Saturday, March 5, 2016

Week 32: Blackberry Ridge (Mary Manners)

Congratulations to our Week 30 winner of Marianne Evans's Date Night...Robbye Faye!

Congratulations to Pam Zarate, as well...she is our Week 31 winner of Heartache and Hope!

Now, for this week's feature...

Will Chloe and Connor put past hurts behind to work together, or will the project—and their love—fail?

1st Chapter:

“Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”  ~Luke 12:15

“No, Aunt Chloe…not like thaaat.” Lizzie’s sing-song voice admonished as she pirouetted from Chloe’s reach. “Mama always uses my princess comb, so the tangles come out easy and my head don’t hurt.”

“Doesn’t hurt.” Chloe followed the direction in which her niece’s tiny finger jabbed. On the white-washed dresser backed up to a bubble-gum pink wall sat a wide-toothed comb, complete with a colorful handle fashioned in the form of a princess. Beside the comb, a ceramic bin overflowed with a rainbow assortment of clips and bows.

“Doesn’t hurt,” Lizzie mimicked. “And I need my apple spray for the tangles, too. Daddy says it makes me sweet.”

“Of course it does.” Chloe eyed the pint-sized green pump-bottle propped beside the comb as a breeze drifted through the open bedroom window, carrying the scent of rain-kissed grass and playful bird-chatter. “Thanks for the four-one-one.”

Lizzie skipped back to where Chloe waited. Dimples formed at the corners of each cheek as she grinned. “The four-one-what?”

“The info…the heads-up.” Chloe corralled Lizzie and ran a towel over the child’s hair one last time, squeezing the last bit of moisture from the matted locks before dropping the towel on the floor. “It means, thanks for explaining.”

“Oh, yeah…Daddy says that sometimes, too.”

Rick…her brother-in-law and the reason Chloe had absconded from her quiet apartment nearly an hour away to this sprawling house where she and her sister, Pam, had spent their childhood. Once their family home, Pam and Rick had taken over the property following the death of her and Chloe’s parents four years ago. The country house, closing in on a century old, was in need of some renovations and Rick was just the guy to see it got done. He was a house-flipper by trade, and specialized in scooping up properties, fixing them up, and then reselling them at a profit—a healthy profit. They’d chosen the farmhouse to work on next, and had recently taken up residence as they planned the renovations.

Chloe had mixed feelings about the sale. When her parents died she hadn’t felt ready for such a huge undertaking as putting the house to rights required, and had instead left the upkeep in Pam and Rick’s care as she followed a job promotion into the city. But now, a handful of years later, she felt saddened by the thought of letting the property go to strangers. So many memories…so many bittersweet times spent here. But she had no one to talk to about her mixed emotions. Her parents were gone and Pam, well…due to the success of the business, she and Rick were most likely sleeping off a twelve-hour drive on Day One of a two-week extended trip. The vacation was part business, part pleasure. Rick had intentions to expand what he’d grown over the years. Thus, the trip to check out some outlying properties in the Smoky Mountain area, capped by a Caribbean cruise to celebrate his and Pam’s tenth wedding anniversary.

What it all meant for Chloe was two weeks alone with Lizzie…and the fact that she’d been handed supervision of the first leg of the farmhouse’s renovations Pam and Rick had asked her to oversee during their absence. Chloe didn’t know which of the two—Lizzie or the renovations—had her nerves more on edge. On one hand, the kid was a spitfire of energy if she’d ever seen one. On the other, the thought of making decisions about the structural integrity of the century-old house and the grounds surrounding it were daunting.

Not to mention, the memories of a childhood spent here had Chloe’s head reeling and her heart heavy with nostalgia. She missed her parents, their death sudden and unexpected. She hadn’t returned to the house since the day they’d been laid to rest, and had gladly handed the keys over to Pam and Rick in exchange for her freedom.

But she’d returned. Rick had promised Chloe that the guy he and Pam had hired to head-up the construction of an indoor work studio and a playhouse for Lizzie—as well as the added project of a gazebo near the rolling grounds of the creek behind the house—was a good friend of theirs, and a coworker who could be trusted. Chloe had expected to meet this elusive tool-belt-wearing miracle-worker before Pam and Rick took their leave, but he’d been too busy in the days leading up to their trip to drop by. It sure didn’t give her the warm fuzzies to think the guy was too overbooked for even a quick hello and cursory introductions.

As for Lizzie, a play-date with her here and there, where they spent the day swimming or making rounds at the local playground or indoor gaming facility was one thing, but two solid weeks of responsibility for her every need? What had Chloe been thinking to take on such a challenge?

Chloe shrugged off the thought. Surely she could handle chauffeuring her niece to school, helping with kindergarten homework and preparing a meal or two each day, not to mention the laundry and remembering to feed Ginger the cat. No problem…no problem at all. She redirected her attention to the waiting princess comb.

“Mama sings to me when she combs my hair.” Lizzie tugged at the hem of Chloe’s sleeve. “Will you sing to me, too?”

“Um…I don’t know what I have stashed in my repertoire, but I’ll do my best.” Chloe closed the distance between the bed and the dresser, snatching the comb as beads of water dripped from Lizzie’s hair to the carpet. Thank God spring had settled in, with temperatures warm and forgiving. They were running late for school, so Lizzie’s hair would have to air-dry on the way, with the windows down. That was blow-drying on the go, wasn’t it? Perfectly acceptable in this situation. “What would you like me to sing?”

“I don’t know what it’s called, but it sounds like this…” She pursed her lips and hummed a few off-key measures. “Do you know it, Aunt Chloe?”

“Sure. That sounds an awful lot like Amazing Grace.”

“That’s it!” Lizzie clapped her hands together. “Sing it for me, please.”

“I’ll give it a go.” Summoning the best tone she could muster, Chloe broke into song. She took her time, drawing out each note in a soulful timbre as Lizzie scampered over to the dresser. Chloe scooted onto the edge of the bed and drew Lizzie onto her lap as Ginger slinked across the floor before finding a place on the area rug to curl up. Their reflection in the mirror stood as a contrast—Lizzie with mischievous, bright blue eyes and curly wheat-blonde hair while Chloe’s jet-black hair, straight as an arrow that swept her shoulders in a blunt, sleek bob framed wide-set, deep-green eyes. Both, though, had dimples that winked as they smiled. Lizzie laughed and stuck out her tongue out at her reflection.

“You sing real pretty, Aunt Chloe. Are you gonna sing at church Sunday?”

Chloe paused mid-refrain to answer, “I love to sing at church. What about you?”

“Uh huh. Mama says singing at church is like your heart havin’ a talk with God. Is that true?”

“Your mama is absolutely right.” Sunlight streaming through the window warmed

Chloe’s cheeks. She gazed through the glass to the creek beyond. Water rippled and

shimmered like a million brilliant diamonds as it danced downstream.

“A little higher, Aunt Chloe,” Lizzie directed as Chloe swept into the second verse of the song. She turned her attention to the task at hand and carefully spritzed the detangler, then combed, spritzed some more and combed. “Yeah, like that. Keep singing. I like it.”

Lizzie liked her voice. OK, so Chloe wasn’t front and center on the American Idol stage, but Lizzie’s enthusiasm was something, at least. With renewed gusto, Chloe swept slick, damp locks into a band on one side of Lizzie’s head, and then the other, belting out the hymn with each stroke. Soon, two curlicues framed impish, dancing eyes and deep-dimpled cheeks.

“Good?” Chloe asked, feeling quite a bit proud of her handiwork. She had to admit, it wasn’t bad for a novice. The sweet scent of hyacinth that grew along the creek bed drifted. It’s subtle aroma evoked childhood memories of time spent playing in this very room—time with Pam…with friends. A wave of longing swept through…the desire for a simpler, more carefree time when summers were meant for wading in the creek and baking in the sun—not trapped within the confines of an office building with her eyes weary from the glare of a computer screen as she compared swatches of fabric and blended textures of paint to enhance room interior designs.

“They’re super-duper.” Lizzie’s voice brought Chloe back to the present. The child bobbed her head, her image dancing in the mirror. “Thanks, Auntie Chloe.”

“You’re very welcome.” Sure, sometimes the kid had the attitude of a six-year-old going on fifteen, but her smile could charm paint off the wall.

Speaking of paint, the room was a glowing testament to girly, frilly stuff, just as Pam had always dabbled in as they grew up. It was the first and only room thus far that Rick and Pam had done any work on. They both wanted Lizzie to feel at home in the farmhouse since they’d relocated to it a few months ago. Obviously, Lizzie was well on her way to following in her mother’s footsteps. Chloe, the youngest sister and resident tomboy of the family, had a hard time relating to the world of lace and taffeta. By contrast to her older sister, she felt more comfortable in faded jeans and a no-nonsense blouse, like the ensemble she’d donned following her morning shower. As a child, she’d preferred turning cartwheels along the front lawn to tea parties and playing with dolls.

Without warning, Lizzie interrupted Chloe’s singing as she broke into an onslaught of questions.

“Do you think Mama an’ Daddy is havin’ fun on their trip?”

“Are having fun, and yes.”

“When’re they comin’ back?”

“They just left here last night, so they’ll be gone two more weeks, sweetie, until the last Thursday of this month—April. See the calendar on your wall by the light switch? I marked the days for you.”

“I see it.” She glanced toward the wall calendar where Chloe had highlighted a sting of days with yellow marker. “Is two weeks a long time?”

“It depends on how you look at it.”

“When Mama comes home will you still stay here with us?”

“I’m not sure where I’m going to stay. It depends on a lot of things.” Pam and Rick had offered her the run of the house, but to Chloe that felt an awfully lot like sitting third wheel. Even so, she’d have to make a decision soon since the lease on her apartment was set to expire at the end of the month. With her job in transition, she seriously considered branching out on her own. Five years with the company had garnered the experience she’d need to successfully carve her own path in the interior design business. She’d certainly managed to squirrel away enough capital for any startup costs and if she took Pam and Rick up on their offer that would lighten the financial load, as well. Having more time with Pam, Rick and Lizzie also served as an incentive.

So much to consider…

“Depends on things?” Lizzie parroted as she craned her neck, turning back to gaze at Chloe. “Like what?”

“My job…it’s in transition.”

“What’s that mean?”

“It’s going through changes. I’m not sure what’s going to happen.”

“But Mama said this used to be your house, too, back when Papa and Gran were alive. She said you grew up here, and that you used to share this bedroom with her.”

“It was and we did.” The thought of her parents brought a wave of sadness. Their loss tore a jagged rift in the fabric of her life. “I used to play with your mom in this very room. The walls were sunflower-yellow back then, like rays of sunshine.”

“I wish you’d stay here forever and ever, Aunt Chloe.” Lizzie leaned in to peck her on the cheek. “I love you.”

“I love you, too, sweetie.” Chloe stroked Lizzie’s hair and cupped one pinked cheek in her palm. The skin was smooth, soft as a flower petal and sticky with syrup from a toaster-waffle.

“Is ten years a long time to be married?”

“I guess that depends on your perspective.”

“What does that mean?”

“For someone your age, ten years is forever. But for someone who’s eighty, it’s not so long.”

“Why aren’t you married, Aunt Chloe?”

The question startled Chloe and she struggled to find an answer appropriate to share with a five-year-old. She finally settled for, “It’s just not time yet.”

“When will it be time?”

“I don’t know. I imagine the time will be right when I meet a man I want to spend the rest of my life with.”

“Are you lookin’ for a man?”

“No.” Chloe laughed at the innocent yet pointed question. “Not particularly.”

“Then how’re ya gonna find him?”

“I suppose God will help me if I’m patient enough.”

“Is it hard to be patient?”

“Sometimes.” Chloe tweaked Lizzie’s nose and offered a smile. “But that’s not for you to worry about. Worrying is my job.”

“Mama says if you trust God there’s no point in worryin’, ’cause He will see you through.”

“How did your mama get so smart?”

“I dunno. Maybe Daddy helps her.”

“Maybe they help each other.”

“Yep.” Lizzie plodded to Ginger, settled on the floor beside the cat for a quick snuggle. She pressed her ear to Ginger’s snout and gave a listen.

“What’s she telling you, Lizzie?”

“Ginger asked if we can we have pizza for supper. She likes pizza…and ice cream.”

“Is that so?”

“Uh huh.”

“Well, it depends on whether or not you get all your toys up off the floor and into their bins lickity-split. Otherwise it’s spinach and Lima beans.” Chloe winked. “We’re already running late for school.”

“Oh, no. Ginger doesn’t like that at all.” Lizzie released the cat and hopped up, launching into a full-on assault of dolls and dress-up costumes strewn across the floor. Her pigtails bobbed as objects flew toward bins, finding their target with amazing accuracy. “Spinach ain’t so bad, but Lima beans are yucky.”

“Isn’t so bad, and ditto.” Chloe surveyed the room, pointed to a doll peeking from beneath the bed, and waited while Lizzie snatched it up and set it on a shelf.


“Pizza it is.” Chloe smiled and winked as Ginger, completely unaffected by the chaos, hopped onto the cushioned window seat and curled up in a sunbeam. “Boy, you had that done before I could count to twenty.”

“I can count to one hun’red. Wanna hear?”

“Sure, when we get in the car. For now, we’d better get going so we’re not late. I promised your mom I’d get you to school on time. And a builder’s supposed to come by later this morning to start on the gazebo your mommy and daddy ordered to be built as you’re a memory to your nana. She used to love to sit down by the huge Weeping Willow tree and read, so your mama and Daddy are going to have it placed there. We’ll break it in when they return from their trip.”

“Can I break it in, too? I like to read pic’cher books. Mama says I’m a good reader.”

“Yes, you are. And of course you can break in the gazebo with us. We’ll all take turns reading. It will be fun.”

“Daddy said there’s a surprise for me, too.”

“That’s right.”

“What is it, Aunt Chloe?”

“Now, if I told you that it wouldn’t be a surprise.”


“And the quicker you get going, the quicker the builder can get started. He’s on his way now with all the materials, but he can’t work on your surprise with you standing here.”

“We’d better get a move on, then.” Lizzie grabbed her lunch box and headed toward the door. “That’s what Daddy says when he’s in a hurry…better get a move on. Come on, Aunt Chloe. We got fish to fry.”

As she scampered to the car, Lizzie began to hum Jesus Loves Me. She buckled into her seatbelt before breaking into stereo-surround-sound song.


Connor sang along with the radio as he maneuvered the truck up the long, winding drive that led ’round back of the sprawling white farmhouse where his friends Rick and Pam now resided in wedded bliss.

OK, the first ten years had been bliss as they relocated from place to place, flipping the properties as they went along, and he prayed the next ten followed suit. He knew all too well the landmines complacency could bring, having watched his parents navigate the fields during his middle school years and stumble into divorce court the year he graduated high school. Now, his sister sailed the same route. These were not waters through which he planned to navigate…all the more reason to row a single-seat canoe for the time being. No hurry here.

He’d hated missing Rick and Pam, missed taking the time to shore up the details of their projects before they left, but his sister had needed him and another work order had taken longer than expected. Thankfully, though, both situations had eased from flash-fire to simmer and he’d returned in time to launch the projects he’d promised to have completed by the time Rick and Pam returned.

Fourteen days—no, thirteen now—were slated on the calendar. Materials for Rick and Pam’s daughter Lizzie’s playhouse were neatly stacked along the far side of the house, delivered just that morning. As for the gazebo, Connor had considered hauling all he’d need to complete that in one load, but a truck huge enough to haul the materials would wreak havoc with the soft earth that meandered toward the creek, especially with the onslaught of rain over the past week or so. Today promised to be the first day of full-blown sunshine in a string of days. So, instead, Connor had opted to use his extended cab pick-up and start with the basics today. If the weather held, he’d knock out the frame in the better part of a day. The rest would take a bit longer, considering the details Rick had requested. And then there was the second, smaller project to consider. Connor had a pretty good feel for Lizzie’s personality—she was a full-on power surge, spunk and innocent cheerfulness rolled into one—so he felt pretty good about starting in on that one. An interior designer was slated to put the finishing touches on his work when the skin-and-bones were completed, so there were no worries in that department. Even so, he always liked to have his finger on the pulse of the person he was building for. It was sort of like viewing the cover of a book before diving into the first chapter. The trio of projects would be no problem to finish if the weather held, and the fact that Rick and Pam were so highly concerned about the personality of each individual task made him think Rick and Pam were possibly considering making the farmhouse their permanent home.

That would be OK with him. The place held memories for him…bittersweet times spent through his teen years and then some. Working on the place was a coming home of sorts for him, as well.

The willow came into view as the truck rumbled over uneven ground, its majestic trunk swollen with rainwater and shielded by wispy arms that, kissed by a gentle breeze, swayed along the ground. The scent of hyacinth mingled with the woodsy aroma of leaves and sweet grass. Connor switched off the radio as he nestled the truck onto level ground, and then killed the engine with a sigh.

His ears rang for a moment as they adjusted to the sudden, profound quiet. He leaned back in the seat, taking a deep breath as he released the stress from a string of exceptionally difficult days. Sunlight warmed him through the windshield, chasing away tension that clamped the span of muscle between his shoulder blades like a vice. He drank it all in; the heat…the graceful ballet of willowy tree limbs…a sun-dappled lazy stream like a swarm of fireflies wearing diamonds…the—

“Excuse me. Hey, you there.” A tap on the driver-side window killed the calm and brought the tension knotting back. “I said, excuse me.”

Connor turned toward the voice. A pair of eyes came into view…an almond-shaped, vibrant green framed by a swath of sleek onyx hair that spilled across creamy skin. Sunlight spilled over her as she leaned in to tap the glass once more.

“Are you the builder Pam and Rick hired?” Her voice was muffled through the glass. “The guy who’s supposed to do the construction work around here?”

Connor shifted in the seat and tugged a ball cap down low
across his forehead before he popped open the door. “If I’m not, you’re in trouble.”

She crossed her arms and leaned one slim, jean-clad hip against the fender. “How so?”

Connor cleared the sudden dryness from his throat. “Do you always approach strangers so…forwardly?”

“Forwardly?” She laughed, and Connor suddenly felt ridiculous. He unfolded himself from the seat and faced her.

“Yes, forwardly—without regard to your safety.” His voice was a low growl.

“It’s hard to feel unsafe around a man who’s sprawled in the seat, sunning himself like a lazy cat.” She lifted her chin, and something about the glint in her eyes seemed vaguely familiar. “Do you always fall asleep on the job?”

“I wasn’t sleeping. I was…envisioning the project at hand.”

“Good one. Nice save.” She pushed off the fender and rounded the front of the truck to stand beside the driver’s door. Sunlight bathed her in a halo of gold that made her onyx hair shimmer as she continued. “Well, I hope you’re envisioning includes sticking to the schedule, because I’m responsible for seeing that the work gets done by the time my sister returns from their trip, and I don’t plan on letting her—or her husband—down.”

“Your sister? You’re Pam’s sister?”

“You’re a little slow on the uptake, but that is one-hundred percent correct. I’ll award a gold star for you this go-’round.” She offered him her hand. “I’m Chloe Chastain.”

“Chloe…the same Chloe who used to shimmy up trees here along the creek and hang like a monkey from the branches?”

“A monkey…?” She paused and took a step forward for a closer look at him. “I beg to differ.”

“You can beg all you want.”

“Wait just a minute—”

“No, thanks.” He cut her off as he unfolded himself from the truck and stood to face her. “I’m guessing you’re Pam’s kid sister, the one who broke my nose doing back flips when your foot sideswiped my face?”

“Oh my goodness, it is you...” She pressed a palm to her open mouth as recognition dawned. “You’re Connor…Connor Lawson?”

“Yep. One and the same.” Connor slammed the driver door as his lips bowed into a grin. “Who gets the gold star now?”

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  1. I think I would enjoy reading this book. I also like that one of the characters and I have the same name.

  2. Oooo, this sounds good! (And has my baby sister's name, Pam, plus one of my favorite names, Chloe, in it!)
    Thanks for the opportunity to win!
    God's Blessings!



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