Finally, just shy of forty years old, Linny Taylor is living the life of her dreams in her charming hometown of Willow Hill, North Carolina. The past few years have been anything but a fairy tale: Left broke by her con man late-husband, Linny has struggled to rebuild her life from scratch. Then she met Jack Avery, the town’s much-adored veterinarian. And she’s marrying him.
Everything should be coming up roses for Linny. So why does she have such a serious case of pre-wedding jitters? It could be because Jack’s prosperous family doesn’t approve of her rough-and-tumble background. Or that his ex-wife is suddenly back on the scene. Or that Linny has yet to win over his son’s heart. All these obstacles—not to mention what she should wear when she walks down the aisle—are taking the joy out of planning her wedding. Linny better find a way to trust love again, or she might risk losing the one man she wants to be with—forever…
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Sweet Carolina Morning
By Susan Schild
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Susan Schild
All rights reserved.
Trouble in the Stepmother Hood
Though it was February, the galley kitchen at her future husband's old farmhouse was steamy and hot, but Linny hardly noticed. Peering at the pages on the counter, she pushed back up her nose the reading glasses she'd had to borrow from Jack and double-checked to make sure she'd not left out any key ingredients. Why had she printed the recipe in ten-point font? Tonight's menu came from a website she'd found called Recipes for Picky Eaters, and she hoped it was a winner. She shook her head, chagrined at Jack's reaction to the first possible menu she'd suggested. He'd kept that pleasant smile on his handsome face, but his eyebrows had shot up. Once they'd come back down to normal, his veto had been so diplomatic. "Darlin', the mountain trout, braised Brussels sprouts, and beet salad sounds tasty, and I hope you cook them for me real soon, but twelve-year-old boys' tastes tend to be more ... well, mainstream."
Blowing back a stray lock of hair, she turned on the oven light and peeked inside. The neat rows of crusted chicken breasts were browning nicely in their casserole dish home. The side dishes — creamy-looking mac and cheese and green bean casserole topped with onion rings — were both bubbling gently. She breathed in cooking smells and was transported back to Sunday suppers at the farm when Nana and Paw-Paw were still alive. Sighing, she felt a wash of safety, contentment, belonging. Those were just the feelings she wanted to infuse in this new little family.
Sliding into the chair, Linny admired the old kitchen table and touched the swirls of the tiger oak. It felt warm, solid. How many other families had sat around it and shared their lives over meals? She pictured her and her two men gathered around like in a scene from the Hallmark Channel, talking and laughing about their day. Jack and Neal would lavishly compliment her on her cooking, she'd blush, wave them off, and act as though it was no big deal. "I just threw the meal together," she'd trill.
Trouble was, it was a big deal, and not just because Linny was just learning to cook. She rubbed her chin and thought about it. This morning, Jack had sat his son down after they'd cleaned up from their pancake breakfast and told him that he and Linny were marrying in the summer. Linny had just sat beside Jack and let him do the talking but felt a stab of sadness as she saw Neal's face fall. Forlorn. He looked forlorn. When he asked in a trembling voice, "So, you and Mom aren't ever getting back together?" she thought her heart might break. He still held out hope for his family to be whole again, the way it used to be. Never mind that Neal's mother, Vera, had already remarried the year before. Though Linny and Jack had been dating officially since October, she'd only just started spending a lot of time with the two of them. Jack hadn't wanted to introduce her to his son until they knew they were serious, so Linny was only just getting to know the young man.
Linny got a nervous flip in her stomach when she thought about becoming a stepmother. She'd gone thirty-eight years without children, and in a few short months, she'd be slipping into this new role without even a course or certificate. Linny got up and made herself a mug of Chamomile tea. Calming, the label said. She sat back down and blew on the tea to cool it and tried to quell the thrum of the squadron of butterflies that was revving up in the pit of her stomach.
Staring out the window, she thought of the other scenarios she'd been imagining, in living color and the minutest detail. If she messed up in this new job, he'd be that troubled teen with the shaved head who sold pot and lived in their basement after he dropped out of school in tenth grade. Neal would end up being the inebriated driver of a speeding car full of kids who drove them into a tree after leaving an unchaperoned party. Her heart banged as she tried to obliterate the image she'd seen in this morning's News and Clarion — the mangled wreckage of a barely recognizable car driven by a teen going the wrong way on I-40. He'd killed himself and badly injured a whole vanload of kids on the way home late from a church youth group retreat. Pulling out her phone, she scrolled through her emails as the good smells wafted from the oven and felt her shoulders relax as she reread Mary Catherine's note. Nice to have a best friend who practiced family law.
Under the subject line, Impending Stepmother Hood, her friend wrote:
You asked for advice on your new parenting gig. Remember, a lot of divorced couples and blended families don't talk civilly and don't act in the best interests of children. In my practice, we serve more of the send-the-kids-home-dirty and talk-trash-about-the-stepmother crowd. What not to do may be more useful than what to do.
Another disclaimer: I'm no expert on teenage boys just because I had one. Remember just a few months back, my nineteen-year-old almost got a DUI on a bike. Boys are knuckleheads between the ages of 11 and 24. Your nerves will fray no matter how hard you try to be a good mother — or, harder yet, stepmother — but I will tell you what I know.
Meet me for a quick breakfast 7:00 a.m. Wednesday at Jumpin' Joe's Bean House?
Blowing out a sigh of relief, Linny replied, Perfect. She let herself sink back into the chair for a moment. Thank goodness for Mary Catherine.
Glancing at the clock, she rose and fretted as she checked the timer. Last weekend's cookout at her place had been a bust. Neal had picked at his food, claiming he "'just wasn't hungry.'" What American boy didn't like grilled hamburgers and French fries made from scratch — from the actual potato? Could it be that he didn't like her? She tried to dismiss the thought. How could he not like her when she was already so fond of him? He was whip smart, mostly well mannered, sensitive, and had an offbeat sense of humor that would catch her when she wasn't expecting it and make her burst out laughing.
Tonight would be different, she decided, setting flatware firmly at the three places at the table. After grilling Jack extensively about his son's food likes and dislikes, she'd scoured the internet for the perfect menu. If she was finally going to embark on this mother thing, she sure as heck was going to excel at it. She'd do the whole shebang: soccer weekends, volunteering on field trips, deep talks about life. She'd waited long enough for this little family, and now that she'd got it, dang it, she was going to do it right. The water glasses spilled over as she set them too firmly down on the table.
Jack and Neal were still at the barn with the mare that was about to foal. She picked up the walkie-talkie and pressed the button. "Supper's ready, men."
The line crackled. "Be right up," Jack said cheerfully. "I'm hungry as a bear."
She'd just finished putting on a slick of lip gloss as they clattered into the room, bringing with them a wash of fresh February air. Her heart still skipped a beat when Jack gave her a boyish grin, and she longed for a kiss, but there was sweet-faced Neal, right on his heels. She felt a pang of regret. She and Jack had talked about it and agreed on the rule of no smooching or PDAs in front of the boy right on the brink of becoming a man. She felt wistful. Leaning against the stove, she smiled as she took them in, amazed at how much commotion the two could make just walking into a room, with their thudding boots, unzipping coats, biceps punching, and easy laughter. Linny raked back her hair with her fingers. Man, her too quiet life had sure changed.
As they washed up, Jack chided the boy. "Scrub those hands, please. Don't just wave them under the water."
"I washed them," Neal protested, his face darkening.
"Well, wash them more," Jack said evenly.
With a small flourish, she placed their plates on the table. Jack caught her eye and then her hand and squeezed it. Thank you, he mouthed.
She felt a tingling in her stomach, a visceral reminder of how much she loved him. He knew how hard she was trying. She sank into her chair, waved the napkin into her lap, and from under her eyelashes tried to get a read on their reception of the meal as she cut a small bite of chicken.
Neal sniffed and touched his stomach. "I'm just not hungry."
Linny took a large swallow of water and tried to make her face blank, hiding the hurt she felt. Warily, she watched as Jack quizzed him.
"Do you have a stomachache or headache?" Jack cocked his head.
"No," the boy mumbled, not meeting his father's eyes. He seemed suddenly riveted by the view outside the window.
Jack touched Neal's forehead, "You don't have a fever. You seem okay, son. How about if you just keep us company while we eat?" Jack caught her eye and gave a little exasperated shake of his head.
"Fine," the boy said grumpily as his hand snaked to the counter to snag his iPad. Immediately, he fixed his gaze on it and pulled up a game.
Linny stopped chewing, distracted by the sounds: the boops, beeps, and, then a demonic ha-ha-ha.
"Turn down the volume, please," Jack said as he tucked into the last of his creamy macaroni. "Neal, you don't know what you're missing. The mac and cheese is ambrosia, food for the gods."
But the boy didn't look up from his game. "My mom makes good mac and cheese. She puts toasted bread crumbs on top of hers."
Of course she did. Linny studied a green bean before she took a sharp bite. Glancing over at the top of Neal's head, she felt a flush of anger. Why was the boy allowed to play games at the table? Did all parents let their kids do that? Jack didn't seem fazed. She made a mental note to ask Mary Catherine what dinnertime rules she and Mike had for Dare when he was Neal's age. Her last bite went down like sawdust, and she pushed her plate away, her appetite gone. Navigating these waters was going to be tricky. She glanced at Jack, and he smiled almost beatifically at her as he forked in his supper like a hungry — but well-mannered — stevedore. A smile played at her lips. At least he appreciated her.
In a too cheerful tone, she asked, "How is Gillie? When's she going to drop her baby?"
Neal didn't look up, his brows knit in concentration. "Foal. It's called a foal, not a baby."
Jack patted his mouth with his napkin. "She'll give birth soon, I hope. She's uncomfortable, like all mothers get at the end."
He said this like she knew, but she didn't. She'd never had a baby. For a few long moments she couldn't think of one word to say, and the silence stretched out.
Jack opened the dishwasher and Neal handed him glasses to load. Linny had begun to scrape food scraps from the plates into the trash when she spied a flash of red and orange under the coffee grounds and banana peels. She glanced over at Jack, who was energetically scrubbing a pot. Quickly, she fished out the Snickers, Twizzlers, and Kit Kat wrappers.
Bingo. She felt her neck prickle with irritation. Neal's lack of appetite might have something to do with all the candy bars he'd eaten.
She drew in a breath and slowly let it out. Why would he do this? Was he just a very hungry preteen boy? Linny had heard that they'd go through food like locusts through a field. Not Neal. His mother, the perfect Vera, claimed the boy ate no refined sugar. Should she tell Jack about the candy wrappers? She glanced over at him. Jack was enthusiastically using the pull-down sprayer on his new kitchen faucet, rinsing dishes so lavishly that water droplets splashed and sparkled all around the sink. She smiled and felt a wave of tenderness toward him. Jack and his gadgets. No, she couldn't tell him.
After clean up, the two Avery men drove her home. From her front porch, Linny smiled brightly and waved as Jack and Neal drove back down her driveway. Bless his heart, Jack was probably whistling, pleased the evening had gone so well, and that his soon-to-be blended family was, well, blending.
Was Neal deliberately turning up his nose at her meals? Was he trying to send her a message that she wasn't welcome? Linny blew out a sigh as she stepped back inside her door. She couldn't make an twelve-year-old like and accept her. If she failed in her role as stepmother, how could her marriage work?
* * *
Linny locked the door behind her, leaned against it, and exhaled. Her last house had been a six-thousand-foot stunner with a media room and a butler's pantry, but she'd never felt as at home there as she did in her new one, this seventies era aqua mobile home she rented from her mother. Eight months ago, when she'd landed on her rear end, the trailer had been a haven for her: a fourteen-by-sixty-foot box of light and safety. Linny glanced around, still thrilled with the improvements she'd made since she'd moved in: the honey gold heart pine floors she'd salvaged from Habitat, the pristine sheetrock she'd painted a soothing shade called lemon cream, the sage green velvet throw she'd found in the thrift store and draped over her sofa for chilly nights. Linny had turned the neglected trailer into a tiny jewel box.
Last year, after her bank-account-emptying, philandering late husband had died in the arms of a woman named Kandi, Linny had gotten kicked out of her big home. With no money, no place to live, and a financial mess to clean up, the then dumpy blue trailer that sat within spitting distance of her mama's house seemed about as low as she could go. But this little place was where she'd gotten back on her feet, learned to dream again, home grown a thriving small business, and fallen in love to boot. She'd miss the trailer after she married Jack and moved to his farm.
Her puppy, Roy, barked his hellos from the crate in the bedroom. Linny walked back to greet him. Home alone, just her and her dogs — safe and sound and simple.
The dogs ran around the yard and settled in with chew bones, Linny sat down at her computer and tapped at the keyboard. Nodding determinedly, she enrolled in a six-week online continuing education class at Worth County Community College called A Fun Mom's Guide to Fast, Frugal Weeknight Cooking. She gave a shivery sigh, loving the idea of being a Fun Mom. Linny pictured her family in the car on family vacations, probably going camping at a Park Service rough cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains, or taking the ferry to see the Cape Hatteras Light Station. The three of them would sing together, probably "Carolina in My Mind" or "This Land Is Your Land." She pictured herself laughing gaily as she zip-lined down Old Bald Mountain with Jack and Neal whizzing along right behind her. Next, Linny wore a sharp-looking wetsuit and was ten pounds skinnier. She confidently hung ten on a surfboard as she rode a surprisingly large breaker for Topsail Beach. She'd grin and wave at her two boys on the next wave over — a much smaller wave. At the supper table, there'd be gales of laughter over oft-told family stories about their fun: "Remember that time we ..."
She pictured Neal in a year or two, eyes downcast and shyly asking her, "How do you get a girl to like you?" and her saying the exact right thing. At his wedding, during his toast, he'd raise a glass to her and say, "I want to thank my stepmother, Linny, for helping me understand the fairer sex and finding my lovely bride." Vera would be on the bench on the other side, red-faced and steaming, wishing she was as wise — and fun — as Linny.
But really, she wasn't fun or wise. She just wanted to raise a boy into a kind man who treated other people respectfully and found his happy niche in the world. If tonight was any indication of how she was doing, she was going to have a rough time in the stepmother hood.CHAPTER 2
The What-Not-To-Do List
The next morning, her arms laden with heavy bags, Linny used the toe of her boot to gently tap at her sister's door. "Morning, sunshine," she called, feeling peppy because of the frosty, sunny morning and the three cups of coffee she'd knocked back earlier.
Her sister swung open the door and gave a wan smile. "Morning." Wearing a pair of tired-looking sweatpants and a T-shirt that read "I'm Silently Correcting Your Grammar," her hair was drawn into two pigtails that curved away from her head like Pippi Longstocking.
The family dogs, Duke and Delilah, milled around Linny, barking their hellos with their tails wagging wildly. "Hi, babies. You lovely dogs! How are you?" Linny used the high-pitched, happy voice she saved especially for greeting dogs and saw her sister wince. Peering more closely at Kate's face, she saw it was pasty white, and her eyes had deep blue circles under them. Linny needed to ratchet back the cheerfulness, stat.
"You can't come in if you're going to be so chirpy," Kate warned but waved her in anyway. "Why can't I be like the mothers who only get sick the first trimester?" She rubbed her fingers to her temples.
Excerpted from Sweet Carolina Morning by Susan Schild. Copyright © 2016 Susan Schild. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
ContentsBooks by Susan Schild,
CHAPTER 1 - Trouble in the Stepmother Hood,
CHAPTER 2 - The What-Not-To-Do List,
CHAPTER 3 - One Step Forward, Two Steps Back,
CHAPTER 4 - Marriage Charms,
CHAPTER 5 - Dream Wedding Venue,
CHAPTER 6 - Zip Lines, Cowgirls, and Ring-Bearing Dogs,
CHAPTER 7 - Family Ways,
CHAPTER 8 - Capers,
CHAPTER 9 - A Bowl of Cherries,
CHAPTER 10 - The Wary Bride,
CHAPTER 11 - Road Test,
CHAPTER 12 - Just Like Positano,
CHAPTER 13 - Sharp Shooters,
CHAPTER 14 - Breezy Gal on the Go,
CHAPTER 15 - Ladies' Night,
CHAPTER 16 - Getaway,
CHAPTER 17 - Spinning Wheels,
ABOUT THE AUTHOR,