A Forever Home

A Forever Home

by Lynn Patrick

Another man in uniform isn't part of her plan 

She's earned some good karma. An army widow at twenty-one, Heather Clarke has spent the past three years running her aunt's quilt store, raising her twin girls alone and earning a degree in landscape horticulture. Finally, she's launching her new career and starting to feel as though she's on solid ground.

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Another man in uniform isn't part of her plan 

She's earned some good karma. An army widow at twenty-one, Heather Clarke has spent the past three years running her aunt's quilt store, raising her twin girls alone and earning a degree in landscape horticulture. Finally, she's launching her new career and starting to feel as though she's on solid ground. And then Rick Slater rides onto her job site. 

Heather needs a mysterious, gorgeous, ex-army distraction like a hole in the head. Especially when he's the restless type who's flirting with reenlisting. And flirting with her! Even if she were ready to love again, she wouldn't risk it on a man who might not stay. Now, if he decides to stop moving and grow some roots…then that's a whole other story.

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Late. Today of all days. Heather couldn't believe her bad luck.

Her first day on the job site and both the twins decided this was the morning to drive her crazy. That was normally Taylor's job, but to make the situation worse, Addison joined her twin in doing everything possible to put Heather behind, starting with their refusal to get out of bed when she called them. They'd ended up running around the house like little banshees instead of getting ready, then threw buttered toast at each other at breakfast so they both had to change clothes. Which meant her neighbor, who'd agreed to watch them for an hour before escorting them to school with her own son, had left without them.

Now she had to drive the girls to school herself, and Heather couldn't believe it when she found Taylor sitting in the middle of the living room floor and playing her favorite DVD of her father before he'd gone back for the second tour of duty that had gotten him killed.

"You're Daddy's little girl," Scott told Taylor, kissing her on the cheek. "You'll always be Daddy's girl."

"Forever and ever? "

"Forever and ever. Cross my heart."

And even though her twin hadn't been there when this was recorded, the then-three-year-old Taylor had asked, "Addison, too? "

"Of course, Addison, too."

Heather blinked away the threat of tears and turned off the television. Moments like this brought back the heartache. Even though Scott had died three years before in Iraq, he was still alive in all their hearts.

She cleared her throat. "Taylor, come on. Addison is already outside. We have to go now."

Once through the kitchen, they headed for the SUV. Heather noted Addison was focused on a dog hanging back on the property but watching the little girl hopefully. He looked like some kind of a border collie mix.

"Mommy, look at the dog!" Taylor said excitedly.

"We don't have time for that. C'mon, Addison. Both of you, get in."

Maybe if she didn't look at the dog, she wouldn't feel guilty just leaving him there. Loose. Probably scared and hungry.

She was already late for her new job.

She checked to make sure both girls were strapped into their booster seats, then got into the driver's seat, and with a last look at the pooch, she took off for the school. He would find his way home, or his owner would find him. She had enough to worry about without adding a possible lost dog to the list.

Five minutes later she was getting the girls out of the vehicle. No kids on the playground. School had already started, so the twins were late, too.

"I don't want you to go to Kenosha, Mommy," Addison said, sniffling as they walked toward the entrance.

"What if you don't come back?" Taylor added. "Like Daddy." Her eyes shone with unshed tears.

Heather stopped, slipped an arm around each little girl and hugged them tight. "Of course I'm coming back. I'll be going to all different places with my new job, but they're not far away. I told you that you'll see me later. In Kenosha. Uncle Brian is going to drive you to your new day camp this afternoon, and after work, I'll pick you up. We can sing songs in the car all the way home."

Taylor blinked and swiped at her eyes with the back of her hand. "I learned a new song in kiddygarden—"

"Me, too!" Addison interrupted.

"And I can't wait to hear you both sing it." Heather kissed one little blond head, then the other. "But right now, let's get you to your classroom."

She walked them inside the building and apologized to their teacher for being late, then practically ran back to her SUV.

Thankfully she'd found a day camp close to her job site. For now, Brian or their sister, Kristen, would pick up the twins and deliver them to afternoon care for her. Once school was out, the twins could be at the camp all day.

Finally heading for Kenosha, she called Tyrone Smith, one of the two people on her team.

"Me, again," she said. "I'm on my way. I should be there in fifteen minutes."

"No rush." As usual, Tyrone's tone was smooth and easy. "We trippin'."

"Tripping? I hope that's another way of saying you and Amber are working hard."

"And havin' a good time."

Hearing hip-hop music in the background, Heather had to force herself to keep her own voice even. "You're clearing the land along the beachfront the way I asked you to, right?"


"Okay." Not that she was actually sure it was okay. She didn't know either member of her team well enough yet to judge. "Keep clearing."

The area was becoming overgrown with Lyme grass, an invasive non-native beach grass that posed a threat to several rare native plants. Heather wanted to replace whatever they removed with native varieties.

"Just remember to only remove the grass that has bluish leaves," she added. "They should stand out clearly from any native dune grass still present."

"I got it the first time," Tyrone said.

Heather flinched. She might be the boss of the team, but she didn't want to come off as "bossy."

"I'll be there as fast as I can."

The short drive from Sparrow Lake seemed interminable.

Take deep, slow breaths, and enjoy the ride, she reminded herself. Let go of what you can't

She'd existed in a pressure cooker for the past couple of years. An army widow at twenty-one, she'd managed her aunt's quilting store to make a living while raising the twins and earning a degree in landscape horticulture. In order to cope she'd had to learn how to counter stress with relaxation techniques.

Sometimes they even worked.

Now her sister, Kristen, had decided to change careers and was back in Sparrow Lake and running Sew Fine while Heather was embarking on her new career. The final project for her advanced landscape design class had been a design challenge sponsored by a nonprofit called Environmental Partners, Inc., otherwise known as EPI. She'd won the challenge and the opportunity for a paid internship that could turn into a full-time job.

This internship was a dream come true for Heather. She'd started gardening when she was a kid and her mother had no time to do anything but work to support their family. By high school, Heather had been drawing plans for friends' yards and figuring what kinds of plants should go where. She'd known then she wanted to get a job working in landscaping. But her plans to go to college had been cut short by her early pregnancy and Scott's determination to enlist. For years she'd had to be content with the gardening magazines she'd collected, the knowledge she'd gathered from them and a dream that one day it would all come together.

Now she actually would be able to put that knowledge to work and in a way that would help improve the earth by creating a sustainable landscape.

When she arrived in Kenosha at last, Heather drove through the historic district along the Lake Michigan shoreline. The houses on Third Street were old and huge and lovely, as was much of the current professional landscaping. Flanagan Manor was the biggest and showiest of the bunch.

She couldn't contain her excitement as she turned onto a drive that led into the huge lakeside estate surrounded by black wrought-iron fencing. She would get to work here for a good part of the summer, redefining the grounds of the mansion built in Victorian times and once owned and expanded by the wealthy Chicago bootlegger, Red Flanagan, who'd been famous for trading bullets with his chief competitor, Al Capone. The mansion had gone through several more owners since the 1930s, after the federal government claimed the property as payment for Flanagan's tax evasion.

One wing of the huge old home had been turned into a bed-and-breakfast by the current owner, Benjamin Phillips. The Phillips family lived in Chicago and used Flanagan Manor as their "summer cottage." Apparently, the bed-and-breakfast paid for the estate's upkeep. Heather had met the owner, of course, but the family wasn't currently in residence.

The main building itself was a showpiece, a gorgeous historic greystone with a portico lakeside and a porte cochere at the side entry, so passengers could alight from their vehicles heedless of inclement weather. Close to the mansion at the top of a gentle incline sat a stone terrace with some plants in large containers and a faux Italian fountain that didn't work anymore. An old two-story coach house that mimicked the mansion sat directly behind it. The huge expanse of grass fronting the lake tumbled down to a few modest dunes and a small beach. The rest of the shore on both sides of the mansion was lined with boulders, and to the south, a weathered boathouse was attached to a decrepit dock that jutted out into the lake. Once the site where illegal Canadian booze had been unloaded, the dock and boat-house no longer seemed to be in use.

Heather had no idea what the Phillips family intended to do with them in the future.

Her focus was on the surrounding nature.

Heather had been chosen to design and supervise renovation of the grounds, which would include reintroducing native plants to support not only stormwater containment, to keep the runoff from the lake, but also a balanced ecosystem. Many insects needed a specific plant for food. And those insects were food for small animals and birds. The landscaping would be both practical and beautiful, and she was thrilled that her work would be enjoyed for decades to come by myriad guests and visitors and the owner and his family.

Parking in back of the mansion alongside other service vehicles, she grabbed her portfolio with the design plans she was still working on, then left the SUV. The long, narrow lot along the north side of the building was reserved for guests, but today there were only a few cars. It had probably been full for Memorial Day weekend, but kids weren't out of school yet, and the tourist season hadn't geared up. The perfect time to get started.

Looking for her team, she headed across the south lawn, passing the century-old, glass-paneled conservatory on the southeast end of the mansion. Having had a quick tour of the inside, she knew that it wasn't being used to its full potential. No plant aficionado in the family. Mr. Phillips had suggested he might want her to renovate it. No promises, but the prospect excited Heather.

To her relief, Tyrone and Amber were busy at work on the gently rolling dunes near the shoreline, loading the invasive plants they'd removed into a wheelbarrow. About to call out to them, she stopped when she realized they would never hear her over the combined racket made by hip-hop music coming from a boom box on the beach and the roar of a nearby lawnmower.

Wait a minute! Why was anyone other than her team doing anything with the lawn? Mr. Phillips had told her to set the boundaries for EPI, so any groundskeeper should have checked with her first.

Glancing back, Heather noted a giant lawn-mower was eating up the south lawn at an amazing speed. The man riding the machine was pretty amazing, too. From the length of his leg, she'd guess he must be at least six feet tall. He had a sculpted body—she could appreciate the muscles all too obvious beneath the thin, white T-shirt—and undoubtedly sculpted features beneath a shock of dark-brown hair streaked with gray. Or so she assumed from his jawline. The rest of his face was pretty well-hidden behind mirrored sunglasses.

She'd never seen him before…but then she hadn't been introduced to anyone who worked on the estate other than Cora, the housekeeper, who was in charge of the mansion.

Though she thought about approaching him to find out exactly who he was, Heather decided that could wait. She felt less in charge wearing an old cap to protect her face from the sun, a practical gray sweatshirt and a pair ofjeans loose enough to work in. Not that Mr. Sunglasses intimidated her or anything.

Her pulse threading a little unevenly, she moved away from man and machine and headed for her team. Tyrone Smith and Amber Miller had both been working for EPI for more than a year, but because neither had gotten any kind of formal education, they did the hard labor, not the design or planning. That was up to her. So, the week before, after she'd met them, they'd all made a trip out to the estate—Tyrone and Amber to deliver the heavy equipment they would need and Heather to go over the plans for the site. She'd made further changes in her designs since and figured she would be refining until the job was complete.

As Heather approached Tyrone, he looked up. Tall and skinny, he wore his hair in corn-rows, and the ends of the braids brushed a too-big T-shirt honoring a dead musician.

"Hey, Amber, the boss is here!" he yelled. "Better turn down that music!"

Her light blond hair pulled up into a pony-tail, her eyes a soft gray, Amber was probably only eighteen or nineteen, a couple of years younger than Tyrone. Dressed in a T-shirt and shorts and her feet encased in work boots a lot safer than her partner's tennis shoes, she bent over to shut off the boom box. As the music stopped, the young woman who looked too small to be so strong stopped, too, her hands on her hips like she was waiting for orders.

Heather might be used to giving orders at the store, but this was different. She had no history here. No real experience. Behind her, the mower noise grew louder, and she glanced back to see Mr. Sunglasses riding over grass he'd already cut. That wasn't good. And how low had he set that mower? Grass should be cut no shorter than two inches. At least not if you wanted it to live.

Was this something else she needed to take care of?

Okay, she had to admit it. The thought of giving him orders intimidated her just a little. Okay, maybe a lot.

Forcing a smile, she turned back to her workers. "Looks like you got a lot done."

"Well, we've been working since eight," Amber said.

Heather's face grew warm, but she chose not to make excuses. "When you've finished with the beach area, we should start removing sod for the rain gardens."

She'd planned on two freeform rain gardens on the mansion's lake-facing side, leaving room for a wide, stone pathway down to the beach between them.

"Retaining wall or no?" Tyrone asked.

Something she'd been undecided on the week before.

Heather nodded. "The slope is gentle enough, so we can install twelve or fifteen inches." If the slope were steeper, a big storm could wash away a taller retaining wall, but a small one should do well. "That way, we can create flat areas with a shallow bowl for the new plantings."

"How much of the lawn are we going to remove?" Amber asked.

Considering the estate grounds were nearly an acre, equivalent to the size of a football field, and knowing her budget, Heather said, "Not as much as I would like, but it'll be a great start. We have four areas of concentration. In addition to this beach area and the rain gardens, we'll plant a prairie with native grasses mixed with flowering plants as a backdrop over there." She indicated the south end of the grounds. "And then an expanded garden starting from the terrace, with another seating area at the other end, then here, around the buildings. All that will require more lawn removal. The rest of the lawn will remain, at least for this year."

"There's not going to be much left if The Terminator keeps going," Amber said, looking beyond her.

"The Terminator?" Heather turned to see the man mowing the same section for a third time.

"He's killing that grass," Tyrone said. "Are you sure the owners want any left?"

Heather sighed. "I'm sure." She'd actually had to scale back her plan a bit due to their budget. New plantings weren't inexpensive, especially for an estate of this size, so she better save that grass.

"I saw him roll right over some bushes, too," Amber said. "He just hot dogs that thing around like he's driving a sports car."

Heather sighed. "Okay. I guess I have to go talk to the guy. He doesn't work for EPI, right?"

Tyrone shook his head. "Nope."

Great. "Go on back to work while I take care of this."

The Terminator. He did kind of look like the movie character, wearing those mirrored sunglasses.

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Meet the Author

Patricia Rosemoor loves bringing a mix of thrills and chills and romance to Harlequin Intrigue readers. She's won a Golden Heart from Romance Writers of America and a Reviewers’ Choice and Career Achievement Awards from RT Book Reviews. She teaches courses on writing popular fiction and suspense-thriller writing in the fiction writing department of Columbia College Chicago. Check out her website, www.PatriciaRosemoor.com.

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