Set against the breathtaking backdrop of the Great Smoky Mountains, Lin Stepp's sweet and touching story follows one woman's journey back to the home--and the husband--she left behind…
When Lydia Cunningham left her husband and moved to Atlanta ten years ago, it was with equal parts sadness and certainty. She loved her home in North Carolina, with its lush green hills and crisp, clean air. And in truth, she still loved John, too. But she could no longer live with her mother-in-law's constant criticism and the distance it created in her marriage.
Now, thanks to a job offer at her alma mater, Lydia is moving back, renting the old country house where she and John lived as newlyweds. She hopes to strengthen the frayed ties with her daughter, Mary Beth, and build a relationship with her grandsons. As for John--it's clear from the moment Lydia sees him standing in her doorway that he hopes they might rekindle their bond. The spark between them hasn't dimmed--but neither have Lydia's memories of past hurts. Yet in this magnificent landscape that's always felt like home, she might find a way to forgive and begin again…
Praise for Lin Stepp and her Smoky Mountain Novels
"I've finally come across someone that believes in all the things that I do…love, family, faith, intrigue, mystery, loyalty, romance, and a great love for our beloved Smoky Mountains." --Dolly Parton
"An amazing storyteller...The romance exhibited is pure, natural and heartwarming." --RT Book Reviews
"A lovely sense of place…capturing the sights and sounds of Tennessee's breathtaking Great Smoky Mountains." --Booklist
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A Smoky Mountain Novel
By LIN STEPP
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Lin Stepp
All rights reserved.
With a scowl, J. T. stuffed a final sack of books into a corner of Lydia's trunk, amid the growing mound of boxes and suitcases. "Mom, I think these are the last bags to load and I doubt we can cram any more in."
Offering him a smile, Lydia reached out to pat his arm, but J. T. shifted away. He stalked off toward the house, the sullen expression he'd worn all morning still set on his face. He and his brothers had shown up en masse this morning to help her pack, not one in a good mood.
Tucking her laptop and printer-copier into the crowded backseat of her navy Mustang, Lydia turned to head back into the kitchen — only to find all three of her sons filling the small kitchen space, waiting for her and scowling. "What's all this?" she asked, crossing her arms.
"You don't have to go, Mom." Parker sent her a grief-stricken look. "We can unload all this stuff in a flash. You can still change your mind."
"We've talked this out several times, Parker." Lydia sat down at the kitchen table, motioning for the boys to join her. She probably should have expected a final, frontal ambush after watching them exchange glances and frowns all morning.
"But it still doesn't make sense to us." Parker's twin, Billy Dale — preferably called Will now — leaned toward her, popping his knuckles as he always did when feeling upset or anxious.
Lydia tried to think of what to say. "The new job back at Western Carolina University is a move up for me to director of career services, in a school I like. It's the college where I got my undergrad and graduate degrees, held my first job as a student in career services, and where I first worked after graduation. I love Western — you know that. It's like going home to me."
J. T. frowned. "That's hardly the whole story, Mom. You're going home to the farm, too."
Lydia stalled for an answer, getting up to pour herself a glass of water from the Brita in the refrigerator. "I am not going home to the farm." She spoke each word slowly for emphasis as she sat back down. "I'm renting Hill House on the Upper Farm property."
"Same thing." J. T. scowled.
"It is not the same thing, J. T., and you know it." Lydia glared at him. "You also know why I'm renting Hill House at this particular time. Rebecca said your father might sell it, that they'd experienced a lot of bills since Estelle died. The house has sat empty for over a year, and a developer who wants to purchase the land tendered a good offer."
"And why is that your responsibility?" J. T. popped out yet another sarcastic remark.
She caught his eyes with hers. "Rebecca said Mary Beth was upset that the house and property might be sold. You know it would create a big gap in the property. She asked Rebecca to suggest I rent Hill House when she learned of my job offer at Western."
Lydia let her gaze sweep from one son to another. "Mary Beth is your sister. I have been here for the three of you all these years, but not there for her. She has never asked anything of me before this — not once since I left. I don't feel I can say no."
J. T. shook his head. "Mom, Mary Beth has hardly spoken to you since you left ten years ago. Or to us. Remember? She was angry at all of us for leaving."
"I know that." Lydia chewed on a nail. "I hope this might be my opportunity to mend fences with her. She is my only daughter."
"And we're your sons." Parker dropped his head into his hands, working hard to hold his emotions in check. "We love you, Mom. We don't want you to go. What will we do here without you?"
She reached over to tousle his hair. "You'll move on with your life and career, marry your sweet fiancée, and soon make more beautiful grandchildren for me like J. T. and his wife have."
Parker looked around the small, cozy kitchen of their house. "It won't be the same without you. I want you to stay. We all want you to stay."
"I know you do and I admit I feel torn — my boys here in Atlanta, but my girl, I've been estranged from all these years, and a new job opportunity back in North Carolina." She studied the anxious faces of her sons. "Can't you understand that I want some time to come to know Mary Beth now that she's grown, to get to know her twin boys — my grandsons? They're six years old and I've had no time with them."
Will scowled. "What you really mean is that it's safe to go back to Cunningham Farm now because 'Ding Dong! The Witch is dead.'"
"Billy Dale!" Lydia shook a finger at him. "That was a very crude and rude remark to make about your grandmother."
He slouched in his seat, unrepentant. "Why is that, Mom? Should we all pretend Grandmother Cunningham was a dear saint and a sweet person now that she's dead? We all know better. She ran the four of us off the farm, remember? It's why we're here in Atlanta now."
"There were other reasons why I came to Atlanta and why you boys came with me." Lydia straightened her shoulders. "Working at Georgia Tech on full-time staff paved the way for all three of you to get your educations tuition-free."
"Mom, we know that." J. T. reached across the table to take her hand. "We're grateful, too, for how you stood with us to help us have the opportunities and futures we wanted, rather than staying on the farm."
The twins added their hands over J. T.'s, bringing tears to Lydia's eyes at their unexpected show of affection. "We just worry that you'll be hurt again with Dad so nearby," Billy Dale said.
Lydia drew back her hand in surprise and crossed her arms defensively. "You talk like your father is some sort of monster. You know that's not true. He deeply loved all of us. He was good to us."
"But not good enough." Parker frowned. "He wouldn't stand up for us against his mother."
"That would be a hard thing for any son to do." She studied her nail, avoiding her son's eyes. "Especially in your father's situation, when your grandfather had died and left your grandmother — and the farm — in your father's care."
J. T. made a fist. "He let her bully you and make you unhappy. Then when we grew old enough to want a life away from the farm, he let her go after us. She had a mean heart and a cutting tongue, Mom. You know it's true." He paused, trying to curb his anger. "She could make a victim bleed with her words and actions, and she enjoyed wielding her power doing it."
"Mary Beth was the only one she didn't bully all the time except for Dad. Probably why Mary Beth decided to stay," Parker added.
"Estelle was a difficult woman." Lydia could hardly deny it.
A small silence filled the kitchen — each of them swamped with their own rush of negative memories.
"Are you going to try to make up with Dad?" Parker asked, voicing the question none of the boys had asked before.
Lydia smiled. "It isn't as though your father and I had a specific quarrel, Parker, that needs 'making up.' I simply wanted different things than the farm could offer at the time."
"That's not an answer to Parker's question." J. T. ran a hand through his dark red hair, so much like her own.
Lydia tapped a nail on the table. "I'm not going back to the farm to resume a relationship with your father. We've been separated for ten years, J. T. A lot of time has gone by. We've both made different lives, grown apart, and become different people."
"But you haven't divorced," Billy Dale added. "And you've never dated much, if at all, in all the time you've been here."
"You know I've been busy raising you boys and working," she answered, watching them raise their eyebrows and pass looks back and forth as soon as she said the words.
Billy Dale grinned and shook his head. "Funny, we all managed to have our share of women over these years, some good ones, some real losers. We all worked, went to school, but still found time for a social life. We even managed to get married or engaged — J. T. married to Laura, me to Amelia, and Parker engaged to Marie."
"Yes, and I'm so pleased to have all three of you settled —"
J. T. interrupted. "So now you can go back and see if there's still something between you and Dad. That's really it, isn't it, Mom?"
Lydia waited a moment to answer, getting up to put her glass in the sink. "I loved your father with all my heart at one time. In many ways I will always love him. But I'm not returning to reestablish a relationship with him, and I'm sure he's not eager to renew a relationship with me."
"He's never pushed for a divorce in all these years. Perhaps he does want to get back with you. If so, what will you do?" J. T. leaned forward as he posed his question, making Lydia uncomfortable.
"I have no idea, and I think you boys are letting your imaginations get the best of you speculating in this way. Your father and I are two middle-aged people, after all."
Billy Dale laughed. "You're not even fifty, Mom. You're hardly dead and buried. People start whole new lives and enter passionate new relationships in their forties, fifties, and even afterward today."
Lydia blushed at her son's candor. "Well, thank you for that sage advice," she said, covering her embarrassment. "That certainly reassures me about my vitality and future opportunities."
"Just be careful, won't you?" Parker gave her an appealing look. "We really don't want to see you hurt again."
She looked at her sons in surprise. "You really think your father would intentionally hurt me?"
"He did before." J. T. spit out the words. "It's not something we can easily forget."
"Listen. I've grown and matured a great deal from that young woman of thirty-eight who left the farm ten years ago. I've lived on my own, made my own way, and managed my own problems and affairs." She pushed her thick hair behind her ear. "I think you can trust me to handle your father and anything else that life brings my way in North Carolina, don't you?"
Parker sighed. "No one is ever so wise that love can't catch them unawares and toss them for a loop."
Billy Dale laughed, punching his brother in the arm. "Spoken like a man who's just taken the big plunge and finally gotten engaged. There's no escaping now, boy. Marie's got you hooked and is reeling you in."
Good-natured teasing ensued then, lightening the moment, for which Lydia felt grateful. She stood up from the table, glancing at her watch. "I need to get on the road. I want to get to Maggie Valley by afternoon. It's about four hours with stops."
She started out the back door, the boys trailing behind her, continuing to ask questions and showing their concern. Do you have your cell phone? Did you gas up yesterday so you won't have to stop along the way? Did you put maps of Georgia and North Carolina in the glove compartment? As if she needed the latter to find her way along the familiar route.
"I have everything I need, and I'll be fine." She smiled at them, taking in the rangy good looks of her young men one last time — J. T. tall, long-faced, muscular from his workouts in the gym, his hair wavy like hers with red glints highlighted in the sun, the twins nearly as tall, sturdy, broad-shouldered, nearly identical in appearance, with the dark, sable-brown hair and handsome features of the Cunningham men.
She hugged them each before climbing into the car, knowing how much she would miss seeing them and being a vital part of their daily lives.
"Hey, wait." Billy Dale raised a hand as she put her key in the ignition. Sprinting to his truck, he reached in, retrieved a plastic bag, and brought it back to Lydia. "Here. Amelia finished this purse for you last night and told me to be sure and give it to you." He pushed it through the car window. "She put snacks and stuff in it, too, in case you didn't want to stop along the way."
Lydia glanced into the richly embroidered, velvet-brown purse to see pieces of fruit, snack bars, a package of almonds, and a bottle of water.
She studied her son's face a last time. "You tell Amelia thanks and that I absolutely love the purse she made. It's beautiful. She knows so well what I like."
"Yeah." He dropped his eyes. "She cried this morning when she gave it to me. She's real torn up about you leaving."
Lydia blinked back her tears. "Me too." She blew kisses and started the car, knowing if she didn't leave soon she'd break down and cry, only making the parting harder.
Waving a last good-bye, she backed out of the driveway of the little brick bungalow, giving a last look to the ivy creeping around the doorway and up the wall, finding it suddenly hard to say good-bye to the modest house she'd called home during her years in Atlanta. She drove through the quiet streets of Morningside, past Piedmont Park and the Atlanta Botanical Garden, and then onto the busy freeway rushing between the downtown suburban area to the west and Georgia Tech's vast campus on the east.
An hour outside of Atlanta traffic she let the tears out at last, knowing how much she'd miss seeing her boys every day, grieving that they felt upset with her over her decision to leave. However, as the miles slid by and the freeway began climbing into the mountains, Lydia began to look ahead with anticipation to her move. She'd cut off Interstate 85 onto Highway 441/23 earlier to journey over scenic rural roadways and stopped in colorful Sylva, North Carolina, at City Lights CafÃ(c), for a quick lunch and to take a few minutes to run upstairs to check out the City Lights Bookstore. Now she turned off Highway 23 onto the Blue Ridge Parkway for the last lap of her journey.
Lydia's spirit finally grew peaceful on the quiet parkway. At Waterrock Knob she stopped her car to look out over the rolling Blue Ridge mountain ranges and felt a sudden clutch at her heart.
This is home, she thought with a sigh. This beautiful part of the North Carolina mountains. I've never been a city girl at heart — I know that — and Atlanta, despite its cultural wonders and attractions, was only a stopover place for me. Here's where I belong, where the air is crisp and clear and where the sweep of green forested hillsides fills the senses.
Being in the mountains again helped Lydia feel more certain she'd made the right decision in coming back. She'd only be four hours from her boys in the city, after all. She could visit anytime she wanted.
The elevation dropped away as Lydia headed down from the Blue Ridge Parkway at Soco Gap into Maggie Valley, the highway now winding in a long ribbon between the high ridges of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Great Smoky Mountains. She noticed a few changes as she drove downhill from the parkway and felt certain she'd see more in the commercial area of town later. Ten years was a long time and she hadn't come back, even for a short visit, before now.
As a first surprise change, she spotted a new country store by the familiar turn at the Farm Road. She slowed, reading the sign as she passed: Cunningham Country Store. Well, well. They had finally renovated that old, broken-down store building on the corner into a viable business.
It looked rustic, charming, and appealing, making Lydia smile and then feel a tug of pain at her heart. She'd proposed the idea of opening a store in that old building many times over the years, only to have Estelle ridicule her ideas and her enthusiasm time and again.
Shrugging away the old pains, she drove down the rural road, clattering over the low, wooden bridge across Jonathan Creek before coming to a battered stop sign and intersection. The arched sign for the Cunningham Farm, and the long avenue of trees to the main house and farm buildings, stood directly across the road, but Lydia wasn't ready to take the old familiar road yet.
She turned left instead and drove a mile down Black Camp Gap Road before turning right at the western end of the farm to reach Hill House via the old Creek Road. After opening and shutting the entrance gate, Lydia drove uphill through the farm property, past the Side Orchards and a few out-skirting farm buildings on her right, with Garretts Creek twining along behind the trees to her left.
Cunningham Farm lay within a long rectangular property bordered by Garretts Creek to the west and Indian Creek to the east. The land rolled in undulating layers of rich, green farmland and gently wooded hillsides from the lower valley to the steeper, forested slopes above. At its northern end, the property stretched to meet the Great Smoky Mountains National Park boundary, the farm acreage covering over 3,800 acres in all.
Excerpted from Welcome Back by LIN STEPP. Copyright © 2016 Lin Stepp. 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.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Welcome Back is the story of an estranged family finding a way to integrate back into each other’s lives after nearly a decade apart. Driven out by a domineering step-mother, Lydia left her husband, her daughter and the mountains of Maggie Valley far behind. Her three sons followed her, creating a deep divide between their family, pitting sons against the father, daughter against the mother. Only after the passing of her husband’s mother does Lydia attempt to put her family back together. She returns to the mountains, to the apple farm. Though the family is eager to open their hearts to one another, they must first work through the anger and resentment of their past in order to find a happy future. The majority of the book is about working through these issues, with the help of a colorful cast of locals and family members. The Valley has its own mysteries and troubles to resolve, which the family get caught up in. The main antagonist of the story is deceased but even in death the stepmother’s cruelty looms large over the happiness of all who lived under her shadow. The people presented in Welcome Back are wholesome and self-reflective, working easily together to create the close community that is so valued in small mountain areas. Children play in the sunshine, cats curl up on the front porch, and heartfelt discussions are had over tea and homemade pies. It’s a wonderful, relaxing world filled to the brim with beautiful details of the area, the customs and the people that make the Smoky Mountains such a rich cultural heritage. If you're new to the Smoky Mountain romance series - I recommend starting with The Foster Girls... though each book is a stand alone plot, there are little pieces shared between them, characters that make cameos and references that readers who go in order will enjoy.