Sarah Dove is no ordinary bookworm. To her, books live, breathe, and sometimes even speak. As the librarian in her quaint Southern town of Dove Pond, her gift helps place every book in the hands of the perfect reader. Recently, however, the books have been whispering about something out of the ordinary: the arrival of a displaced city girl named Grace Wheeler.
If the books are right, Grace could be the savior Dove Pond desperately needs. The problem is, Grace wants little to do with the town or its quirky residents—Sarah chief among them. But with a bit of urging, and the help of an especially wise book, will Grace ultimately embrace the challenge to rescue her charmed new community?
“A mesmerizing fusion of the mystical and the everyday” (Susan Andersen, New York Times bestselling author), The Book Charmer is a heartwarming story about the magic of books that feels more than a little magical itself.
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The Book Charmer
DOVE POND, NC
MAY 16, 2019
“Are we there yet?” Daisy asked.
“No,” Grace said for the eighth time, her eyes locked on the moving truck that slowly rumbled along in front of her Honda. Every side of the ancient truck bore the words MCLAREN’S YOU NEED TO MOVE WE CAN DO IT, LLC.
Mama G, in the front beside Grace, looked over the seat at Daisy. “We just passed the ‘Welcome to Dove Pond’ sign, so it won’t be long now.”
“We’ve been driving forever.” Daisy slumped, twirling her ponytail with restless fingers, a habit she’d picked up during the past few difficult months.
Daisy was a precocious child, this daughter of Hannah’s and an unknown boy from her high school. Even at the tender age of eight, Daisy was an odd, old-souled sort of kid, all elbows and knees, blurting what she thought no matter how bold or ill-advised. She was smart too, perhaps even brilliant, according to her test scores, and she could read well above her level, devouring books the way most kids her age devoured cartoons. Despite that, the child made only mediocre grades, as she was easily distracted, she and her restless mind. Just like her mother.
Grace looked at Daisy in the rearview mirror, noting the blond hair and crystal-blue eyes. Oh, Hannah, you would be so proud of her. Grace’s throat tightened and she forced herself to focus on the truck they followed.
Mama G looked up from her knitting to admire the large maples and elms that dotted the streets. “I love these trees.” She sighed happily, then returned her attention to the mittens she was making.
Shortly after Grace and Hannah had come to live with Mama G, she’d taken up knitting, saying it “calmed the nerves.” Grace thought that was strange, because no one had a more peaceful spirit than Mama G. Over the years, she’d made hundreds of scarves and mittens, most of which had ended up in Grace’s room, as Hannah had never liked them.
Grace glanced over at Mama G now. Her once-graceful hands were liver spotted and gnarled, but they never stopped moving. Normally, Mama G’s rhythmic knitting sent a flood of calm through Grace, but today it did nothing.
Right now, everything felt useless, empty. Broken.
Grace swallowed the lump in her throat and applied the brakes as the moving truck slowed in front of her. “We should be turning onto Elm Street soon.”
As if in answer to her prayers, the truck’s signal flashed and the vehicle slowly turned.
“Almost there.” Grace admired the rows of elms that shaded the road. “Our new house is at the end of this street.” New meaning “recently rented.” She silently ticked through her Things That Must Be Done list: unpack, register Daisy for school, find a caretaker for Mama G—the list seemed endless, and she winced to think about the shrinking amount left in her bank accounts. The events of the past few months had murdered her savings. But by Grace’s careful calculations, if they lived frugally over the next year, they would have enough for a down payment on a small house in Charlotte.
The thought of returning to Charlotte calmed Grace. For the past five years, she’d worked at a large financial company in one of the city’s trendier areas. She’d been happy there and, until the craziness of the past few months, she’d never thought she’d leave.
But she’d go back, and this time she’d take Mama G and Daisy. It wouldn’t be easy, but it would happen. She would make sure of it.
Behind her, Daisy leaned against her window and stared at the houses rolling past. The street was long and wide, the sidewalks shaded by the towering trees. The quality of the houses perched along the way gave Grace hope. Huge and ornate, the grand old lady houses flaunted a variety of pastel colors. Windows glinting in the afternoon sunshine, they gazed at one another with sleepy, lace-fluttered windows and wide, white-trimmed porches.
It looks like a safe neighborhood, and these houses—wow! Perhaps this will all work out. Hope blossomed, so Grace—ever cautious—tried to tamp it down, hugging her worries like a shield.
“I like these houses,” Daisy said. “I bet they have ghosts. They look like the right kind.”
Grace looked at Daisy in the rearview mirror and saw her niece’s nose pressed against the window glass. “There is no such thing as ghosts.”
Her mouth instantly tight with anger, Daisy said in a sullen tone, “How would you know?”
Grace had to clamp her mouth over a sharp reply. Just a week ago, Mama G had warned Grace to pick her battles with Daisy, and this wasn’t a hill worth dying on.
It still hurt, though. And Grace was never sure if she was giving up some sort of authority by not reprimanding Daisy about things like tone of voice and eye rolls. I don’t know a darn thing about raising kids. Not one. Yet now, here I am.
Until two months ago, Grace’s position in Daisy’s life had been “Favorite Aunt” and nothing else. Grace had loved being the FA, who breezed into town like Mary Poppins, beloved by everyone as she bestowed presents and took Mama G and Daisy on all sorts of fun adventures. Those were the days, she thought wistfully. But things were different now. Everything has changed.
Daisy muttered to herself, “I like ghosts.”
Grace tightened her grip on the steering wheel. It was silly to argue about something as ridiculous as ghosts, but she didn’t want Daisy afraid to sleep at night because of every old-house thump and creak. For all of Daisy’s bravado, she was a sensitive child and suffered from her own overactive imagination.
“Ghosts can be very nice,” Mama G said in a thoughtful tone. “The ones I’ve met were, anyway.”
Daisy leaned toward the front seat as far as her seat belt would let her. “You’ve met ghosts? Were they—”
“She’s joking, of course,” Grace interrupted. She wished Mama G wouldn’t encourage Daisy’s flights of fancy.
“Mama G, tell Aunt Grace you aren’t joking,” Daisy said in a belligerent tone. “Tell her that you’ve seen ghosts.”
Grace swallowed a sigh. Parenting was damned hard. If you weren’t being scoffed at, you were being challenged. But then again, maybe it was only difficult because she sucked at it. Part of the problem was that while she wasn’t really Daisy’s mother, Grace’d also lost her standing as the Favorite Aunt. Right now, neither she nor Daisy was quite sure what Grace was, except inexperienced.
Loneliness swamped Grace, seeping into her soul like icy water. Growing up, no matter how badly life had treated her and Hannah, they’d had each other. Even when, at seventeen years of age, rebellious Hannah had run away, leaving four-month-old Daisy with Mama G, she’d kept in touch with Grace. Grace had been in college, neck-deep in tests and papers and fighting for her place on the dean’s list, but she’d been ridiculously grateful for Hannah’s scarce text messages and rare phone calls, even though 90 percent of them had been requests for money. Still, those tiny contacts had made Grace feel that she and Hannah were still a family. But more than that, they’d allowed Grace to pretend that things were okay. That Hannah was okay, even though she wasn’t.
Two months and eleven days ago, Hannah had died, her life burned to a crisp by her own wild spirits. And Grace, still pretending things were “okay,” hadn’t been ready. There was a hole in her life now, one she didn’t know how to fill. Somehow, in losing her sister, she’d also lost all the hopes she’d been clinging to that, with time and love, Hannah would stop wandering the world like a lost soul, chasing dangerous men and even more dangerous thrills. That one day, she’d come home, realize how much she missed Grace and Mama G, and how special Daisy was, and she’d welcome them all back into her life. That they’d finally become the family Grace had always so desperately wanted them to be.
Hannah’s death had left Grace aching, angry, and empty. But it was even harder for Daisy. The little girl had loved her beautiful but distant mother with an obstinate, uncritical passion. For weeks after the funeral, she’d refused to go to school, staying in bed unless forced to get up, arguing about everything with everybody. It had taken all of Mama G’s considerable influence to convince Daisy to return to her classroom. But once there, the child had been sullen and silent, ignoring her friends and teachers alike. She did no homework and when the time came to take a test, instead of answering the problems, she filled the paper with drawings of furious dragons spewing fire. Had her previous grades not been so high and her teachers so understanding, she might have failed.
The school counselor had warned Grace that the next few months, and perhaps longer, would be difficult and that it would be normal for Daisy to continue to “act out,” at least for a while. Despite the warning, Daisy’s sudden flares of anger and her stubborn refusal to accept Grace as a parent had made a difficult situation even worse.
But more than anyone else, Grace understood anger. What was difficult was seeing the sheer pain that lurked behind every sharp word that tumbled from Daisy’s mouth and being unable to do anything to help.
Grace gripped the steering wheel harder, torn between a growing anger at Hannah for being so careless with herself, even though it had cost others, and also desperate to tell her how much she’d been loved. Everyone loved you, Hannah. Everyone except you.
“Ghosts aren’t always bad, you know,” Mama G mused aloud as she pulled a length of yarn from her knitting basket.
“Mama G, please. Don’t.”
Mama G nodded. “I know what you’re thinking, but ghosts are nothing like the silliness people put in horror movies. Ghosts aren’t scary at all. They’re just wisps of lives gone by. Shadows, really.”
“What do they look like?” Daisy asked before Grace could change the subject.
Mama G stopped knitting and pursed her lips. “Sometimes they’re a faint shape. And sometimes they’re just a memory that flickers out of the corner of your eye.”
“I’m going to meet one,” Daisy announced. “I’m going to find out how she died so I can help her find her murderer.”
“Most ghosts weren’t murdered,” Mama G said calmly, pulling more yarn from her basket. “Most died in their sleep.”
Grace knew what would happen now. Daisy, always too excitable, wouldn’t be able to sleep and it would be Grace, and not Mama G, who’d have to handle it. “Ghosts don’t exist,” Grace repeated firmly. “At all.” She wished the moving truck would find the house. It was barely creeping along, and she had no wish to continue this conversation.
Mama G didn’t look up from her knitting, but said under her breath, “Well, well. Someone is in for a surprise.”
“It’s not going to be me,” Grace said baldly. “Mama G, the likelihood of— Ah! Here we are!” Thank God. She slapped a smile on her face and was about to say something ridiculous like Welcome home! when the house came into view.
Grace’s hopes were instantly and viciously smashed.
Although as beautiful and gracious in design as its neighbors, the house at the end of the driveway was a faded shadow of the others. The pale lavender color was now more gray than purple, the wide porch was crooked, and much of the delightful trim she’d seen on the other houses was missing, the paint chipped and peeling. Grace was reminded of a jaded old woman wearing a faded housecoat, her worn smile marred by missing teeth.
“I bet this house has ghosts,” Daisy said.
“Oh, I’m sure there’s more than one,” Mama G agreed as she stored her knitting in her basket.
Dear God, please keep me from screaming. Grace drove past the moving truck, which had pulled close to the walk, and parked her car beside a large, rusty RV that sat at the rear of the driveway near a garage with a deeply dented door. She put the car in park and stared up at the house, noting the thick moss that clung to the roof.
Mama G patted Grace’s hand where it rested on the steering wheel. “The car’s still running.”
“I know.” She wondered what would happen if they just stayed where they were, locked safely away. The car wasn’t large, but it was big enough to sleep in if they lowered the seats and had pillows and blankets and—
“Look!” Daisy opened her door. “There’s a tire swing in the tree in the front yard.”
Mama G nodded. “I saw that. You’ll have to give it a try and see how high you can swing.”
“Daisy, wait.” Grace leaned forward and tried to see the swing. “Don’t get on it yet. I want to be sure it’s safe before you—”
It was too late. Daisy had already jumped out and was headed for the swing.
“I’ll get her.” Mama G climbed out of the car and started to follow Daisy but then stopped. She leaned down to look at Grace, where she sat glued in the driver’s seat. “Come inside. It may need a little work, but it’s a lovely house.”
“It’s a wreck,” Grace said flatly.
Mama G smiled, although it was a tired, worn effort. “Grace, I know this is difficult for you—”
“For all of us.”
Mama G’s gaze softened. “Right now, life isn’t fair for any of us. We’re all three mad at life, at all of this change—maybe even at Hannah.”
Grace’s throat tightened.
Mama G sat back in the passenger seat and placed her hand over Grace’s. “You have to let it go. All of it—your anger, your worries, your fears. Daisy is counting on you. And, as much as I hate to add to your problems, so am I.”
Grace grasped Mama G’s hand and squeezed it. “I owe you a thousand years of being counted on.”
Mama G smiled sadly. “Unfortunately, I think you’re about to pay them all back at once. But we have to move forward, sweetheart. And we can’t do that if we hold on to what was.”
“I’m not holding on to anything.”
“Not on purpose, perhaps. But you are in other ways. And so am I, and so is Daisy. It’s tough letting go of something you only thought you had, and that’s what Hannah was—she was a maybe. A possibly. A perhaps. She knew how to make people hope that she was more than she was ever willing to be.”
Grace didn’t think she’d ever heard a better description of Hannah. Still, it was who Hannah was, who she’d always been. Tears burned Grace’s eyes. “She never came to visit and rarely called, but I miss her. It’s so weird. It’s—” She swiped the tears from her eyes.
“I know.” Mama G patted Grace’s hand. “Everything is going to be all right.”
“I wish I believed that.”
Mama G chuckled. “Always the skeptic, aren’t you? Even when you were a child. But look. We came to Dove Pond for a new start. If we decide to, we’ll find happiness here. I know we will. This town is . . . well, it’s different. And this is where we’re supposed to be. I’m sure of it.”
Her throat too tight to answer, Grace managed a short nod, although she wished she felt sure about something—anything, really.
Mama G sighed and pulled her hand from Grace’s. “Come in when you’re ready.” She slid back out of the car and started to straighten, but then hesitated.
Grace’s heart sank anew at the flicker of uncertainty in Mama G’s usually serene face. It took all her strength not to let her voice break as she said softly, “You were going to see to Daisy. She went to the swing.”
Mama G’s face cleared. “Oh yes. Daisy.” She nodded as if that was all she needed to hear, but her face was pink with embarrassment. With a few mumbled words, she walked away, the car door hanging open in her wake.
Grace bent over the steering wheel and rubbed her aching temples. Mama G’s memory was getting worse. A month ago, Grace had found her standing in the middle of the road in front of her own home, the mail clutched forgotten in her hands as she looked around, confused and unaware that she was less than forty feet from her front door.
Warm, humid summer air swirled inside from the open door. Grace closed her eyes, remembering the neat, wonderful life she’d led only a few short months ago when she’d stupidly thought she had figured out life, success, happiness—everything. But all that had changed with one phone call from a weeping Mama G, whose every other word had been “Hannah.”
Grace had gone back to Mama G’s house and together they’d organized the funeral and tried to untangle the mess that had been Hannah’s life. While there, Grace had slowly realized that Mama G wasn’t herself. She kept forgetting things, items had been left in odd places, and doctor’s appointments were made and missed. After finding Mama G looking so confused in front of her own house, Grace had taken her to the doctor, who’d confirmed that the always-strong, never-wavering Mama G was showing signs of Alzheimer’s.
Grace’s heart, already broken by Hannah’s death, had shattered. Mama G was the rock Grace had built her life upon. And now, quite suddenly, it was Grace’s turn to make things work and to take care of not just Mama G, but the recalcitrant Daisy as well. Grace only hoped she was strong enough to do both.
At first, she’d hoped she could pack them up and take them to Charlotte with her, but it had taken no more than ten minutes of honest face-the-music thought for her to realize that she couldn’t continue to work eighty hours a week as a financial analyst, raise a devastated and angry Daisy, and take care of Mama G, all at one and the same time. No matter how many times Grace ran the numbers, the reality was grim but clear.
So, bowed but unbroken, Grace had quit her dream job, cashed in her retirement plan, paid off her lease, and moved back home to look after what was left of her small, tattered family.
She needed a new job, of course, something with far more flexibility than her previous position. While she’d been searching, one of Mama G’s cousins, a sharp-tongued woman by the name of Mrs. Philomedra Phelps, had called Grace and offered her the job of Town Clerk Level 1 for Dove Pond, North Carolina, Mama G’s old hometown. The position was well below Grace’s skill level, but offered the flexible hours she desperately needed. Attached to the offer was the rental of Mrs. Phelps’s own home at a ridiculously low amount, as she was retiring to Florida.
Grace hadn’t wanted to move, for the salary was dismal. But two days after Mrs. Phelps’s phone call, a big storm had blown through Whitlow and Mama G’s ancient house had sprung what seemed like a hundred leaks. Almost every pot in the house had been called into service to catch the water as it dripped through the eaves and dissolved the ceiling plaster, raining wet, soggy clumps onto Mama G’s furniture and rugs. When the repairman came to assess the damage, the burly man had reluctantly informed Grace that the old, rickety clapboard house was past fixing.
The day after this bleak news, the dementia specialist overseeing Mama G’s care made a chance comment that brought Grace back to Mrs. Phelps’s offer. While discussing treatment options, the specialist mentioned how she’d taken her own mother back to her hometown after she’d been similarly diagnosed and that it had seemed to ease the decline, at least a little.
The doctor hadn’t offered the comment as a cure, and indeed, she hadn’t mentioned it more than once, but the words had caught Grace’s attention. After a long and sleepless night, Grace had called Mrs. Phelps and accepted the job.
And now, here they were, moving from Mama G’s worn-out house and into another ramshackle eyesore in the picturesque town of Dove Pond.
Grace wished for the thousandth time that this was all a dream and she’d wake up to everything the way it had been, that Hannah was alive and Daisy not so angry, Mama G’s memory not chipping away like old paint, and—
Someone knocked on the window. Two men peered at her through the glass. The big man in gray overalls was mover Ricky Bob McLaren, his brown hair slicked to one side as if his comb only worked in one direction. She knew who he was because of the large patch on his shirt. At his side was his helper, a short, round, bearded man with the name TOMMY emblazoned on his much smaller patch.
Ricky Bob pointed to the truck, then to the house, and then back to the truck.
Tommy, as if helping his boss, mimicked the movements, but in an exaggerated fashion.
Grace rolled down the window. “Yes?”
Ricky Bob held out his hand. “We’ll need the house keys.”
“Mrs. Phelps should still be home.” Grace turned off the car and climbed out. “I’ll find her. She—”
“There you are,” spoke a brisk, sharp voice, followed by a clanking noise that gave Grace visions of Scrooge’s Marley. From around the moving truck, a squat, iron-haired woman in a flowered shirt and khaki shorts appeared. She leaned heavily to one side, carrying a tote filled with bottles of margarita mix and tequila, which clanged with each step. The old woman scowled at Grace. “You said you’d be here by three.”
“I said we’d be here around three,” Grace corrected, adding a smile to soften her words. “It’s barely three thirty.”
“Which is thirty minutes late. I have hours to drive and a schedule to keep.” The woman walked past Grace, the bag of bottles hanging dangerously close to the cracked driveway.
Ricky Bob and Tommy scrambled to get out of her way, scattering like chickens seeing a fox.
Grace swallowed a sharp retort. “The moving men need the house keys.”
Mrs. Phelps rolled her eyes. “The doors are unlocked.”
“Thank you,” the men mumbled as they hurried off.
Grace watched as they made their way into the house, glad to see Mama G and Daisy leave the swing and follow them inside. Grace felt safer knowing they were indoors.
Mrs. Phelps clanked her way toward the ancient RV. “I never lock the doors and Ricky Bob knows that, but then he’s an idiot.” She set the tote on the ground beside the passenger door of the rusty vehicle. “He was a sight smarter when he was fifteen, if you can believe it. But not now. Too much football. That boy’s had more concussions than most people have had colds.”
“I was told he was a good mover.”
“Better than most, providing you keep the instructions simple.” Mrs. Phelps looked Grace up and down. “My, look at you. Where are you going that you’re so dressed up?”
Grace looked down at her sundress and sandals, both of which were better suited for a day out in Charlotte’s tony Myers Park district than here in tiny Dove Pond. “It’s part of my strategy to win the world. You know—dress for the life you want, not the life you have.”
“If you dress like that in town hall, you’ll be the only one seeing it. The mayor only comes in for a few hours a day, if that. So, other than tax season, you’ll be pretty much alone.” Mrs. Phelps opened the passenger door, placed her tote on the floorboard, then slammed the door closed. “That’s it, then. I’d better get on the road. I scheduled a pee break at seven o’clock, as I should be near Atlanta by then, and you don’t want to get caught in traffic and need to pee.”
Grace managed to keep her smile, but barely. “You’re very organized. That bodes well for my taking on your old job. I’d like to talk about that, as the job description was vague. To be honest, I’m not exactly sure what the town clerk does.”
“Every damn thing,” Mrs. Phelps said baldly. She walked around the front of the RV to the driver’s door, Grace following. “You’ll process business licenses, voter registrations, and tax and fee payments. You’ll figure it out.”
Grace hoped the older woman was right. “I’ll call if I have questions. But before you leave, about the house. It’s . . . um. Not good. It’s in worse shape than I expected.”
Mrs. Phelps stopped by the driver’s door. “She’s solid. Everything works. As we discussed on the phone, I left some of the larger pieces of furniture for you. The rest is stored in the garage, so if you decide you want to use it, just help yourself. You’re welcome to it.”
“Thank you. I’m worried about the porch, though. It looks crooked.”
Mrs. Phelps fixed her icy button-bright gaze on Grace and lifted her thick eyebrows. “That porch has been crooked as long as I’ve been breathing, and it hasn’t fallen off the house yet. So long as you don’t load it up with a hundred or more fat people, it should stand for another hundred and fifty years.” Mrs. Phelps regarded Grace with suspicion. “You don’t plan on doing that, do you? Load it up with fat people? When we spoke on the phone, you said you weren’t a partier.”
“I’m not, and I don’t plan on loading the porch with anyone. I—” Grace bit off the rest of her sentence and took a steadying breath. “I would like to have someone check it out.”
Mrs. Phelps looked as if she wanted to argue, but a quick glance at her wristwatch made her snap out a reluctant, “Fine! There’s a business card for the Callahan brothers in the kitchen drawer by the stove. They own a handyman business and can fix just about anything. Call them and have them look at it. If they think something needs doing, they’ll know who to bill.”
“Great. Thank you.”
Mrs. Phelps opened the driver’s-side door, revealing a large, cracked-leather captain’s chair. She hauled herself inside, plopped into the seat, and slammed the door before saying out the open window, “As I told you on the phone, everything is included in the rent but yard care. Better watch that. If you don’t keep it up, you’ll have one of the Dove sisters on your ass about it, and you don’t want that.”
“The Dove sisters?”
“They live there.” Mrs. Phelps nodded up the street.
Grace turned to look. Two houses from them sat what must have been the largest house in Dove Pond. Painted a bold mauve and decorated with more than a usual amount of ornate white trim, it towered over its not-so-small neighbors. But it was the yard that stole all the glory. The grass was a deep, velvety green like that of a golf course, but it was a mere background for the hundreds—no, thousands—of flowers that bloomed in meticulously kept beds around the house, down the walkway, around each tree, and along the street. “That belongs on a movie set,” Grace murmured.
“They keep the place up,” Mrs. Phelps admitted in a grudging tone. “Unfortunately, they’re busybodies and will notice if you don’t mow.”
Grace imagined white-haired crones with hooked noses yelling about the height of the grass and demanding that people pick up after their pets. Great. “I can’t abide rudeness.”
“They aren’t rude. More likely to kill you with kindness, which annoys the crap out of me even more than rudeness. And they’re always watching.” Mrs. Phelps eyed the mauve house with obvious distaste. “I don’t see ’em now. Probably at work. The oldest is never home, as she has her own business. But the youngest, Sarah, is the town librarian, and she’s always at the fence between her house and the one next door talking to Travis Parker. He lives there.” Mrs. Phelps nodded at the smaller, neat-looking yellow house that served as a buffer between her house and the Doves’.
“I hope he’s a good neighbor.”
“Not bad,” Mrs. Phelps said, although she didn’t seem happy about it. “Although I can’t stand his damn motorcycle, which he drives like a bat out of hell. He has long hair and tattoos up both arms, but he’s a veteran, so I guess that’s okay. The house used to be his father’s, who died a year or so ago. Trav mostly keeps to himself, which is good.”
Well, that didn’t sound too bad. Except for the motorcycle. She hoped it wasn’t too noisy.
“Damn it, look at the time! I’ve got to go.” Mrs. Phelps started the RV, which belched a puff of black smoke before settling into a rumbly hum. “Call if you have more questions. You have my number.”
“I will. Did you say goodbye to Mama G? She was in the front yard when you came out.”
Mrs. Phelps’s face softened. “We spoke. She seemed fine at first, talking about the house and the memories she had of it, but then I asked why you all had moved here, and she couldn’t remember. Like it had just slipped out of her mind, a big thing like that.”
“It’s been happening more often.”
“Inna was always the smartest one in the room, too. It’s hard to see her like that. She could make me laugh, even when I felt like the world was about to end.” Mrs. Phelps’s blue eyes grew shiny and she fished in her pocket for a wadded tissue. “It’s not so obvious when you talk to her on the phone, but in person . . . Damn.” She wiped her eyes and blew her nose before saying in a husky voice, “Take care of her, will you?”
“I will. I need to find someone to watch after her when I’m at work.”
“Linda Robinson.” Mrs. Phelps tossed the tissue into the empty ashtray. “She’s good. Her husband, Mark, works at the post office, so just go in and ask. He’ll put you in touch with her.”
Grace nodded. She tried to think of something else to ask Mrs. Phelps, but nothing came.
This was it, then. And yet Grace hated to let the old woman leave. As prickly as she was, once Mrs. Phelps left, the move to Dove Pond would be official.
No, not permanent, Grace told herself briskly. I have a plan, and if everything goes right, then in a year we’ll move to Charlotte and start fresh.
She took a deep breath. It felt good to have a goal for the future firmly in mind. It allowed her to look past the dreary, harsh realities of her present-day situation, and focus on a brighter and better future. Still, her feet didn’t move away from the RV. “Good luck in Florida.”
“Thanks.” Mrs. Phelps looked down the tree-lined street. “I’m going to miss this place. I’d stay here, but my kids moved away, so . . .” She straightened her shoulders as if pushing off pounds of regrets. “Can’t spoil my grandbabies unless I’m there. My daughter’s mother-in-law has already moved there, and she’s had free rein for far too long.”
“Ah. You’re going to stop her.”
“Stop her? Hell no! I’m going to join her. Two grandmothers are better than one. Evelyn is a hoot, too. We plan on joining a line-dance class together, maybe even try belly dancing.” Mrs. Phelps chuckled. “My daughter won’t know what’s hit her.”
“I’m sure she’ll be glad you’re there.”
“She’d better be. This move is costing me plenty.” Mrs. Phelps revved her engine and removed her arm from the window. “Enjoy Dove Pond!”
Grace stepped back. “We will. We’ll take care of—”
But she was speaking to the side of the RV, as Mrs. Phelps was already moving. The old woman maneuvered the creaky vehicle past Grace’s Honda, around the moving truck, and then—with a speed that belied its massive size—whisked the lumbering vehicle down the drive.
Grace had never been more jealous of a rusty old RV in her life. What she would have given to speed away from this derelict house and the dismal year that lay ahead. If it weren’t for Daisy and Mama G, I’d pay someone to take my place. Or I would if I could afford it.
But she couldn’t, which was why they were here now, she and Mama G and Daisy, all three of them washed up onshore, shipwrecked victims in Hannah’s destructive wake. Oh, Hannah, why did you—
“Grace?” Mama G appeared from around the moving truck, her brow furrowed with worry. “The movers are asking where to put things and I don’t know what to tell them.”
Grace took a deep breath and forced a smile. “Let’s go see what they need.” She slipped an arm around Mama G’s thin shoulders and they walked back to the house.
Once inside, she settled Mama G and her knitting onto a lumpy, peach-colored divan that had been left in the front sitting room and then went to speak to the movers.
As Grace walked through the rooms, she took stock of their new home. The inside of the house matched the outside—both were lopsided and faded, with hints of long-ago grandeur. The floor was made of wide pine planks that had been scuffed by the rubber and leather soles of a thousand feet. At one time, the plastered walls must have been a golden color, but over the years, in places where the sun hit, pale yellow patches had bloomed. The light fixtures were wrought-iron relics of a time gone by and in need of a thorough cleaning. A wide staircase with a decorative handrail arose from the foyer to the second floor, and Grace could hear Daisy’s quick footfalls overhead as she went from room to room. Here and there were the large, surprisingly ornate pieces of furniture Mrs. Phelps had left in the house—the long, peach-colored divan Mama G was now perched upon, a pair of green-velvet-covered chairs that looked as if they belonged on a movie set, and a cupboard that filled one corner of the sitting room all the way to the ten-foot ceiling.
Grace joined the moving men where they stood beside the cocoon of tape and blankets that protected her dining room table.
“It won’t fit,” Ricky Bob announced. “At least not with that in here.” He nodded to a huge walnut buffet Mrs. Phelps had left behind. The monstrosity lined one wall and looked more appropriate for a castle.
“We can put the table against the far wall.” Tommy scratched his jaw. “But it’ll be tight, so your funk shoe might be off-kilter.”
Ricky Bob snorted. “Tommy, I done told you about a million times it’s ‘fang sway,’ not ‘funk shoe.’” He stripped off the tape that held the blankets in place over the table’s delicate surface and then he and his assistant folded the cotton covers and placed them in a neat pile. “I suppose we could move this buffet to another room, if you want.”
Grace picked up the blankets. “It’s huge, so I doubt it’ll fit anywhere else. Just leave it there. The table will be fine against the wall.”
“Interested in selling those blankets? I can pay you five dollars each and help you make back the money they cost you.”
Grace’s arms tightened around the covers. “No, thank you. I’ll need them when I move again. We’re only staying a year.”
Ricky Bob looked surprised at this, but soon he and Tommy headed back out to the truck while Grace stashed the blankets inside the built-in corner cupboard in the living room. When she finished, she returned to where her table sat, the late-afternoon sun slanting over the gleaming mahogany. She trailed her fingers over the satiny surface, glad to see that it had survived the move unscathed.
The dining room set had been her first purchase after she’d gotten her dream job. It meant a lot to her, although Ricky Bob was right—it was too big for this room. She placed her hand flat on the glossy waxed surface, the wood warm against her fingers. If she were smart, she’d sell this table and get something smaller. But she couldn’t give it up. She’d given up so much already. Too much.
A flash of red appeared at the corners of her eyes, and she gritted her teeth against it. It had been years since she’d had to fight her demons. Mama G’s love and calmness, along with the steady drumbeat of success, had done much to banish the red-hot anger that used to consume Grace. But Hannah’s death had brought a hint of Grace’s fury back, and she hated it.
Daisy ran down the stairs, her tennis shoes bouncing off each step. Grace left the table and went into the sitting room, happy to find her niece twirling at the bottom of the steps, her mood lighter than before.
From the divan, Mama G tapped her foot as if she could hear the invisible music. “Lord, child, you do like to dance.”
Encouraged, Daisy danced faster, looking just like her mother, blond and serene. But where Hannah could look right through you until you felt lonely and cold, Daisy’s gaze was personal and direct, even when she was mad at the world.
Panting from her exertions, Daisy plopped onto the floor beside Mama G. The little girl leaned her head back and, still breathing hard, reached up to touch the sunbeam that poured through one of the front windows, as if trying to catch the golden dust motes that spun in the light.
Grace smiled, caught in the unexpected peacefulness of the moment. Daisy was a warrior, this child of misfortune whose father had denied her and whose mother hadn’t been able to do more than hug her and leave, over and over again until they’d all been exhausted. But that had been Hannah—she’d disengaged from her pain until there’d been nothing left of her to give to her own child. Or anyone else.
Ricky Bob and Tommy thumped back and forth through the house, arguing with one another the entire time. They carried in side tables, an armoire, boxes of Daisy’s books, and finally a plump blue recliner that clashed horribly with the vibrant green chairs Mrs. Phelps had left behind. “Please put it here.” Grace pointed to an empty spot beside the fireplace. As soon as the recliner was in place, Grace patted the armrest. “Look, Mama G. Your favorite chair.”
Mama G didn’t need two invitations. “That divan is as lumpy as a stack of firewood.” She settled into the chair with a sigh of relief, her eyes twinkling as she smiled up at Grace. “You’d think with all the padding on my ass, I wouldn’t need such stuffed cushions, but lord, this feels good.”
Daisy, who’d brought Mama G’s knitting basket, giggled.
Even Grace had to laugh. “We all deserve comfortable chairs.”
Mama G smiled indulgently. But as Grace watched, the older woman’s smile slipped, and she looked around the room as if searching for a memory that had just skittered out of sight. “We are . . .” Her voice, which used to be so crisp and firm, started to quaver, much like her hands. “I used to know this place.”
Grace patted Mama G’s shoulder. “We’re in Dove Pond at Philomedra Phelps’s house. She just left. Remember?”
Mama G blinked. “Oh. Oh yes.” She surveyed the room as if seeing it for the first time. “I hope she’ll cook us some spaghetti. I never could make sauce the way she did, although mine’s pretty good.”
“Your sauce is better than good,” Daisy said. “It’s perfect.”
The loud rumble of a motorcycle outside caught Grace’s attention. She left Mama G and Daisy talking about the merits of spaghetti sauce and went to the front window.
Grace pushed aside the lace curtain. Sunlight lit the front yard, gleaming through the trees to sprawl in golden patches on the green grass. The rumble drew closer, and a red-and-silver streak flashed down the street. The bike slowed and then turned into the driveway next door. This must be Travis Parker.
Grace leaned forward so she could see him a little better. Broad-shouldered and as powerfully built as a cage fighter, the man wore a white T-shirt and jeans with effortless ease. He parked the bike next to his walkway, kicked the stand into place, and climbed off. He removed his helmet and long, dark hair spilled almost to his shoulders, in odd contrast to the harsh lines of his face. Oh great, of all the neighbors in the world, I get Khal Drogo.
He pulled his hand impatiently through his hair, hung his helmet on his bike, and then walked toward his house. He paused as he neared the door and turned to stare across his yard, as if looking for something. The sunlight hit his face and she caught sight of a thick red scar that ran up his neck to disappear under his five-o’clock shadow on one cheek.
I wonder what happened? A motorcycle wreck, no doubt.
He cupped his hands to his mouth. “Killer!” he yelled.
Killer? Alarmed, Grace looked in the direction he stared, waiting to see the hellhound worthy of such a name.
The man called again, more loudly this time. But nothing happened, and after a moment, he shrugged and went inside.
So that was her neighbor. And Killer, too. If that dog comes even close to Daisy, we’re going to have some words. Mrs. Phelps had said Travis Parker was the keep-to-himself type, and Grace could only hope the old woman was right. Judging from the deeply carved lines on his face, the khal didn’t look as if he was what one might call “good-natured.”
She was starting to turn away from the window when a blue pickup truck pulled into the drive that curled up to the Dove house. Intrigued, Grace pushed the curtain farther back and was surprised to see that the woman who climbed out of the truck wasn’t an ancient crone at all, but was Grace’s age or perhaps even younger. The woman had dark blond hair that was tied in a messy braid that flopped over her shoulder, and she wore a floaty, gauzy dress and sandals.
She reached into the back seat, pulled out a stack of books, and used her shoulder to shut the truck door. She’d just started up the walk toward her house when she stopped and looked down at the books and began scolding them as if they were alive.
Grace blinked. Good God. I’m surrounded by loonies. Biker Khal Drogo next door and hippie Hermione Granger in the house after that.
The woman patted the top book on the stack and started up the flower-lined walkway to her door. She’d just reached the steps when, with a sudden swivel, she looked directly at Grace. A delighted smile broke over her face, and she waved.
Startled, Grace jumped back and released the curtain, her face hot. As she turned, she found Mama G’s gaze locked on her.
“See something interesting?”
“No,” Grace lied.
“You should go and say hi.” When Grace shook her head, Mama G tsked. “Change never hurt nobody, child. You know that. It’s those who can’t or won’t change who lose.”
“I’m hungry.” Daisy put down the ball of yarn she’d been winding for Mama G and stood. “I know what I want for dinner.”
Relieved by the distraction and hoping to extend Daisy’s rare good mood, Grace said, “Let me guess.”
Daisy smiled, for the moment looking so much like her old self that Grace’s heart lifted. “Okay,” Daisy said. “Guess.”
“No!” Daisy shook her head and then spun in a circle while Mama G’s knitting needles settled into their familiar clicking. “Guess again.”
Grace pretended to think, relishing this moment of the not-angry Daisy. “Boiled eggs?”
“No, no, no!” Daisy spun a little faster. “Guess again!”
“Liver and onions?”
“No, no, no, no!” Daisy tilted to one side, too dizzy to stand as she plopped at Mama G’s feet, panting heavily. “Pizzzzzaaaaaa!”
Mama G looked up from her knitting. “Pizza?”
“You like pizza,” Daisy assured her.
Mama G’s smile disappeared, and she said sharply, “I know I like pizza. My momma used to make the best pies. In fact . . .” Mama G looked around the room. “She and my aunt Penelope would make pies in this very house every Sunday night. Philomedra and I would set the table and we’d have the neighbors over and there’d be wine and— Oh, it was so much fun!”
Grace’s heart lifted. Perhaps coming back to Mama G’s hometown would do her some good, after all. Here, far away from the tatters of their old life, maybe they could find a new one, a better one, one where the world wasn’t ripped in half by the black hole where Hannah used to be.
“Pizza, huh?” Grace threw up her hands as if conceding a victory to the others. “Fine. Pizza it is.” With a smile, she went to quiz the movers on the best place to order a delivery. After all the troubles she, Mama G, and Daisy had weathered, they deserved the best pizza Dove Pond had to offer.
It wasn’t much, but it was a start.