About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Korrie Karssen blew wisps of hair from her eyes as she hoisted a cardboard box from the trunk of her car. Overhead, the sky loomed with angry, dark clouds that seemed to mirror the tempest howling inside her.
How had she been so foolish?
She shook her head against the question and, with her arms overloaded, turned toward a double-pronged path that meandered along the sprawling seven acres of gently rolling land that had been in the Karssen family for three generations.
Should she turn right or left?
A right took her to the main house, where she knew her sister Julie waited to welcome her with the warmth of a crackling fire. A turn to the left led to a dark and vacant cottage-style guesthouse.
Korrie sighed and after a lengthy hesitation, turned to the left. No point in delaying the inevitable. She wasn't ready to see her sister or her brother-in-law, Michael. She had no desire to air her dirty laundry. Just being back on the property, relying on her sister's charity after so many years of successful independence, was hard enough.
Ten minutes later Korrie stumbled over cobblestone, wishing she could have managed to park her car closer to the cottage. The modest outbuilding that hadn't been used to house anyone in years, had no garage or carport, and the path, partially overgrown by unruly weeds, wound at least forty feet alongside a hedgerow meant to divide the property from the neighbor's before it met a concrete landing at the back door.
Already, Korrie missed the city and the luxurious riverfront condo she'd called home until that afternoon at precisely three-sixteen, when she'd signed final papers to relinquish the unit to new owners. She'd taken a huge hit on the sale price and had ended up with nothing in her pocket to show for the years she'd resided there.
She'd traded her Lexus for a used Honda that sported over a hundred thousand miles. She'd cashed in her 401(k) and sold everything she didn't need in order to keep the wolves from the door. Her remaining belongings fit into the trunk and backseat of the car, along with a little overflow to the front passenger side. That was it. Everything. She no longer had any savings and had amassed a string of credit card debt that would most likely take the better part of the next decade to pay down.
If she could find a new job.
She'd made a mess of things, all right. No denying it. She'd failed in a big way. She held the crown as the queen of crash and burn.
Korrie drew a deep breath and tried to ignore the deep ache in her arms and her screaming thighs. Of course, moving her belongings from the condo had been a total nightmare; the elevator had decided to take a vacation just as she was loading the car. Dozens of trips up and down three flights of stairs told her she'd neglected her daily workouts for way too long.
Well, there was no time to cry over spilled milk — and it was no secret that she'd dumped the entire milk truck. A wicked-looking spring storm turned the sky to a churning gumbo. One furtive glance heavenward over the box in her arms and she knew she needed to get the car unloaded before the clouds unleashed their fury.
Korrie clutched the box to her chest, dodging overgrown bushes that crowded the walk while trying her best not to stumble. Navy pumps paired with a pencil skirt weren't the wisest choice for moving day, but her pride had gotten the best of her again that morning, and she'd opted for the elegant ensemble instead of sensible jeans and tennis shoes. The skirt nipped and tugged while the blouse boasted soil most likely beyond repair. Regardless, she was determined to get everything inside before the storm hit.
Even if it killed her. And with the way every muscle fiber was revolting, it just might.
Thunder grumbled in the distance and raindrops splattered her face as she neared the back door of the cottage. Of course, to add insult to injury, she'd be as soaked as a rat caught in a toilet bowl by the time she finished hauling everything in. Lovely. Wonderful. Par for the course.
She bit down hard on her lower lip as the box began to slip. She tightened her grip, wishing she had packed more carefully.
But she hadn't been given much time to exit the condo. The new owners had demanded an expedited, strict closing timeline and she was at their mercy. So she'd tossed everything into boxes she'd gathered from the local grocery store's produce department and loaded them into the car before roaring off to her new home.
A matchbox-sized guesthouse meant for a gardener ... or a servant.
Or a gullible, over-spending, over-trusting sorry excuse for a sister, which she had proven herself to be.
Another rumble of thunder followed by a flash of lightning, too close for comfort, sent Korrie's heart into a finish-line sprint. She dug her nails into the sides of the box and quickened her pace.
Across the property, rising majestically upon a gentle knoll, sat the farmhouse where Korrie had spent her childhood. Though she was the eldest and had first dibs on the property, the home had been deeded to Julie half-a-decade ago when Korrie turned down her parents' gift. At the time, Korrie had been in negotiations to purchase her posh waterfront condo in the heart of downtown Knoxville, and she had no use for an outdated, clapboard farmhouse in need of too many upgrades to count. The fact that the home sat on a bucolic swatch of land way too far from the heart of her beloved city did nothing to sweeten the offer.
Boy, how times had changed.
The penthouse she'd coveted no longer belonged to her. Her hard-earned job at the Southeast's premier real estate agency was gone, as well. It mattered not one iota that she'd been a top producer — the top producer — for close to a decade. Joe's exploits, paired with her own misguided trust, had resulted in the loss of the hugest deal of the decade. As a result, the firm's owners had dropped her like a hot potato.
Yet now the farmhouse, which had been beautifully restored over the past year by Julie and Michael, was off the table. All that remained was Julie's gracious invitation to bunk at the painfully outdated, un-restored guesthouse that in its entirety stood smaller than the master bedroom at Korrie's condo.
Her former condo. Karma had a crummy sense of humor.
A light flickered in an upstairs window of the sprawling house on the hill, sending a shimmer of light into the growing, stormy darkness. Korrie imagined Julie settling into a chair in the corner of the spare bedroom she and Michael had converted to a library, and relaxing beneath the soft glow of a lamp with one of the romance novels she routinely devoured.
Julie had always been a sucker for romance, and she'd certainly found a storybook fairytale with Michael. Though they'd been together forever — high school sweethearts and now married for nearly a decade — the two were as starry-eyed for one another as they'd been as teens. It made Korrie happy and sort of seasick as well, mostly because she figured she'd never know how it felt to be so in love ... and so loved in return.
She hoped the pair's bond would continue to withstand the test of time. Her own amorous experiences had proved more the crash and burn variety. She'd learned a long time ago that submitting herself to romantic love was sort of like crossing a pond over fractured ice. You never knew when it was going to cave beneath the pressure.
The pressure to be perfect. All the time.
Korrie remained convinced that it was so much easier to keep her heart on a leash than to give it away just to have it taken advantage of and then crushed. Because she was about the absolutely, positively farthest thing from perfect. Her most recent debacle had proven that point beyond any doubt.
Besides, she had no time for romance, whether real or imagined. She had boxes to unload, belongings to put away, and some serious job hunting to do ... all with a storm nipping at her heels.
Unless she wanted to live off her baby sister's charity indefinitely.
Never. No way. Not even a remote possibility.
Overgrown, gnarled rose bushes that were just beginning to bud along the side of the cottage frowned at Korrie as she stepped onto the landing and nudged the back door open with the toes of one foot. A rush of warmth chased the chill from her bones as she stepped into the kitchen.
"Thank you, Michael," she murmured, though he wasn't there to hear. At least her brother-in-law had thought to crank up the aging thermostat against the unseasonably cool April air.
Korrie set the box on a dinged and dented bistro table just inside the kitchen doorway and then surveyed the room. One glance at the hideously-yellowed floor tile and circa-70's chipped countertops had a lump lodging her throat. The place looked the same as it had the last time she'd seen it, years ago.
Run down ... worn to the bone ... defeated. Just like me.
At least it's clean and warm ... and free.
The voice whispered as Korrie swiped tears from her cheeks. Beggars couldn't be choosers, and right now she was just about as rock-bottom down on her luck as she could possibly be.
She swiped moisture from her eyes, pushed up the sleeves of her blouse, and headed back out into the frigid rain and growling skies. No tears now. There was too much to do.
She would have plenty of time through dark, lonely nights ahead to unleash the heartache bottled inside her.
* * *
With a hint of amusement, Brayden Cambridge peered over the hedgerow separating his property from the neighbor's cottage as a tall, lithe woman who marched with a hint of sass hoisted a box on one hip and then reached into the trunk of her car for another. It was like watching a circus juggling act, except she apparently lacked any skill in the juggling department.
At least when it came to carrying oversized boxes. In the rain. Without a jacket. Over a weedy cobblestone path. In outrageously-heeled shoes and a skirt that looked more like sausage casing than moving attire.
Wait for it ... wait for it ...
She turned from the car, her long blonde hair damp and clinging like a shield across her eyes. She hobbled a few steps in the confining skirt, tilting her head slightly as she huffed at her plastered hair. Like a slow-motion outtake from a slapstick comedy, the box on her hip tumbled, dumping its contents with a clatter of metal against rock that rang loud enough to wake the dead.
Tiny, white cups bounced off the fractured plastic casing of one of those fancy single-serve coffee makers. The woman hopped to avoid stepping on them, lost her balance, and stomped down hard on the coffee maker instead, delivering a death blow. Glass shattered like shrapnel, causing the woman to dance a funky sort of jig to avoid being hit. She lost her grip on the second box, and it somersaulted from her hands. Clothing tumbled and scattered, flapping in the rain-soaked breeze like wilted confetti.
"No, no, please, no!" Her groan was audible through the porch screen where Brayden stood sheltered from the storm. She fisted her hands and pummeled her thighs. "Really, seriously? Is this how it's going to go, then?" She paced a couple of steps, tripped over the K-cups strewn like marbles, and skated across the battered and dented box flap. When she somehow managed to right herself, she stomped one foot hard enough that the heel of her shoe snapped off. This time there was no righting the ship. Her arms shot out as she sprawled across the lawn, collapsing to her knees.
She lowered herself the rest of the way and sat in the soaking rain, raking hair from her eyes and huffing air as if she'd just run a marathon. Thunder rumbled, much closer now, as she tilted her face toward the heavens.
The anguished question rent the air. It echoed from the treetops, and she paused, silent for a moment or two, but her only answer was the steady beat of falling rain coupled with the whisper of a breeze along the treetops.
Her defeated sigh was audible. Then she did the one thing Brayden couldn't bear — she lowered her head into her hands and began to sob.
"This is so unfair," she ranted, clenching a fist to pummel the ground. "Haven't I suffered enough? Did you have to make the cottage a million miles from the driveway? Did you have to make the storm of the century come just now?"
Brayden looked around, waiting for whomever she was ranting at to round the corner of the cottage or step from the car. No one did. That meant her tirade was aimed at The Big Man Upstairs. Brayden's heart went out to her. Whatever she was going through, he had no idea. But he understood the utter grief. He'd been there, done that, and had the scars to prove it.
Brayden shoved open the porch door and started that way.
"Where are you going, Uncle Bray?" Scottie came up behind him with Thor tromping along. The German Shepard had rarely left his nephew's side since the child had come to live with Brayden. It was as if Scottie and the canine had a telepathic sense of belonging together — two orphans on a quest to find their way.
"I'm going to see if that lady needs help." Brayden motioned to the sobbing woman, still huddled and trembling in the grass. "She seems to be in a bad way."
"Yep, and it's always right to help someone in need." Scottie swiped breadcrumbs from his mouth. "That's what you said last week when we brought groceries to Old lady Laudner."
So the kid had been listening. Brayden made a mental note to take care with the words he chose, as well as his actions. His nephew was a living, breathing sponge, soaking up everything in his path.
And now that Scottie was also his responsibility, Brayden felt the weight of this new duty to try his best to maintain his A-game at every turn. He'd served two tours in Afghanistan, but raising the child proved the most daunting commission of his life.
"It's not polite to call Mrs. Laudner an old lady, champ." He patted Scottie's head. "She's a widow, and lonely."
"What's a widow?"
"A widow is a woman whose husband has passed away."
"That's a nice way to say the husband died, right?" "I suppose you could put it that way."
"Is that like Mama when daddy died? She was a widow, right? And then when Mama got sick and died, too, I 'came an orphan?"
Thor whined as if he understood the enormity of the statement. He nudged closer to Scottie, practically wrapping himself like a blanket around the kid's legs.
Scottie sure asked a lot of questions. It made Brayden ever-cognizant about all the little questions he had no answers for.
"Yes." Brayden forced the lump back from his throat at the memory of his sister's death. "Like that."
"But you're my mom and dad now, right?" Scottie's gaze, a mirror of the storm clouds seething beyond the porch, held just enough uncertainty to pierce Brayden's heart. What was the key — how long would it take — to drive away that insecurity?
What would it take to drive away his own? Raising Scottie was more than he'd bargained for. The unexpected adoption of his nephew hadn't even been so much as a blip on his radar a couple of years ago.
A few years ago he'd been dodging bullets in Afghanistan. Losing Craig and then Diana were the last things on his mind. With the dangerous missions during the course of his tour, he always imagined he'd be the first to go.
Who knew an out-of-the-blue medical diagnosis coupled with a drug raid gone bad would change all that and ultimately shorten Brayden's final tour, bringing him home to a whole new world.
"Yes, I'm your mom and dad now, forever and ever." Brayden used the hem of his T-shirt to wipe an orange smudge from Scottie's cheek. "Did you finish that grilled cheese sandwich I made for you?"
"Uh huh. Except for the crust. I gave that to Thor."
Brayden bet he did. Thor had been trained not to beg for food, but Scottie had undone that training with stealth-like ease.
Brayden reminded himself to pick his battles. Cast-off bread crusts weren't one of them.
"And the tomato soup?"
"Yep. And my milk, too. Every drop." Scottie pointed at his mouth as if the ring of chocolate milk that clung to his lips might prove the point.
"Good job, champ."
"I love you, Uncle Brayden." Scottie wrapped his arms around Brayden's thighs, hugging tight. "To the moon and back."
Brayden's eyes stung with tears. He hoped Diana and Craig were somehow watching, and that they were pleased with his efforts and the way things were shaping up. Scottie's lack of height reminded Brayden that the kid was only five years old. He had a lot of long years in the parenting department ahead of him.
"Right back atcha, champ." Brayden scooped coffee-colored bangs from Scottie's gray eyes. The kid could use a haircut. Brayden added the task to his ever-growing mental to-do list. "Now, about the lady ..."
Excerpted from "Wants and Wishes"
Copyright © 2018 Mary Manners.
Excerpted by permission of Pelican Ventures, LLC.
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.