The Secrets of Rosa Lee

The Secrets of Rosa Lee

4.1 12
by Jodi Thomas

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Everyone assumes Rosa Lee Altman lived a life without passion. But buried secrets are meant to be revealed. And no one is prepared for what they discover beneath Rosa Lee's overgrown roses—or how her legacy will change their lives with love.

The once–beautiful Altman home sits empty, its gardens overgrown, its windows boarded up—an… See more details below


Everyone assumes Rosa Lee Altman lived a life without passion. But buried secrets are meant to be revealed. And no one is prepared for what they discover beneath Rosa Lee's overgrown roses—or how her legacy will change their lives with love.

The once–beautiful Altman home sits empty, its gardens overgrown, its windows boarded up—an old lady, now silent, surrounded by what passes for progress in Clifton Creek, Texas. But if some of the townsfolk have their way, this lovely reminder of times past will be sold off to the highest bidder.

When a group of community members with little in common is chosen to decide the fate of "the old Altman place," they soon learn that this home is more than bricks and mortar. It's also a place that harbors a love so strong, it still has the power to change the entire town.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In a genteel but economically troubled small Texas town, a citizens' committee comes together to make a tough decision. Is the deserted and derelict home of Clinton Creek's founder, Henry Altman, worth saving? Or should the town save itself financially, auctioning off the historic home to be demolished by one of several ruthlessly competing companies who are convinced there's oil underneath? The committee members think the answer lies somewhere in the house, hidden by its last resident, Altman's reclusive daughter, Rosa Lee. But as they uncover the spinster's secret passions, they also expose their own-and open themselves to mysterious dangers. As usual, the author's historical twists are convincing, and her romances involve appealingly warm but wounded characters. This is not an epic novel, however, so the author's decision to concentrate almost equally on three budding romances, rather than focusing on one, means there's little room for any of the protagonists to display much beyond their surface charm. In a book of limited length, three relationships are simply two too many for Thomas to develop with her typical depth and complexity; with couples, as with cooks, too many spoil the broth. (Aug.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher
"Jodi Thomas will render you breathless!"

-RT Book Reviews

"Packs a powerful emotional punch.... Highlights the author's talent for creating genuinely real characters.... Exceptional."

"One of my favorites."
-Debbie Macomber

"Jodi Thomas is a masterful storyteller. She grabs your attention on the first page, captures your heart, and then makes you sad when it is time to bid her wonderful characters farewell."
-Catherine Anderson

"Fantastic... A keeper!... A beautiful story about unexpected love. An exceptional storyteller, Thomas has found the perfect venue for her talent, which is as big-and as awe-inspiring-as Texas. Her emotionally moving stories are the kind you want to go on forever."
-RT Book Reviews

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Sidney Dickerson fought down a shudder as she turned up the heat inside her aging Jeep Cherokee and stared at the oldest house in Clifton Creek. Rosa Lee Altman's property. Sidney had lived in Texas for over a year, yet every time she drove down Main Street this one place drew her as if calling her home. In October's evening shadows, the once grand dwelling looked neglected and sad. One of the gap–toothed shutters swung in the wind, making a second–floor window appear to be winking.

I'm coming inside, tomorrow. She almost said the words aloud to the house. After a year of watching and waiting, I'll finally walk inside.

The Altman house had been built almost a hundred years ago. In its time, she guessed it had been grand sitting out on the open land by itself, with nothing but cattle grazing all the way to the horizon. Barns, bunkhouses, smoke sheds and kitchens must have sprung up like wild–flowers around a rose. A fitting house for Henry Altman, the town's father.

When the railroad arrived a mile away, it had been natural for business to move close to the tracks. Sidney had read that Henry had donated the land for the rail station and the bank, then charged dearly for the lots nearby. The article said he thought to keep a mile between him and the town but, as years passed, folks built along the road from the train station to his mansion, developing Main Street right up to his front yard.

Sidney glanced back at the tattered little town of Clifton Creek. If it had grown to more than five or six thousand, the population would have surrounded the remaining Altman land. But, since the fifties, the town had withered with age and the Altman house sat on a rise overlooking its decline. The train still ran along the tracks but passed the abandoned station without stopping. Nowadays cattle and cotton were trucked to Wichita Falls. Eighteen–wheelers hauled in most supplies. Oil ran in pipelines.

The shadow of the old house reached the windows of her Jeep. Sidney huddled deeper into her wool blazer. She would be forty next week. The same age Rosa Lee had been the year her father, Henry Altman, had died. He had built an empire along with this house. Cattle and oil had pumped through his land and in his blood.

Sidney closed her eyes realizing the old man must have known his forty–year–old daughter would be the end of the line. He'd built the ranch and the ten–bedroom house for a spinster. She couldn't help but wonder if he had encouraged his only child to marry, or had he kept her cloistered away?

Slipping on her glasses, Sidney stared at the house that had been Rosa Lee's so long folks in the town called the place by her name. Wild rosebushes clung to the side walls as if protecting it. Old elms, deformed by the wind and ice, lined the property's north border. The old maid had left the place to the town when she'd died two years ago, but it would be Sidney who would help determine the house's fate.

Demolish or restore? The choice seemed easy, considering its condition. Even the grand white pillars that once guarded the double–door entry were yellowed and chipped. Sidney loved the historical significance of Clifton Creek's founding father's house, but she couldn't ignore how desperately the town needed money. An oil company had made what seemed a fair bid for the land and the mayor had told her the crest, where the house sat, would be the ideal spot for drilling. Sacrificing a house for the town seemed practical, but she couldn't help but wonder if anyone but her would miss the old place at the end of Main.

She flipped open her briefcase on the passenger seat beside her. Beneath stacks of freshman History papers and a file on everything she could dig up about the house, she found a wrinkled old card, water spotted, corners bent. On the front of the card, her grandmother had pasted a recipe clipped from a Depression–era newspaper of Clifton Creek. On the back was one sentence written in a shaky hand. "Never forget the secrets of Rosa Lee."

Sidney fought frustration. How could she remember something she never knew? Once, Sidney had heard her mother say that Granny Minnie had worked in Texas as a nurse until her husband had found a job in Chicago. But, Sidney couldn't remember the name of the town.

She flipped over the card as she had a hundred times before. Two years ago, her mother and Granny Minnie had been killed in a car wreck a hundred miles south of Chicago. Her mother's and grandmother's wills had been standard—except for one item. Minnie had left Sidney a safety deposit key. Locked away, Sidney had found only an old recipe box. An unorganized mixture of forgotten recipes shuffled in with cards and notices for baby showers and weddings that Minnie must have collected over years.

Sidney had looked through the box a few days after the funerals, wondering what had been so important. Why would she have left Sidney, her only grandchild, a worthless box filled with forgotten memories?

This card had to hold the answer. The secret her mother had never taken the time to pass on. A secret her grandmother had thought they must never forget.

Sidney shook her head. She'd taken a teaching job here at Clifton College because of this one card. She had moved halfway across the country in search of a secret she would probably never find.

As darkness settled, Sidney knew she would not sleep tonight. The house waited for her. Tomorrow the mayor's handpicked committee would meet to decide what was to be done about the place.

She smiled, remembering the list of committee members. Like her, most were well–known in town…well–known and without influence. It had taken her several days to determine why the mayor had chosen them. At first, she had been honored, thinking he had noticed the articles she'd written about the house in the local paper. But when she'd met with him, she'd known the real truth.

Most folks might only see her as a middle–aged, shy professor, but behind her glasses was a sharp mind. Sidney knew enough about politics to realize that this was an election year, and Mayor Dunley didn't plan to do anything to lose votes. If he decided the fate of Rosa Lee's house, some group in town would be upset. But if he let a committee do it—a committee made up of people connected to everyone in town—no one would contest the outcome.

Red and blue lights blinked in her back window. Sidney glanced in the Jeep's rearview mirror. It was too dark to make out anything but a tall shadow climbing from the police car. She didn't have to see more. She knew who it was.

Sheriff Granger Farrington leaned near as Sidney rolled down her window.

"Evenin', Dr. Dickerson."

Sidney smiled. The man seemed as proper and stiff as a cardboard cutout of the perfect small–town lawman, all starch and order. She might have believed his act if she hadn't seen him with his wife. "Good evening, Sheriff. Is there a problem?"

"No, just making sure you weren't having car trouble."

"I'm fine. How's Meredith?"

A grin cracked his armor. "She's taking it easy. Doc says another month before she'll deliver. I'm thinking of buying stock in Blue Bell. If she eats another gallon of that ice cream, the baby will be born wearing a sweater."

"She craves it, and you supply it."

"Yeah, we're in a twisted relationship. She's a Blue Bell junkie, and I'm her contact." He laughed, then straightened. "I'm surprised you're here after dark; haven't you heard the stories about this place?"

"I heard about them from a few students after I wrote the articles on the house. A madman running through the garden. Chanting in hushed tones drifting through the air, coming from nowhere. Old Rosa Lee's ghost circling the garden, dripping blood over her roses." Sidney laughed. "You believe any of them?"

The sheriff shook his head. "I've never seen anything but kids parking out here on Saturday night. Adams caught some football players smoking pot in back of the house a year ago."

Sidney started the Jeep, guessing the sheriff wouldn't leave until she proved the engine would turn over. He'd given her Jeep a jump twice last winter and, knowing Granger, he'd probably heard about the time one of his deputies had helped her when she'd run out of gas along

Cemetery Road. She couldn't help but wonder if she was on his duty roster. Something scribbled in among the orders, like "watch out for the dingy professor who can't seem to keep her Jeep running."

The sheriff tapped the canvas roof as the Jeep's engine kicked in. "You know, Dr. Dickerson, when you get ready, Whitman will give you a good trade–in on a car. He's got new Cadillacs, but the trade–in lot's got a little of everything."

"I'll think about it." She started to ask one more time if he would call her Sidney. They were about the same age, and he was as close to a friend as she had in this town that welcomed newcomers with the same enthusiasm as they welcomed fire ants. "Good night, Sheriff."

He touched his hat with two fingers and disappeared back into the shadows.

Sidney glanced once more at the old house. Cloaked in shadows, it looked romantic, mysterious, haunted. She could almost believe that Rosa Lee, who'd lived all ninety–two years of her life there, still watched over the place.

"Never forget the secrets of Rosa Lee," Sidney whispered and wondered what waited behind the solid double doors.

Doors that had kept out the world for a lifetime.

Across town in the Clifton Creek Hotel, Sloan McCor–mick dropped his leather duffel bag on the tiny hotel bed and growled. He hated sleeping with his feet hanging off the end. At six foot four, it was the rule rather than the exception when traveling.

He also hated small towns with their cracker–box hotel rooms, where neon signs blinked through the thin drapes all night long and sheets had the softness of cheap paper towels.

Emptying his pockets on the scarred dresser, he tried to think of one thing he liked about this assignment. He thought he'd grown used to being alone, but no place made him feel more alone than a small town, and Clifton Creek was a classic. In a town over fifty thousand or so, he could blend in, look familiar enough so that folks returned his smile or wave. But in a place this size, people knew he was a stranger and treated him as such.

"Get the job done and get out." He repeated his rules. "Never get personally involved."

Sloan pulled a pack of folders from his bag and walked to where one of the double lights above the headboard shone. In the dull glow, he went over the list of committee members.

The Rogers sisters would be no problem—he could probably charm them. Both were retired schoolteachers. From what he'd gathered, they were much loved in the community. Though they lived modestly—small house, used van—he was surprised to discover close to eight hundred thousand in their combined savings accounts. A nice little nest egg for the two ladies.

He flipped to the next file. The professor, Sidney Dick–erson, would not be as easy to convince. He had listened outside her classroom. Facts, not dreams, would interest her. But, he wasn't sure how to get to her. Dr. Dickerson's interest in the Altman house was far more than mild curiosity. She'd proved that in the half–dozen articles she'd written for the paper.

He flipped to the next member of the mayor's committee. The preacher, Micah Parker, might be convinced "for the good of the community." Sloan had rarely seen a man above thirty so squeaky clean. The private eye he'd hired couldn't dig up a single whisper on the widower, not even in his hometown.

The last two folders belonged to the troublemaker, Billy Hatcher, and the ad executive, Lora Whitman. Both would probably go for money if he offered. Hatcher worked at the lumberyard and did odd jobs around town. Except for one brush with the law, he'd stayed below the radar. Lora Whitman was another story. She appeared to have lived her life in the public eye ever since she was six and had posed for her father's car ads. When Sloan had flipped through the weekly paper's archives, he'd seen several pictures of her. Homecoming queen, cheerleader, fund–raising for one cause then another. Her wedding picture had covered half a page.

Sloan spread the members' fact sheets across the bed. He only needed four to swing the committee. But which four?

He grabbed his Stetson and headed toward the bar he had seen a few blocks away. "Time to go fishin'," Sloan mumbled.

Micah Parker didn't believe in ghosts. He reminded himself of this fact as he jogged toward the edge of town, but there was something strange about the old Altman house. It drew him the way ambulance lights on a highway lured curious drivers.

He caught himself circling past the place each night when he ran. Something must have occurred there years ago and left its impression on the very air—it was not sounds, or odd sightings, but more an emotion that settled on the passerby's skin, thick as humidity just before a storm breaks.

Like most of those chosen for the mayor's committee, he couldn't wait to go inside and have a look. And tomorrow, he'd get his chance. Reverend Milburn had talked him into another civic committee, this one to decide what to do with Rosa Lee Altman's place. As associate minister, Micah followed orders.

Even though a relative newcomer in town, Micah had heard the stories about the old maid who had lived to be ninety–two. She'd lost her wealth—first a section, then a block at a time until nothing had remained in her name but the house and gardens. Some said she'd never ventured beyond her gates. She had had no life outside her property, and folks said no one, not even a delivery man, had stepped beyond her porch.

Micah studied the house as he crossed the street, his tennis shoes almost soundless. Even in the streetlight he could see that weather had sanded away almost all paint, leaving the two–story colonial a dusty brown. The same color as the dirt that sifted through everything over this open land.

Smiling, he waved at the house. It seemed more than brick and board. Some places have personalities, he thought with a grin. If this one had a voice it would say, "Evenin' Reverend Parker," in a Texas drawl.

He slowed in the darkness and stretched before turning about and heading back through town. The temperature had dropped during his run. Time to get home.

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