The love that binds
Former Nashville star Sam Etchason is slowly building a new life in peaceful Lake Mildred. But an unexpected inheritance makes him joint owner of a farmhouse with Kelly Sweet, a country singer driven by her own long-time ambitions.
Kelly is only back in Michigan to settle her grandmother's estate. She hasn't expected such a powerful closeness between her and Sam. And now she's starting to reconnect with the sister she left behind. Everything's falling into place, until a stunning offer comes her way that threatens to destroy it all. The deal means instant stardom for Kelly, but would cost Sam what he holds most dear...
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"She's gone, Kel."
Despite being in Nashville and more than five hundred miles from Michigan, Kelly Sweet could hear the sound of despair in her sister Megan's voice. She reached behind her neck and pulled her long blond hair forward, fighting the panic that started to gather there. "What do you mean she's gone? Who's gone?" She paused, fear now starting to spread from her belly to her chest. "Grammy?"
"This is her late morning at the bakery, but she didn't show up at all. I got worried, so I drove home and I found her still sleeping in her bedroom." Her sister's voice broke on the other end of the line. "But she wasn't sleeping. She's gone."
Kelly sunk to the edge of her bed, shoving a stack of pillows to the floor. Oh, Grammy. No, no, no. Kelly wiped at the tears streaming down her face. The woman who had raised her and her sister. Her biggest supporter and fan. Her rock, gone. It wasn't possible. Couldn't be. She'd lost her grandfather and dad, so now she had to lose her dad's mother, too? How was that fair? She rubbed the center of her chest, hoping to ease the ache that had lodged there. "How?'
"Doctor thinks it was an aneurysm." Megs sobbed for a moment. "She said it was probably quick and that she didn't suffer."
"It's how she wanted to go." Grammy had always said she'd wanted to go to bed one night and not wake up in the morning. Yet that thought brought little comfort now. She was gone, and Kelly hadn't had the chance to say goodbye. To tell Grammy one more time that she loved her, that she wouldn't be the woman she was today without her support and encouragement all these years. She put her free hand to her belly and rocked back and forth on the bed.
"I just can't believe she's gone."
Her sister continued to sob on the other end while Kelly tried to think of something comforting to say. But what could she offer that didn't sound trite even to her own ears? That Grammy was better off? That she wouldn't suffer anymore? Things like that didn't matter when Kelly would trade everything she had for just one more minute, one second with her grandmother. "It's going to be okay."
Megs sniffed. "I'm meeting with the funeral home director tomorrow. The entire town is going to show up, you know. They all love, loved Grammy."
Right. Planning the viewing and the funeral would give her something to do amid the chaos that was her heart. Planning would give her focus, a purpose. Decision made, she said, "I'm on my way."
"What about your job?"
From which she'd been fired and replaced already. Not that she'd told her sister about it for fear that she'd look like a loser. It was temporary. It always was until she found another waitress job to pay the bills while she auditioned and waited for her big break as a country singer. So instead, she evaded. "I've got vacation time." Like for the rest of her life if she didn't find another singing gig soon. She shook her head as if to shake that idea free from her brain. She would get another one. She always did, if at least for the short term.
There was a pause on the other end. "Thanks. I don't think I could do this on my own."
Sure she could. Her sister Megs was the strongest person Kelly knew. While she herself had broken down after their father died when she turned fifteen and their mother abandoned them shortly after, her sister had held her hand and offered tissues. She acted as if she was the older sister, rather than the other way around. Nope. Megs could do this with her eyes closed. "I'm coming home." Home, although it wasn't home anymore.
"I can pick you up at the airport."
"No." Kelly winced at the harshness, the desperation in her voice. She couldn't even afford to log on to the airline's website. "It's too expensive. I'll drive up." She glanced at her digital alarm clock. "I should be there before midnight if I can get packed and leave in the next half hour."
There was silence on the other end. Kelly checked to make sure her cell phone hadn't lost the signal. Then Megs sighed. "Let's meet at the bakery. I've got a ton of things to take care of in the meantime."
Kelly nodded, knowing her sister couldn't see her. "I'll see you soon." She paused, letting the words rattle in her mind before she said them aloud. "I love you, Megs." More silence. "Love you, too. Drive safe, huh?"
Kelly hung up the cell phone and glanced around her studio apartment. She had stashed her battered lavender suitcase underneath the bed. After her last gig as a touring backup singer she'd promised herself she wouldn't bring it back out until she was leaving for her own headline concert.
But death had a way of changing things.
She opened the suitcase then walked to the clothes rack she'd bought for hanging up dresses and tops. Thank goodness she didn't have many things to pack. A benefit of being a twenty-nine-year-old struggling country singer meant that any money she did have went for necessities: rent, utilities and food. Gas for her truck, when she could afford it.
She thought of the lone five dollar bill in her wallet and sighed. Walking to the freezer in the kitchen, she brought out a chunk of ice and started to melt it under hot water in the sink. Time to get that credit card ready to use.
Sam Etchason parked his truck across from the Sweetheart bakery. He got out and slammed the door behind him, looked both ways, then raced across Lincoln Street. The bakery's unlocked door surprised him, but made it easier for him to enter and find Megs. She was sitting in the darkened front room at one of the tables and was staring at nothing, her chin resting on her fist.
He went over to where she sat and took the chair across from her. He slipped her free hand into his. "I'm so sorry, Megs."
She looked up at him as if confused to see him there. "Sam, thanks for coming. They won't fire you, will they?"
"Don't worry about it. I'm my own boss." He noted how empty the place was, and yet pastries already filled the display cases. He didn't hear any of the employees moving in the kitchen. "Did you send Tom and Gina home? You shouldn't be alone right now."
"My sister Kelly's on her way. I'll be fine."
She didn't look fine. Her skin so pale. The red-rimmed eyes and swollen nose. He put his hand on her shoulder. "You don't have to open today."
"It's what Grammy would have done. I managed to get some of the baking finished, but I can't seem to find the strength to officially open today." She stared at the silent room then looked back at him. Her face crumpled. "What am I going to do without her?"
He rose from the chair and came to put his arms around her, pulling her in tight. "She was a fine woman. My first friend here in Lake Mildred when I arrived two years ago, you know?" He drew back and studied her watery eyes, wishing he could erase the pain there. "You're just like her. Compassionate and kind. And you have the need to feed people's souls as well as their bodies."
She gave him a soft smile. "You were a good friend to Grammy, Sam. And to me."
"Well, I think of you like my little sister." He took his seat, smiling. "People will understand if you don't open today, Megs. Why don't you take the day off?"
"I need to be here. In her bakery." Megs stood and straightened her pink apron with the bakery's logo printed on the bib. "I wanted to be alone, so I sent the employees home. I couldn't deal with all their questions. What'll happen now? What are you going to change?
Are we closing for good?" She gave a small shudder. "I hope not. This is all I know."
He knew there was time for her to deal with those questions later. Sam held up his cell phone. "If you need me, call."
She hugged him once more. "Thank you, Sam."
The highway felt lonelier as she drove north on I-75 toward Michigan. It was giving her too much time to think, to grieve, to regret. Adelaide Sweet had been a formidable force in Kelly's life. Her biggest cheerleader and fan. No one could sing as well as Kelly according to Grammy. Never had, never will, she used to say.
Kelly had promised Grammy that she'd pursue her music career until she turned thirty. If Kelly didn't have her first recording contract by that point, she'd return to Lake Mildred and start a new path. Only three months until her birthday and deadline, and she was returning, anyway.
For now, or for good? Kelly wasn't sure. If it was up to her, this would be only temporary. She'd go home to Lake Mildred and bury her grandmother. Grieve. And then figure out what to do for the next three months until she blew out those candles.
The town sign welcomed her back before she reached Main Street. No parades or paparazzi. No adoring fans. Just the same sign that had greeted everyone since the town had been established in 1892. Or so it read.
She ignored the angry churning of her belly as she followed the curve into the downtown district. The neon sign for Rick's Diner didn't glow, nor did the department store display windows of Roxy's. The other businesses were shut, and probably had been since nine o'clock that evening. Kelly glanced at the clock on her dashboard. Not even midnight and the small northern Michigan town had rolled up its sidewalks already. Not like Nashville.
She shook her head and turned right at the next street then parked in the lot behind the Sweetheart bakery. Her sister's car was there, so Megs had to be inside. She got out of her car, walked to the back door of the bakery and tried the door handle. Unlocked, of course.
Okay, so this was a small town, but safety was safety even here.
The aromas of yeast and sugar greeted Kelly as she pushed open the door and stepped inside. "Megan?" she called.
No answer but the soft sounds of singing from the kitchen beyond.
Kelly took a deep breath to steady her nerves and locked the back door. Her sister might be naive about the people in this town, but experience had taught Kelly that she couldn't trust anyone.
She found her sister standing at the marble work table, kneading dough with her eyes closed and singing along with whatever song was on her iPod. She looked peaceful. Content. Like she knew she was right where she was supposed to be. Kelly ignored the sour feeling again in her belly and put her hand on Megs's shoulder. "Hey."
Her sister's eyes flew open, and she jumped back. "Oh. Hi." She rushed forward and hugged Kelly. "You made it okay."
"Yep." When Megs released her, Kelly wiped at the flour that now dusted the front of her jean jacket. "I drove straight here after you called." Her eyes got hot and wet as she focused on her sister. "Oh, Megs. Grammy's gone."
Megs nodded, her lip quivering. "It was quick. She complained last night that she had a headache before she went to bed. I gave her a couple of aspirin, hoping it would help. She never woke up." Her sister wiped her eyes with the corner of her pink apron. "She looked so peaceful. Like she was ready, you know?"
"At least she's with Grandpa and Dad now." Kelly glanced around the kitchen and noticed the pans of cookies, pastries and several loaves of bread. She frowned at the bounty of sweet treats. "You're not planning on opening the Sweetheart tomorrow, are you?"
Megs looked surprised to see all the baked goods there. "Huh. Guess I got carried away. This is all for the funeral home. I figured people might want a little something sweet."
Kelly guessed with all the food her sister had baked, people could stuff themselves on dough and sugar for the next week and there would still be leftovers. She pointed toward the lump of kneaded dough on the table top.
Her sister patted the doughy mound. "This? It's a new recipe I'm trying." She nudged an old ledger book towards Kelly. "Grammy gave this to me about a week ago. She said they're family recipes that were handed down to Pop Pop from his mother and generations before him. Grammy called them special. That I'd know when I was ready for them." Her sister's eyes were watery as she opened the ledger and located a recipe near the front. "See? Her handwriting says this bread is good to comfort those in their grief." She shrugged. "I thought, why not? There's going to be a lot of people who'll need comforting the next few days."
Grammy had been a cornerstone of the community for so long that Kelly couldn't imagine the hole she was going to leave in everyone's lives. She'd already left one in her own chest, so why not the entire town's? Kelly paused. "Did you call everybody? Do you need me to do anything?"
"Everybody in town knew as soon as the ambulance arrived at the house. The small town grapevine still works." Megs gave a deep sigh. "And I called Aunt Lillian's daughters to let them know, too. Grammy didn't have much family left. We're what's left of her blood."
Kelly shuddered. Grammy's sister Lillian had two daughters who had terrorized their dad when he'd been young, if you could believe the stories he'd shared. Being the only child of two bakers, Dad had struggled with a weight issue most of his life. And Lillian's daughters had never let him forget it. Granted, they were forty years older now. And they had families of their own.
Megs rubbed the back of her neck. "Do you mind if we take a little break? I need to let the dough rise. I can go over with you what we still have to do for the funeral."
The sisters settled at one of the tables in the front room with a legal-sized notepad and one of the pink pens that advertised the bakery and its phone number. Kelly drew a couple of scribbles then looked up at her sister. "What about Mom? Did you call her yet?"
"Thought I'd leave that up to you. I can't deal with her right now. Besides, I don't know where she is at the moment."
Kelly checked the time. "Last I talked to her, Florida. So it's probably too late to phone tonight. I'll call her tomorrow. Think she'll come up for the funeral?" Megs gave her a nasty look. "You're probably right. They didn't exactly see eye to eye on things."
"Except about Daddy. They both thought he hung the moon." Megs stared at her dough. "I keep picturing him and Pop Pop waiting for Grammy when she arrived at the pearly gates. Welcoming her home."