Agnes Kingsley can hardly bear to walk past the house she lived in as a married woman. It's full of bad memories she's never sharednot even with her best friend, Ian James. But now Ian wants her help to restore that old home for a community project. Agnes knows it's for a good cause, but as their work brings them even closer together, she's afraid to trustin herself or in the feelings she's secretly harbored for her childhood friend. Yet as they chip away at the house, walls come down around both their hearts uncovering a foundation to last a lifetime.
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Red had to say yes. Restoring his family depended on it.
Ian James opened the door to Cuppa Josie's and entered Shelby Lake's finest coffeehouse, ushering the sun-soaked May breeze in with him. The wind ruffled the edges of the Shelby Lake Gazette splayed across the large storefront window counter. As he closed the door, the tattered bells rattled against the glass.
He slid off his sunglasses and slipped them in the breast pocket of his untucked button-down shirt, giving his eyes a minute to adjust to the abrupt change in lighting.
Today's special blendcr me br lée according to the sign on the front doormingled with the spicy aroma of Josie Brennan's signature white chicken chili, causing his stomach to grumble. The Saturday special on the chalkboard easel near the register boasted chocolate macada-mia nut brownies as the dessert of the day.
Once he finished talking with Red, he'd grab lunch before heading back to the insurance office to go over a couple of claims with Dad. Then he needed to head out to Carl Winston's place to determine the extent of his recent garage fire.
Being a claims adjuster might not be a glamorous job or his dream career, but he liked helping people get what they needed.
Rustling newspapers, ringing cell phones and the buzz of conversations couldn't drown out Red's laughter that touched his ears before she appeared from the side dining room.
Ian swallowed back the knot in his throat that always seemed to form every time he saw her.
Agnes Kingsley, his best friend since her family moved next door from Texas to Shelby Lake about twenty-five years ago, had captured her ginger-colored hair in a pony-tail that did little to keep a few curls from escaping and spiraling around her face.
The Cuppa Josie's apron tied twice around her narrow waist failed to hide her long legs and the slight curve of her hips. Large hoop earrings dangled from her ears.
Their first meeting was imprinted in his memoryshe was ten and he was twelve. The pop fly he'd missed had rolled into her yard next door. She'd stepped from behind her family's moving van cradling the baseball between two fingers and her thumb. She'd smiled, her crazy mop of ginger hair askew. When she refused to give her name, he dubbed her "Red," and the rest was history.
The baby she cradled in her arms released a wail that jerked Ian back to the present. Red patted his back while talking to Lindsey Chase, Josie Brennan's stepsister.
Lindsey tucked a blond strand of hair behind her ear and touched her son's pajama-covered leg. "You'd make a great mom someday, Agnes."
A shadow flickered across her eyes. "As much as I love the little darlings, being a mama isn't going to happen."
"You say that now, but some guy will turn your head, and then you'll be holding your own little one before you know it."
Despite Red's laughter, he recognized the hollow tone. And when she turned on the Texas charm, he knew to watch out or rescue her, depending on her target.
He skirted past the couch in front of the unlit fireplace where some dude wearing headphones tapped his pencil against his laptop to the beat of his music. Winding through the square tables filled with the lunch crowd, Ian reached Lindsey and Red.
He caressed the newborn's soft head. "Hey, Linds. Congrats on your little guy. Sorry to interrupt, but can I steal Agnes from you?" Without waiting for her response, he touched Red's elbow. "You got a second? I need to talk to you about something."
"Sure." She breathed in the infant's scent once more, then handed him back to Lindsey. "Thanks for stopping in, Linds. Bring him back so I can hug his sweet little neck again."
To be that baby's neck
Turning her attention to Ian, she nodded toward the side dining room. "Mind if we talk in there? I need to finish setting up for a private luncheon. Abby can handle the register."
Ian glanced at the seventeen-year-old flirting at the coffee counter with one of the Shelby Lake High football players. Yeah, she had it covered. He shook his head and followed Red into the side dining room. He half closed the door for a little privacy. "You okay?"
She smiled wide. "Just dandy. Why wouldn't I be?"
He leaned against the wall and shoved his hands in his pockets. "Maybe because of your Texas charm? Or maybe the fact that you won't look at me? Or maybe the way your hand is trembling while you fold that napkin?"
She tossed the yellow napkin on the table and crossed her arms over her chest. "I'm just fine, Ian James. Either speak your piece or leave me be. I have work to do."
Ian rounded the long tables covered with white cloths and cupped her chin, lifting her face to meet his gaze. Sadness fringed her electric blue eyes. He caressed her cheekbone with his thumb. "You're better than fine, Red. I've been telling you that for years. But something upset you. What's going on in that stubborn head of yours?"
Red's shoulders slumped as she pressed her forehead against his chest. He wrapped his arms around her, breathing in the scent of her expensive perfumethe one gift he bought her every year because she refused to spend the money on herself.
"Why does everyone think a woman needs a husband and a baby to be complete? There's more to life than being some guy's doormat and changing diapers."
"Being married doesn't make you a doormat. Besides, I'm sure Lindsey meant nothing by her comment. You're just a natural when it comes to kids. From teaching your teen Sunday school class and overseeing the nurseryit's obvious that you love them."
"But not every woman canI meanwants to raise a passel of babies." She pushed him away and waved her hands, as if dispersing with that conversation. "What are you doing here anyway? Weren't you supposed to go to some craft fair with Emily?"
After being best friends with Red for so long, he knew when to back off.
He didn't really want to talk about his change in plans for the day either, but Red needed to hear the news from him instead of from some customers' gossiping.
"Yeah, about that " Sighing, he pulled out a chair, dropped on it and scrubbed a hand over his face. "Em broke up with me last night."
Red placed her hand on his shoulder. "I'm so sorry.
"She feels I don't devote enough time to her."
"She's rightyou don't. But it's really not your fault. You can't work her banker's hours. You're required to be in the field when most people are eating dinner or chilling out on weekends. Plus, with running your nephew to practice and feeding your caffeine addiction here, I'm surprised you had time to take her to dinner."
"Thanks, friend. Whose side are you on?" And his coffee addiction happened so he could see Red.
"Get real, Ian. A woman wants to know she's valued in a guy's life. Even with your demanding job, you could make more time to be with her if you really wanted."
He shrugged and leaned back in the chair. "You're right."
"Well, maybe its good you found out now."
"Yeah, especially now."
"Why do you say that?"
"Well, for one thing, I don't see myself spending the rest of my life with her."
She's not you.
But he couldn't say it.
"You're almost thirty-eight, Ian. You've wanted a wife and family for a while. Maybe it's time to think about settling down."
His conversation with Emily last night made him realize he didn't want to just date for the sake of going out. He wanted the one woman who'd stolen his heart a couple of decades ago.
He wanted Red.
And now he was determined to prove they belonged together.
"You should take your own advice," he said.
"Tried that, remember? Apparently, I'm not enough to make a man happy."
"You need the right man, Red. Your ex was a jerk, who couldn't see what a great woman he had." Ian stood and reached for Red's hand. He ran a thumb over her soft skin.
Red glanced at her hand, then shot him a puzzled look before pulling her fingers away gently. "We can talk more later, if you'd like, but I really need to finish setting up in here."
"That's not what I wanted to talk to you about anyway . I got sidetracked. Can you spare a couple more minutes?"
"What's going on?"
Fifteen minutes ago, he had forced himself not to sprint down the street to share his news with her. Now his stomach knotted, and his throat felt as dry as day-old toast. "I just left Seaver Realty."
"Really?" Red leaned over the table to adjust the pink and yellow roses in floral teacups, her ponytail falling forward over her shoulder. "What for? Planning to move out of your parents' basement?"
"Nah, haven't gotten that lucky yet. I'll be there to lend a hand until Zoe's released from prison and can care for Griffin on her own." He paused a minute to choose his next words carefully. "The board voted on a place for Agape House. Mom signed the final paperwork today."
"That was fast." She smacked him with a napkin. "Why didn't you say anything, Ian James?"
"Well, it happened rather quickly. Once Mom learned my sister's parole hearing would be in August, she's been pushing them to agree on one of the houses Alec's already shown them. So they made a decision last night and signed papers today. Thanks to community donations and corporate sponsorships, the house has been paid in full."
"That's great, Ian." Red did a little dance and opened her arms. "Get over here so I can hug your neck. I know how important this is to your family."
He gathered her against his chest again, her hair whispering against his chin. Could she feel his heart hammering against his ribs? "Yeah, thanks. Mom hopes the parole board will be in favor of releasing Zoe in August if she has a transitional home to go to."
"Doesn't give you much time to get a house ready."
"Exactly. Which brings me to my next thingthe board chose an estate that's structurally sound but needs some workinside and out. Plus, Mom's talking repainting, new curtains stuff like that."
"Makes sense. A fresh coat of paint covers a multitude of scars." Red walked to the window and adjusted the blinds to allow light to pour across the chocolate-brown carpet.
Ian shoved his hands in the front pockets of his faded jeans. " She wants to know if you're interested in the job."
"But I have a job." She reached for a yellow napkin and folded it into a fan before setting it on one of the white dinner plates.
"This is part-time and temporary. You have great budgeting and organizational skills to coordinate the volunteers helping with cleaning and painting. There's a stipend set aside for whoever takes the job." Ian reached for one of the napkins and copied Red's folding. "Mom loves your repurposed furniture. She wants to buy pieces for Agape House and will showcase your work to help spread the word about your business."
Agnes pressed a hand to her chest. "Ian, I don't know what to say. It's so generous. I love working for Josie and Nick, but opening Tattered Daisies Furniture has been a dream for so long."
"This takes you one step closer to having your own storefront. Say yes."
"Where's the place?" She handed him a pitcher of ice water and pointed to the place settings across from her. "Please fill those glasses."
This was the tough part.
"Well, that's the thing." Ice clinked against the clear glass as he filled the goblets halfway with water. He set the pitcher on the table and leaned forward, bracing his hands on the table. "It's the old Miller estate on Liberty Street."
Her head jerked up, causing her to slosh water over the edge of the goblet she had been filling. "Wait a minute what?"
He snatched napkins off the table behind him and thrust them at her. Maybe she hadn't heard him. "The Miller estate on Liberty. You know that gray house with the black shutters?"
"I heard you, idiot." She slid the flower arrangements out of the way and pressed the napkins onto the spreading water. Flatware clattered against the plates as she cleared the table.
"Hey, what's up with that?"
Shaking out a clean cloth, she glared at him as if she wanted to dump the water over his head. "You're acting about as dense as a fence post. You asked me to help knowing how much I despise that place."
He rubbed a damp hand over his face. He had expected her to be less than thrilled once she found out, but he had nothing to do with the building choice.
"It's been over five years. I just thought"
"Ian, I'd do almost anything for you for your family. Especially after what your daddy did for mine all those years ago. But I can't do this. And you of all people shouldn't be asking me." She bundled the damp tablecloth and wet napkins into a ball.
She held up a hand. "No, you listen. I said I'd never step foot in that wretched house again."
Ian rounded the table and stood in front of her. "I know your marriage to Bobby wasn't what you had envisioned, but he's not around anymore. You even went back to your maiden name. He has no hold on you."
She dropped her eyes to the wet fabric in her arms. "That house holds nothing but bad memories for me. I've spent the past five and a half years putting that decade of my life behind me."
"Have you?" He tipped her chin.
"Have I what?"
"Put it behind you? If so, then going back to that house wouldn't be a problem."
She pushed past him and headed for the door. "You have no idea."
He reached for her arm. "I can't do this alone."
"My head is ready to jump on board, but my heart. well, they're not on speaking terms at the moment. I know this is so important to all y'all. Just once I wish God would take a shine to answering one of my dreams."
The longing in her voice needled his heart. "God has a dream bigger than your own, Red. What He gives you will be greater than anything you've ever imagined."
"Not for a throwaway like me." The desolation on her face twisted his gut. "You're hoping to restore that place into a house of hope, but don't y'all see? It will never be anything but a house of pain."
She pushed past him and hurried into the main dining room. The lingering scent of her perfume wasn't strong enough to mask the defeat that settled over his shoulders.
He had been so sure she'd say yes. But now he needed to find another way to convince her to agreefor all of their sakes.
He wanted her help with Agape House, but not just for restoring his family. More than that, he wanted to restore her heart and prove she was worthy of being loved.