Read an Excerpt
The drone of deep voices in Jewel’s Café turned to silence. Grayson Knolls lifted his gaze to the front door as Rue Kessler came inside and stomped the March snow off his boots.
Grayson fiddled with the bill of his cap and pasted on a bland expression. Too bad you didn’t get run over by a truck on the way over here. He found the thought amusing.
“There’s my future son-in-law.” Elam Griffith pushed back his chair and stood, a broad smile appearing just below his mustache.
Rue did a double take and seemed surprised to see the EG Construction crew sitting around several tables that had been pushed together.
Grayson figured it was an act.
Elam shook Rue’s hand and pulled him into a half bear hug. “I lured you here under false pretenses. I just got through telling the crew that you’ve agreed to be our project manager. It’s official. Congratulations.”
For what? Being handed a job he didn’t earn? I’m the one who deserves it.
The crew applauded, and then Joel Myers got up and shook Rue’s hand. “I’m looking forward to working with you.”
“Thanks, same here,” Rue said.
One by one the others got up and offered congratulations.
Grayson waited until last, then with his fabricated expression still intact, he stood and offered Rue a hearty handshake. “Congratulations. Guess there are fringe benefits to marrying the boss’s daughter.”
Rue laughed. “I never thought of it that way. You know she’s my son’s mother, and we’re finally gonna be a family, right?”
“Yeah, I heard.”
Elam patted Rue on the back. “I’m thrilled for Ivy. But I’m excited about having someone in the family as passionate about this business as I am.”
Grayson took his seat at the table, wrapped his hands around his mug, and imagined how good it would feel to slap the stupid grin off Kessler’s face.
“So when’s the wedding?” Joel asked. “I assume my dad’s going to perform the ceremony?”
“Yeah, Saturday morning, June 7. I told Pastor Myers that if I had my way, we’d elope. But Ivy has her heart set on Woodlands Community Church.”
“So is your kid going to be in it?” Grayson asked.
Rue nodded. “Ring bearer. We’re only having a best man and matron of honor stand up with us. The ceremony’s gonna be simple.”
“But the reception isn’t,” Elam said. “We’re having it out at our place, and Carolyn wants to do it up big. We only have one daughter and plan to marry her off in style. Rue, sit down. Have some coffee and decide what you want for breakfast. You’re the man.”
Still wearing that annoying toothy grin, Rue pulled out a chair across from Grayson. “Life’s pretty terrific right now.”
“No kidding,” Grayson said. “You’ve got your entire future nailed down. Not bad for a guy who arrived here seven months ago–fresh out of rehab on a temporary work program.”
Grayson knew the instant he said it that he shouldn’t have. Heat scalded his cheeks in the awkwardness that followed, and he took a sip of cold coffee, waiting for Rue to put him in his place.
“I can hardly believe it myself.” Rue’s tone was surprisingly nondefensive. “I just thank the Lord for it.”
Elam’s eyes narrowed as he homed in on Grayson. “I asked Rue to manage the retirement village project because he has more experience than anyone here. But both of you are important players, and it’s going to take you two working together to get the first phase done before September. Are we on the same page?”
Grayson bobbed his head, hoping to move past the clumsiness of the moment. “It doesn’t matter to me who I call boss as long as we get the work done right.”
Jewel Sadler appeared at the table, her white hair flattened by a hairnet, a green pad in her hand. “Are you fellas ready to order?”
“We all decided on the skillet scramble,” Elam said. “Rue, what about you?”
“All righty.” Jewel winked at Rue and mouthed the word congratulations. “Rita will bring you fruit muffins and a fresh coffee. We’ll get your order out to you as fast as we can.”
Grayson picked up the plastic carafe and emptied the last of the coffee into Rue’s mug. “So how long have you been in construction?”
“Since the day I got my first set of Tinker Toys. Actually, my granddad was a builder, and I worked for him every summer from middle school through college. In the twelve years since, I’ve worked for several builders on a variety of projects, usually as foreman. I was supervisor on the last one.”
“I’m surprised. I mean, considering your drinking problem and all.”
“Fortunately, I was a functioning alcoholic–till just before I entered rehab, anyway.”
“The point is: He kicked it,” Elam said. “Let’s move on.”
Rue rubbed a coffee ring off the table with his index finger. “If I were Grayson, I’d probably wonder if you would’ve hired an ex-drunk to manage this project if he wasn’t about to become your son-in-law.”
“Well, the nice thing about owning the company is I don’t have to explain my decisions.” Elam glanced across the table at Grayson. “But in case anyone is wondering, I didn’t just pin a title on Rue, I checked out his references. His work history’s broad and impressive. He’s an experienced foreman and supervisor, and he was being groomed for a management role on his last project. Plus he’s got a bachelor’s degree in construction management and civil engineering.”
Elam patted Rue on the back. “He’s exactly what we need. This project is too involved for me to handle by myself, and having someone with his experience to juggle the details solves a big headache for me and for all of us. And it positions us to be on a fast track as soon as the weather warms up. Am I making myself clear?”
“Crystal clear,” Grayson said. “I’m one hundred percent onboard.” But what I plan to do when your back’s turned is another story.
Rue Kessler gripped the wheel of his new Chevy Silverado and felt almost as if he were riding on air. Or was it just his mood? He spotted the entrance to Three Peaks Christian Camp and Conference Center and turned left just shy of it onto the private road that led to his in-laws’ log house.
He scanned the panorama of wide-open range and was awed by the brilliant kaleidoscope of wild flowers that had overtaken the valley floor. In the distance, the blue-gray peaks of the San Juan Mountains formed a backdrop worthy of a travel magazine. Rue let his mind wander, his heart basking in the pristine beauty.
“What’s so funny?”
“Sorry, what?” He turned to Ivy, her face radiant, her intriguing gray eyes animated and exuding joy. He mentally snapped a picture of her expression, determined to keep her that happy for the rest of his life.
“You laughed out loud. I wondered what was so funny.”
Rue picked up her hand and pressed it to his lips, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. “I must be really happy because when we turned back there and started driving straight for those majestic peaks, I had this sudden urge to belt out the song from The Sound of Music, ‘The hills are alive…with the sound of music…”
Ivy laughed. “Listen, mister. If you start singing like that when we get to Mom and Dad’s, you’re on your own.”
“I wonder what they expect me to say. I’ve never brought someone’s daughter home from her honeymoon before.”
“I doubt they expect anything, other than to see us happy.” Ivy craned her neck and peered out the front window. “I’m surprised Montana wasn’t waiting for us when we made the turn. He sounded so excited on the phone.”
Rue saw a glint of red on the split rail fence about a hundred yards up the road. “I’ll bet that’s him.” He tooted the horn.
Montana jumped off the fence and waved his red cap in the air, then raced to the side of the road, flanked by two rollicking balls of fur.
Rue pulled over, and Ivy flung open the passenger door, slid out, and threw her arms around their son, the two huskies yelping and running in circles.
“I thought you’d never get here.” Montana said, sounding out of breath. “You’ve been gone a really, really, really long time.”
“It’s so good to see you.” Ivy smothered him with kisses, then drew back and studied him. “Oh, my. I think you’ve grown in the past ten days.”
Montana’s mop of thick auburn hair fell in bangs just above his puppy eyes and shone like copper in the afternoon sun. “Grandma says she’s gonna put a brick on my head because I’m growing too fast.”
Rue got out and hurried around to the other sided of truck. He lifted Montana into his arms and whirled him around. “How’s my favorite son?”
“I beat Brandon at arm wrestling two times.”
“I’ve been drinking lots and lots of milk and strawberry yogurt shakes–the kind you said would make me strong.”
“Okay, let’s have a look.” Rue set him on the ground.
Montana bent his arm and flexed his muscle.
“Good grief. Are those your biceps? You’re turning into the Hulk.” Rue put his son in a headlock and tickled his chin, relishing the sound of his giggling. “I missed you. You know that?”
“I missed you, too. So are you gonna sleep over now?”
“Absolutely. My pajamas are right there in the suitcase. You’re stuck with me for the rest of your life.”
Montana’s face beamed. “Good. I always wanted to live with my dad since I was a little kid.”
“That long, eh?” Rue winked at Ivy. “How about we ride up the hill and say hi to Grandma and Grandpa? I’m sure they’re anxious to see us. Windy and Sasha can ride, too.” He put the dogs in the bed of the truck and gave Montana a boost into the backseat.
“Guess what?” Montana buckled his seat belt. “Uncle Rusty’s moving here.”
“Oh, sweetie. I doubt that,” Ivy said.
“Grandpa said so. The animal doctor died, and Uncle Rusty’s gonna be it now.”
“Doc Henley died?”
“Uh-huh. He got a heart attack in his sleep.”
Rue sensed Ivy tensing up and slid his arm around her slender waist. “Well, your brother moving back to Jacob’s Ear could be good news.”
“Uncle Rusty doesn’t like me,” Montana said. “But Mom said it’s his problem.”
“That’s right,” Ivy said. “It has nothing to do with you. Uncle Rusty is just mad at Mommy for some things that happened a long time ago when I was doing drugs. He’s decided not to like me or anyone who’s important to me.”
“Then he won’t like Dad either.”
“Don’t be too sure about that,” Rue said. “I’m completely irresistible.”
Ivy sighed, and he realized this wasn’t the time to joke around.
“Don’t you worry about Rusty, babe. There’s no way I’m gonna let him mistreat you or Montana the way he did before. But he knows that moving back here means he’ll be running into us. Maybe he’s ready to mend fences.”
“Or he just wants to drive a wedge between us and Mom and Dad.”
Rue pulled into the circle drive in front of Elam and Carolyn Griffith’s log home, his mind flashing back to the huge white pavilion that had stood out front and the lavish luncheon reception that had been held there following the wedding. He turned to Ivy just as she turned to him, her face aglow. She squeezed his hand as if to say she was reminiscing, too.
Montana flung open the door and jumped out of the back and ran up the front steps, the dogs on his heels. “They’re here. They’re here.”
By the time Rue followed Ivy up to the porch, his in-laws and Montana had come outside, and in the next second, it was hard to tell who was hugging whom.
“The two of you are positively radiant.” Carolyn said.
Elam winked at Rue. “Jamaica will do that to you.”
“That must be it.” Rue gave Ivy’s hand a gentle squeeze. “We can’t thank you enough for such a great wedding trip.”
“Actually, for everything,” Ivy said. “We’ve hardly stopped talking about the wedding and reception. Did any of the pictures turn out?”
Elam chortled. “Oh, just a couple hundred.”
“We don’t have the professional proofs back yet,” Carolyn said. “But the digitals are really good. There’s one in particular with Brandon and Kelsey that’s priceless. I dare say your best man and matron of honor were almost as stunning as the two of you. Well, come in and have some blueberry cobbler and tell us all about Jamaica.”
“I want ice cream on mine.” Montana disappeared through the front door.
“Before we go in,” Ivy said, “what’s this about Rusty moving back?”
“We were surprised, too.” Elam put his arm around Carolyn’s shoulder. “He’s already talked to Doc Henley’s widow and made her an offer on the veterinary practice, and she accepted.”
“What about his practice in Albuquerque?”
Elam shrugged. “He doesn’t seem too concerned about leaving it.”
“Has he sold his house?”
“No, but he doesn’t think it’ll take long to sell it because of the upscale neighborhood and exceptional view. He’s put down a deposit on a two-bedroom house in Jacob’s Ear and plans to rent until he and Jacqueline find what they want. She and the girls will stay in Albuquerque until the house sells. He’s planning to move in this weekend.”
“So much for Father’s Day.” Ivy’s expression had lost the joy that bubbled over earlier. “Don’t expect me to be happy about it. We all know Rusty lied about being sick so he wouldn’t have to come to our wedding. It’s obvious he wants nothing to do with us. And I don’t want Montana put through the wringer again.”
“Hey…” Rue tucked her hair behind her ear, unsettled by the apprehension in her eyes. “I told you I’m not gonna let him mistreat you two like he did before. But don’t close your mind already. He might’ve had a change of heart.”
Ivy turned to her father. “Do you think he did?”
“I haven’t had a chance to broach the subject with him yet,” Elam said. “But I’m with Rue. We’re not going to allow Rusty to treat you the way he did before.”
“No, I’ll just be stuck with the guilt because the family’s divided.”
“Baloney. We’ve been divided on this issue since Rusty was here at Thanksgiving. It’s not your fault that he chose to be difficult.”
Ivy’s sigh blew the bangs off her forehead. “I know, Dad. But I’m finally happy. The last thing I need is more of Rusty’s venom.”
The front door opened and Montana stood in the threshold, a much-too-angelic expression on his face. “Hey, how come you guys are still out there when the blueberry cobbler is in here? Better hurry up before I eat it all.” He laughed a husky laugh.
“Oh, no, you don’t.” Rue grabbed him and started tickling his ribs, evoking a loud squeal and a giggle.
Carolyn chuckled. “All right, people. Sounds like we’d better get in there and divide up the spoils.”
Rue ate the last bite of his cobbler and pushed his bowl aside, eager to go home and get unpacked and start his new life with Ivy and Montana. He sat back in his chair, his hands folded across his middle. “Carolyn, that’s gotta be the best blueberry cobbler in the known world.”
She smiled. “I’m glad you like it. Would you care for a little more?”
“My taste buds would, but my belt’s telling me that two bowlfuls is enough.”
Montana jumped up from the table. “Are we going home now?”
“Can you handle fifteen more minutes, sweetie?” Ivy said.
“I’ll try.” Montana stood between Rue and Ivy, one of his arms around each of their necks. “I just wanna give you my surprise sooooo bad.”
“At our house?” Rue said.
Montana bobbed his head, an Opie Taylor grin overtaking his face. “Grandma helped me, but it was my idea.”
Rue tousled Montana’s hair and pulled him into a half hug, relishing the thought of a future with the two loves of his life. “Then we can hardly wait to see it.”
“We’re very excited to get home,” Ivy said. “But Daddy and I need to discuss something with Grandma and Grandpa first.”
“Okay. I’ll go play with Sasha and Windy so you can talk about Uncle Rusty.”
Rue smiled. “You’re getting too smart for your own good. We won’t be long.”
Montana whistled for the dogs and, a few seconds later, went out the front door.
Rue studied Ivy’s somber profile, feeling helpless to do anything to alleviate her mounting anxiety. Did being married to her for ten days give him sufficient license to assume a role in this conflict? He turned his attention to Elam and Carolyn. “Any suggestions how Ivy and I should respond to Rusty? Think we should we call him and break the ice, then offer to help him move in?”
“I vote to leave him alone until he decides to be civil,” Ivy said flatly. “If he’s hung up on my past, that’s his problem. I’m not going to make it ours. Not now. Not when I’m finally happy.”
Elam tugged at his mustache and seemed to be deep in thought. “Better let me feel him out before you do anything. His decision to move here came about so suddenly that Carolyn and I haven’t had a chance to assimilate it either.”
“Now that I think about it,” Carolyn said, “Jacqueline seemed distant when we were there in February. I assumed she felt awkward about our not coming for Christmas because Ivy and Montana weren’t invited. But maybe there was more to it than that.”
“Like what?” Ivy said.
Carolyn twirled a lock of hair around her finger. “I’m not sure. But the timing is very strange, especially since Rusty’s made no effort to reconcile with you. Plus they’ve got everything going for them in Albuquerque. Rusty’s practice is growing. They have a fabulous home. Tia and Josie are enrolled in a first-rate preschool. And they just bought a membership to some prestigious new country club. They’re not going to be able to duplicate all that here.”
“Isn’t it possible,” Rue said, “that Rusty regrets not coming to the wedding and misses being a part of this family? Maybe he’s moving back to make things right.”
Ivy stared at her bowl, her sleek, bobbed hair covering her expression. “It’s so like you to think the best. But Rusty’s not the brother I grew up with. His heart’s turned to stone.”
Rue guessed from the dark mood that had replaced Ivy’s joy that her brother’s opinion of her had a profound affect on how she felt about herself.