Read an Excerpt
The dream that had sustained Garrett Willows throughout the dark years of his life was at last about to become a reality. Turning in a wide circle, Garrett sucked in a deep breath, reveling in the sweet, clean greenness of April in Texas. He smiled at the rugged outbuildings and elegant old Victorian house that would become his home and business. Surely, God had created no more perfect of a place for him to open his plant nursery. His bright blue eyes twinkled with delight as he dropped his gaze on the older woman at his side.
"Let's take a look inside," his companion encouraged eagerly. Magnolia Chatam, one of triplet sisters in their mid-seventies, had long been his personal champion. Small and wizened, with her ubiquitous iron-gray braid hanging over one shoulder, she smiled up at him, her curious amber eyes sparkling. "Kent says the repairs are essentially done."
When the Monroe house had suffered fire damage a few months ago, Kent Monroe and his granddaughter, Ellie, had moved into Chatam House, the lovely old antebellum mansion owned by Magnolia and her sisters, until the insurance could be collected and repairs made. No one had been surprised by that particular turn of events. The Chatam sisters were constantly taking in those in need of shelter. What came afterward had surprised everyone, thoughand opened the door to the future for Garrett.
He nodded his inky head and, pulling the key from a pocket, let Magnolia in through the back of the house. Wordlessly, they wandered across the back parlor to a pair of doors at the end of the sizable room. According to Kent, one door would open into a short hallway that skirted the dining room, and the other would lead into the kitchen.
Choosing a door, Garrett pulled it open then drew up short. An orange metal ladder blocked the way. Assuming that the workmen had left it there, Garrett placed a hand on each of the nearest metal legs and lifted the ladder to set it aside, finding it surprisingly heavy.
"Wow," he began, clumsily moving the thing only a couple feet. It rocked. And shrieked. Managing to crowd into the small room, Garrett glanced upward in time to see a body falling toward him in a flurry of flailing limbs. "Whoa!"
Heart hammering, Garrett threw out his arms and somehow managed to catch the fellowor child, given the slight weightwhile the ladder stuttered backward.
But what would a child be doing up on that ladder?
No, not a child, he thought, catching sight of the flushed face of a young woman. A very lovely young woman with long, wheat-brown hair tumbling over his arm.
For a stunned moment, Garrett could do nothing more than gape, taking in the triangular face with a dainty nose and big, very dark brown eyes, loosely framed by wisps of straight, golden-brown hair. The slight woman in his arms could not be called beautiful in the classical sense; her face was too unusual for that. But something more than mere shock made Garrett's heart race. Something about that clean, almost angular face seemed both breathtakingly fresh and oddly, achingly familiar, as if he ought to know her. Yet, he was sure that they had never met.
Suddenly those deep brown eyes darkened to black, the generous lips pulled down in a frown, and a sharp elbow jabbed into his ribs as she began to struggle. Garrett swiftly set her on her feet, aware of Magnolia crowding close behind him. The tiny woman glared at him, her dark eyes sweeping over him accusingly as her dainty hands tugged at the hem of her heather-gray T-shirt. One hand crept up to smooth over the weighty mass of her hair before jerking away again. Gar-rett doubted that she stood as tall as five feet.
"You could've killed me!"
"Sorry. II didn't realize anyone"
"Who are you," she interrupted, "and what are you doing here?"
Garrett shook his head, trying to marshal his thoughts, and belatedly stuck out his hand. "Garrett. Willows. And, urn this is my new house."
"Your house?" She backed up, bumping into the ladder, which rocked precariously before settling once more.
"I'm moving in here and opening a plant nursery."
Her big, dark eyes widened even further. "This is my house! I'm moving in and opening a shop. I made arrangements with the owner this morning."
Garrett matched her frown with his. "That's impossible. I spoke to Kent not four hours ago."
"Kent? Who's Kent?"
The woman shook her head, catching the butterfly clip that her fall had dislodged from her hair as it flew to one side. Garrett saw for the first time that her T-shirt and baggy jeans were flecked with bits of paper.
"I made arrangements with Ellie Monroe," she declared.
A sick feeling roiled in Garrett's stomach. As Kent's granddaughter, Ellie was co-owner of the house. Moreover, Kent tended to indulge Ellie. If Ellie wanted this woman to have the house, chances were that she would. Garrett felt his optimism drain away. So much for his dreams.
Taking a deep breath, Garrett traded worried looks with Magnolia, who stepped up and said sweetly, "I'm Magnolia Chatam. What's your name, dear?"
The other woman fidgeted for a moment. Finally, she mumbled, "Jessa Lynn Pagett."
"And when did you speak with Ellie?" Magnolia asked.
She shrugged and twisted up her hair, making a long rope of it and coiling it at the nape of her neck before securing it with the hairclip. Long, tendrils of it fell free, wafting about her face. "I don't know exactly. Sometime between nine-fifteen and ten o'clock this morning. She had a break in her class schedule and told us to come over to the school."
"Us?" Magnolia queried with an innocent smile.
Jessa Lynn Pagett's dark eyes darted to one side. "My friend, Abby Stringer, my son and me."
At first glance, she hadn't looked old enough to be a mother, but on closer study, Garrett realized that she could be in her early twenties. He noted that she hadn't mentioned a husband, so he did it for her. "What about your husband? Didn't he want to be with you when you spoke to Ellie?"
"I'm divorced," Jessa Lynn Pagett told him sharply.
More pleased by that information than he should be, Garrett shifted his gaze away and caught a speaking glance from Magnolia. He cleared his throat.
"I know Abby," Magnolia said conversationally, shifting her attention back to Jessa. "When she retired, Ellie took her place teaching at the elementary school."
That connection made Jessa Pagett's story entirely credible. Sighing, Garrett pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger.
"So you arranged to rent the place from Ellie," he said to Jessa, "and I arranged to lease it from her grandfather, Kent. On the very same morning. Swell."
"All I know," Jessa declared, folding her arms, "is that my son and I are moving in here tonight and I'm opening a shop in the front room as soon as possible."
Biting back a groan, Garrett glanced at Magnolia. She had been instrumental in convincing Kent Monroe to have the place re-zoned residential/commercial recently, with Garrett in mind. Neither of them had considered the possibility that the new zoning would attract others with similar goals to his.
"You've signed papers, then?" Garrett asked dully. That would definitely give Jessa Lynn Pagett precedence as Kent had suggested that Garrett could sign his lease on Friday, two days from now.
Jessa blanched, giving Garrett a glimmer of hope. "The papers weren't drawn up yet. But Ellie said we could go ahead and stay here tonight because" She broke off, biting her lip.
"Because you have nowhere else to go?" Magnolia surmised gently.
Jessa looked away, swallowing.
"Do you?" Garrett asked, fairly sure where Magnolia was going with this. "Do you have somewhere else to stay?"
Jessa lifted her chin. "Not exactly."
Garrett looked to Magnolia, thinking of something that he'd heard said recently by her nephew, Asher Chatam, an attorney and the fiance of Ellie Monroe.
"Possession," the astute counselor had declared, "is nine-tenths of the law."
In other words, if neither he nor Jessa had signed papers, the one actually in residence could have the upper hand.
Thankfully, Magnolia did exactly what Garrett expected her to do. "Until this is settled," she said kindly, stroking her cleft chin, "you and your son should, perhaps, stay with my sisters and me at Chatam House."
Jessa turned a startled gaze on the older woman. "Chatam House. That's the mansion we passed on the way here. Abby pointed it out."
Magnolia waved away the description. "It's just a big old house with a great deal of room."
A big old house with a ballroom, library, sunroom and more than a dozen bedrooms, Garrett thought wryly. It was the largest house in the entire town of Buffalo Creek, Texas, and had been since before the Civil War.
Jessa shook her head, saying to Magnolia, "We couldn't impose on you like that."
"No imposition at all," Magnolia told her. "You would be entirely welcome, I assure you. We're used to unexpected guests. We delight in them, in fact. Ellie is staying at Chatam House, you know, along with her grandfather."
That ignited a light in Jessa Lynn Pagett's dark eyes. "The Monroes are staying at Chatam House?"
"That's right, and I'm sure that as soon as we get everyone together, we can settle this whole thing," Magnolia told her, folding her gnarled hands against the waistband of her old-fashioned shirtwaist dress. "Though not tonight. I know for a fact that Ellie has a date tonight with her fiance, my nephew, Asher."
Jessa chewed her full lower lip, digesting this information. "I see. So, it would be for just one night?"
Magnolia smiled, saying, "That's up to you, dear. You can stay as long as necessary. No one will mind."
Looking around her, Jessa considered. Garrett's gaze followed hers. Flakes of scorched, yellowed paper that she'd obviously been peeling off the wall littered every surface from the painted counters and shelves to the hardwood floors. She might be small, but she was obviously capable and had been very busy here. He found that oddly attractive. In fact, he found her oddly attractive, which was no doubt a very bad idea.
They were essentially opponents here, each claiming rights to the same property. Attraction could only get in the way. Yet, something about her called to him. Not that a woman like her would ever give a second look to someone like him.
Suddenly, what had, not many minutes before, seemed so sweetly straightforward had somehow become a tangled, confusing mess. And wasn't that the story of his life?
Oh, Lord, he asked silently, why can't it ever be simple with me?
Finally, Jessa Pagett nodded. "All right. I accept your invitation. We'll try not to be any bother."
"I'm sure you won't be," Magnolia replied politely, while Garrett tried mightily to believe it. "Honestly, Chatam House is the next best thing to a hotel these days."
"Thank you for the invitation. II'll have Abby drop us off later."
Magnolia gave her hands a clap. "Lovely. My sisters and I will look forward to hosting you. And say hello to Abby for me, won't you?" Jessa nodded stiffly. "We'll let ourselves out now and see you later, then." She started away, snagging Garrett by the short sleeve of his faded red T-shirt.
Blinking, he realized that he'd been staring at Jessa Lynn Pagett for some time. He cleared his throat. "Sorry about " He waved a hand at the ladder.
Her dainty fingers fluttered nervously at her sides, then she shrugged. "Scared me, but no harm done, I guess."
He backed away, saying, "I trust you can lock up."
She gave him a wry smile. "I have a key."
Slipping his from the pocket of his jeans, he held it aloft.
And that about summed up the situation. They both had a claim to the place. The only question now was: Whose claim would actually prevail?
Garrett turned and followed Magnolia from the house. He carefully locked the door behind him and once more pocketed the key, his shoulders slumping.
"Now, now," Magnolia assured him, "all will be well, never you fear."
"I know," he told her glumly, stooping to accept her wiry hug. "I know."
Somehow, it would all work out. If the April afternoon no longer seemed quite as bright as it had earlier, well, it was still a far cry from the darkness of his past.
Thank You, Lord, he prayed silently, tamping down his disappointment and qualms, for bringing dear old Mags and her sisters into my and Bethany's lives.
His younger sister, Bethany, had married another Chatam nephew, Chandler, last summer, and together they were raising a young son on their ranch outside of Stephenville, about three hours away.
Whatever happens, Garrett went on determinedly, I am blessed. Help me to remember that. Always.
He had the feeling that he was going to need reminders in the days to come.