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Lynn Morrow was at her wit's end. Her tiny desk tucked into a corner of the kitchen was piled high with bills and her checkbook balance was a stunningly low $24.35. Not since college had she seen such a scary balance.
The refrigerator held a half-empty carton of milk, five eggs and some rapidly wilting lettuce. There was a can of diced tomatoes in the cupboard, along with a box of spaghetti, a few spoonfuls of peanut butter left in a jar and maybe a bowlful of Cheerios in the bottom of the box. That, too, reminded her of college. But it was one thing to scrape by at nineteen, and quite another to try to do it in her forties with kids to care for.
"Mom, I'm starving," Jeremy announced when he walked in the door from school. It was the standard cry of her ten-year-old. "What can I have for a snack?"
Lexie, who was right on his heels, took one look at her mother, apparently interpreted her dire expression for the near-panic Lynn was feeling, and turned on her brother. "You don't need food. You need sensitivity training."
Tears sprang to Lynn's eyes as Jeremy bolted from the room. Lately, Alexis, who was only fourteen, had spent way too much time trying to protect her mother. Ever since the divorce proceedings had been initiated, Lynn had been struggling to make ends meet. She and Ed were still in court wrangling over everything from custody of the kids to support. The temporary order in place barely kept her and the kids above water and, by the end of the month, she was scraping bottom financially, even with the part-time job she'd managed to find at her neighbor Raylene's boutique on Serenity's Main Street.
One of these days she supposed she'd thank Ed for providing this unexpected life challenge, but she really, really wasn't there yet. She was spitting mad, not because he'd left, but because of the upheaval he'd left in his wake.
She'd worked hard to keep her worries from spilling over onto the kids, but Lexie was a smart girl. She'd quickly figured out what was going on. Sometimes her overnight transformation from carefree teen into world-weary adult nearly broke Lynn's heart. Lexie should be paying attention to her grades, maybe having her first crush on a boy, not trying to be her mother's savior.
Now, with her brother gone in an indignant huff, Lexie came over to give Lynn a hug. She seemed to know instinctively just when Lynn was in desperate need of one.
"Dad's late with the check again, isn't he? How bad is it?" Lexie asked.
Lynn tried to reassure her. "We're going to be fine, sweetie. I don't want you to worry about this."
"We're not going to be fine," Lexie retorted angrily. "How did Dad turn out to be such a huge jerk?"
Lynn wondered about the same thing, but somehow Ed had turned into a man she didn't even recognize any longer. He'd taken his midlife crisis to new heights. He was self-absorbed, self-indulgent and thoughtless.
His family might not have enough money to put food on the table, but she'd overheard a conversation two days ago when it was mentioned that he was off on some expensive golf vacation, his third in the past six months. The wife of one of his business associates apparently hadn't realized Lynn was nearby when she'd made her remarks about Ed's latest spending spree. Or perhaps she had, Lynn thought cynically.
"Don't talk about your father that way," she admonished Lexie now, albeit halfheartedly. She didn't want her children to start hating their father, but she wasn't quite prepared to sing his praises, either. Every single day felt like a balancing act between her own ragged emotions and her children's needs. No matter how upbeat she pretended to be, lately it seemed she wasn't fooling anyone.
Lexie's eyes filled with tears, though it was impossible to tell if she was reacting to Lynn's stern admonition or to her own panic. "It's really bad, isn't it?"
"Bad enough," Lynn admitted carefully. She gave Lexie's hand a squeeze. "But this is a temporary blip, sweetheart. It will get sorted out. I promise."
"Are we going to have to move?" Lexie asked, giving voice to what was obviously her greatest fear.
Lynn wasn't one to sugarcoat bad news, though she'd hoped to have a plan in place before revealing the sad truth. "More than likely," she said quietly.
Though she'd been counting on Helen Decatur-Whitney, who was fierce when it came to getting the best possible settlement for her clients, she also knew that even Helen couldn't work miracles. Still, she tried to reassure her daughter. "Hopefully, Helen will be able to work this out in court before it comes to that, but I won't lie to yougiving up the house is a real possibility."
"But I love it here," Lexie protested with a sniff. "It's a great house and my best friend lives right next door." Then, apparently seeing something in Lynn's face, she squared her shoulders. "But it'll be okay." She gave her mother a plaintive look that nearly shredded what was left of Lynn's heart. "Won't it?"
"As long as you, Jeremy and I are together, it will be okay," she vowed.
She would do everything in her power to see that it was. Right now, though, with unpaid bills and little money, she was feeling pretty darn powerless. For a woman who'd always felt confident and in control, that was a new sensation, one she didn't much like. Just one more thing to lay at Ed's feet when she was doling out blame.
Contractor Mitch Franklin had been working on a new addition for Raylene and Carter Rollins for a few weeks now. He'd started in late fall, taken only a brief break during the holidays, and was hoping to have every interior detail finished for them in time for the annual Memorial Day party the couple hosted for all their friends. Normally, winters in Serenity tended to be mild with only a few days when the weather was too bad for construction, but this year had been a nasty exception with bitter cold and more snow and ice storms than he could remember in a lifetime here in South Carolina. While the snow and ice seldom lasted, he was still further behind schedule than he liked.
With various other jobs he was finishing upmostly interior workMitch was proud that he'd kept his crew working enough to put paychecks in their pockets. Now, though, the crunch was on to get this addition built. To keep costs in check he had his men working the usual number of hours, but he'd gotten into the habit of putting in a lot of overtime. He had a reputation for bringing his jobs in on time and he didn't want this to be an exception.
Of course, there were other things motivating him, as well. For one thing, Raylene was an amazing cook, who usually invited him to join the family for a meal if he was still hanging around at dinnertime. For another, his home felt way too empty without his wife, who'd been killed by a drunk driver a year ago. It had been bad enough with his two boys away at school, but with Amy gone, too, he could barely stand to be in his house even to sleep. The bed he'd shared with his wife for twenty-two years was way too cold and lonely.
His sons were exactly where they needed to be, in college and living their lives, but he was at loose ends way more than he liked. Raylene, Carter and Carter's younger sisters were filling a huge, gaping hole in Mitch's life. He suspected that Raylene understood that.
He looked up when Raylene wandered into the midst of what would eventually be a new family room with soaring windows and a spectacular stonework fireplace.
"Thought I told you not to come in here without a hard hat," he scolded pointlessly. To his everlasting dismay, she did whatever she liked. She'd been that way as far back as he could remember, though it seemed she'd gone a little crazy now that she'd recovered from her agoraphobia and was getting out of the house and around town again. Seemed to him that she'd gotten a little reckless.
"I can't help sneaking in every chance I get," she said, looking around, her expression filled with delight. "You're making such incredible progress, Mitch, and it really is going to be amazing. I usually don't like to rush the seasons, but I can hardly wait for Memorial Day to have everyone over."
Mitch wasn't used to people who threw parties at the drop of a hat, but he'd noticed that Raylene and her husband, Police Chief Carter Rollins, and their friends looked for any excuse to get together.
"You talking about that Sweet Magnolia crew you hang out with?" he asked. "Didn't you have them all poking around in here right before the holidays, some kind of celebration when that bullying situation at the high school was resolved?"
"What can I say? That seems like eons ago and we're a curious bunch. Maybe it's time I invite them over for another sneak peek. They couldn't really tell what was happening back then. Mostly it was a demolition mess with the new building materials piled everywhere. Just look at it now! You can already tell how fantastic it's going to be."
He frowned at her. "Promise me you won't have them poking around in here until I give the word that it's safe," he insisted, knowing he was probably wasting his breath. "Even if my guys are off the job, there are things people can trip over or send crashing down on someone's head. And the electrician still has some work left to do."
She laughed. "I was just teasing you. I know how you hate people tramping all over your work site, myself included."
"Then why do you do it? Just to annoy me?"
"Nope. I figure it's really my work site, so I get special privileges."
He shook his head. "Know who you sound like? Maddie Maddox. I swear that woman almost gave me a heart attack when we were doing the renovations for The Corner Spa." He glanced at Raylene. "You knew we did those, right?"
"Of course. Maddie recommended you."
"Well, she insisted on sitting right there, practically in the middle of the chaos, the whole time we were working. Said she had things to get done. I have no idea how she could think, much less work with all that hammering and whatnot going on. It makes me a little crazy, and I'm used to it."
"When Maddie's motivated, I suspect there's not much that can deter her," Raylene said.
"She's a real pistol, all right," Mitch said, a grudging note of respect in his voice. "Truth is, I thought working for the three of themher, Helen and Dana Suewould be a nightmare. Whoever heard of three women agreeing on anything? Boy, was I wrong! Maddie knew what she wanted, and the other two left her to it. Never before knew Helen to let someone else take charge like that."
"They're a great team," Raylene agreed. "They inspire me, and they're the best friends in the world."
"Friends are important, all right," Mitch said. "I should have done a better job of keeping in touch with mine. With Amy gone and the boys away, I really regret that. I don't much like hanging out with my crew. It blurs the lines, if you know what I mean. Still, they've been there to back me up since Amy was killed. There are good people in this town."
"There are," Raylene agreed. "And it's never too late to restore old friendships or to make new ones. I cut Annie Townsend and Sarah McDonald out of my life for way too long, but look at us now. We're thick as thieves again. That's one of the best things about moving back home to Serenity." She grinned. "That and marrying Carter, of course."
"Of course," he said dryly, knowing perfectly well that those two couldn't seem to keep their hands to themselves.
She gave him a sly look. "You'd be a great catch for some woman, you know."
"Don't go getting any ideas about matchmaking, you hear? Enough of that goes on in this town. Grace Wharton has made my social life her personal mission. I can't walk in the door at Wharton's without her dragging one woman or another over to meet me."
"And not a one of them has interested you?"
"Not so far," he declared. "Can't see that changing, either." Unable to keep a nostalgic note from his voice, he added, "Once a man has a woman like Amy in his life, he's not likely to get that lucky again."
Clearly undeterred, Raylene said, "Well, I'm just saying you're a good-looking man. You have a few other appealing traits I've noticed, as well." Grinning impudently, she gave him a thoroughly disconcerting onceover.
Mitch felt his cheeks heat at the compliment and the blatant survey. He'd been happily married every one of the twenty-two years he'd had with Amy. Before they'd met, he'd had quite a roving eye, but he could honestly say that once he'd said I do, that had been it for him. She'd been his whole world.