Can Matt convince Caroline to trust him before he loses everything he loves…again?
Matt plopped quick-drying spackle over a crack in the wall and smoothed it with the trowel. The steady cadence of plop, swish, scrape blended with the easy rhythm of country music that drifted across the room and eased his frustration.
He watched Paul lift a bucket of spackle and dip his trowel, and he wondered how the kid—his nephew—had ended up on his doorstep three months ago.
Because Eydie’s back in rehab again. Will it ever end?
He glanced through an expanse of dirt-splattered bay windows that opened over the battered front porch, affording an impressive view of sleepy-dawn breaking over the tawny pasture beyond. Horses grazed in the cross-fenced field, their heads bowed in search of late-winter grass to supplement sweet feed. At the far end of the field, his house sat nestled among a grove of shade trees, and beyond that a low-hanging thunderhead rolled across the sky like an angry, steel-gray tide.
“Storm’s headed this way.” Paul dragged a hand through unruly black hair and tossed a glance at Matt. His eyes, dark and tired, said he’d slept no better last night than Matt had. “I should call Andie and tell her to put the horses in the barn.”
“And wake her whole house?” Matt shook his head. “I don’t think so. Come over here and finish spackling while I fix the lock on the front door. I’d like to get this done before the rain hits.”
“Don’t think that’s gonna happen.” Paul took the trowel. “Hear the wind picking up?”
“I do, but it’ll be a while before the hard stuff blows through.” He could smell the sweet, dank scent of rain, though. The wind swayed, moving restlessly around the house like a thief trying to find a way in. Upstairs, a broken shutter drummed against weathered clapboard siding.
“Whatever.” Paul dipped the trowel into the bucket of spackle and plopped the mess onto a fissure in the wall. “I don’t understand why we’re fixing up this house, anyway.”
“Because I promised Nora…and when I make a promise I keep it.”
Paul frowned. “But she’s dead, so how would she even know whether or not you kept your promise?”
Dead…the single word carried such power. Matt’s stomach soured, and his voice turned gruff in the early-morning chill. The heat was cranked, but the ancient pump did little to slake the cold edge. He could kindle a fire in the broad stacked-stone fireplace that filled one wall of the living room, but he didn’t plan on hanging around long enough for it to matter. Church service was due to start in a few hours, and he planned to be there...Paul, too.
Matt grabbed the hammer from his tool box and turned to face Paul. The kid’s flippant attitude had a way of getting under his skin. He sucked a deep breath…in…out, and gave himself a little pep talk.
Calm voice…keep your cool. Remember, he’s watching you, learning from you.
When he spoke, his voice was steady. “If I didn’t keep my promise I would know.”
Paul shrugged. “Like I said, whatever.” He smoothed spackle over the crack and grimaced at the radio. “Can we listen to something else? This so-called music is putting me to sleep.”
“I’m waiting for the weather report.”
“I can give you the weather report—it’s gonna rain—hard. There, can I change the station now?”
“No. Spackle faster. Caroline and her daughter are due to arrive in less than a week. I want to have the cracks in the walls repaired and the rooms painted and ready for them to move in.”
“Nora’s niece. She’s coming from Chicago.”
Caroline’s spine screamed in agony as the Honda bumped over another rut in the two-lane country road. Angry clouds rumbled overhead, and the sky darkened to an oily blackness. The scent of rain filled the air and settled on her tongue. She gnawed her lower lip and squinted through eerie yellow-green darkness in search of the side road to Aunt Nora’s.
It’s been too long…and I’ve forgotten my way around here. Oh, why did Aunt Nora think leaving her old farmhouse to me was a good idea? And Aunt Nora...I can’t believe you’ve been gone nearly six months now…I miss you so!
Thunder shook the car and Caroline cringed, her knuckles white on the steering wheel. A glance into the rearview mirror told her Callie was sleeping soundly through the chaos. Her head of soft blonde ringlets slumped at an awkward angle, and the pink windbreaker tucked around her shoulders was rumpled and stained with grape juice.
Caroline swallowed hard and turned her attention back to the dark road ahead. Her voice was a murmur over the low hum of the radio. “Dear Lord, I need your help here. This car’s running on fumes, and Callie’s going to wake any moment. She’s going to be hungry and cranky and as sick of being held prisoner in this car as I am. So, have mercy, Lord. Throw me a bone.”
Wind swirled restlessly around the car as if to mock her, and the sky grew more ominous with each passing moment. Driving straight through the night while Callie slept had seemed like a good idea when she sped from Chicago…away from the memories that haunted her like a nightmare that wouldn’t let go. But now, twelve hours and five hundred long miles later, she wasn’t so sure.
Not that she could have stayed in Chicago another day…not with the court date looming. What if he…that heartless killer…was released?
The car crested a hill, and a flicker of light on the horizon caught Caroline’s attention. Someone was awake in a house across the pasture. She wiped condensation from the bug-splattered windshield with the sleeve of her flannel shirt and squinted into darkness.
The car’s headlights caught a sign at the next intersection. Caroline gasped. Collier Road…the road to Aunt Nora’s house!
My house now…and Callie’s. Her heart stuttered as she struggled to train her gaze on the house and navigate the road at the same time. What were lights doing on? Who was there…and why?
Caroline’s belly knotted. Her hands trembled on the steering wheel. She prayed the gas tank held enough fuel to power the car as she eased down the winding road. Rising winds heaved the vehicle from side to side like a rag doll. A jagged bolt of lightning ripped the sky, followed by a roar of thunder that tossed her back in the seat. Bullets of rain pelted the windshield like machine-gun fire.
Please, Lord, guide Callie and me to the light.
The glow from the house grew brighter, illuminating the sleepy horizon. She followed the curve of the road and found the narrow entrance to a winding gravel drive flanked by dancing Bradford pear trees. Floodlights cast an eerie glow over the front yard, and rain blew sideways like a gush from a fire hose, blinding her. The familiar whitewashed farmhouse rose through the shadows like a winking sentinel with a peeling sunburn. A broken shutter slapped against a second-story window.
A pickup sat in the drive. Caroline slammed on the brakes. The car fishtailed, spitting gravel, and missed the pickup by mere inches before it sputtered a dying breath. Caroline heaved a sigh of relief, threw off her seatbelt, and swung around to check Callie.
“How on earth did you manage to sleep through that, baby?” Her breath came in gasps as she brushed hair from Callie’s clammy forehead. “The storm’s bearing down on us.”
Lightning struck a Bradford near the road. Its trunk erupted in a deafening crack followed by a shower of sparks. The acrid smell of scorched wood filled the air. Caroline shoved open the driver’s door and shivered as cold rain pelted and stung, and the wind whipped her long hair into damp knots. Heart racing, she threw open the back door and wrestled Callie from her booster seat. Shielding the child’s sleep-limp body, she slammed the car door and dashed through the downpour to the protection of the porch awning.
That’s when she saw him through the smudged front bay windows…the man inside the house—her house. Coffee-colored hair covered the collar of his rumpled navy T-shirt, and muscles grew taught as he swung a hammer at the door frame. Staccato pounding echoed over the howl of wind that swirled around her. He was big, tall…powerful-looking. She imagined he could do a lot of damage with that hammer.
Lightning flashed around her like strobes doing battle with the floodlights over the front porch. Thunder roared and rocked the ground, nearly knocking her off her feet. In her arms, Callie whimpered and squirmed through a restless dream. Caroline fumbled in her pocket for her cell phone and realized she’d left it on the front seat of the car along with her purse…and the car keys.
Caroline debated only a moment before grabbing an industrial-sized push-broom propped against a wicker rocker near the front door. The storm closed in.
She cradled Callie in one arm and hoisted the broom handle like a saber in the other as she kicked open the solid-wood front door. The element of surprise was all she had going for her.
The door slammed wide, and the man tumbled backwards from the force of her kick. The hammer flew from his hand. It bounced off the hearth and clattered across the scuffed wood floor behind him.
“What are you doing here?” Adrenaline had Caroline’s heart galloping. Suddenly her senses came to full attention, and the exhaustion from a twelve-hour drive through night-blackness fled.
“What the…” He scrambled to his feet. Wide blue eyes gaped at her from beneath plaster-speckled hair. His face was streaked with grease, and his paint-splattered T-shirt sported a gaping rip at the hem.
“Get away. Move back toward the wall.” She jabbed the broom handle at his mid-section.
He sidestepped and held up both hands. “Careful with that, Caroline.”
The sound of her name eased her fear down a notch. How did he know who she was?
“I said move back.” Caroline managed to hold her voice steady as she jabbed the broom at him again. A rush of adrenaline burned through her. “I mean it.”
“You’ve got this all wrong.” Shock flashed to realization. He shook his head as laughter rose from the pit of his belly, startling her. His broad shoulders shook with each breath. “You’re going to scare the kid, Caroline. Give me that.” He yanked the broom from her with one quick motion and tossed it to the floor behind him. “Good grief. Do you realize the danger in what you just did, barging in on me like that? If you really thought I’d hurt you, you should have gone for help, first.”
Her chin rose in defiance as she cradled Callie against her. “Maybe I have. Maybe when I spotted your truck in the drive I called the police, and they’re on their way right now.” She should have called them, had been foolish not to. The idea caused a wave of terror to crest, but she tamped it down and bowed up to her full height, which brought her only to his shoulder. “I don’t understand what’s going on here. I think you should leave. Now.”
“It’s storming out there, in case you haven’t noticed.” Rain crashed against the bay windows in torrents, and the wind wailed and moaned through the open front door. He motioned to a radio on the coffee table. “Tornado watches have been issued clear across the county, Caroline, and into Knoxville.”
“I’m fully aware of that.” Callie whimpered and squirmed in her arms, and Caroline ached under the weight of her.
The child’s eyes fluttered open. “Mama, is there gonna be a tornado?”
“No, baby.” She smoothed damp hair and kissed a clammy forehead.
“Everything’s fine. Go back to sleep now.” Caroline shot the guy a look. “Nice going.” She stuffed a trembling hand into the pocket of her jeans, as if reaching for her phone. “I’m going to speed-dial the police right now.”
“Fine. You do that.” His voice challenged as his gaze narrowed. “The number’s nine-one-one.” He crossed his arms and leaned against the wall. “But why don’t you lay the kid on the couch first before you drop her?”
“Because…” Caroline recognized the flowered loveseat near the fireplace as the one she’d spent lazy teenage summer afternoons sprawled across, poring through Aunt Nora’s expansive collection of novels. She sighed and drew her hand, empty, from her pocket. Her voice rose with a simple plea. “Look, I don’t know what you’re doing here, especially at this hour of the night, but you’d better leave. I know the neighbors across the way, and I’ll get them.”
“It’s practically morning now.” He laughed again. “And you’re a week early, Caroline. Did you drive all night? What are you doing out in this weather?” Taller than her by more than a foot, he took a step toward her, and she stumbled back, drawing Callie tight to her chest. His deep blue eyes inched over her as she shivered. The width of his shoulders filled the doorframe. “Are you trying to get yourself killed?”
The words struck with more force than the clap of thunder that rocked the house. Lightning danced through the open front door, and rain splattered the hardwood floor. Caroline watched him reach for a denim jacket that had been tossed across the fireplace hearth. He smoothed the fabric and draped it over Callie. “The kid’s shivering.”
“How do you know my name…or that I’ve arrived early?” The jacket smelled like hay and damp earth mingled with a hint of clean aftershave. Caroline tucked the edges around Callie’s shoulders. “Who are you, and how did you get in here?” She glanced at the splintered door frame, frowned at the gaping hole in the oak door where a handle and deadbolt should have been. “The lock’s broke. Did you do that?”
“Relax. Take a breath before you hyperventilate.” He kicked the door closed and took the broom from the floor to prop it against the wall. Then he sauntered across the room to pick up his hammer before turning back to face her. “I’m Matt Carlson. I’m your neighbor from across the pasture, and Nora asked me to take care of a few things around here.”
“She did? But she’s been gone…”
“I know how long she’s been gone.” He took a tentative step toward her. “Would you let me help you with the kid—”
Caroline scooted back. “Her name’s Callie.”
“Right.” He took another step forward, his voice low and smooth. “Would you please let me take her? You look like you’re about to collapse.”
Caroline held her ground, but loosened her grip on Callie and nodded slightly. “Just to the couch, OK? And put the hammer down, first.”
Matt nodded slightly, tossed the hammer into the tool box, and gathered Callie into his arms. She nestled her head against his cotton T-shirt. “There you go. That’s better, sweetie.” He laid her on the couch and tucked the jacket around her shoulders.
“Did you say your name is Carlson?” Caroline kept her eyes on him. His touch seemed safe and gentle as he slid a throw pillow beneath Callie’s head, yet she couldn’t be too sure. “But the people across the pasture were…”
“Older. I know.” After readjusting the jacket over Callie, he stood to face her. “My grandparents used to live across the pasture. They retired to Knoxville a few years ago, and now I live in the house. I was a friend of Nora’s. I knew you were coming, but I thought it wasn’t until sometime next week.”
“Change of plans.” Caroline eyed the tool box. “So what’s with the hammer, and why are you intent on beating the door frame?”
He laughed again, and kicked the toolbox closed. Metal clattered as the clasp engaged. “Over the years weather splintered the wood. Nora never bothered to lock her doors, but she figured you might feel differently. So she asked me to take care of it, and a few other things, before she…passed on.” His voice lowered, and a hint of sadness shadowed his eyes.
“How did you know Aunt Nora? She never mentioned you. Why did she ask you to fix the door…and other things? Why—”
“Whoa. One bullet at a time.” He held up a hand. “My grandparents were Nora’s neighbors for years, and I helped her from time to time when I came out to visit. And then when I moved in year before last, Nora and I became friends and I began to help her more.”
“Oh, wait a minute.” Caroline ran a hand through damp hair, pacing. “She did mention you just before…she mentioned you might…” The floor blurred as tears filled her eyes.
“I’m sorry for your loss, Caroline. Nora was a beautiful soul. She’s going to be sorely missed.”
“I-I know. I’m sorry for…blubbering. I’m just very tired.” Caroline’s throat tightened. The sound of her name on his lips unnerved her. “If you don’t mind leaving now—”
The thud of footsteps drew Caroline’s attention to the doorway. “Uncle Matt, I found the hardware to fix the door in the basement, where you said it would be…” A boy Caroline guessed to be about fifteen, tall and lanky with huge blue eyes and coal-black hair, strode into the room. He took one look at Caroline and stopped in his tracks. “What’s going on?”
His arms were splattered hand to elbow in what looked like white paint, and he was the spitting image of Matt-with-the-hammer, except leaner and lacking the muscle definition. Caroline guessed it would come with age.
“Paul, this is Caroline Lafollette and her daughter Callie.”
“Oh, you’re from…
“Chicago.” Caroline finished. “May I have that towel?”
Paul tossed her the tattered towel he’d balled in his hands. “Uncle Matt said you weren’t coming ’til next week.”
A flash of lightning rent the sky followed by a roar of thunder that rattled the house’s front windows. Wind whistled through the hole in the front door. Callie whimpered and wiggled on the couch as rain gushed through the gutters to pool along the front yard.
“It’s OK, honey.” Caroline murmured and bent to kiss her forehead. “Mama’s here.”
Callie sat up and rubbed sleep from her pretty blue eyes. She yawned wide as the Pacific Ocean, then pressed a tiny hand to Caroline’s cheek. “I’m hungry, Mama, an’ thirsty.”
“Me, too.” Caroline sighed, and weariness settled in her bones. She rubbed a painful kink from her neck.
“I was going to stock the fridge for you…” Matt’s voice trailed off.
“There’s a cooler in my car, in the drive beside your truck.” She lowered her gaze. “We…almost plowed into your truck, just before we ran out of gas.”
“Mama.” Callie yawned again and tugged the hem of Caroline’s shirt. “My belly is rumblin’. Can I have some fruit snacks and juice?”
“Hop down and stretch your legs, sweetie.” Matt glanced out the window. “The lightning’s easing to the east, taking the angry clouds and downpour with it. In a few minutes I’ll go get the cooler.”
The small cooler peeked just out of reach through the front passenger window, but it might as well have been miles away. The door was locked tight and a scuffed brown leather purse—Caroline’s, Matt assumed—lay beside a set of car keys. He remembered Nora, and what she’d told him just before she passed.
“Caroline’s been down a rough road, Matt. Her heart’s been shattered. Help her get the house in order. Be patient.”
He knew all about shattered hearts. There were plenty to go around. It was an epidemic.
Matt dodged light raindrops back to the house. Dawn bathed the pasture in a milky-pink halo.
Through the expanse of bay windows, he saw Caroline take a second towel from Paul. She rubbed the rain from her hair and stretched her back like a cat—long legs and torso topped with a mass of caramel curls.
Flannel looks good on her.
The thought startled Matt, and he switched gears fast. The last thing he needed was to get tangled up with a woman. But she’d surprised him by arriving early. She must have driven all night long. And all he got for his attempt to help her was a door slammed in his face and a broom jabbed at his belly.
Talk about a rough road…
He’d take her to his house, make sure she and the kid had something decent to eat before Caroline fell asleep on her feet. Dark smudges shadowing her eyes told the story…the woman was beyond exhausted.
Yeah, he’d make them both something to eat, and then send them on their way, grab a shower, and head to church. He had enough on his plate, dealing with his misguided sister and trying to keep Paul on the straight and narrow.
He’d honor Nora’s wishes and help Caroline settle in here; that was all…that was enough.
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