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Phoebe Jennings glanced at the envelope on the empty passenger seat, her gaze lingering on the flowery penmanship and faded postmark from nearly four decades ago. Its delayed delivery was explained by a polite, yet formal, note of apology attached to it by a rubber band.
Only it wasn't her letter. Just her address.
A blaring horn forced her to look up, to focus on the road and the line of cars that had heeded the green light the moment it changed. Was she crazy, driving to the other side of Cedarville to deliver a letter to someone she'd never met?
Especially when she could have simply given it back to the post office?
Then again, if she didn't deliver it herself, curiosity would eat at her day and night, making it difficult to finish the Dolangers' portrait by Friday. Blowing that deadline was out of the question if she was going to make next month's rent.
And feed Kayla.
Peeking into the rearview mirror, Phoebe smiled at the child sleeping in the forward-facing car seat, the side of her heart-shaped face snuggled against a tiny pillow. Finishing the painting was the difference between interrupted and uninterrupted time with Kayla. It was the difference between restless nights and sleeping peacefully. And it was the first step in teaching her daughter the satisfaction that comes from working toward a dream.
Though, in all fairness, job satisfaction probably didn't fall terribly high on Kayla's list of priorities. Those spots were reserved for special things like Cheerios and Elmo.
As it should be.
With her eyes back on the road, Phoebe slowed as she approached Twilight Drive, the homes getting bigger and more ostentatious the farther into West Ce-darville she drove. The view from her window wasn't a surprise; she'd known what to expect. Yet somehow the wealth that suddenly surrounded her brought a pang she hadn't expected.
This drive was an unwanted trip down memory lane— one littered with jagged life lessons, mammoth-size potholes and an occasional round of second-guessing.
Shaking her head, Phoebe willed herself to focus on the moment, to leave the past where it belonged. At least her past, anyway.
Tate Williams's past was another thing entirely.
From the moment she'd pulled the letter from her mailbox that morning, her thoughts had traveled to the ends of the earth in pursuit of a story worthy of such an old correspondence. The lone clue she had to the possible nature of the letter came from its army post office address, one that had long since expired. The forty-year-old postmark suggested it could have been meant for a soldier in Vietnam.
Had Tate Williams been sent a letter from a friend? Had someone been trying to give him news from home? Or had a stateside classroom initiated contact with the soldier as part of a writing assignment?
Phoebe could only guess. And guess she had. Over and over again.
But no more.
Brushing an errant strand of hair from her face, she pulled to a stop at 14 Starry Night Drive, her stomach churning ever so slightly. Judging by the time of day— noon—and the looks of the house, she'd bet good money she would be greeted by a maid or a cook. Maybe even a butler.
None of whom would be her first choice.
Sure, Mrs. Applewhite's description of Tate Williams hadn't been terribly flattering, but handing a decades-old letter to its rightful owner was worth tangling with a lion, right? Besides, Phoebe knew better than to put too much stock in her elderly next-door neighbor's assessment of people.
"Full of himself, that's what Tate Williams was. Too good for the likes of any of us. Good riddance, I say. And it will do you well to stay away from him… you mark my words, Phoebe Jennings."
Looking at the postmark one last time, Phoebe clasped the envelope and stepped from the car, her neighbor's words of caution falling away as she opened the back door and pulled a still-sleeping Kayla into her arms.
"So much for Mommy's exciting adventure, huh?"
Phoebe whispered into her daughter's ear as she cuddled her against her shoulder and moved toward the front door.
Everything about the outside of the home exuded the sterility of wealth. Professionally manicured bushes interspersed with glass-and-copper luminaries lined the stone walkway. The colorless landscaping served as a perfect accompaniment to the brick exterior of the home, the only offset coming from the two-story, white pillared entrance.
What was it about color that made the rich balk? Was it the rejection of individuality? Or the fear of the unknown?
Probably a little bit of both. Though she'd never understand how an aversion to change could breed success.
She gently patted Kayla's bottom and took a slow, deep breath. All morning she'd imagined this moment, envisioned the excited smile on the face of Tate Williams as he was reunited with a piece of his past. Now that she was finally here, she could hardly wait to see how her image meshed with reality.
"Here we go, Kayla," she whispered. Spying a small white button to the left of the door, Phoebe pressed it and waited. The melodic sound of a bell wafted through the closed panel in a clear summons. With no response.
She'd considered the possibility someone else would answer, even planned how she'd go about hanging on to the letter until she could meet the addressee face-to-face. But no answer at all? Her mind hadn't even begun to figure that one out.
Fortunately, it didn't matter. Because as she was mentally reviewing the contents of her glove compartment in the hopes of finding paper and a pen, the door opened.
Phoebe looked up, all thoughts of pen, paper and mail delivery gone as her gaze fell on the man in the doorway. The tall, blond, brown-eyed man who sent a charge through her body the likes of which she'd never felt before. She tried to remember why she was there, to force words—coherent or otherwise—through her gaping mouth, but she could focus on nothing other than the gorgeous man standing in front of her, casually dressed in khaki slacks and a white, button-down shirt open at the neck.
"Can I help you?"
His voice was kind as his gaze slid across the baby and then slowly down Phoebe's body, making her wish she'd done more than pull her long hair into a ponytail and swipe some gloss across her lips. He seemed to hesitate slightly on her attire, his right eyebrow inching upward as he zeroed in on her paint-spattered shirt.
In an instant his demeanor changed, his expression switching from curious to deer-in-the-headlights. "Look, I don't need any work done. I just had the interior painted about six months ago and—"
She felt her eyebrow cock upward as a string of biting comebacks zipped through her mind. But she resisted. Ignorance was ignorance, as her grandmother used to say. It knew no boundaries—monetary or otherwise. And if two years of loving someone hadn't been enough to correct misperceptions, a two-minute conversation between strangers didn't have a prayer. And besides, Kayla didn't need to be woken to clipped words and icy stares.
"I'm not here to paint your walls. I'm here to deliver this—" she raised the envelope, her voice void of its normal happy lilt "—to Tate Williams. Is he home?"
The man's mouth widened in a slight smile as he leaned against the door frame, the noon sun picking out flecks of amber amid the soft brown of his eyes. "Maybe."
Any lingering doubt that wealth and infuriation went hand in hand was virtually gone. As was her window of opportunity, judging by the way Kayla's body stiffened against Phoebe's shoulder.
She quickly glanced down at her watch. "I hate to be rude, but I only have a little time. The day job calls and—"
"Looks to me like the day job is sleeping." He smiled at the baby and tiny creases formed beside his eyes.
She stared at him, her hand reaching to pat Kayla's back. "She's not a job. She's my daughter. There's a big differ—"
He pushed himself off the door frame and rested his arms across his muscular chest, the fabric of his shirt pulling taut in the process. Phoebe swallowed and looked away.
Granted, it had been a while since she'd been with a man, but the desire to feel those arms around her body was nothing short of shocking. Ludicrous, really. Men like Tate Williams weren't interested in women like her. She knew that. Had lived through the painful proof firsthand.
But still. He was gorgeous….
"Look, is Tate Williams available to speak to me or should I just come back later?"
Kayla's head popped up and looked around, her tiny hand pinching Phoebe's chin as her gaze came to rest on Mr. Infuriating. He winked at her.
Phoebe gulped. "I am."
His eyes remained on the baby even as his words were directed at her. "I realize you're asking, I'm standing right here. What I'm trying to find out is your name. You do have one of those, right?"
She felt her cheeks warm, her palms moisten. Served her right for thinking like a lust-struck teenager. "Oh. Sorry. I'm Phoebe. Phoebe Jennings." She moved the letter to her left hand and stuck out her right. "Could I—"
"And?" He pointed at Kayla.
"And what?" This man was seriously driving her loony. So much for trying to do a good deed.
"Who's this little beauty?"
She looked down at her daughter, the tension in her body easing momentarily. "I'm sorry. This is Kayla. Anyway, could I speak with Mr. Williams now, please?"
The man didn't budge. He simply continued to stand there, alternating between making faces at the baby and grinning at Phoebe. Was this the way he treated everyone?
"Am I missing something?" she asked through clenched teeth.
"Just the part about actually handing over the envelope." He reached out, his palm upward. "It's a good thing you're a painter instead of a mailman because you wouldn't keep your job long."
The meaning of his words finally registered. "You're Tate Williams?"
He nodded, his mischievous smile lighting his face.
"But you can't be." Phoebe looked down at the envelope in her hand. "You're too young. Way too young."
She knew she sounded like an idiot, but she didn't care. She'd done the math. Even if Tate Williams had been a young child when the letter was mailed, he'd have to be in his midforties by now. The man standing in front of her was thirty-three at best.
Phoebe stammered for an explanation that sounded semi-intelligent even to her own ears. "This letter was postmarked nearly forty years ago. There's no way—" she motioned toward him "—this could be for you."
"Let me see that."
He stepped outside and reached for her hand, his grip gentle yet strong. She shivered as his breath grazed her cheek, sending her thoughts racing, only to be pulled back to the present by a grunt.
"Oh. I see now. It's for Tate Williams, all right. Just not this Tate Williams." He released her and returned to the doorway, his playful nature all but gone. "The Tate Williams you're looking for doesn't live here. I'm sorry."
"But—but you do know him, right?"
The man gripped the edge of the door as if to close it. "Yeah, I know him."
She looked down at the envelope, the stories she'd attributed to the misplaced letter rushing her thoughts once again. "Do you know how I could find this other Tate Williams? Or better yet, could you help me get this to him?"
A cloud passed over the man's face and his words became more clipped. "No. I can't."
Can't or won't? She suspected there was quite a difference.
She tried another approach. "I feel sort of obligated to make sure he gets it. It could be important."
The man's eyes narrowed as he looked at her. "If it hasn't been missed in nearly forty years, I doubt it's important."
"Look, Mrs. Jen—"
"Miss. Miss Jennings. I mean, Phoebe."
His expression softened briefly, his words still short and clipped. "Okay. Phoebe. Why do you care so much? And how, may I ask, did you end up with the letter in the first place?"
Normally, she would have resented the questions from a man so unwilling to answer hers. But if it helped get the information she wanted…
"I live here—" she reached across Kayla's back and pointed to the label that had been placed alongside the original address "—and so it showed up in my mailbox."
"You live at 2565 Quinton Lane?"
She nodded, shifting Kayla from one arm to the other. "I moved in about six months ago. No sign of any previous owners until this morning." She raised the envelope into the air and blew at a strand of hair that had escaped her scrunchie. "I asked my neighbor, Mrs. Applewhite, about it and—oooh wait. That's why! I only asked about the name. I didn't show her the envelope because she hates to be interrupted when she's on her porch kn—"
"Knitting. She hates to be interrupted when she's knitting. Unless, of course, you're willing to engage in idle gossip. Right?"
Phoebe felt her mouth spread into a surprised smile. "How did you know?"
He ran his hand over his hair, tousling it as he did so. "Trust me, I learned the hard way. But I am surprised to hear old lady Applewhite is still alive."
"Of course she's still alive. She's active and she's healthy and…" Phoebe met Tate's gaze and held it for a beat. "Anyway, as I was trying to say, I asked Mrs. Applewhite about the name on the envelope and she told me about you."
He crossed his arms against his chest. "I'll bet she did. And let me guess what she said. I turned my back on the neighborhood, right?"
Phoebe couldn't help but notice the way the man's chin jutted ever so slightly as he waited for her response, his stance bordering on rigid. It wasn't in her nature to intentionally hurt someone's feelings, but neither was lying.
"Something like that. But I'm not here to judge you or—" she motioned toward the two-story foyer visible through the open doorway "—or your lifestyle. I'm just here to deliver a letter that this other Tate Williams should have received a long time ago."
Silence fell for a moment as Phoebe shifted uncomfortably on the stone walkway and gently wrestled the letter from Kayla's pudgy little hands. It was obvious she wasn't getting anywhere with young Tate.
"Look, I'll just try a search online or something. See if I can find the right man." She turned toward her car, then stopped. "I'm sorry I wasted your time, Mr. Williams."
"It's Tate. He goes by Bart."