Set against the backdrop of Tennessee's breathtaking Smoky Mountains, Lin Stepp's Down By the River is a warm-hearted novel that proves it's never too late--or too early--for a fresh start. . .
While on a visit to the Smokies, Grace Conley makes a stunning decision: she's going to walk away from her busy life in Nashville to move to tiny Townsend and open a bed and breakfast. There's a beautiful old inn for sale along the Little River that will do perfectly. Of course, Grace's family is scandalized. After all, she's a middle-aged widow! And as a career homemaker, she's always been available for babysitting, chauffeuring, and generally being the peacemaker among her grown children. Has Grace lost her mind? She begins to wonder the same thing once she finds herself attracted to the local ladies' man. But the surprises don't stop there. . .
To further complicate her move, Grace's daughter, Margaret, has grudgingly come to live with her. Having just graduated from college, remote Townsend is not where she envisions her future. Yet the handsome young minister next door is convinced he and Margaret are meant for each other. As life choices abound, soon both women will discover that the biggest decisions require confidence, a sense of humor--and a deep, abiding faith.
Praise for Lin Stepp and her Smoky Mountain Novels
"I've finally come across someone that believes in all the things that I do. . .love, family, faith, intrigue, mystery, loyalty, romance, and a great love for our beloved Smoky Mountains." –Dolly Parton
"A wonderful, new Southern voice." --Joan Medlicott, author of the bestselling The Ladies of Covington series
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Down By the River
A SMOKY MOUNTAIN NOVEL
By LIN STEPP
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2014 Lin Stepp
All rights reserved.
Grace Conley could hear that nagging little voice in her head again, chiding her with every step as she walked down the winding driveway from the mountain motel. "You're acting impulsively, Grace. Not being sensible."
"Oh, hush," she said at last. "I know I'm acting impulsively, but I don't care."
After all, what harm would it do to simply take a look at the old bed-and-breakfast for sale down by the river? Ever since she discovered it on her walk yesterday, she'd been dying to see inside of it. Still thinking about it when she woke this morning, Grace had even called the Realtor's phone number and made an appointment with the listing agent. In five minutes she'd meet with a man named Jack Teague.
Mr. Teague didn't need to know she wasn't a serious client—and was only curious to see inside the house. She didn't intend to tell him that, either.
Grace stuck her chin up, squared her shoulders with resolve, and skirted across scenic Townsend Highway 321 in front of the motel. Her family in Nashville could hardly offer an opinion or see what she was doing. She glanced behind her, grinning at the thought. And no one followed her taking notes to report to her family either. She was on her own and could do what she wanted today.
If Charlie were here, he'd say, "Let's do it, Grace." She and Charlie had loved bed-and-breakfasts. Whenever they traveled, they'd searched the Internet to find charming inns or guesthouses to visit. Scrapbooks filled with pictures of their trips to bed-and-breakfasts lay stacked in a cabinet at home.
Slowing her pace, Grace glanced around in pleasure at the small businesses and quaint houses tucked beneath a shady canopy of trees along the narrow Creekside Lane in Townsend. With the day warm and balmy in early May, Grace saw no reason to drive the few blocks to the property. She knew the way and walked with a spring in her step down the quiet street off the highway. Seeing the mountain stream now, sparkling in the sun through the trees as it tumbled down the valley, Grace knew the inn lay only a short distance ahead.
Her mind drifted back to her daughter's call earlier at the motel. "What are you going to do today, Mother?" Margaret's voice had sounded young and bright.
"Well, I'm driving over to the college at nine to see your junior performance, of course, and after that, while you take your last final exam, I think I'll drive to Gatlinburg to poke around in the shops."
"That sounds like fun." Margaret had hesitated. "Could you come early to see me before I play? Maybe we could get a coffee." Grace could hear the edge of anxiety that always threaded through Margaret's voice before a major piano recital. "I hope I'll do well in the performance this morning, Mother. This recital is a part of my grade, and there are a lot of guests coming." Grace had offered Margaret the assurance she needed. "Margaret Jane, you'll be wonderful. I love the piece you're playing. People will stand to their feet to applaud when you finish. You just wait and see. You are a gifted young pianist."
Margaret had sighed. "I hope so. Thank you, Mother, and I'm glad you're going to be there."
"I wouldn't miss it for anything. I've attended nearly every piano recital you've played in since you turned five years old." Grace had laughed to herself remembering Margaret in stumpy pigtails and a starched white dress, climbing on the piano bench at her first recital, her feet too short to touch the pedals or the floor. She and Charles had always been so proud of Margaret—and of all four of their children.
Switching to a new worry, Margaret had asked, "Do you think we can cram all my things in both our cars Saturday? I have more stuff now than when I moved into the dorm in the fall, especially with the new clothes and gifts I got at Christmas...."
Grace had interrupted this string of concerns. "Margaret, you always have more stuff every year when it's time to go home. And we always get it crammed into our cars somehow. So don't worry."
"Okay." Margaret had paused and sighed again. "Well, I guess I need to start getting ready, Mother. I'll see you soon. Sit where you always do, if you can."
"Third row, right side. I'll be there. Knock 'em dead, darling."
Grace wished she'd heard a laugh or giggle at that last comment. But she hadn't. Margaret was such an intense child—always had been since only a small girl.
Smoothing the skirt of the silvery blue sundress she'd chosen to wear today, Grace's thoughts drifted backward. She really wished Charles's mother, Jane, hadn't put so much pressure on Margaret from an early age. Maybe that explained why Margaret was so intense about the piano. As soon as Margaret's talent emerged as a preschooler, Jane Conley all but pounced on her.
Grace supposed she couldn't really blame Jane in some ways. With Jane's own years on the concert stage past, and none of Grace's other three children showing even a snitch of musical talent, Jane naturally focused on Margaret. Jane desperately wanted to groom a protégé to follow in her footsteps. Fortunately, Margaret had always loved the piano. Even Jane's continual pressuring and aggressive expectations could never change that. Margaret was truly gifted in her own right. Grace was glad for that.
In fact, Margaret now attended Maryville College on a full music scholarship majoring in performance. Next year would be her senior year. Grace realized suddenly this would probably be Margaret's last summer at home.
She sighed at the thought. With her four active children grown, the big house in Nashville seemed all too quiet now. Since Charles had died two and a half years ago, the place felt even quieter. Grace had found herself discontented and restless this last year, too. She knew she needed to make some changes in her life, but wasn't sure what changes.
As she walked along in the sunshine, Grace smiled, remembering Margaret had received a standing ovation for her performance this morning. After hearing so many strident pieces performed earlier in the recital, the audience had loved the moody, lilting Bach concerto Margaret had played.
Starting around the bend in the road, Grace looked for the back driveway to the bed-and-breakfast she'd located yesterday. Of course, a main drive wound onto the property from off the Townsend highway, but Grace liked this back driveway that ambled under the trees by the old detached garage and around to the back of the inn.
Drawing closer to the house, Grace looked for the Realtor's car, but didn't see it. She checked her watch. He should be here by now. The Teague Realty office sat only a block or two away off the highway, a charming gray building behind a rock wall smothered in creeping phlox and white alyssum.
Perhaps he had walked over, too. Grace checked the doors and peeked in the windows, but found the house locked tight. And still no car in sight.
Grace frowned in annoyance, checking her watch again. She disliked people being late. She personally prided herself on always being prompt. It showed thoughtfulness and consideration of others' time. It also offered an indication of how well an individual managed his or her life.
Following the flagstone walk to the backyard to pass the time, Grace caught the sound of voices nearby—high childish voices accompanied by girlish giggles. She looked toward the sound to see two girls, eight or nine in age, walking across the swinging bridge spanning the Little River behind the bed-and-breakfast. The girls wore bright red swimsuits with loose, button-front shirts, and they pushed two huge yellow inner tubes along in front of them—the tubes almost as tall as the girls. Seeing Grace watching them, the girls waved and started up a worn pathway leading from the bridge through the backyard.
Obviously twins, Grace thought to herself as they drew closer. Identical short, brown hair, chocolate-brown eyes, and big smiles. Even matching flip-flops decorated with jeweled sparkles. Both cute as buttons, too.
"Are you the new owner?" one of the girls asked, dimples winking in her cheeks.
"No. I'm just looking at the house." Grace smiled back. "And who are you?"
"Morgan." The girl pointed to herself and then to her sister. "This is Meredith. We live across the river, and we're going to the Butlers' to tube with Daisy and Ruby."
"I see. I'm Grace Conley." She looked back in the direction the girls had come from, searching for an adult. They seemed young to be on their own.
Morgan picked up on her thoughts. "We have permission, Ms. Grace. Aunt Bebe talked to Daisy and Ruby's mother, and it's okay. She knows we're coming."
Grace nodded, satisfied. After all, a quiet, small town offered more relaxed rules for children than the city where she'd raised her own family.
"Want us to show you around the house before we walk down to the Butlers', Ms. Grace?" Morgan asked. "We know this house real well. We used to come here a lot to see the Oakleys, and our Aunt Bebe was super good friends with Mavis Oakley."
Grace decided to take the girls up on their offer for a few minutes since she still saw no sign of the Realtor's car. It would help pass the time. Besides, she liked the girls.
Pleased at Grace's interest, Morgan and Meredith leaned their tubes against the garage and began to skip along the flagstone path toward the front of the house, chattering and pointing.
"The lot's really big on this house and goes all the way out to the highway in front and then down to the river in the back," Morgan told her. "It's got three stories, a great porch in front, a screened porch in back, and a cool turret on the side."
"The turret makes it look like an old European castle, don't you think?" Meredith asked.
Grace nodded. "I do. It gives the house a romantic European look, and I love the dark green shutters and doors and the weathered slate roof."
Rounding the front of the house, they passed by flowering shrubs and flowers crowded in masses around the front porch stairs. A riot of blue and lavender morning glories twined up the porch railings, their blooms still partly open.
"Those morning glories will close up soon," Morgan announced, catching her gaze. "It's already late morning. They stayed open longer today than usual because the day started out cloudy without much sun."
Meredith walked closer to study a clump of blue morning glories by the porch steps. She looked up at Grace and offered that shy smile of hers again. "Did you know morning glory blossoms only live for one single day, Ms. Grace? After they bloom in the morning, they wither up and die forever. Isn't that sad?"
Morgan shrugged. "Yeah, but fresh flowers will bloom out again tomorrow."
"I know." Meredith sighed and reached out to touch a flower gently with her finger. "But it's still sad to think they only get to live one day. They're so beautiful."
Grace agreed with her. "That does seem sad, Meredith. "
Ready to get on with business, Morgan interrupted their discussion of morning glories. "This house is real old, Ms. Grace. I'm not sure how old. Mavis Oakley told me the first owner built it to be a fancy boardinghouse when Townsend first developed. They called it The Sweetbriar Inn. Next some rich people lived in it and then someone bought it and started a bed-and-breakfast. Last the Oakleys owned it. They lived here for as long as Meredith and I can remember. Then Mr. Carl, that's Mr. Oakley, had a heart attack and died three years ago. Ms. Mavis didn't want to keep running the Oakley by herself, and her daughter wanted her to move to Texas to live with her, so she left and went to Houston. That's why the place is for sale."
"I think the house is sad and lonely because it hasn't had any- one to live in it for three whole years." Meredith looked up at the house longingly.
Morgan frowned at her. "A house can't be sad, Mer."
Meredith lifted her chin. "I think houses can be sad. Don't you, Ms. Grace?"
Grace thought about her big colonial in Nashville and how forlorn and empty it felt these last two and a half years since Charlie died. "I think a house can be sad. My big house in Nashville misses my husband who used to live there and died like Mr. Oakley did. I also think my house misses the children who used to play in its yard and wade in its backyard fountain. I think it needs a family again."
"Can you cook good?" Morgan asked, interrupting Grace's thoughts.
Grace blinked in surprise. She'd forgotten how children tended to jump from one subject to another in their conversations. "Yes, I do cook well, Morgan. I used to entertain a lot in my big house in Nashville. Why do you ask?"
Morgan looked at Grace thoughtfully. "Well, maybe you should sell your big house in Nashville to a family with kids and come here and buy the Oakley. Then you could cook for people when they stay with you. And you can make this house happy again. We'd like to have someone living here, wouldn't we, Mer?"
"Yes, and you're nice." Meredith drew out the last word with emphasis and then looked up at Grace with another sweet smile.
"Why, thank you, Meredith." Grace put a hand on Meredith's shoulder.
Morgan continued to study Grace, tucking her bottom lip under her front teeth. "Do you know how to lead Scouts?"
Grace wondered where this new thought might lead, already sensing that Morgan was the more aggressive and extroverted of the two twins. "Do you mean Girl Scouts, Morgan?"
"Well, I served as the Scout leader for my daughter Elaine's troop and then later for my daughter Margaret's troop." Grace laughed. "Why do you ask, Morgan?"
"Were you good at it?"
Grace considered this candid question, which would probably be construed as rude among adults. She'd forgotten how refreshing and forthright children were, too. She smiled at Morgan. "Actually, Morgan, I think I made a very good Scout leader, and I helped to train other Scout leaders as well. In fact, I'm still on the Girl Scout Board of Directors in Nashville."
"Cool." Morgan grinned. "We need a Scout leader, too, Ms. Grace. None of the mothers want to do it since we left Brownies behind. And the Oakley would be a neat place for Scout meetings. The house is huge inside. There are lots of tables and a big kitchen and all kinds of neat stuff. There's even a real badminton court by the gazebo in the side yard and a rock patio down by the river with picnic tables and an outdoor grill. Plus this cool porch." Morgan gestured to the deep, shady porch, cluttered with old wicker furniture and spanning the front of the house.
"Aunt Bebe says people used to play croquet on the lawn here a long time ago," Meredith put in. "I like croquet, and our yard's too hilly for it."
"See, there's lots you could do here!" Morgan gave Grace a wide grin. "You could open the bed-and-breakfast and make the house happy again. You could lead our Scout troop and maybe even make stuff."
"Make stuff?" Grace tried to follow this remark, but couldn't.
Morgan shrugged. "Mr. Oakley built a little shop for himself in the old shed by the garage. He was real good at building things and made all kinds of neat stuff, like walking sticks, birdhouses, and picture frames."
"Oh," said Grace, beginning to understand. "He did wood crafts.
"Yeah, and Ms. Mavis just left all his stuff out there in the shed. She didn't even want it. Maybe you could do something with it. No one's hauled it off or anything. "
A small Volkswagen turned off the highway into the long drive leading to the bed-and-breakfast. Morgan squinted to identify it.
"Ugh." She made a face. "We're out of here, Meredith. It's that icky Ashleigh Anne who helps at the realty." Morgan made a gagging gesture with one finger to Meredith, who giggled in return.
"We gotta go now," Morgan told Grace as the girls sprinted toward the side of the house where they'd left their tubes.
Meredith dashed back on impulse to take Grace's hand. "You come buy this place, okay, Ms. Grace? You're really nice, and I like you. And I don't want you to keep living in your house if it's sad."
She raced off again, waving a hand in the air, her final words trailing behind her. "Besides, we could be friends if you come. Having friends is nice."
Grace felt an odd lump form in her throat. However, before she could think further about the girls' comments, a young woman climbed out of the car and picked her way up the front walk to join Grace. Beneath a head of frizzy, permed hair, the young girl wore entirely too much makeup and an extremely tight, short skirt, barely covering her hips. A stretchy, tangerine halter top, with spaghetti straps, revealed all too clearly that she wore no bra.
Excerpted from Down By the River by LIN STEPP. Copyright © 2014 Lin Stepp. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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