her squirming child’s head as she whispered, “You hear that, Ruth? We’ve come home.” As much as he knew he should turn and go, the awe in her voice, the tenderness of seeing the only woman he had ever loved as a mother drew him closer. He cleared his throat. “Been a while, huh?” She shifted her weight to put herself facing the Newberry home again. “Funny, up until I decided to come back here, I had stopped thinking of it like that. It became a memory. Not quite real. Just a place I thought of the way I first saw it—like a big birthday cake on cinder blocks.” Built sturdy and adorned delicately, the lower story of the house was gray stone. It had a flat, concrete downstairs porch jutting out into the yard and a broad outdoor staircase sweeping upward to the second story. That story had tall windows framed by faded black shutters against once-crisp white siding. The stair railings and the balcony were scrolled wrought iron, currently painted a dusty-rose color. Above that the dormered windows of the attic looked out on every side over the pale gray roof. “I’d forgotten you’d called it that.” Hank chuckled quietly. “Birthday cake.” “Cake!” The child lifted her arms stiffly toward the structure. “Don’t mention food, honey. I haven’t eaten since lunch yesterday. I’m getting light-headed just thinking about cake.” Emma settled the girl on the ground and put her hand to her flat stomach. She turned toward Hank again. She tipped her head to one side as if she had just turned around and noticed his arrival. She let out a long sigh before whispering, “Hi, Hank. I don’t think I actually said that yet, did I?” “Hi, Emma.” For an instant the years fell away. She was fresh out of nursing college and he still brand-spanking-new to his veterinary practice and anything seemed possible. The little girl loped the last few steps up the walk and up to the huge double doors on the first floor. As her small fist pounded away, she called out, “Hello. Come out, Great-aunt Sammie. It’s your pretty-great Ruth. I came to visit you.” “Visit?” That yanked Hank back to the present. He looked from the child to Emma. “Then…you don’t know?” “Know what?” Emma lifted her hair off the graceful curve of her collarbone and met his gaze unflinchingly. “Your aunt Sammie isn’t going to come out, Emma. She had a heart scare last night.” “A heart scare?” Her hand dropped from her neck to form a fist against her wrinkled black dress. She took a step in his direction, but her legs seemed unsteady. Her face went pale. Her voice barely rose above a whisper. “You mean a heart attack?” “Not a heart attack.” He took another step toward her. “I was here when it happened, she just—” “No one called me.” She seemed to teeter a bit, swaying but not actually moving her feet. “Is she…is she going to be all right?” Another step and he was close enough to see the crinkles of concern between her eyebrows. “Just a scare,” he assured her. She looked in no condition to hear the details of the story from him right now. “Doctor wanted her to stay in town for a day or two as a precaution. That’s all. That’s straight from your sister Claire’s mouth and you know she’s not one to sugarcoat anything.” “I had my phone off while I was driving. Drove all night, after… I just had to get away and…” Emma put her hand to her temple. “I’m so tired and hungry. This is so… I came here because I couldn’t…” She glanced down at her daughter and shook her head. “I thought Sammie would be here to… I thought Sammie Jo would always be here, and now you’re telling me…” He thought she was going to sit down, bury her head in her hands and sob uncontrollably. Injured animals he could deal with. But crying women were way outside his comfort zone. And Emma, the woman he had thought of all these years as made of stone, dissolving into tears? “Why don’t I let you into the house. You can lie down a minute and—I’ll fix you something to eat then—” “Lying down. Eating. They both sound so good.” She put her hand to her head and yawned again. “I can’t think straight but I need to talk to my aunt, or my sister or…” She took a step toward the house, pressed one hand to her head and another to her stomach. Her knees crumpled beneath her. “Are you kidding me?” In less than a heartbeat he dropped his reservations about getting involved, his reservations about all things Emma, and did what needed to be done. “What’s with you Newberry women and fainting?” She didn’t say a word as he fit his arm under the crook of her knees and wrapped his other arm firmly around her shoulders. Her eyelids fluttered slightly. “At least I know you’re alive,” he murmured as he jostled her around until he felt sure he had her securely in his grasp. “Hey!” She roused slightly and tried to kick. The feeble attempt only emphasized how weak she was from her long drive. “Put me down. I can do this myself. I do everything myself.” “Nope. Sorry, not this time.” He clutched her high against his chest and gazed at her sweet, sleepy face. “I have a key to this place and have already cleared my schedule for the morning. I’m going to watch your daughter and you’re going to take a nap…” “I’m fine.” Her kick turned into more of a halfhearted swing of one leg. She yawned. “I need to go see Sammie Jo.” “Sammie Jo is fine.” It was nothing for him to carry her, even over the largely unkempt ground of the old bird-sanctuary lawn. He had made his living mostly wrangling farm animals, wrestling with everything from birthing cattle to giving a ferret nose drops. He could handle one wily but weary Newberry woman without any complications. “You just need to—” “Be careful. That’s my mommy,” the girl said, her chin thrust out and her soft blond hair wafting in the breeze. “I know. She’s…” Hank looked down at Emma Newberry, who had laid her head against his shoulder when he’d begun walking. She was now blissfully dozing on his blue work shirt. “Your mom is going to take a nap. But that’s okay. You have Earnest T and Otis and me to look after you until she wakes up.” No complications? Her daughter couldn’t be left to her own devices, her aunt was ill and her sister was preoccupied, to say the least. He hadn’t wanted to get involved but he didn’t have any choice. Emma Newberry didn’t have anyone but him. Trouble? Hank had a feeling that was an understatement for what had just come home to roost. Chapter Two “It’s pretend cake, Ruth. This isn’t my house. You aren’t my kid. I can’t feed you real cake. That’s just the way it is.” At the sound of a man’s voice holding a potentially temper-tantrum-inducing conversation with her daughter, Emma sat bolt up and almost tumbled off the edge of the couch. Her mind raced back frantically over the events of the past twenty-four hours. She tugged at the neckline of her only really nice dress then ran her fingers over her diamond bracelet. She never should have accepted it as a birthday gift from her boss, Dr. Ben Weaver. She had told him it was too expensive, not to mention impractical for her as a nurse and single mom. But he’d made her feel like an ingrate for refusing the gesture. He liked to see her happy, to give her nice things, he’d said. That decision lead to another date and then another. And then last night, an out-of-the-blue proposal. Emma shut her eyes. Why hadn’t she just said no? Running away wasn’t an answer. She of all people should know that. “I think you’ll find, Miss Ruth Newberry, that there is a lot to be said for having pretend cake. Starting with not having to do dishes after eating it.” Emma swept her gaze over the cluttered but homey living room of the old Newberry home and thoughts of Ben and the choice she had avoided making fell away. How did she get to this couch? How long had she been sleeping? And why was Hank—Mr. “kids are great—for other people”—Corsaut talking to her daughter about pretend cake? “Ruth?” Emma pushed up to her feet and for a second the momentum made her head go woozy. “But if you throw a fit—” Hank kept his tone matter-of-fact sounding, smooth and soothing “—you will upset Otis and Earnest T and the three of us will have to go have our tea somewhere else.” Emma pressed her fingertips to her temples and clenched her back teeth to force herself to focus. The room stopped swimming. She turned to find Ruth, still in her ballerina tutu and tie-dyed top, standing barefoot on a wooden kitchen chair painted banana-yellow, glaring across the 1950s’ style dinette table at Hank. Hank Corsaut! Her pulse kicked up. She couldn’t catch her breath. She’d been too exhausted and too upset for it to really sink in earlier. From the moment she’d run blindly out of one of the best restaurants in Atlanta, rushed to pick up Ruth and driven from Georgia to Louisiana without even stopping to change her clothes, Emma had prayed. She had prayed for guidance. She had prayed for insight. She had prayed for courage. Maybe she should have prayed not to run into the last person she wanted to see at the old house on the same day she had come running home with her tail between her legs and her future up in the air. “Cake,” Ruth demanded with the quiet intensity of the calm before a storm. “Sorry. No cake.” Hank stretched his long legs out and did not budge. He did not even shift enough to make the somewhat rickety, wildly decorated wooden chair beneath him squawk. That impressed Emma, since she had painted those chairs herself more than a decade ago and knew how little it took to get them to complain under a person’s weight. The two big-eyed dogs, sitting in front of empty plates on chairs painted pink and lime green, watched solemnly. Silently. Ruth did not show such grace. She gripped the back of her chair, her face beet-red, and let out a low, threatening growling sound. Emma rounded the couch and headed for the kitchen. The soles of her bare feet slapped the warped boards of the hardwood floor as she said, “Hank, you don’t understand. About Ruth—” “I understand enough.” He held his hand up to warn her to keep her distance. “If you want to talk to me about this, Ruth, you have to use words. Okay?” Ruth shifted her weight from one fat little foot to the other. She frowned. She balled her small hand into a fist against the layers of pink netting of her outfit. After a moment she spread her fingers open wide and shook them the way someone might react to touching a hot iron. She didn’t say a word, but then she also didn’t grunt or growl, either. Emma wanted to tell Hank that she considered this development a small triumph. But before she could say anything, the man smiled at Ruth warmly then nodded. “Okay. Looks like we have reached an agreement.” A shiver snaked up Emma’s spine. Try as she might she could not look away from the man. Not even to keep him from seeing how much she found herself drawn to him with his easygoing approach, kind wit and seemingly endless patience coupled with unflinching sense of purpose. He wasn’t bad to look at, either. At thirty-seven his still-thick black hair did not show signs of graying. She couldn’t say the same for her own dark brown locks at thirty-three. He still didn’t seem inclined to get regular haircuts, though now the shaggy look seemed more a causal look than a young man too wrapped up in establishing his business to take time for the barber. His skin was tanned and he didn’t show even the first bulge of a belly or suggestion of love handles. The years had been good to him. He was no longer the kid she’d known and loved, the callow young man who had broken her heart by proposing to her and waiting until the eve of their marriage to tell her he didn’t want children. Hank was a man now. And she was a mom. She could not let herself forget that. She shut her eyes and made herself focus on the situation at hand. The familiar smells of the old kitchen eased into every nuance of her mind and memory. The ever-present hint in the air of Louisiana loam and moss and river grasses, of lemon oil used to polish all the wood in the old house intertwined with the scent of fresh cotton from all the kitchen linens aired on the clothesline. It all comforted her but did not blot out the image of Hank Corsaut in faded jeans and a denim work shirt, the sleeves rolled up to expose his well-muscled forearms. Without even trying she could picture the watchfulness of his dark eyes, the way his hair fell against the beginning of smile lines fanning out above his high cheekbones. Whether climbing out of his truck coming to her aid or sitting in the kitchen playing tea party with her headstrong daughter, the man brought an instant sense of order to the chaos Emma seemed to drag along behind her wherever she went. “Oh, Hank,” she said almost like a sigh. “What?” His masculine voice, with just a syllable, brought her straight into the moment again. She pretended to rub sleep out of her eye and took a step in their direction. “Can I get you something for those plates and cups?” “I unpacked your car for you and found the bag of snacks you had in there.” Hank held up his hand. “So, we’ve eaten, thanks.” “Not cake,” Ruth shot back. “I explained about that,” he said softly. “She likes cake,” Emma said with a soft, apologetic tone of affection she often used when trying to smooth her daughter’s way in the world. “But if you want something to eat, I can look around and see if there’s any—” “Ruth asked Earnest T and Otis and me to have a tea party with her and we’ve had a very nice time sipping pink tea, which is pretend, by the way.” He gave Emma a quick look, chin down, his dark eyes as somber as an undertaker’s. Only the flicker of a smile gave away his good humor in the face of all he had been putting up with while she snoozed away who knew how much of the morning. “But when I suggested the boys might like some pretend cake to go with their pretend tea…” Emma winced. “I like cake,” Ruth muttered. One of the dogs woofed softly. “Dogs like cake,” Ruth added, more pouty now than agitated. “But cake is not good for dogs.” Hank held eye contact with the child, not an easy thing to do. Ruth rocked from one foot to the other again. The chair wobbled. Her tutu swayed and rustled. She looked over at the dogs sitting at the table next to her then at the man treating her with dignity and yet demanding she show a level of discipline she couldn’t always deliver. She scrunched her mouth up on one side and lifted one foot slightly, which might have made anyone else seem off balance but somehow seemed to put Ruth at a cockeyed advantage. “Can dogs eat pretend cake?” Hank had to tilt his head to keep eye contact, which he did. He managed a nod, as well. “I think that would be all right.” “Pretend pink cake?” Ruth threw it out almost as a challenge, as if she wasn’t ready to believe the man had imagination enough to conjure up canine-safe and Ruth-approved pretend fare. “Pretend pink cake with pretend pink icing on top.” He lifted up what Emma could now see was an empty cup. “Shall we sip on it?” Ruth mimicked his motion, reaching for her own cup, then paused to warn him, “’Member your manners.” “Oh, sorry.” With that, the rough-around-the-edges country vet delicately extended his pinkie finger. Ruth did the same. Hank raised the cup to his lips and made an obnoxiously loud slurping sound and that sent Ruth into a gale of giggles. Emma’s stomach clenched even as her heart warmed. She had come here to clear her head so she could make a decision about hers and Ruth’s future. This was not helping that, but it seemed so good for her precious little girl. “Thank you, Hank—for everything.” “You’re welcome.” He set the cup down then turned toward her. “Get enough sleep?” “No, but I think I’m recharged enough to go see my aunt.” Emma stretched then yawned. Her dress rustled around her. “After I change, of course.” “I didn’t think you were the kind to change for anyone.” He looked at her then at Ruth, who was swirling her empty cup through the air while the dogs looked on. “Certainly looks like you went out and got what you wanted in life after we parted ways. I hope you and your husband are very happy, Em.” “I never married.” “Oh?” Again he looked at Ruth. Her often obstinate child placed hats folded from newspapers on the head of one dog, then the other. “I…” Emma didn’t know how much she wanted to share with Hank about her choices and her life since she ran out on him all those years ago. Did he really need to know that she had never fallen truly in love with another man since him? Or that from the moment Emma had adopted Ruth straight out of the Neonatal Unit at the hospital where Emma had worked, until last year when she went to work for Dr. Ben Weaver, that Emma had put her child’s needs first and foremost? Did he need to know how all of that tied in to her hasty flight home last night? She opened her mouth, hoping just the right amount of information would spill out. Instead, her stomach gurgled. Loudly. So loudly that both of the dogs looked startled. One of them woofed. “You still aren’t very good at the whole standing up for yourself and saying what you want, are you, Em?” Hank laughed. He stood and moved around to offer her his seat. “If you were hungry you should have said so, not asked me if I wanted something to eat.” She wanted to argue but she couldn’t. She never had been able to put her own needs ahead of others. That was one of the reasons she felt so strongly about caring for Ruth by herself. It terrified her to think of even people who loved them both barging in with opinions and options that Emma feared might not be best for her fragile child. It humbled and touched her that after all these years Hank still knew her better than anyone, even than Ben, the man who said he loved her. “Do you suppose Sammie Jo has anything but bird feed around this place?” Hank went to the nearly ancient aqua-blue refrigerator and tugged it open. Emma sighed. She’d roused from a cold slumber thinking she needed to run to the aid of this poor out-of-his-depth man when he not only had everything under control, he actually wanted to help her. If she’d let him. “Well, she has chickens so you know she has eggs.” Emma settled into the chair and smiled at Ruth, who was busy trying to dab the corner of a napkin over the bulldog’s lips. “I hope Ruth wasn’t too much for you.” “Too-oo much,” Ruth parroted, still trying to get all the pretend food off the face of the very real pooch. “She was…” He set a bowl of brown and tan and white and even pale blue eggs on the counter. Then he turned around and honed his gaze in on Emma’s face. “Surprising.” “In a good way?” Emma gave her fondest hope voice. “She made those hats for the dogs all by herself” was the only answer he gave her. “Yeah.” Emma put her hand on the torn newspaper on the table, folded a corner down then tore the edges to form a two-inch-by-two-inch square, which she pushed toward Ruth. “She does that.” A moment later the smell of the gas burner being turned on high mingled with the aroma of bread browning in the old toaster. “Over easy or scrambled?” Hank asked. “Scrambled. Just like my life.” Emma sat with her shoulders slumped forward. “I’m afraid with Aunt Sammie having this health scare, it might be lousy timing bringing Ruth here. I don’t suppose you have an idea about that?” He cracked an egg into the skillet, then another. As they bubbled quietly, he turned and seemed to study them both. “I guess that depends on why you brought her here.” She wasn’t sure if the man was asking her a question or suggesting she needed to ask that question of herself. He went back to the eggs, gave them a stir. “What’s she making, a teeny tiny hat?” “Paper crane,” Emma said, watching her child’s fingers manipulate the square of newsprint. “There’s a Japanese legend that says if you make a thousand of them, you can ask for one wish. I bet Ruth has made at least a thousand by now.” “That right?” He flipped the eggs over. The toast popped up. He got out a plate, slung a tea towel over his shoulder and asked, “So, what would you wish for, Ruth?” “Crease.” Ruth did not look up. “Crease,” Emma whispered, at last focusing every ounce of her attention and every emotion in her heart on her child. Crease. It was the perfect word for the sound of Ruth’s crescent-moon thumbnail sliding down the length of the folded piece of paper. The perfect word for the crisp edge left in that thumbnail’s path. The perfect word for Emma’s heart when she laid eyes on her child—folded in two, pressed down, forced into opposing segments, each cut off from the other but still whole, still Emma. On one side there was all that she wanted for her child, all that any mother wants and hopes and dreams for her child. Opposing that, the hard reality the world had dealt them. “Wing!” Ruth proudly held up the half-finished bit of origami. “Wing,” Hank echoed in a tone that seemed in awe and yet not lacking concern. He set the plate of food down in front of Emma. “It’s not fancy but…” “It’s all I need,” she murmured, looking up into his eyes. “Thanks.” He shooed the dogs away from the table with a snap and a gesture. Emma wondered what this man couldn’t do with those strong, capable hands that had held imaginary tea, cooked her meal, lifted her up in a moment of weakness. He folded those hands in prayer. Emma bowed her head. “Thank You, Lord, for the bounty of life,” he began softly. “Thank You for all that we have to eat, all that we have to share, all that we have to hope and for the gift of Your grace, Amen.” “Amen,” Emma murmured. He took the seat next to her, angled his shoulders back and folded his arms. “So, what’s the deal with your daughter?” She didn’t know if he was asking why she had brought Ruth to Gall Rive or if he was curious about her medical diagnosis and story. But he was the first person she had ever met who had had the insight, courage and kindness to sit down and ask outright, so she told him the things that she had tucked deep in her heart. “Ruth can’t say her whole alphabet. She still struggles to use a fork or a knife. When she dresses herself she usually tries, at least once, to force her head through an armhole.” He leaned forward, listening intently. “When she does her hair, she usually rats it into little blond puff balls more than actually comb it. If the tangles aren’t too bad, she puts a sparkly clip on them and looks up, smiling, for approval.” Emma smiled, but it did not last long as she added, “If she gets angry about it, she pulls the clip out, and some of her hair with it.” “A lot of little kids—” “She’s eight years old.” “Eight?” He looked at Ruth, his head tipped. “Am I wrong in thinking she’s small for her age?” “She was a preemie.” Emma looked at her daughter. Her heart filled with love and yet she still felt the twinge of hope and fear of all the nights she’d spent by the child’s crib in the infant ICU, praying, singing to her softly, making plans for a nursery, a relationship, a life that she knew might never be realized. “I came to work at the hospital on the night she was born, took one look at four-hour-old Ruth with her oxygen tubes and terrified teenage birth mom who knew she couldn’t possibly take care of a special-needs child and I knew I was looking at my baby.” Hank tipped his head to the right. He seemed to be making a study of Ruth but there was, in his expression, a gentleness and depth that he had never shown as a younger man. That look warmed Emma’s heart and yet made her uneasy at the same time. Rather than trying to sort out those conflicting emotions Emma took a bite and savored the simple goodness of her meal. “Mmm. There’s nothing like farm-fresh eggs, eaten in a familiar kitchen, cooked by someone who…” Someone who…cares about you? Someone you share a history with? Someone who let you walk away and never once tried to come after you, never tried to make amends? She stirred the eggs on the plate again, unable to finish that sentence. He strummed his fingers on the tabletop, giving her time to conclude, then finally asked, “So you adopted as a single mother?” “Eight years ago.” She nodded, glad for the distraction. “Aunt Sammie or Claire never told you?” “I never talk to Claire about personal things. As for your aunt? I never asked.” He laid his hands, palm up, on the table and lowered his gaze to them. “That first year after you’d gone when you didn’t come back, not even for the holidays, I told Sammie Jo I didn’t want to hear about you again. Not ever. I guess she got the message. And right or wrong, I just felt—” “Bended.” Ruth pressed down a pointed tip on the paper then moved to the final stage. “Pull, pull, pulled. Careful, it can still be broken.” “You said a mouthful, kid.” He seemed transfixed by Ruth’s fingers working over the tiny piece of paper. “She does this a lot, huh?” She nodded. “She can’t dress or feed herself without help. But this she can do. Folding and unfolding, creasing, pressing flat, turning, lining up, tucking in then opening up. You show her how to do it once, and…” Ruth opened her hands to reveal her creation, an understatedly elegant origami bird. “Crane!” “Very pretty.” Hank held his hand out toward the girl. “Too-oo much.” She dropped the crane into his open palm. “That about sums us up, I guess. Very pretty but too-oo much.” Emma tried to smile. Hank put his hand on her arm. “Static encephalotrophy.” She said the diagnosis out loud then followed up with, “Brain damage that won’t get worse…or better. Same diagnosis as cerebral palsy, only Ruth’s is less physical and more learning- and behavior-based.” “So you have to learn to work with what you have,” he surmised. “Not exactly the Newberry way, is it?” She bit into her toast and tore a corner off. He sat back in his chair and chuckled. “No, I’d say the Newberry way is—” “Who belongs to that SUV out there with the Georgia tags?” The front door went banging against the wall as Samantha Jo Newberry’s rasping voice rang through both stories, each of the five bedrooms, down the hallways and most definitely into the big, open kitchen. “If it’s a birder, I’m here to help. If it’s my baby Emma come home at last, I’m here in the doorway with my arms open wondering how long I have to wait before I hobble in there, hunt you down and hug the stuffin’ out of you!” Chapter Three “Great-aunt Sammie!” The chair legs complained against the old floor as Ruth pushed it away from the table. It almost tipped backward. “Whoa!” Hank caught it with one hand. Emma darted her hand out to help her daughter. Her hand landed firmly on top of Hank’s. Ruth scrambled down off the tilted chair unaware of either of them. “Great-aunt Sammie. Great-aunt Sammie! It’s me! It’s your pretty-great favorite kid, Ruthie!” Emma watched her daughter lope away to greet Sammie Jo. Emma should have jumped up with equal enthusiasm and done the same, but she couldn’t seem to move. All the importance of her rash rush to return home settled over her. Hank, Ruth, her aunt, her sister, Gall Rive, the past, the future she had come here to contemplate and everything they carried with them settled like a mantle onto her shoulders. Hank’s dogs followed Ruth, their tags jingling rhythmically. Emma returned her attention to Hank. She realized she had closed her hand over his, her grip tightening. Hank did not shy away or even flinch at her touch. He met her gaze, his eyes kind but unrevealing as he asked a “safe” question. “Pretty-great kid?” “The last time Sammie Jo came to visit us in Atlanta, we explained that she was Ruth’s great-aunt, to which Ruth let it be known she was a pretty-great kid herself.” A combination of love and recognition resounded from the foyer, with Sammie Jo laughing, dogs snuffing, their tags jangling and Ruth demanding to know where they kept the cake around this place. Emma managed an amenable smile. “It stuck.” “I can see why. The kid has a point.” Hank settled Ruth’s chair’s legs onto the floor but did not withdraw his hand from beneath hers. “They are both pretty great.” Had she heard right? Hank Corsaut admitting he wasn’t totally put off by a kid? “Cake. Pink cake. Mom doesn’t know where it is. My dog-friend’s daddy doesn’t know, either.” Ruth’s voice echoed a bit through the high-ceilinged house. “Come get it for me.” Emma sighed and shut her eyes. It was all too much to process given her state of mind and the state of her life. “You want cake? Then cake you shall have!” Sammie Jo’s own voice rang out with a regal tone. “If I don’t have any, we shall make one. Hang what the doctors say about diet and restricting cholesterol.” “Great, yes.” Emma pulled back her shoulders and slipped her hand away from Hank’s. She stood. “But she’s also a very big responsibility.” “You talking about your daughter or your aunt Sammie Jo?” Hank grinned at her. That grin gave her just the boost she needed to deal with the double trouble of her two most childlike and demanding relatives. She turned and headed toward the foyer, compelled to make one thing perfectly clear as she did. “Sammie Jo is my sister Claire’s responsibility.” He stood up so quickly it made the table wobble and strode behind Emma, adding, “Except when Claire is busy.” “Which is, like, all the time, to hear her tell it,” Emma chimed in, winding her way through the cluttered living room toward the front door where she could hear Ruth, Sammie Jo and the pair of dogs scuffling around. “Which is, like, all the time,” Hank affirmed, keeping up with every sidestep and curve in the path Emma was blazing. “When Claire is busy, your aunt, and by extension, this sanctuary, has become my responsibility. Of course now that you’re here—” “No. Don’t even finish that sentence.” She pulled up short and spun on her heel. “Give a guy a heads-up before you up and change course like that, will you?” Hank managed to stop just inches shy of slamming into her. He held his arms out and his hands up like a man trying to avoid brushing against a live electrical fence as he muttered, “Heads-up, right. Look who I’m talking to.” She tipped her chin up and narrowed her eyes. “If that’s a veiled reference to our breakup, Hank, it needs to be very clear that you are the one that changed the course of our relationship. You are the one who waited until the night before our wedding to tell me that you did not want to have children.” “Really, Em? You want to launch into this now?” He retreated a step, his hands still up. “I was actually sort of proud of myself for having held off this long,” she shot back. Before she could even take another breath, she cringed inwardly. She had made so many strides in life to keep her wild, impulsive tendencies under control, but standing back in this home of her childhood, after just a few minutes gazing into Hank Corsaut’s eyes, and she was blurting out things like that. She pressed her lips together. Another step back and Hank dropped his hands to his sides. “I’m sorry.” Emma hung her head, humbled by her own overreaction. “I probably made a big mistake even coming back here. I thought I’d find answers, that the path I need to take would become more clear with distance from my real life but—” “Emma! My sweet, sweet, baby girl!” Sammie Jo appeared in the doorway from the foyer to the living room. There was no evidence of a health problem in the rosy color of her cheeks. Her once strawberry blond hair, now streaked heavily with white, hung in a long thick braid over one shoulder. She had tucked her turquoise jeans into her high-top tennis shoes. Despite Ruth whirling about on tiptoe, her tutu bouncing and the dogs winding around Sammie’s every lumbering, labored footstep, she entered the room like a diva commandeering the stage. When all eyes focused on her, she threw her arms open wide, sending her hand-beaded dangly earrings swinging. “Look at you, all dressed up in that fabulous little black dress and…is that a diamond bracelet? Tr?s chic! But your hair…” “Note she’s not surprised at what I’m wearing, just that my hair is mussed up a little.” Emma went to her aunt, her arms open wide to wrap her in a hug. “A little? Emma, honey, a little mussed up is what my hair was when I did a nosedive into the bougainvilleas.” Sammie Jo enveloped her in two tanned, freckled arms. Emma sank into warmth and the wonderful generosity of her aunt’s unwavering love. This, she realized, was why she had come. She had been stressed, afraid and even in the middle of a crowded restaurant with a man who promised her everything any girl could ever want, she felt alone. Here, in this house, in the arms of the woman who had raised her when her mother died, all of that melted away. She was loved. And more than a bit curious. “You fell into the bougainvilleas?” “Not on purpose, sugar. I was having a heart attack!” Emma pulled away, her own heart racing. She twisted her neck to give Hank a scolding look. “You said it wasn’t a heart attack.” “Oh, now, calm down, Emma, honey.” Her aunt gave her one more brief hug before releasing her, stepping away and starting to pick her way over the tangle of dogs and Ruth. “It wasn’t really a heart attack and I didn’t actually fall into the bougainvilleas.” “I caught her.” Hank leaned against the doorway, his arms folded. “You make a habit of hanging around waiting for Newberrys to keel over?” Emma managed to keep her anxiety over her aunt’s precarious health from making that sound like an accusation. “I’ve just been telling everyone I had a near heart attack and fell into the bougainvilleas because it’s so much more interesting a story than a medication mix-up inducing an episode that caused my heart to stop for maybe two, three seconds which wouldn’t even have rated a call to the doctor if the town vet had minded his own business.” “You make yourself my business, woman, whether I like it or not.” Hank shook his head. “Boo-gun-veel-yas,” Ruth sounded out slowly at first then began to spin around, repeating it faster and faster like the beat of a song that she alone could hear. “Boo-gun-veel-yas, boo-gun-veel-yas.” “That must have been awful for you, Aunt Sammie.” Emma went to her aunt’s side and took her by the arm. Sammie Jo nodded toward the couch and they headed that way, a bit more slowly than her aunt’s usual speed. “It was awful,” Sammie agreed in her rich Louisiana accent. “And I would have been alone. Of course, God would have been with me—is with me, always—but I had my cell phone on me when I first started feeling poorly so I made a call and this one here—” she pointed to Hank in the same antagonistic attitude he’d been giving her but couldn’t keep it up as she smiled, touched her fingers to her lips then blew a kiss to the man as she said “—came running.” Emma met Hank’s gaze again, and again found herself overwhelmed by the sense that he could help her find order where now she mostly knew turmoil. “The pair of them insisted I keep that phone near me and charged up at all times.” Sammie Jo reached out to grab Hank by the arm as they passed him and her strong, slender fingers curled in a squeeze of obvious gratitude. “Of course, now that you’ve come here to stay, that won’t be such a worry.” “Stay?” Emma halted beside the couch and it seemed that for a split second everything around her blurred into slow motion, much as it had just before she fell asleep on her feet earlier. Only this time, it wasn’t weariness that had her mind and heart out of sync with her surroundings. She had come to Gall Rive to test her wings, not to reestablish her roots. “Aunt Sammie, I didn’t come home. I came back. There’s a difference. I didn’t come to stay.” “Like a bird who strays from his nest is a man who strays from his home.” Sammie Jo dropped into the corner seat of the couch and motioned for Ruth to come sit beside her. “What is that supposed to mean, Aunt Sammie?” Emma kept her tone sincere but she folded her arms for good measure. She knew her aunt too well to take anything at face value. The woman might be small and openhearted, but she was scrappy and used to getting her own way. Emma had stayed away for years to avoid her wishes and Sammie Jo’s from clashing. “If it was a jab, you know I won’t be guilted into staying here. And if it was just a flip remark, well, I won’t be cajoled into it, either.” “Neither flip nor jab. It’s from the Bible,” Sammie said without looking at her niece. “Proverbs, I think.” Hank strode to the end table, picked up the large black leather Bible and thumbed through a few pages, then dragged the tip of his finger down one page. “Yep. Proverbs 27:7–9. ‘He who is full loathes honey, but to the hungry even what is bitter tastes sweet. Like a bird that strays from its nest is a man who strays from his home. Perfume and incense bring joy to the heart and the pleasantness of one’s friend springs from his earnest counsel.’” He closed the Bible, laid it down and looked up to find Emma and her aunt staring at him. “What?” He strode back across the room and looked down at Emma. “I teach Sunday school.” “To children?” She hadn’t intended for that to sound so hopeful. “To young adults,” he said. “Still…” She couldn’t help smiling up at him. It was none of her business, of course, but the idea that this new Hank, actually this older Hank, was comfortable not just having a tea party with Ruth but taking a spiritual leadership role with people younger than himself made her heart cheerful. “So, there you go.” Sammie Jo struggled to wrangle Ruth up into her lap. The child wriggled free, protesting with a sound that spoke about her opinion of being held down more than a whole paragraph worth of eloquent vocabulary could. She made a spiral, went up on her toes and ran around the room repeating softly, “Boo-gun-veel-yas.” Emma did not have the luxury of grunts and temper fits to try to communicate her frustration to her aunt. So she went to the couch, settled on the arm next to Sammie Jo and asked without anger or malice, “There I go where? Unless you mean there I go back to Atlanta in a few days, I have no idea what you mean by that remark.” One of the dogs whimpered and raised his nose. Hank turned toward the front house. A creak came from the general direction of the kitchen. “It’s okay, boy,” Hank said, scratching the larger of the two dogs behind the ear. “Just a kid looking for pink cake.” Emma exhaled then looped one arm around her aunt’s slender shoulders. “So, to get back to the topic at hand, if there is anything you want me to know, Aunt Sammie, you are going to have to come right out and tell me.” Sammie Jo put her hand on Emma’s knee and gave it a waggle. “What I am trying to tell you, child, is that just like the birds of the trees and the beasts of the fields—” A car door slammed. Sammie Jo startled. Both dogs woofed. Hank quieted them with a hand signal. Too bad Emma didn’t have something similar for her aunt. Sammie Jo lunged forward, using the arm of the chair and the leg of her niece to push herself to her feet. She looked to the right, then to the left, then right at Emma. “Hide me! It’s your sister!” “Hide you…from Claire?” Emma stood partly to steady Sammie Jo and partly to try to get a glimpse at the front door through the foyer beyond the far end of the room. “You mean she didn’t bring you out here?” Sammie Jo started to move toward the kitchen. “Did you see her bring me here?” Emma gave Hank a helpless look as she side shuffled along, trying stay beside her aunt but keep the front door in her line of vision. “It’s Claire. I assumed she was sitting out in the car running the world via her smartphone and satellites.” Sammie Jo paused in her slow progress long enough to bark out a resounding, “Ha! Good one, honey.” “I’m not laughing.” Hank came up behind them and put one hand on Emma’s back and one hand on her aunt’s. “But then, I’ve wanted to hide from your sister a time or two myself.” Emma did laugh. It felt good to have someone to help her deal with her family, almost as good as it felt to have Hank so near, the warmth of his hand sinking into the tense muscles between her world-weary shoulders. “Hold it right there, Aunt Sammie.” Claire Newberry burst through the door. “The doctor released you into my care and my care doesn’t reach past the edge of… Emma?” They had the same parents. The same upbringing. The same blue-green eyes and dark brown unruly hair. They had the same skin tone. Same height. Same bright intellect. Same faith. Same family frustrations. Same inability to fully forgive themselves for not being better able to love each other unconditionally. Beyond that, they had nothing in common. “Hello, Claire.” She turned to face her sister. “Why are you here?” Claire sighed. Dressed for the season in a denim skirt and white cotton shirt, both pressed and perfect, the older Newberry practically glided over the old floor as she came into the room. “I told you in my phone message that you didn’t have to come.” “I haven’t heard your message, Claire,” Emma said softly as she helped their aunt sit down again. Claire was at their aunt’s side now, too, helping the woman who kept trying to bat away both of their well-meaning attempts. “I told you Aunt Sammie was fine.” “I’m sure you did.” Emma clenched her jaw. Claire was too busy talking to hear a word Emma said. “But it didn’t even occur to me she might not be fine when I started out last night.” “C’mon, y’all.” Hank employed the same tone he had used to calm his dogs earlier. Both sisters glared at him. Not the effect he had hoped for, she figured. “I suppose, being a nurse you thought you’d be the best one to see to her recovery.” She tugged at Sammie’s arm. “Right?” “No. No. Absolutely not.” Emma eased her aunt’s body away from Claire’s grasp. “Listen to me, Claire.” “Girls!” Sammie put both hands up. Hank leaned in, his hands extended. “Maybe you should just let your aunt—” “No, you listen to me.” Claire’s gentle tugging turned to an insistent yank. “I have everything under control here. You did not have to come out here to save the day and by the looks of it straight from some fancy dinner with that doctor of yours.” “Girls?” Sammie wormed her arms from their hands and stepped away from them, her face colored with concern. “Doctor?” Hank froze, his hand still out. He didn’t take his eyes off Emma. “You have a doctor that you dress like that for?” Defensiveness laced with a hint of delight coiled in Emma’s chest to think that who she kept company with might matter to Hank. She opened her mouth to try to explain her situation, then closed it again. “She has it all.” Claire batted Emma’s hand away from reaching for Sammie Jo again. “She knows it all, apparently, and can do it all. She can be a professional, a caregiver and a mom.” “Girls…please.” Sammie Jo took a step away. “Me? I know it all? I can do it all?” Emma pushed away Claire’s hands, which had been batting away Emma’s hands. They became a tangle of fingers and hands each trying to shove the other aside. “Don’t you have that backward? You’re the one everyone counts on. I’m the flighty one, the impulsive one, the—” “Girls! Hush!” Sammie spun around and faced the both of them. “I have a question for you that’s more important than any of this petty sibling bickering.” “What?” Both girls asked at once, unable to pull their hands apart quickly enough. Sammie put her hand on her hip and narrowed one eye. “Where is Ruth?” For a fraction of a second everything went still. There was no chatter or foot stomping from Ruth. They all looked at each other. Emma couldn’t breathe. “Ruth. Ruth? Ruth!” all their voices rose at once. They all sprang into action. In a few ticks of the clock Claire began barking orders. “Hank, you and your dogs search outside. Emma, take the second floor and I’ll check the basement.” “Good plan.” Sammie Jo clapped her hands together. “That leaves the attic for me.” “No!” Claire’s stern decree filled the house. It did not slow Hank or Emma as they each headed for the foyer, Hank to take his dogs outside or Emma aimed for the stairway. “You are not going up to the attic, Aunt Sammie,” Claire went on. “Someone has to. Remember how much you girls loved it up there? It’s a kid magnet, that place, with all the stuff, that old tiny winding servant’s stairway from the kitchen all the way up to—” “The window!” Emma cried. Her mind filled with the memory of sneaking up the back staircase past the second floor where all the bedrooms were and into the attic. She and Claire used to play hide-and-seek up there, then sit for hours on the sills of the old dormer windows and gaze out on the landscape and share their dreams of flying away. Since they didn’t have screens Aunt Sammie had nailed them shut, but in later years as teens the sisters had pried at least one of them open so that they could climb out onto the roof and talk under the stars. “I’m starting in the attic,” Emma called over her shoulder to Claire only to round the top of the main stairway and come face-to-face with her sister, panting from having dashed up the back way. “I’m coming with you,” Claire said. “You don’t…” “We’ll have plenty of time to argue later.” Claire nabbed Emma’s arm. And before Emma could make it clear that she had not come to Gall Rive to stay, Claire dragged her sister toward the back stairs. “Let’s find Ruth.” The stairs groaned under the weight of the four sets of feet running upward. As they neared the open doorway to the attic, a soft breeze wafting from above made Emma’s heart leap into her throat. “Ruth? Ruthie, are you up there?” “I can see the boo-gun-veel-ya from here.” The squawk of wood against wood, window frame against window casing underscored the strange claim. “Ruth! Get away from that window.” Emma pushed ahead of her sister and burst into the dusty old wood-framed attic to find Ruth trying to pry the old window open more than a few inches. “I can see it!” Her tutu flounced as she pressed one finger to the glass and twisted her upper body around to face the doorway. “I can see the boo-gun-veel-ya from here. Can we go visit it?” “Visit?” Emma hurried to the window and scooped up her child. “You don’t—” “You think she means that great blue heron on the pond?” Claire reached their side, and pushed the window closed as she searched the landscape that included most of the bird-sanctuary property. But when Emma moved to take a look, her gaze fell on Hank directing his dogs here and there, calling out to Ruth with the promise of tea parties and maybe even real cake. “This window, in fact the whole attic, is off-limits, young lady.” Claire took the child’s chin in her hand. “I don’t care how interesting you find that crane.” “Crane! I can make a crane!” Ruth spun around and headed for the stairway again. “I’ll show you.” “Use the handrail on those steps, baby,” Emma called after her child. When Ruth singsonged back something indistinguishable, Emma turned back to the view of Hank and sighed. “Things haven’t changed around here. Never a dull moment.” “Oh, things have changed plenty.” Claire came up beside her, gazed out into the distance, then at Emma, then down at the ground below where Aunt Sammie had made her way into the yard, with Ruth on her heels, to speak to Hank. “Stick around a while and you’ll see just how much.” “I can’t stick around,” Emma said softly. What she really wanted to do was ask her sister just what she meant by that cryptic remark, but thought better of it. No use stirring things up when she knew it wouldn’t affect her reality—she wasn’t going to stay. “I just came to Gall Rive to help me clear my head and figure out what’s best for Ruth and me, what I really want to do with the rest of my life.” “Hmm. So, you came here for that?” Claire made a show of looking out and down to the man standing below them, trying to keep the circus that was Sammie Jo, Ruthie, Otis and Earnest T in check and looking very grown-up and handsome while doing it. “I hope you know what you’re doing.” As Claire turned and walked away, Hank looked up to the window. Emma let out a tiny gasp to have been caught staring at the man. He smiled, waved, then pointed with his thumb over his shoulder toward his truck, letting her know he needed to get going. Emma waved and mouthed the words Thank you, though she doubted he could see that. A long, sharp whistle for his dogs and Hank started for the truck. He only paused to shake Ruthie’s hand, a gesture she barely acknowledged in favor of showing her paper crane to the dogs, who seemed more interested in tasting it than admiring it. In short order the dogs were in the truck, Ruth was in the care of Sammie Jo and Hank climbed behind the wheel. As he drove away, Emma leaned her forehead against the glass of the old window. She was mentally, physically and emotionally exhausted. She was overdressed, under-rested and needed to spend the rest of this day dealing with her aunt and sister, unpack the few things she had thought to bring along and find what she needed to beg or borrow to get by. But first she needed to find a hammer and nail and get this window taken care of, then another nap to help her get some focus back. Too bad the issues that had prompted her to make the all-night flight home weren’t so easily addressed. Ben Weaver wanted to marry her. He wanted to take care of her and to enable her to take care of Ruth in whatever way Emma saw fit. And to top it off he was willing to give her time to fall in love with him. On the surface it seemed like everything a struggling single mom could ask for, but Emma kept thinking that maybe what seemed good for Ruth might not be what was best for the girl, or for Emma. That wasn’t the kind of problem she could fix with a hammer and a nap. Emma thought of her sister’s response to Emma’s claim she was only here to help find the right path to the future. You came here for that? I hope you know what you’re doing. “I do, too,” Emma whispered as Hank’s truck disappeared around a curve in the old road. “I do, too.” Chapter Four His sense of responsibility motivated Hank to go out to the migratory-bird sanctuary the next morning. That’s what he told himself. And that’s what he kept trying to convince himself of—that he hadn’t made the ten-mile drive from his home/vet clinic after his morning appointments because Emma Newberry kept dropping into his dreams and popping into his thoughts. He told himself that he hadn’t come out here to try to make a connection with her, despite the realization that she looked perfectly at home even in an outfit that left no doubt that she had another life, a life of diamonds and doctors and dinner at places that were more than a notch above the handful of places to grab a bite and get the gossip around Gall Rive. Êîíåö îçíàêîìèòåëüíîãî ôðàãìåíòà. Òåêñò ïðåäîñòàâëåí ÎÎÎ «ËèòÐåñ». Ïðî÷èòàéòå ýòó êíèãó öåëèêîì, êóïèâ ïîëíóþ ëåãàëüíóþ âåðñèþ (https://www.litres.ru/pages/biblio_book/?art=39926418&lfrom=390579938) íà ËèòÐåñ. Áåçîïàñíî îïëàòèòü êíèãó ìîæíî áàíêîâñêîé êàðòîé Visa, MasterCard, Maestro, ñî ñ÷åòà ìîáèëüíîãî òåëåôîíà, ñ ïëàòåæíîãî òåðìèíàëà, â ñàëîíå ÌÒÑ èëè Ñâÿçíîé, ÷åðåç PayPal, WebMoney, ßíäåêñ.Äåíüãè, QIWI Êîøåëåê, áîíóñíûìè êàðòàìè èëè äðóãèì óäîáíûì Âàì ñïîñîáîì.