Bree Cordel Whitman is a Whitman by marriage, but sometimes she forgets she wasn’t born into Grant and Audrey’s family. Her late husband, Timothy Whitman, gave his life for his country on a windblown hill in Afghanistan. Bree has let the love of Tim’s family keep her ties to him strong—in the same way she keeps Tim’s memory alive for them. But it’s been almost five years, and she can’t hang onto the past forever.
Fighting the guilt she feels for wanting to love again, she can’t help her dreams about a tall, dark, and handsome man—a man who is not her Tim. How can she accept the flirtations from Drew Brooks without throwing the Whitman family back into grieving? And how can Drew compete with the ghost of a hero and the hero’s very alive family who seem to hold some spell over the woman who shares their name . . . a woman he might just love?
About the Author
Deborah Raney’s books have won numerous awards including the RITA, National Readers' Choice Award, HOLT Medallion, the Carol Award, and have twice been Christy Award finalists. She and her husband, Ken, recently traded small-town life in Kansas—the setting of many of Deb's novels—for life in the (relatively) big city of Wichita. Visit Deb on the web at DeborahRaney.com.
Read an Excerpt
Close to Home
By Deborah Raney
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2016 Deborah Raney
All rights reserved.
Can I bother you for a minute?"
Bree Whitman looked up from her desk to see Aaron Jakes standing in the doorway to her cubicle. Popping her earbuds out, she motioned to him. "Sure. What's up?" She tilted her computer screen downward so he'd know she was listening — and so she wouldn't be tempted not to.
"Do you mind coming down to my office for a minute?"
She laughed and stretched to peer over the half wall dividing the cubicles. His was two "doors" down. "This better be important if you're going to make me walk all the way over there."
She shot him a questioning look. Except for Wendy, the college girl who served as front-desk receptionist for all three companies housed in their complex, Bree and Aaron were the only two still in this wing.
But Aaron had already turned and headed back to his cubicle.
She glanced at the clock on her computer. She needed to leave in fifteen minutes. She'd promised Audrey she'd stop at the bakery for some rolls on her way to Tuesday family dinner tonight, and she was supposed to pick up Grandma CeeCee in Langhorne on her way out to the Chicory Inn.
Sighing, she slid from behind her desk and went to Aaron's cubicle. She glanced across the office through the plate glass window that faced the street. The time-and-temperature sign on the bank across the street flashed from 101 degrees to 102. "Are we seriously in triple digits again?" She lifted her long brown hair off her neck, twisted it into a bun, and held it in place for a few seconds before letting it fall to her shoulders again.
"Well, it is July," he said without looking up. Standing beside his desk, his expression said he was agitated by whatever was on his computer screen.
"Okay, so what's up?" she asked again, suddenly nervous about being alone in the office with him.
Aaron leaned over his desk and pulled up a spreadsheet on the computer, then pulled out his desk chair and stepped aside, indicating she should have a seat.
"What's this?" She sat down and looked at the screen. "Oh, the Broadhogan conference? I thought you had that all worked out."
He gave a low growl. "What doesn't kill you, makes you stronger, right? Isn't that the way the saying goes? Please tell me that's the way the saying goes."
"What'd they do now?" She rolled his desk chair closer to the screen and studied the logistics timeline he'd been working on for close to two weeks now.
Aaron put an arm on the desk and leaned in close enough that she could smell his woodsy aftershave. "I thought I finally had a workable schedule, and they sent it back again." He pointed over her shoulder at several highlighted changes he'd made in the spec book for the job.
This had to be at least the fourth time Aaron's proposal had been rejected. If Bree were running the company, they would have declined the job after the third try. But Cape Girardeau was a small town and Sallie Wilkes, their boss, couldn't afford to turn down work — or burn bridges. Even if they had to put in five times the hours on this event than any other conference they'd done in the history of the company. And that was saying a lot, given that Wilkes Event Planning had been in Cape for a quarter of a century.
Sallie often assigned her and Aaron to the same events because of their age. Barbara, one of the older employees, referred to them as the "hip young team." She and Aaron usually got handed the events at the college, the arts council, large weddings, or anything else that would draw a younger, more contemporary crowd. It made sense.
She and Aaron made a good team, too. Aaron was the more organized one — although his lackadaisical attitude toward this show didn't reveal it — and he was good with the technical stuff. Bree shined when it came to the details — decorating and swag and signage. And handling people.
Aaron pointed at the spreadsheet again. "Would you just look this over once more before I send it back? Please? Because if I have to redo it one more time, I will seriously just go flip burgers or get a job as a lifeguard or a nanny or something."
She laughed. "You'll do no such thing. Besides, you'd be a terrible nanny."
She ignored him and studied the document, scrolling down the pages, and mentally walking through the event in her head as she'd learned to do. But it wasn't easy to concentrate with Aaron hanging over her shoulder, his warmth making her overheat, and his peppermint breath pleasantly distracting. "It looks good to me."
"That's what you said the last two times I had you look it over. Not that I'm blaming you," he added quickly. He patted her on the shoulder, his hand lingering there a fraction of a second too long.
Aaron was a flirt. Not the obnoxious kind, but maybe the kind that wouldn't be so fun to be married to. In the past few weeks he'd definitely been turning on the charm when she was around. She hadn't done anything to encourage him. At least she didn't think so. But it was hard to work as closely as the two of them did and not become ... friendly.
She scooted the chair back, forcing him to step aside. "If I were you, I'd just remind them that they pay us by the hour. That usually does the trick."
"Will do." He cleared his throat and glanced at his watch. "Hey, are you hungry? You wouldn't want to go get something to eat, would you?"
She cringed inwardly. Maybe his invitation meant nothing more than two coworkers grabbing a bite to eat after work. They'd never done that in the past, and it wasn't like him to act so nervous around her. It definitely seemed like there was a lot riding on her answer.
"Sorry, I've got plans already. But thanks." She liked Aaron. Maybe more than she wanted to admit. She did consider him a friend. But she wasn't ready for more than casual friendship. With Aaron, or with anybody else of the male persuasion. Besides, it would be way too complicated to become involved with a coworker. To become involved with anyone.
"How about this weekend? Wasn't there a movie you wanted to see? We could —"
"Aaron ..." She closed her eyes, scrambling for words that would let him down easy, realizing at the same time that she wanted to leave her options open. But that wasn't fair to him. Either she was interested or she wasn't. "I don't think I'm quite ready."
"Ready for what?"
Her face grew warm. "Maybe I'm misreading you. It ... sounded like you were asking me on a date."
"And if I was?"
She rose and pushed the chair back up to his desk, stepping toward the doorway. "I don't think so. But I'm flattered you asked. I really am."
He leaned against the desk, palms flat on the surface behind him, watching her with a sly smile. "And if I was just asking as a friend? Just popcorn and a movie with a friend from work?"
Why did he have to be so stinkin' good-looking? She felt reckless, and a little out of control. But really, what harm could it do? He said just as friends. She blew out a sigh. "Sure. I'd love to go to the movies with my friend Aaron."
He grinned. "Great! Just pick a day."
"It's a date."
She gave him a look. "No. It's not."
"My bad." He held his hands up like a shield, still grinning. "Poor choice of words. An early show, okay? We can do a matinee if you'd rather."
"Oh. That'd be good." Far less like a date. "I'll meet you at the theater, okay?" Even less like a date.
"Okay. I'll check movie times and text you, and we can decide which movie. Does it matter which showing?"
"I'm free all afternoon." She was free the rest of her life. But she didn't want to talk about that with him.
Not yet. She turned and walked back to her cubicle, shut down her computer, and gathered her things. It wasn't until she was getting in her car that it hit her. She had a date Saturday.
No, Whitman. It's not a date. You're going to the movies with a friend.
Then why did she feel that same shivery anticipation she'd felt before her first real date with Tim?
* * *
There was a line at the bakery, and by the time she got the rolls and headed out to the inn, she was already fifteen minutes late and drenched in perspiration. Glancing in the rearview mirror, she frowned at her reflection. She'd gathered her stick-straight hair into a ponytail earlier, securing it with a rubber band she found in her glove compartment. She looked a mess, but Missouri in July was not conducive to any other hairstyle.
She looked at the clock and notched the cruise control up. Her in-laws knew not to hold supper for her. In-laws. Bree refused to think of them as her former in-laws, though technically, that's what Grant and Audrey were — now that Tim was gone.
Too often, she got off work late in the day, and she'd convinced Tim's family to never wait on her. The youngest grandkids couldn't be held off too long, and besides, the Whitmans' Tuesday night dinners were informal affairs. Potlucks or picnics whenever the weather was nice enough, with everyone just hanging out together, enjoying each other's company.
Now that Grant and Audrey had eight grandkids, things were usually geared around the little ones. And their bedtimes. She missed the early days when she and Tim would stay up with his brother and sisters — and later, their spouses — and play board games and card games around the kitchen table. In the old house — before it had become the Chicory Inn.
The refurbished bed and breakfast was gorgeous. Elegant, yet cozy with its cream-painted woodwork and contemporary rugs and textiles. But sometimes she missed the house as it had been — where Tim had first introduced her to his down-to-earth family. Or maybe it was just Tim she missed. He'd been gone by the time the restoration was finished on the inn. It seemed strange to think that Tim had never even seen the house where she spent so much time now.
In some ways, she knew his family better than he had. There were seven nieces and nephews he'd never even met. And changes. His parents were older, his grandmother was aging and —
CeeCee! She gasped and hit the brakes. She was supposed to pick up Tim's grandmother on her way out to the inn! She'd totally forgotten, and now she'd have to go back for CeeCee and be even later than she already was. Good grief! Had Aaron's little invitation flustered her that much?
She turned the Taurus around at the first field entrance she came to. The ditches were deep on both sides of the narrow county lane, and recent rains had washed the road out on either side of the culvert. She managed to make the turn, and as soon as she was back on the road, she called CeeCee's home phone. She hadn't yet figured out how to use the hands-free feature of her new car. Well, new to her anyway. The car was six years old, but it was the newest car she'd ever owned — and the first vehicle she'd bought on her own.
She vowed to get the Bluetooth set up before the weekend. There was rarely much traffic on this state highway, but neither did she want to add an accident to her list of screw-ups tonight.
CeeCee's answering machine finally picked up on the sixth ring. Oh dear. She was probably sitting out on the front porch waiting. And had been for the past thirty minutes.
Speaking loud and slow, she left a message. "CeeCee, this is Bree. I'm running really late, but I'll be there in less than ten minutes. I'm so sorry I didn't call earlier."
She clicked off and called Audrey's cell phone. Thankfully, Audrey answered on the first ring.
Bree told her the same thing she'd told CeeCee, minus the loud and slow. Nor did she mention that she'd actually forgotten all about CeeCee and had to backtrack. "Has she called wondering where I am?"
"No," Audrey said. "But she wouldn't. You just take your time, sweet girl. She'll wait for you. It's not like she has a hot date or anything."
Bree laughed, then wrinkled her brow, watching herself frown in the rearview mirror. Did Audrey somehow know about Aaron? She wouldn't put it past her mother-in-law. Audrey was perceptive ... sometimes too perceptive.
CeeCee wasn't waiting on the porch, and when she hadn't answered the doorbell after three rings, Bree used her key and let herself in. It was stifling in the little two-story house, but CeeCee always kept the thermostat at eighty, summer or winter. Still, considering CeeCee's age, she felt a touch of misgiving about what she might find. She walked through the rooms of the little house, calling CeeCee's name.
The door to the master bedroom was open. The shades were drawn and lamps turned off. But the lump in the bed was unmistakably CeeCee, tiny as the almost eighty-five-year-old woman was. It wasn't even seven o'clock yet. For a minute, Bree froze, thinking the worst.
But soft snoring came from the bed and Bree flipped on the light and went to the bedside, kneeling beside Tim's grandmother. "CeeCee?" She patted the crepey, thin arm that lay atop the quilt. "Are you feeling okay?"
A snuffle, and a start, and CeeCee sat up in bed, looking disoriented and weak.
"Are you okay?" Bree looked into the rheumy eyes, trying to determine if she was ill.
CeeCee threw back the covers and squinted at the clock. She was wearing a cotton nightgown. "Oh, no. Did I oversleep?"
"It's my fault," Bree said, not sure if CeeCee was confused or if she was referring to her nap. But surely she hadn't changed into a nightgown just to take a nap. "I'm late picking you up for our Tuesday dinner." She cast about the tidy room, looking for the outfit CeeCee had been wearing. "Can I get your clothes for you?"
CeeCee looked down at her nightgown. "Oh, I don't think I'll change."
Bree laughed, but CeeCee's expression said she wasn't kidding. Bree went to the closet and chose a pair of elastic-waisted pants and a colorful blouse she'd seen the woman wear often. "How about this?"
"I really think I'll just stay here. I'm pretty tired. I played bridge all afternoon, you know."
"Oh, but don't you want to go out to Grant and Audrey's for dinner? Everyone will be disappointed if you don't come."
"They'll get over it." She waved a frail hand and sank back onto the pillows. "Audrey said she'd do the dessert tonight anyway."
Was that what was bothering CeeCee? It was usually her job to furnish the dessert for Tuesday nights. But it wasn't like her to get her feelings hurt over something so petty. "Are you sure you feel okay? Have you eaten?"
"I'm just tired. Don't you worry about me. You go on and have a good time. Give them all my love." She sounded more like herself now.
But Bree was still worried. She said her good-byes, but didn't feel quite right about leaving. She locked the door behind her, but in the driveway, she called Audrey again and told her how she'd found CeeCee.
"I wouldn't worry too much, honey. She did play bridge today, so maybe she's just worn out. And if she insisted, you can't force her to come."
"Well, if you're sure."
"Grant will check on her later tonight. You come on. We saved a plate for you."
Backing out of the driveway, she shot up a prayer for Tim's grandmother. If anything happened to CeeCee, she would never forgive herself. And none of this would have happened if she hadn't been daydreaming about that stupid movie date.CHAPTER 2
She drove too fast and arrived at the Chicory Inn just as they were clearing the table and dishing up dessert — Audrey's apple crisp and homemade ice cream. She held up the bags of rolls from the bakery and gave a sheepish smile. "Anybody want a roll?"
Audrey took them from her. "Don't worry about it. We had plenty to eat. I'll just put them in the freezer for next week. Unless you want one now?"
"Are you kidding? Forget my plate." She pointed to the apple crisp, which filled the kitchen with a tart, cinnamony scent. "This can be dinner for me."
"Don't be silly." Audrey gave her a one-armed hug and thrust a warm plate at her, a sampling of the supper she'd missed. "You eat. You're too skinny as it is. And don't you worry, I'll make sure there's apple crisp left for you."
"And ice cream," Bree said, taking the proffered plate, but casting a suspicious eye on Tim's brother, Link, and three brothers-in-law who were standing at the counter snarfing apple crisp and looking as if they could easily put away a second bowl before she could put a dent in her plate.
Excerpted from Close to Home by Deborah Raney. Copyright © 2016 Deborah Raney. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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