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Through an open window in her sewing room, Sylvie Shea heard car doors slamming, followed by men's voices and, very briefly, a child's. Seated on the floor, Sylvie was busy stitching a final row of seed pearls around the hem of an ivory satin wedding dress. The commotion outside, unusual to say the least, enticed her to abandon her project. Her rustic log cabin, nestled into the base of the Great Smoky Mountains, didn't exactly sit on a highly trafficked street. Not that any street in her sleepy hamlet of Briarwood, North Carolina, could be called highly trafficked, she thought fondly. But because her family reminded her often enough that a woman living alone on the fringe of a forest couldn't be too careful, she'd better spare a moment to investigate.
Sylvie didn't expect anyone with a child for a fitting today. Nor was it garbage collection day. Russ Peabody's grandson sometimes rode with him in the truck.
Checking her watch, Sylvie saw she had at least an hour before Oscar, the Great Pyrenees belonging to Anita Moore, was scheduled to be dropped off for grooming. Her Mutt Mobile, as she'd named her mobile pet-grooming service, was Sylvie's second job; the first had always been making wedding gowns.
Pushing aside the dress form that held the cream-colored gown, she squeezed her way through eight other forms displaying finished bridesmaids' dresses for Kay Waller's wedding.
An eighth headless mannequin had been shoved into a corner. Sylvie automatically straightened the opaque sheet covering it, as she frequently did, making sure the dress remained hidden from prying eyes. Satisfied the cover was firmly in place, she finally reached the oversize picture window she'd had installed in what had once served as Bill and Mary Shea's sunporch. A year ago she'd converted the porch into a sunny sewing room.
The shouting outside hadn't abated. Sylvie parted the curtain she'd sewn from mantilla lace. Normally the filmy weave filtered the sun, which gave her enough light to sew, yet wouldn't fade any of the fine fabrics stored in bolts along a side wall. When she pulled aside the lace curtain, a bright shaft of August sun momentarily blinded her.
Blinking several times, she couldn't immediately see any reason for the racket. Then, as she pressed her nose flat to the warm glass, Sylvie noticed a large moving van had backed into the lane next door.
Iva Whitaker's home had been closed up for more than a year. Her overgrown driveway ended at a detached garage set apart from a rambling cedar shake home by a breezeway. Nearly ninety when she passed on, Iva had outlived Sylvie's grandparents. The Whitakers and the Sheas had always been best friends. Still, the house next door had been vacant for so long, Sylvie had practically forgotten there was a structure beyond her wild-rose-covered fence. At Iva's death, rumors abounded concerning her will. Who would inherit this house and property? Her land shared a border with Sylvie's. Iva's tract included a small lake fed by a stream running through Sylvie's wooded lot. She often wondered why, when each couple owned five acres, they'd built their homes within spitting distance of each other. Iva, though, had been a dear neighbor. If Sylvie was to have new ones, as the moving truck seemed to indicate, she hoped the same could be said of them.
Straining to see better, she watched a man with straight, honey-blond hair come out and unload a small pet carrier from a dusty white seven-passenger van parked to the right of the moving van. He was in his thirties, of medium height and a wiry build, with slashing eyebrows over a straight nose set in a hawkish face. He wore a pair of gold, wire-rimmed glasses. Good-looking, yes Sylvie saw him as a sort of corporate version of country singer Keith Urban.
The man brought out several suitcases, slammed the hatch and disappeared behind a thicket of colorful sweet peas. Sylvie was left searching her memory for any details about Iva's will. If she'd heard anything about relatives, she'd forgotten the specifics.
Still, she might have missed the facts altogether, since Sylvie made a point of avoiding gossip. Gossip seemed to be the occupational pastime of too many people in Briarwood. Five years ago, she'd been the prime topic. Sylvie truly doubted a soul among the town's three thousand and ninety residents gave any thought at all to the pain caused by rampant rumors.
Certainly, everyone in town was well aware that becoming a New York City wedding-gown designer had been Sylvie's lifelong dream. Her best friends and their parents knew she'd imagined prospective brides coveting a Sylvie Shea gown with the same reverence the rich and famous whispered the name of Vera Wang.
So, yes, it'd shocked her that people whispered about herwhen, at twenty-one, she'd abruptly left New York and returned home to live in the small house she'd inherited from her father's parents. They must have seen her distress over all the comments claiming she'd left Briarwood at eighteen with stars in her eyes and magic in her fingers, only to return at twenty-one with teary eyes and a heart in tatters. That was five years ago.
Broken by a man. Or so the gossips speculatedthen and now. And rightfully so. Blessedly, the very few who knew the truth about how lying, cheating Desmond Emerson had stolen her dreamsand broken her heart in the processsaid nothing. What really happened in New York should remain her humiliating secret. With some time under her belt, she'd almost worked through her crushing disappointment.
Recently turned twenty-six, Sylvie was resigned to the fact that she'd never set the New York design world on fire. And she'd forged an okay existence here in Briarwood. Word-of-mouth sewing referrals paid the bills. Her pet-grooming service was growing steadily. In her spare time she managed Briarwood's children's theater, taught Sunday school and sang in the church choir. She occasionally hosted a gourmet cooking club that included her sisters and some old friends. She shouldn't complain.
If only certain busybodies would stop commenting that she'd sewn wedding gowns for all her friends at least once, and some twice, life in Briarwood might be enough. Oh, not to mention that she'd made gowns for her two sisters, both younger, while she remained single. It was too widely proclaimed that Sylvie Shea held the record for serving as bridesmaid more than anyone in the county. A total of twelve times to be exact, with unlucky thirteen coming up a week from next Saturday. She sighed, letting the lace curtain drift through her fingers.
The voices from next door had faded. Obviously, the movers and the man belonging to the white van had gone inside Iva's house.
If Sylvie's phone didn't ring soon, or if someone didn't otherwise clue her in as to what was going on next door, it was a cinch she'd hear all the details tonight at dinner. Today was her sister Dory's twenty-fifth birthday. The Shea family planned to gather at the home of their parents, as they did for every major life event.
Rob Shea, Sylvie's dad, a cabinetmaker by trade, also served as Briarwood's mayor. Her mother, Nan, volunteeredeverywhere. Both were fourth-generation residents who had deep roots in the valley and love in their souls for Briarwood. The word no had never existed in the Shea vocabulary; they were considered the go-to family. Sylvie expected that her dad or her brothers-in-law would show up next door, offering to lend the stranger a hand unloading boxes. By morning, Nan and half the other women in town would have trekked to Iva's porch with casseroles, fresh canned goods or baked goods piping hot from the oven.
Grinning to herself, Sylvie stowed her curiosity about her new neighbors, and returned to attaching seed pearls to Kay's dress. She'd barely finished sewing the last one in place when a vehicle crunched the gravel in her lane. The deep woofs that followed announced Oscar's arrival.
Sylvie was barely five foot two, and the Great Pyrenees weighed a hundred pounds and stood thirty-two inches at his shoulders. All the same, she loved every inch of Anita Moore's dog.
Taking care to latch the door to her sewing room, as she could well imagine what havoc Oscar might wreak, Sylvie stepped out onto her porch.
"Anita, hi." Sylvie raised a hand and waved. "You're still dressed for work. Let me get Oscar out of the Explorer for you." Anita's husband had the entire back half of the Ford renovated to accommodate the huge, shaggy white dog.
Bounding down her steps, Sylvie relieved Anita of a heavy-gauge leash, and quickly snapped it on Oscar's collar. He leaped out, barking joyfully. Just then Sylvie caught a glimpse of a cute blond-haired girl peering out through the sweet peas. Obviously this was the child she'd heard earlier. Sylvie flashed a smile, and the round face with the big blue eyes promptly withdrew.
"I'm sorry for what I'm about to ask, Sylvie. Can you possibly board Oscar? For a week or maybe two?" Anita said. "Not ten minutes ago, Ted got a call that his mom's in the hospital. He's on his way home to pack. I was already driving Oscar here for grooming when he called me, or I'd have phoned to ask you first."
"I'd be delighted, Anita. We'll get along fine, won't we, guy?" Sylvie said, bending down to rub Oscar's floppy ears. "I hope Ted's mom doesn't have a serious problem." Straightening, she tightened her hold on the leash. Oscar had apparently heard noises next door and was ready to investigate.
"Sylvie, you're a lifesaver. Elsa had what her doctor thinks is a ministroke. Ted says we'll probably need to locate a nursing home, or at least some type of residential facility. Elsa's insisted on staying in her own home and she's always balked when we suggested she move in with us." Anita heard the bumping going on next door, and paused. "Has someone moved into Iva's house?"
"In the process of moving. See the van?" Sylvie squinted through the vines twined thickly in their joint fence. "You mean you haven't heard any scuttlebutt at work?" Anita was the loan manager for Briarwood's only bank.
"We wouldn't necessarily hear if there's no mortgage loan involved. Iva's great-nephew probably sold the property. I think he's employed by a newspaper in Atlanta. Iva used to brag on him. She said that, as a boy, he spent summers with her and Harvey. I can't remember, but I think he may have been Iva's only living relative."
"Wouldn't we have known if he'd listed the property for sale?" Sylvie ducked to see if she could ascertain what was going on next door.
"I suppose it's conceivable the nephew just retired."
"Then he's not the man I saw carrying stuff in from his car. And there's a little girl. She can't be more than six or seven."
"Huh. Iva talked about her nephew whenever he sent her a card or letter. She said he was super busy, and what a shame that was, since he loved to fish with your grandfather during the summers he spent in Briarwood."
"I wonder how I missed hearing about him. Mom and I alternated grocery shopping for Iva when she came down with pneumonia. Why do you suppose the jerk never visited her when she was so ill? Frank at the funeral home arranged to have her body shipped to Georgia for burial. In a family plot, he said. He never mentioned any nephew."
"If you want facts, I guess you'll have to ask the man who bought the house. Look, Sylvie, I hate to dump Oscar on you and dash, but I told Ted I'd come straight home so I could help pack for our trip to Tennessee."
"Right. Sorry to hold you up. Go, and tell Ted we wish his mother a speedy recovery."
"Thank you. Say, I realize I only requested that you bathe and brush Oscar. But since you'll have him longer, can you give him the works? Check for ear mites and trim his nails? Especially his dewclaws. I heard Ted muttering last week that Oscar's looking like he's wearing snowshoes again."
"I'll be happy to make him all boo-tiful. Yes, I'm talking about you, sweet thang," Sylvie purred in an exaggerated drawl. She leaned down to kiss the dog's shiny black nose. In return, she received a doggie kiss from his rough tongue. "Unlike most of the other dogs I deal with, Oscar loves a bath. When you drop him off, Anita, he knows he'll get to play in my big tub of bubbles."
"You might want to toss him in soon," Anita said with a grin. "I'm well aware that you spoil him rotten and let him sleep beside your bed whenever we board him." She shook her head. "It's been such a warm summer, he keeps on rolling in my flowerbeds to keep cool. And yesterday he came in smelling faintly of skunk."
"Ugh. I'll wash him right away. I need a break from Kay's gown. She chose crepe-backed satin, and my fingers are objecting to so much hand-sewing."
Anita paused in the act of climbing into her vehicle. "Oh, no, we'll probably miss the wedding. Please tell Kay and David we wish them the best. I'll have Carline send their gift straight from the store."
"You bought their gift from Carline's kitchen shop? So did I. Pottery? On the invitation, Kay said no gifts, since she and David are merging two households. But Carline convinced me Kay really would love new everyday dishes."
"People going into a second marriage need some things all their own. And no one's likely to buy them a new bed." Anita grinned wickedly.
"Marriage seems a drastic way to get new furniture or dishes."
"There are other benefits, Sylvie." Sylvie made a wry face. "My mom and sisters tell me that constantly. I wish they'd stop digging up so many blind dates for me. Two last week." She rolled her eyes. "The guy on Friday was a few feathers short of a duck." Removing one hand from Oscar's leash, she made gagging motions using her index finger.
"I feel for you, Sylvie," Anita said with mock solemnity. "Your family is a force to be reckoned with."
"Yeah," she muttered glumly. "They've begun to recycle men I thought I'd gotten rid of. Listen, this subject needs a whole evening and pizza. You and Ted drive carefully, Anita. Oscar and I will be just fine."
"Hey, what if you got a couple of Rottweilers? Those blind dates would get the point faster." Not waiting for response, Anita slid into her car and sped off.
Sylvie gazed down at the big, happy-go-lucky dog. "Maybe I could teach you to go for the jugular," she said, dragging him into the backyard so she could turn him loose while she prepared his bath. She used a galvanized feed barrel as a tub for bathing large dogs. Sylvie liked warm water, and hurried in to connect the hose to laundry tubs her grandmother had installed on the back porch.