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Goodbye, Gram. I love you.
Catherine Stanhope turned away from the grave site, her heart aching, unable to watch the ornate silver casket being lowered into the ground. Now the last living Stanhope, she felt truly alone.
As she turned away, consumed with grief and loneliness, she stumbled on a patch of rough ground and pitched forward. She would have fallen flat on her face but for a pair of strong hands that quickly circled her waist.
"Are you okay?" Will Tanner studied her with dark, compassionate eyes.
"Fine, considering the circumstances." Her voice was faint and monotone.
She stared down at her feet as if they belonged to someone else. She'd worn ridiculously high heels to the funeral even though she knew full well that she'd have to make her way across the cemetery to the elaborate Stanhope family headstone that towered over the rest of the graveyard's modest rows of tombstones. She wasn't thinking ahead. In fact, she wasn't thinking at all. The sudden death of her grandmother Abigail had come as such a shock that she was still reeling.
Instead of letting the man go, Catherine gripped his arm even tighter to balance herself, kicked off her shoes, picked them up and sighed. "Sorry. Thank you." She smiled imperceptibly. "Gram never liked high heels. She always told me I'd break an ankle in these things some day. I certainly don't want it to be today." Her grandmother had always been practical and no-nonsense.
"That sounds just like Abigail," he agreed pleasantly.
Catherine looked at him curiously, studying the fine planes of his face and thick, expressive brows. Since she'd arrived in Pleasant, Minnesota, she'd been inundated with the funeral details that left her sad and exhausted. She hadn't made the connection between Mr. Will Tanner and her grandmother until meeting him in the mourners' gathering room before the service. "How long did you say you've been working for my grandmother?"
"Nearly six months."
An unexpected wave of envy swept over her. Tanner, a virtual stranger, had spent more time with her grandmother than she had in recent weeks.
She was responsible, she knew. Gram had called her a dozen times asking when she was going to take time away from work to come home for a visit.
She'd always given the same answer. "I can't get away, Gram. I have trial dates set and a desk full of cases to address. Why don't you come to Minneapolis? We'll go out for dinner every night. You'll be able to browse all the bookstores and libraries you love. It would be good for you to get away, too, you know ."
Gram had come, of course, but it wasn't the same. Nothing matched a visit with Abigail Stanhope at Stanhope Houseor Hope House, as the locals called it. Being surrounded by family art, heirlooms and history or sitting on the back porch sipping tea with the woman who'd raised her, were opportunities Catherine had taken for granted until it was too late. The regret tasted bitter in her mouth. And it only deepened the grief that already overwhelmed her. All she could do was steel herself against the pain.
"Shall we go to Hope House, dear?" Emma Lane, her grandmother's best friend, was waiting for them by the last few of the parked cars. "Are you ready?"
Catherine had chosen to stay with Emma the past two nights rather than spend them alone at Hope House.
"People are coming by. The church ladies are serving lunch at the house. Your aunt Ellen and uncle Max went ahead to welcome the guests."
Catherine pressed her thumb and forefinger together over the bridge of her nose to ward off the headache that was lurking behind her eyes. "Yes but I'd like a few minutes to myself first."
Emma, with whom Catherine had ridden from the church, looked concerned. "Of course. I'm sure they'll realize they need to plug in the coffeemaker "
"You can go back to Hope House and do what needs to be done, Emma. I'll drive her back to the house," Tanner offered. "That will give Catherine as much time as she needs."
Catherine shot him a grateful glance. The past few hours had been a maelstrom of emotion. Add to that the traumatic and stressful days she'd had at work preceding her grandmother's passing and Catherine felt emotionally battered and utterly weary. Right now ten minutes alone was like hitting the mother lode.
After Emma had gone, Catherine turned to Will. "Thank you for giving me a few minutes to collect myself. I really haven't had time to process any of this." It was as if she'd been walking in a dream no, a nightmare since Emma called. She flashed back to three days earlier.
"Catherine? This is Emma Lane." Catherine had grown up eating gingersnaps out of Emma's fat ceramic cookie jar, a rotund brown chicken with a red comb and orange beak, and playing in the gazebo in the Lanes' backyard.
Emma sounded as if she'd been crying. "I hate to disturb you so early in the morning, dear, but your grandmother has suffered a stroke. She called me last night to say she wasn't feeling well and was going to bed early. I can't say why, but I woke up at 5 a.m. with Abigail on my mind. I tried to go back to sleep, but I couldn't shake the urge to get up and go to her place to check on her."
Catherine felt her stomach plunge as if she were barreling downward on an out-of-control roller-coaster ride.
"It was as if God Himself prodded me to get up, so I did. I have a key to the house because we occasionally check on each other's plants and furnaces." Emma's voice quavered. "I found Abigail unconscious on the floor between the bed and the bathroom."
"No " The wail Catherine heard was her own.
Emma paused to regain her composure. "I called 9-1-1 and went with her to the hospital. She's gone, Catherine. She never woke up."
Catherine stumbled again, the pain in her heart threatening to bring her to her knees.
Tanner took her arm. Catherine stiffened but didn't withdraw as he steered her toward a nearby garden bench, one of several scattered throughout the cemetery. A small bronze plaque on the concrete base said, "Donated by the Stanhope Family, 1996. Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God: trust also in Me. In My Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with Me that you may also be where I am. John 14:1-3."
She sank onto it gratefully. "I'm sorry I'm holding you up. It's very kind of you to stay with me."
"I'm happy to do it. Anything for Abigail and her family."
As she studied him from her perch on the iron frame, he rested one hip on the arm of the bench, crossed his arms over his chest and smiled slightly. "I can see you are full of questions about me."
She was full of questions, but she didn't realize it was quite so visible. Gram had told her she'd found a caretaker and groundskeeper for Hope House. That had been a great relief to Catherine. Hope House was far too big a project for an elderly woman alone. But Gram hadn't said that the hired man looked like an Adonistall, strong, athletic, dark-haired and staggeringly handsome. That, no doubt, she'd wanted Catherine to see for herself. Gram enjoyed surprises and he was certainly one.
A rabbit hopped in front of the bench and paused to stare at them with a curious eye. Neither of them moved until the rabbit grew bored with them and bounded off.
It was soothing to sit here beneath the canopy of trees and be with someone who demanded nothing of her.
Ironic, she thought, that even now, despite the loss of her beloved gram, she felt more like herself than she had back in Minneapolis in the vortex of complex legal issues that had been her life. Here, at least, she knew that Gram was now where she'd longed to be for years, ever since Catherine's grandfather Charles had died. Gram looked forward to heaven the way some people look forward to monetary reward or success. Heaven, for Gram, was the priceless inheritance and ultimate success.
A finger of sadness moved through her gut as her thoughts hopscotched over the events of the past few weeks. Now she would never get the chance to tell Gram that she hadn't lost her mind by quitting her lucrative and prestigious job at the law firm. She longed to tell her grandmother why she'd so suddenly left her job, put her home on the market and decided to come home to Pleasant to regroup and consider her options. There was the offer to teach at the law school, of course, which was practically a done deal. She had only to sign on the dotted line. Then a former client now in state government had dangled a political-appointment carrot in front of her, and a friend in Maine had called seeking her expertise. She'd been counting on Gram to affirm her next move, whatever it might be.
Abigail Stanhope had been her wisest champion and most loyal confidant since the day Catherine had arrived as an orphaned little girl on Abigail's doorstep. The idea of life without her grandmother was impossible to comprehend.
Of course, Catherine thought bitterly, this season in her life seemed to be one of relinquishing thingsjob, home, and now.
She started at the sound of Will Tanner's concerned voice and brushed a hand across her eyes to push her long blond hair away from her face. "Sorry. I drifted off, didn't I? Shall we head back to your car?"
"Have you had enough time?" His voice was so gentle that it made her want to cry. His chiseled features were inked with concern.
"I don't think there is enough time," she said with a weak smile.
He took her elbow and guided her toward his vehicle. Unconsciously she moved closer to him, unexpectedly hungry for human warmth and tenderness.
"I'll bet I know where Abigail went first when she got to heaven." His voice softened into something that sounded both sad and amused.
"I don't understand."
"She told me that the first thing she wanted to do when she got to heaven was to go to the information booth and ask all the questions she'd been saving up. Why God made wood ticks, for example."
Catherine felt a bubble of laughter well in her chest. "That sounds just like Gram. Did the two of you talk about those things a lot?"
He paused before answering, as if carefully considering his choice of words. "Your grandmother introduced me to God. Most of our conversations were either about faith or the house. Those were her favorite topics."
"I see." She was taken aback by the admission. Gram and Mr. Tanner had shared a very personal and meaningful experience, then. This employee-employer relationship ran much deeper than she'd first assumed.
It shouldn't have surprised her, really, knowing Gram. She ran everything in her life through the filter of God. What would He think? Want? Encourage? That's how she lived her life. Gram never cared what other people thought. If God was good with something, that was all she wanted.
"Abigail also told me that you recently quit your job," he added casually.
"She did?" Catherine didn't know quite what to make of the fact that Gram had told him about her life.
He smiled again, wistful this time. "We spent a lot of time drinking coffee at her kitchen table. I would remind her we needed to be working, but she would insist that civilized people took regular breaks." He chuckled a little. "She made me very civilized."
That, Catherine knew, was exactly how Gram functioned. She should have been the one spending these last days with Gram, not some stranger. It was her own fault. She was the one who'd put off coming home.
"If only I'd come home a few days earlier! I was almost ready to leave the Cities when Emma called. I was able to pull on clothes, throw already-packed suitcases into my car and be on the road in less than thirty minutes."
"So you'd been planning to come to Pleasant anyway?"
It was what she'd always done whenever she needed to recharge. She'd already stored her personal belongings in a storage space and arranged for a Realtor to begin showing her house once she vacated it. There was nothing to stop her from leaving the city for as long as she wanted.
"Yes." She'd assumed there would be a time when she and Gram could curl up in massive wingback chairs, sip peppermint tea and discuss the twists and turns her life had taken, as they had done so many times over the years. Then Gram would pray for her. That was what Catherine found herself most hungry for right now. She closed her eyes and sighed.
Will studied Catherine Stanhope intently. He hadn't expected her to be so beautiful.
Abigail had warned him that her granddaughter was easy on the eyes. He just hadn't known how easy. Will immediately chastised himself for being so crass at a time like this, but he knew if Abigail were here she would have been tickled by his surprise. "See? I told you!" she would have chortled gleefully.
But she was gone and her granddaughter felt frail and fragile against his side as they walked slowly to his pickup truck. Her long honey-gold hair tumbled over his arm in a glistening wave and her profile, when he glanced at her, seemed carved from porcelain, smooth and pale. Long black lashes fanned over her cheeks and tears hung from them like dew.
He felt as if he'd been punched in the belly with a battering ram at the idea of losing Abigail. What flood of emotions must this woman be feeling?
Although he knew better, Will had somehow assumed that Abigail would be around forever; that her indomitable spirit would allow her to survive no matter what. They'd had dinner together just two nights before her death. While Will made ribs on the grill, Abigail had whipped up a batch of her special slaw. They'd finished with coffee and huge slices of coconut cake and watched the sun go down together. And now she was gone. He couldn't get his head around it, at least not yet.
He'd been proud to say, "I work for Abigail Stanhope." Present tense, he thought. That wasn't right anymore. He'd worked for Abigail. Past tense.
If only there were something he could do for Abigail's granddaughter to ease her pain, Will thought helplessly. The only thing he knew to do was to show her that Abigail's wishes for the house were being carried out even after her death. Perhaps that would be a comfort to her, but now was not the time.