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Back when Ginger Gautier was a block-headed, reckless twenty-one-year-old, she'd have taken the mountain curves at ninety miles an hour and not thought twice.
Now that she was twenty-eight well, she couldn't swear to have better judgment.
Unfortunately she was eight weeks pregnant—by a doctor who'd claimed he deeply loved her just a day before he bought an engagement ring for someone else. So. Her judgment in men clearly sucked.
She'd lost a job she loved over the jerk. That said even more about her lack of good judgment.
Some said she had a temper to match her red hair. Friends and coworkers tended to run for cover when she had a good fume on. So possibly her temper might be considered another character flaw.
But she loved.
No one ever said that Ginger Gautier didn't give two hundred percent for anyone she loved.
When she passed the welcome sign for South Carolina, she pushed the gas pedal a wee bit harder. Just to eighty miles an hour.
Gramps was in trouble. And she was almost home.
The eastern sky turned glossy gray, then hemmed the horizon in pink. By the time the sun was full up, Ginger had shed her sweater and hurled it in the backseat on top of her down jacket. When she left Chicago, it had been cold enough to snow. In South Carolina, the air was sweeter, cleaner, warmer and so familiar that her eyes stung with embarrassingly sentimental tears.
She should have gone home more often—way more often—after her grandmother died four years ago. But it never seemed that simple, not once she'd gotten the job in hospital administration. Her boss had been a crabby old tyrant, but she'd loved the work, and never minded the unpredictable extra hours. They'd just added up. She'd come for holidays, called Gramps every week, sometimes more often.
Not enough. The guilt in her stomach churned like acid. Calling was fine, but if she'd visited more in person, she'd have known that Gramps needed her.
The miles kept zipping by. Another hour passed, then two. Maybe if she liked driving, the trip would have been easier, but nine hundred miles in her packed-to-the-gills Civic had been tough. She'd stopped a zillion times, for food and gas and naps and to stretch her legs, but this last stretch was downright grueling.
When she spotted the swinging sign for Gautier Tea Plantation, though, her exhaustion disappeared. She couldn't grow a weed, was never engrossed in the agricultural side of the tea business—but she'd worked in the shop as a teenager, knew all the smells and tastes of their teas, could bake a great scone in her sleep, could give lessons on the seeping and steeping of tea. No place on the planet was remotely like this one, especially the scents.
Past the eastern fields was a curve in the road, then a private drive shaded by giant old oaks and then finally, finally the house. The Gautiers—being of French-Scottish origin—inherited more ornery stubbornness than they usually knew what to do with. The word "plantation" implied a graceful old mansion with gardens and pillars and maybe an ostentatious fountain or two. Not for Ginger's family.
The house was a massive sprawler, white, with no claim to fanciness. A generous veranda wrapped around the main floor, shading practical rockers and porch swings with fat cushions. Ginger opened the door to her Civic and sprang out, leaving everything inside, just wanting to see Gramps.
She'd vaulted two steps up before she spotted the body draped in front of the double-screen doors. It was a dog's body. A huge bloodhound's body.
She took another cautious step. Its fur was red-gray, his ears longer than her face, and he had enough wrinkles to star in a commercial for aging cream. He certainly didn't appear vicious but she wasn't positive he was alive, either.
She said, "Hey, boy" in her gentlest voice. He didn't budge. She cleared her throat and tried, "Hey, girl." One eye opened, for all of three seconds. The dog let out an asthmatic snort and immediately returned to her coma.
For years, her grandparents had dogs—always Yorkie mixes—Gramps invariably carried her and Grandma usually had her groomed and fitted up with a pink bow. The possibility that Gramps had taken on this hound was as likely as his voting Republican. Still, the dog certainly looked content.
"Okay," Ginger said briskly, "I can't open the door until you move. I can see you're tired. But it doesn't take that much energy to just move about a foot, does it? Come on. Just budge a little for me."
No response. Nothing. Nada. If the dog didn't make occasionally snuffling noises, Ginger might have worried it was dead. As it was, she figured the big hound for a solid hundred pounds which meant she had only a twenty-pound advantage. It took some tussling, but eventually she got a wedge of screen door open, stepped over the hound and turned herself into a pretzel. She made it inside with just a skinned elbow and an extra strip off her already frayed temper.
"Gramps! Cornelius! It's me!"
No one answered. Cornelius was well, Ginger had never known exactly what Cornelius was. He worked for Gramps, but she'd never known his job title. He was the guy she'd gone to when a doll's shoe went down to the toilet, when she needed a ride to a party and Grandma couldn't take her. He got plumbers and painters in the house, supervised the lawn people, got prescriptions and picked up people from the airport. Cornelius didn't answer her, though, any more than her grandfather did.
She charged through, only taking seconds to glance around. The house had been built years ago, back when the first room was called a parlor. It faced east, caught all the morning sun, and was bowling alley size, stuffed to the gills with stuff. Gram's piano, the maze of furniture and paintings and rugs, were all the same, yet Ginger felt her anxiety antenna raised high. The room was dusty. Nothing new there, but she saw crumbs on tables, half-filled glasses from heaven knows when, enough dust to write her name on surfaces.
A little dirt never hurt anyone, her grandmother had always said. Gram felt a woman who had a perfect house should have been doing things that mattered.
A little disarray was normal. Beyond dusty was another.
She hustled past the wild cherrywood staircase, past the dining room—one glass cabinet there had a museum-quality collection of teapots. A second glass cabinet held the whole historic history of Gautier tea tins, some older than a century. Past the dining "salon," which was what Gramps called the sun room—meaning that he'd puttered in there as long as she'd known him, trying samples of tea plants, mixing and mating and seeing what new offspring he could come up with.
The house had always been fragrant with the smell of tea, comforting with the familiar whir of big ceiling fans, a little dust, open books, blue—her grandma had had some shade of blue in every room in the house; it was her favorite color and always had been. Longing for Gram almost made her eyes well with tears again. She'd even loved Gram's flaws. Even when they had a little feud—invariably over Ginger getting into some kind of impulsive trouble—their fights invariably led to some tears, some cookies and a big hug before long—because no one in the Gautier family believed in going to bed mad.
The good memories were all there. The things she remembered were all there. But the whole downstairs had never had a look of neglect before. She called her grandfather's name again, moving down the hall, past the dining room and the butler's keep. Just outside the kitchen she heard—finally!—voices.
The kitchen was warehouse size, with windows facing north and west—which meant in the heat of a summer afternoon sun poured in, hotter than lava, on the old tile table. A kettle sat directly on the table, infusing the room with the scents of Darjeeling and peppermint. A fat, orange cat snoozed on the windowsill. Dishes and glasses and what all crowded the tile counter. The sink faucet was dripping. Dust and crumbs and various spills had long dried on the fancy parquet floor.
Ginger noticed it all in a blink. She took in the stranger, as well—but for that first second, all her attention focused on her grandfather.
He spotted her, pushed away from the table. A smile wreathed his face, bigger than sunshine. "What a sight for sore eyes, you. You're so late. I was getting worried. But you look beautiful, you do. The drive must have done you wonders. Come here and get your hug."
The comment about being late startled her—she'd made amazing time, he couldn't possibly have expected her earlier. But whatever. What mattered was swooping her arms around him, feeling the love, seeing the shine in his eyes that matched her own.
"What is this? Aren't you eating? You're skinny!" she accused him.
"Am not. Eating all the time. Broke the scales this morning, I'm getting so fat."
"Well, if that isn't the biggest whopper I've heard since I left home."
"You're accusing your grandfather of fibbing?"
"I am." The bantering was precious, how they'd always talked, teasing and laughing until they'd inevitably catch a scold from her grandmother. But something was wrong. Gramps had never been heavy, never tall, but she could feel his bones under his shirt, and his pants were hanging. His eyes, a gorgeous blue, seemed oddly vague. His smile was real. The hug wonderfully real. But his face seemed wizened, wrinkled and cracked like an old walnut shell, white whiskers on his chin as if he hadn't shaved—when Cashner Gautier took pride in shaving every day of his life before the sun came up.
She cast another glance at the stranger and felt her nerves bristle sharper than a porcupine's. The man was certainly no crony of her gramps, couldn't be more than a few years older than she was.
The guy was sprawled at the head of the old tile table, had scruffy dirty-blond hair, wore sandals and chinos with frayed cuffs and a clay-colored shirt-shirt. Either he was too lazy to shave or was growing a halfhearted beard. And yeah, there was more to the picture. The intruder had tough, wide shoulders—as if he could lift a couple of tree logs in his spare time. The tan was stunning, especially for a guy with eyes that certain blue—wicked blue, light blue, blue like you couldn't forget, not if you were a woman. The height, the breadth, the way he stood up slow, showing off his quiet, lanky frame—oh, yeah, he was a looker.
Men that cute were destined to break a woman's heart.
That wasn't a problem for her, of course. Her heart was already in Humpty Dumpty shape. There wasn't a man in the universe who could wrestle a pinch of sexual interest from her. She was just judiciously assessing and recognizing trouble.
"You have to be Ginger," he said in a voice that made her think of dark sugar and bourbon.
"Aw, darlin', I should have said right off this is Ike. Come to see me this afternoon. He's—"
"I saw right off who he was, Gramps." He had to be the man her grandfather told her about on the phone. The one who was trying to get Gramps to "sign papers." The one who was trying to "take the land away from him." Gramps had implied that his doctor had started it all, was behind the whole conspiracy, to take away "everything that ever mattered to him."
Ginger drew herself up to her full five-four. "You're the man who's been advising my grandfather, aren't you, bless your heart. And that has to be your dog on the front porch, isn't it?"
"Pansy." For a moment she almost laughed, the name was so darned silly for that huge lummox of a dog. But she was in no laughing mood. She was in more of a killing mood. "Well, I'd appreciate it if you'd get your dog and yourself and take off, preferably in the next thirty seconds."
"Honey!" Her grandfather pulled out of her arms and shot her a shocked expression.
She squeezed his hand, but she was still facing down the intruder. "It's all right, Gramps. I'm here. And I'm going to be here from now on." Her voice was as cordial as Southern sweet tea, but that was only because she was raised with Southern manners. "I'll be taking care of my grandfather from now on, and we won't need any interference from anyone. Bless your heart, I'm sure you know your way to the front door."
"Honey, this is Ike—"
"Yes, I heard you say the name." She wasn't through glaring daggers at the son of a sea dog who'd try to cheat a vulnerable old man. "I really don't care if your name is Judas or Sam or Godfrey or whatever else. But thanks so much for stopping by."
He could have had the decency to look ashamed. Or afraid. Or something besides amused. There was no full-fledged grin, nothing that offensive, but the corners of his slim mouth couldn't seem to help turning up at the edges. "You know, I have the oddest feeling that we've gotten off on the wrong foot."
"You can bet your sweet bippy we have," she said sweetly.
"I strongly suspect that you'll change your mind before we see each other again. I promise I won't hold it against you. In fact, I'm really happy you're here. Your grandfather thinks the world rises and sets with you."
"Uh-huh." He could take that bunch of polite nonsense and start a fire with it. She wasn't impressed. She made a little flutter motion with her hands—a traditional bye-bye—but she definitely planned to see him out the door. First, so she could lock the screen doors after him, and second, to make darned sure he took the dog.
He was halfway down the hall when he called out, "Pansy, going home now." And the lazy, comatose, surely half-dead dog suddenly sprang to her feet and let out a joyful howl. Her tail should have been licensed as a weapon. It started wagging, knocking into a porch rocker, slapping against the door. Pansy seemed to think her owner was a god.
"Goodbye now," Ginger said, just as she snapped the door closed on both of them and flipped the lock. Obviously, locking a screen door was symbolic at best. Anyone could break through a screen door. But she still wanted the good-looking son of a shyster to hear the sound.
She whirled around to see her grandfather walking toward her with a rickety, fragile gait.
"Sweetheart. I don't understand what got into you. You know that was Ike."
"I know, I know. You told me his name already."
"Ike. Ike MacKinnon. My doctor. I mean that Ike."
For the second time, she had an odd shivery sensation, that something in her grandfather's eyes wasn't right. Still, she answered him swiftly. "You know what Grandma would say—that he can't be a very good doctor if he can't afford a pair of shoes and a haircut."
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