Austin Bryant has come back to Blue Falls to get his grandfather's ranch ready to sell. Years ago he escaped to Dallas, and now his life is exactly the way he likes itorderly and neat. He can't stand all the junk his grandparents collected, and he just wants it gone.
When Ella Garcia is called to haul away the trash from the Bryant ranch, she's thrilled. Her business is turning one person's trash into another's treasure. But Austin's attitude is a mystery to herhe seems anxious to throw away his family's memories. Ella notices how at home Austin is on the ranchand how good he looks in a cowboy hatand she wonders if there's more country in this city boy than he realizes.
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He couldn't do it. As Austin Bryant stared at the front of the older house where he'd grown up, his breathing grew tight. It was as if what lay beyond the front door was already suffocating him as it had threatened to do during his childhood.
Somewhere in the distance, he heard the sound of an engine. The early May sun baked him like it could only in Texas, albeit not with the urban type of heat that came from that same sun beating down on metal and concrete. Even though sweat trickled from his neck toward the middle of his back, his feet refused to move.
He took a deliberate deep breath. It didn't matter how long he stood in the front yard of his grandparents' house, the monumental task he faced wasn't going to magically disappear. With his grandfather's passing, the time that he'd dreaded for years had comecleaning out the house so he could sell it.
Austin inhaled another breath that felt as if it might scorch his lungs before he headed toward the front steps. He paused with the key in his hand, wondering if he could just walk away, sell the place as it was, let someone else deal with the cleaning and repairs.
But that didn't feel right. Despite everything, this had been his home when he was young. His earliest memories and dreams were formed here. No matter how hard it was, this was his task and his alone.
He shook his head, telling himself to just get on with things. The sooner he started, the sooner he could put it all behind him and stop thinking about what might have been.
The doorknob squeaked as he turned it, already making itself an item on his to-do list. He stepped across the threshold and into his past, the one he'd fled when he'd gone away to college. All around him, piled to the ceiling, was stuff. Old magazines sat side by side with clothing that hadn't been worn in decades. Shelves of ceramic dust-catcherscats, cowboy boots, ladies in frilly dresses, bells and God only knew what elsecompeted for space with chairs draped in more quilts and afghans than anyone in Texas should own.
He forced himself to take a few more steps into the house, but the farther he went the more he felt as if the piles of belongings were going to topple over and bury him alive. He'd had that particular nightmare for years, still did on occasion, and his lungs constricted just thinking about it. He spun in a slow circle, so overwhelmed he had no idea where to start. The task of getting rid of years of his grandparents' hoarding felt like he was facing scooping away Mount Everest with a teaspoon.
His grandparents had never been able to satisfactorily explain why they found it impossible to throw away any of their possessions. Not even when they'd passed the point of being able to know what items resided at the bottom of the piles. The one saving grace was that they hadn't been the type of hoarders who kept true garbage that attracted rodents or had dozens of cats. Still, it felt as if it was going to take the rest of his life to sort out what they'd left behind. Everything around him seemed to close in on him.
Not ready to face the rest, he turned and hurried back outside. The moment he stepped into the fresh air, the world expanded in size from what it had been only moments before, as if his lungs had received a sudden infusion of oxygen. Out here he was able to remember the good times, how his younger self had wanted so desperately to follow in his grandfather's footsteps here on this ranch. But the oppressive reality of the hoarding had been too much for Austin to handle, had robbed him of his chance to follow that particular dream.
Current reality hit him square in the chest, knocking thoughts of the past to the back of his brain where they belonged. He needed help, someone to haul all this stuff away. Because there was no way he was going to wade through everything. He didn't have the time or the inclination.
His stomach growled, reminding him that he hadn't eaten all day, not since the half sandwich after the funeral the day before. Needing food and distance, he stalked to his car and fled the ranch as if a wildfire were taking up the entirety of his rearview mirror. By the time he rolled into the city limits of Blue Falls, he felt like a fool. He was a grown man. A house full of junk shouldn't make him damn near hyperventilate.
He parked outside the Primrose Café and headed inside for lunch. Once his stomach was full, he'd make an actual plan that would get him back to Dallas before he was a decade older.
Before he even made it to a table, three people stopped him to express their sympathy over his grandfather's passing. That was both the blessing and the curse of a small townno matter how long you'd been gone, people still remembered you.
After he seated himself and placed his order, he looked up to see Nathan Teague walking toward him, a to-go cup of coffee in hand.
"Hey, Austin." Nathan extended his hand for a shake, which Austin accepted. "Sorry to hear about your grandpa. He was a good man."
"Yeah, he was." Just because Austin had gotten out of his grandparents' house as soon as he could didn't mean he hadn't loved them. You could love people and still not understand them, still be at odds.
"How long you in town for?"
"Not sure. Need to get the place ready to sell. I'm actually in need of someone to haul off a bunch of junk. Who does that around here these days?"
"I'd suggest Ella Garcia." This answer didn't come from Nathan.
It took Austin a moment to recognize the older woman at the next table, but then he realized it was Verona Charles, the aunt of Elissa Mason, who'd gone to high school with him. "Pardon?"
Verona consulted her phone, then wrote something on a napkin and handed it to him. "Call Ella. She'll be able to help you out." With a smile, Verona stood and headed toward the front to pay her bill.
"You ever need to know something in Blue Falls, don't bother with the phone directory or the paper.
Just ask Verona," Nathan said. "Sorry to run, but I've got to go pick up my son for a doctor's appointment. Little booger broke his arm and it's cast removal day."
Austin said goodbye and was left with his just-arrived burger and fries and a napkin with a phone number. It seemed somewhat odd that a woman was running a trash removal business, but he didn't care if it was a band of little green Martians on the other end of the line as long as they could make quick work of his mounds of garbage.
Not wanting to waste even one moment, he stuck a fry in his mouth and dialed the number.
Ella Garcia straightened from where she'd been bent over her latest creative project and took a deep breath. Not that it was particularly refreshing since the temperature was nearing triple digits. She pulled a bandanna from the pocket of her cargo shorts and wiped the sweat off her forehead for what had to be the hundredth time. She walked over to the edge of her back porch and adjusted the fan she'd placed there to point toward where she was working in the backyard.
Satisfied with the angle of the mechanical breeze, she resumed sanding the rust off an antique tractor wheel that was going to become the main piece of a coffee table for one of her customers. As she scrubbed at a particularly difficult spot, her phone rang. She tossed her sandpaper onto the top of the upturned cable spool she was using as a workbench and pulled the phone from her back pocket. She didn't recognize the number, so she answered with her professional greeting.
"Restoration Decoration, this is Ella."
There was a pause on the other end of the line, causing her to think it might be a telemarketer. But then a man said, "Um, I'm calling for Ella Garcia."
"Speaking." He sure sounded tentative for a tele-marketer. Man, that had to be one of the top five suck-iest jobs in the world.
"I was given your number," he said, as if he'd suddenly remembered he should say something. "I need some junk hauled off."
"How much and what type?"
"A lot and you name it."
Excitement sparked to life inside Ella, her imagination dancing with her innate ability to turn one person's trash into another's treasure. She looked at the tractor wheel, mentally calculating how much work she had left to do in order to deliver the table by the deadline. She could always catch up on sleep after the buyer picked up the table, right? If she wanted to really grow her home decor business, she couldn't pass up the opportunity to acquire some raw materials on the cheap. She could spare a few hours.
"Okay, I'll come take a look. Can I get your name and address?"
"Austin Bryant, 345 Tumbleweed Road."
The combination of name and address made her realize he must be a relative of Dale Bryant's. A chill skated down her spine. This wouldn't be the first time she'd gotten materials that became available after someone's death, but never before had she been a witness to the person's passing.
"Okay, I can meet you there in an hour if that works for you."
On the drive to the Bryant ranch, Ella fought a queasy stomach as she tried to figure out how she'd greet Austin Bryant. Should she express her sympathy at Dale Bryant's passing? She didn't even know how Austin was related to him. Or would it be better to ignore the topic altogether?
As she drove through Blue Falls, she glanced at the hardware store, wondering if she'd ever be able to look at it the same again. She'd just parked on Main Street the week before, headed to the hardware store for a fresh supply of screws and sandpaper, when she'd seen the crowd surrounding someone lying on the sidewalk right outside the store's front door. She'd still been standing with the rest of the bystanders when the paramedics couldn't find a pulse and loaded Mr. Bryant into the ambulance. News traveled fast in a town the size of Blue Falls, so it hadn't been long before she'd heard they hadn't been able to save him.
But that wasn't the kind of story you shared with a grieving relative, especially when you'd never met him before. Trusting that she'd figure out the right thing to say when the time came, she turned off Main and headed out Tumbleweed Road.
A few minutes outside town, she started watching the numbers on mailboxes. She knew approximately where the ranch was, but she wasn't certain where the driveway sat. As she navigated a slight curve, she caught sight of the correct mailbox. The 5 at the end of the address had slipped and was hanging at an angle. Ella turned left onto the dirt and pea gravel drive that led out through scrub vegetation and a few cacti, then a line of live oak trees, their sprawling branches reminding her of octopuses.
After about half a mile, the vegetation gave way to an open area with an older house, barn, scattered outbuildings and rolling pastureland beyond. The spot felt cozy, cut off from the hustle and bustle of the rest of the world. Not that Blue Falls was a metropolis, but what she could see of the Bryant ranch seemed homey and probably filled with family history, even if perhaps it needed a little cosmetic TLC. Mr. Bryant had been in his seventies, a widower and not in good health. So it wasn't surprising that the place looked a little run-down.
She parked next to a shiny black sedan that looked out of place in the rural setting. As she slipped from the driver's seat, she spotted someone approaching from the house. Ella rounded the front of the truck but dang near tripped over her own feet when she looked up and saw the guy she assumed was Austin. In one glance, she noted his almond brown hair, striking blue eyes and a chiseled jaw that would be right at home on a cowboy in an old Western. She'd bet a considerable stack of cash that if she wiped the edges of her mouth, she'd find spontaneous drool.
She continued to stare until her mind smacked the inside of her skull and said, Say something, you goob!
"Uh, yes." She extended her hand and he shook hers once before pulling back. It was over so quickly that she wanted to whimper. She'd gotten the fleeting notion that his hand was strong and warm. "I'm sorry about Mr. Bryant's passing. You're a relative?"
"He was my grandfather." He motioned for her to follow him toward the house.
Okay, so not a small talk kind of guy. Of course, his mind was probably still occupied by grief at the loss of his grandfather. As she followed him, she had to force herself not to admire the breadth of his shoulders beneath his gray T-shirt.
Austin paused on the porch and shifted his beautiful blue gaze back to her. "I don't know if you know this, but my grandparents were hoarders. When I said there was a lot of junk, it wasn't an exaggeration."
Hoarders? Eek, what had she walked into? She had visions of mile-high refuse and a stench that would fell a skunk.
But when she followed him inside, she wasn't knocked over by the odor. It was a bit musty with a layer of that old-people smell they couldn't help, but considering how much stuff was just in the living room her nose was getting off easy.
She scanned the room, already picking out a few items that could be repurposed into eye-catching modern decor. So many people looked at a dated item and thought it had outlived its usefulness. She laid eyes on something such as the old cabinet-style TV and saw the cute shelving unit it could become with a little time, effort and paint.
"You can walk through the house if you like," Austin said. "But if you already know you're not interested, I understand."
She looked at him and would swear he'd stiffened up. The tension was radiating off him like heat rising off a long stretch of Texas highway in July. He did not want to be here. Whether it was because of memories or the monumental task of cleaning out his grandparents' things, she couldn't tell.
"I'll look around." As she walked from the living area into the kitchen, she tried not to let her excitement start galloping like a runaway horse. But it was difficult considering the wealth of tins, crockery, utensils and even an old percolator-style coffeepot on the stove.
As she moved from one room to another, Austin didn't leave the living room. It was as if he didn't want to be out of view of the front door. She didn't dawdle, but she took enough time to get some idea of what was available before returning to where Austin waited, definitely closer to the open door than when she'd left him.
"So how much to haul this away and how long will it take?" he asked.
Her gaze landed on several mason jars full of buttons behind him but she forced herself to focus on Austin, even if he did make her heart beat faster than normal.
"How much are you keeping?" she asked.
"None of it." He glanced around as the space between his dark eyebrows scrunched, as if he were perplexed why she would ask that question.
He wasn't the only one with questions. Had he already retrieved any mementos or heirlooms he wanted to keep? Or did he truly not want anything? She had never encountered a haul this large, and she worried about how she would manage to get it all out in a timely fashion and still meet her other obligations. But she'd have to because she was standing in the midst of a treasure trove of possible income.
Considering the situation, she reined in her giddiness. "I'll haul it away for free, but it'll take me several days since I'm a one-woman operation."