Take one uncontrollable little girl. Add a home infested with bees. Toss in former childhood nemesis Anna Burdett, and what single dad Reeves Leland gets is one big headache! His trio of matchmaking maiden aunts aren't helping matters. Neither is his attraction to Anna, now grown into a beautiful woman. The former wild child soon proves to be the perfect match for Reeves and his willful daughter. Could this reunion spark old memories and new possibilities for a future together?
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"Da-a-a-dy!" Gilli's muffled voice called from the backseat of the silver sedan as Reeves Leland lifted the last of the suitcases from the trunk. "Out!" Gilli demanded, rattling the disabled door handle.
He had parked the car beneath the porte cochere on the west side of the massive antebellum mansion known as Chatam House, where he and his daughter had come seeking sanctuary. "In a minute, Gilli," he said, closing the trunk lid.
Since turning three six months earlier, his daughter had grown increasingly difficult, as if he didn't have enough problems. He thought of the letter that he'd recently received from his ex-wife. The divorce had been final for nearly a year, but she had suddenly decided that he hadn't treated her fairly in the settlement. He shook his head, more pressing concerns crowding his mind. The most immediate had to do with housing.
Honeybees had driven him and his daughter out of their home. Honeybees!
Pausing in stunned contemplation Reeves felt the gray chill of an early February breeze permeate the camel-tan wool of his tailored overcoat. It rattled the dried leaves of the enormous magnolia tree on the west lawn like old bones, adding to the strangeness of the morning.
Father in heaven, I'm so confused, he thought. Honeybees?
Whatever God was doing in his life, he knew that he need not worry about his welcome here. He hadn't even called ahead, so certain was he of that welcome, and he gave himself a moment now to bask in that certainty, his gaze wandering over stately fluted columns, white-painted stone walls and graceful redbrick steps leading to the deep porch and the vibrant yellow, paneled side door with its so proper black framing. Terra-cotta pots flanked this side entry. In the springtime, he knew, flowers would spill over their edges, presenting a colorful welcome that would echo throughout the fifteen-acre estate.
Reeves had always loved this grand old house. The picturesque antebellum mansion and its grounds belonged to his aunts, the Chatam triplets, elder sisters of his mother. None of the aunties had ever married, but they were the first ones of whom Reeves had thought when the full weight of his situation had become clear to him.
"Da-a-dy!" Gilli bellowed.
"I'm coming. Hold on."
He took one step toward the side of the car before the sound of tires on gravel at the front of the house halted him. Turning away from his impatient daughter, he trudged to the corner of the building. A battered, foreign-made coupe pulled up at the front of the mansion. Reeves stared in appreciation at the slender blonde in dark clothing who hopped out. Lithe and energetic, with a cap of soft, wispy hair, she moved with unconscious grace. As if sensing his regard, she looked up, and shock reverberated through him. Recognizing Anna Miranda Burdett, his old childhood nemesis, Reeves frowned.
Well, that was all this day needed. Back during their school days she had done everything in her power to make his life miserable, which was why they hadn't spoken in years, though her grandmother Tansy was a friend of his aunties. Her pranks were legendary, and he'd once had the dubious honor of being her favorite target. She'd made a travesty of his senior year, his young male pride taking a regular beating at her hands. Given his current problems, he had no patience for dealing with Anna Miranda today.
He comforted himself with the thought that she was most likely just picking up her grandmother. He couldn't imagine any other reason why she would be here at Chatam House. Hopefully, they would depart before he met with his aunts.
He turned back toward his daughter, his footsteps crunching in the gravel as he hurried over to let her out of the car.
"I want out!" she complained, sliding down to the ground, her caramel-blond curls mingling with the fake fur on the hood of her pink nylon coat. She looked up at him, an accusing expression on her face.
A perfect combination of her mother and himself, with his rust-brown eyes and dimpled chin and Marissa's hair and winged brows, Gilli looked like every father's dream child. Unfortunately, this child whom he had wanted so much seemed terribly unhappy with him. Whatever was he going to do without Nanny?
Gilli bolted across the gravel toward the porch.
"Watch it!" he barked. Even before the warning left his mouth, she skidded and, predictably, tumbled down.
She fell to her knees, howling. Reeves reached her in two long strides and was lifting her to her feet when that yellow door opened, revealing the concerned countenance of Chester Worth. Sturdy, pale and balding, Chester and his wife, Hilda, along with her sister Carol, had served as household staff for the Chatam sisters for more than two decades. Wearing nothing more than a cardigan sweater over a plain white shirt, suspenders and slacks, Chester stepped out into the February cold, his bushy brows drawn together over his half-glasses.
Gilli's wails shut off abruptly. "H'lo, Chester," she greeted brightly.
"Miss Gilli, Mister Reeves, good to see y'all. Can I help?"
Reeves tugged Gilli forward, saying to Chester, "Could you get Gilli to the kitchen and ask Hilda to give her some lunch while I bring in the luggage?"
"Luggage, you say?" Chester asked, taking Gilli by the hand.
"We've come for a stay," Reeves replied, adding wearily, "It's been quite a morning, Chester."
"We got bees," Gilli announced, "lots and lots."
"I'll explain after I've seen the aunties," Reeves went on. "Where are they?"
"All three are in the front parlor, Mr. Reeves," Chester answered. "You just leave those bags and go let them know you're here. I'll take care of everything soon as Miss Gilli's settled. The east suite should do nicely. Bees, is it?"
"Lots and lots," Gilli confirmed.
"Thank you, Chester. I'll leave the bags inside the door."
Reeves returned to the rear of the car as the older man coaxed Gilli away. He carried the luggage into the small side entry then removed his overcoat, folding it over one arm. Smoothing his dark brown suit jacket, he headed off down a long narrow hallway, past the kitchen, butler's pantry and family parlor, toward the center of the house.
The scents of lemony furniture polish and gingerbread sparred with the musty odor of antique upholstery and the mellow perfume of aged rosewood, all familiar, all welcome and calming. Running through this house as a child with his cousins, Reeves had considered it his personal playground and more home than whichever parent's house he'd currently been living in. It had always been his one true sanctuary.
Feeling lighter than he had for some time, Reeves paused at the intersection of the "back" hall and the so-called "west" hall that flanked the magnificent curving staircase, which anchored the grand foyer at the front of the house. He lifted his eyes toward the high, pale blue ceiling, where faded feathers wafted among faint, billowy clouds framed by ornate crown moldings, and prayed silently.
It's good to be here, Lord. Maybe that's why You've allowed us to be driven from our own home. You seem to have deemed Chatam House a shelter for me in times of deepest trouble, so this must be Your way of taking care of me and Gilli. The aunties are a good influence on her, and I thank You for them and this big old house. I trust that You'll have a new nanny prepared for us by the time we go back to our place.
Wincing, he realized that he had just betrayed reluctance to be at his own home alone with his own daughter. Abruptly he felt the millstone of failure about his neck.
Forgive me for my failings, Lord, he prayed, and please, please make me a better father. Amen.
Turning right, Reeves walked past the formal dining room and study on one side and the quaint cloak and "withdrawing rooms" on the other, to the formal front entry, where he left his coat draped over the curved banister at the bottom of the stairs. The "east" hall, which flanked the other side of the staircase, would have taken him past the cloak and restrooms again, as well as the library and ballroom. Both of the latter received a surprising amount of use because of the many charities and clubs in which the aunties were involved. The spacious front parlor, however, was definitely the busiest room in the house. Reeves headed there, unsurprised to find the doors wide open.
He heard the aunties' voices, Hypatia's well-modulated drawl, followed by Magnolia's gruffer reply and Odelia's twitter. Just the sound of them made him smile. He paid no attention to the words themselves. Pausing to take a look inside, he swept his gaze over groupings of antique furniture, pots of well-tended plants and a wealth of bric-a-brac. Seeing none but the aunties, he relaxed and strode into the room.
Three identical pairs of light, amber-brown eyes turned his way at once. That was pretty much where the similarities ended for the casual observer, although those sweetly rounded faces, from the delicate brows, aristocratic noses, prim mouths and gently cleft chins, were very nearly interchangeable.
Hypatia, as usual, appeared the epitome of Southern gentility in her neat lilac suit with her silver hair curled into a sleek figure-eight chignon at the nape of her neck and pearls at her throat. Magnolia, on the other hand, wore a drab shirtwaist dress decades out of style beneath an oversized cardigan sweater that had undoubtedly belonged to Grandpa Hub, dead these past ten years. Her steel-gray braid hung down her back, and she wore rundown slippers rather than the rubber boots she preferred for puttering around the flowerbeds and hothouse. Lovingly referred to as "Aunt Mags" by her many nieces and nephews, she hid a tender heart beneath a gruff, mannish manner.
Odelia, affectionately but all too aptly known as Auntie Od, was all ruffles and gathers and eye-popping prints, her white hair curling softly about her ears, which currently sported enamel daisies the size of teacups. Auntie Od was known for her outlandish earrings and her sweetness. The latter imbued both her smile and her eyes as her gaze lit on the newcomer.
He could not help laughing at her delight, a patent condition for the old dear.
"Hello, Aunt Odelia." Going at once to kiss her temple, he held out a hand to Mags, who sat beside her sister on the prized Chesterfield settee that Grandma Augusta had brought back from her honeymoon trip to London back in 1932.
"Surprised to see you here this time of day," Mags stated.
Swiveling, Reeves bussed her forehead, bemused by the strength of her grip on his fingers. "Honeybees," he offered succinctly.
"What about them, dear?" Hypatia inquired calmly from her seat in the high-backed Victorian armchair facing the door through which he had entered. Its twin sat facing her, with its back to that door.
He leaned across the piecrust table to kiss her cool cheek, Mags still squeezing his hand. "They've invaded my attic."
He quickly gave them the details, how the nanny had phoned in a panic that morning, shrieking that she and Gilli were under attack by "killer bees." Racing home from his job as vice president of a national shipping company, he had found both of them locked into the nanny's car in the drive. Inside the house, a dozen or more honeybees had buzzed angrily. Nanny had climbed up on a stool to investigate a stain on the kitchen ceiling. Hearing a strange hum, she'd poked at it. Something sticky had plopped onto the counter, and bees had swarmed through the newly formed hole in the Sheet-rock.
Reeves had called an exterminator, who had refused even to come out. Instead, he'd been referred to a local "bee handler," who had arrived outfitted head-to-toe in strange gear to tell him more than he'd ever wanted to know about the habits of the Texas honeybee. A quick inspection had revealed that thousands, perhaps millions, of the tiny creatures had infested his attic. It was going to take days to remove them all, and then his entire ceiling, which was saturated with honey, all of the insulation and much of the supporting structure of his roof would have to be torn out and replaced.
"Oh, my!" Odelia exclaimed, gasping. "The bees must have frightened Gilli."
He spared her a smile before turning back to Hypatia, the undisputed authority at Chatam House. "Hardly. She wanted to know if she could keep them as pets." Gilli had been begging for a pet since her birthday, but he didn't have time to take care of a pet and so had staunchly refused.
"What can we do?" Hypatia asked, as pragmatic as ever.
"What you always do," he told her, smiling. "Provide sanctuary. I'm afraid we're moving in on you."
"Well, of course, you are," she said with a satisfied smile.
"It could be weeks," he warned, "months, even."
She waved that away with one elegant motion of her hand. She knew as well as he did that checking into a hotel with a three-year-old as rambunctious as Gilli would have been sure disaster, but he'd have chosen that option before moving in with his father, second stepmother and their daughter, his baby sister, who would soon turn four.
"There is another problem," he went on. "Nanny quit. She'd been complaining that Gilli was too much for her." Actually, she'd been complaining that he did not spend enough time with Gilli, but he was a single father with a demanding job. Besides, he paid a generous salary. "I guess the bees were the final straw. She just walked out."
"That seems to be a habit where you're concerned," drawled an unexpected voice. "Women walking out."
Reeves whirled to find a familiar figure in slim jeans and a brown turtleneck sweater slouching in the chair opposite Hypatia. A piquant face topped with a wispy fringe of medium gold bangs beamed a cheeky grin at him. His spirits dropped like a stone in a well, even as a new realization shook him. This was not the Anna Miranda of old. This Anna Miranda was a startlingly attractive version, as attractive in her way as Marissa was in hers. Oh, no, this was not the same old brat. This was worse. Much worse.
"Hello, Stick," Anna Miranda said. "You haven't changed a bit."
"I'm so sorry, dear," Hypatia cooed. "We forgot our manners in all the excitement. Reeves, you know Anna Miranda."
Reeves frowned as if he'd just discovered the keys to his beloved first car glued to his locker door. Again. Anna smiled, remembering how she'd punished him for refusing her a ride in that car. Foolishly, she'd pined for his attention from the day that she'd first met him right here in this house soon after his parents had divorced. Even at ten, he'd had no use for an unhappy rebellious girl, especially one four years younger, and she had punished him for it, all the way through her freshman and his senior year in high school.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Anna was a brat in high school, rebelling against her domineering grandmother and trying to get the attention of her main crush, Reeves Leland. Now, years later, Reeves is back in town with his young daughter Gilli. Gilli is also using acting out as a means of getting attention. Anna understands her, and by reaching out to the child, reaches the heart of Reeves as well. Both main characters learn to examine their hearts so that their past hurts won't prevent their current happiness. As the story progresses, they make small changes along the way, to provide a strong and believeable ending. The story examines all the ways that people try to express love, concluding that the gentle approach often works best. Another book about mending past hurts is Stars Shine After Dark. The original paperback is available here, but there is also a new ebook available at ebooks-onliine.com for $5.