Elizabeth McGee stood in the graveled driveway of the old house. As the kitten heels of her designer sandals sank between the rocks, she couldn’t help wondering why, in all these years, no one had bothered to pave it. It was a random thought, but paving the driveway of her grandmother’s three-story Victorian was better than thinking about her father, his funeral, and all the secrets he’d kept.
Like the house.
Yet here she was.
Not much had changed in fifteen years, yet everything was different. The whiskey barrel planters no longer held the wide variety of impatiens her grandmother had preferred. The only blooms left were perennials—surprise lilies, crepe myrtles, and the pink and yellow four o’clocks on either side of the wooden stairs that led to the wraparound porch. The mimosa tree her grandfather had planted before she was born had been reduced to a three foot high stump that currently served as a stand for a circular saw and a hammer.
She sincerely hoped it wasn’t some new trend in yard art. She had lived in a condo so long that she had lost touch with lawn fads, but she wasn’t giving up hope that the tools and the shiny black truck in the drive all belonged to the contractor hired to get the house ready to sell.
She heard the squeak of the screen door, but ignored it, too busy soaking in the memories to pay the stranger who’d been hired to renovate the house any mind.
At the sound of the name, her knees almost buckled. It had been a long time since anyone had called her that, so long she almost didn’t know the name to be hers.
And that voice! So different than she remembered and yet so much the same.
Elizabeth jerked her attention to the man who now stood framed in the doorway of the house. He was tall, broad-shouldered and lean. Dark as a pirate and twice as dangerous. A modern day outlaw in hip-hugging jeans and a chambray shirt, work boots and a tool belt.
She would have known him anywhere.
“JD Carmichael,” she breathed.
The boy who had taken her virginity in the backseat of his daddy’s Chevy had grown into quite a man.
His athletic gracefulness had not left him even after all these years, she noticed as he made his way down the gray-painted steps.
“It is you.” His voice was one decibel above a whisper. “Ah, Bethie Grace,” he murmured and enveloped her in a warm hug.
“It’s Elizabeth.” She gently pulled away though she wanted to wrench herself from his embrace. Too many memories. Time should have dulled them by now, should have made them blurry and unreal. Being held by him after so many years, even if those arms were stronger and definitely more rippled than the arms of the eighteen-year-old who once held her close, the memories were still as clear as ever. “Everybody calls me Elizabeth now.”
“Elizabeth.” He said the name like he had never heard it before, turning it over and examining it. “You look…”
Older? Wiser? Bitter?
“Great,” he finished. “You look really great.”
“So do you.” It was a flat-out lie. He looked better than great. He looked absolutely amazing. At thirty-three, his dark hair showed no signs of gray. The crow’s feet that fanned out from the corners of his dark blue eyes added an air of maturity instead of the stigma of age. Completely unfair.
“I’m sorry to hear about your dad.”
Elizabeth nodded. “You too.” It had been years since John Carmichael had passed away, and she had been sorry to hear of his death.
JD took her elbow, obviously unaware of the shock of familiarity that zinged through her as his fingers brushed against her skin. “Would you like to see what I’ve done to the house?”
“You’re a contractor?” Of course he was a contractor. That had been his father’s business back in the day. She just hadn’t expected JD to be her contractor.
JD smiled, a handsome flash of white teeth that seemed to take her back to another place and time. “The best there is.”
That she could believe.
It was odd enough to be back at the old house. Odder still to be standing there with JD. Elizabeth had thought her father had sold the old rambling Victorian right after her grandmother had passed away, but the letter he’d left in addition to his will had told another story.
“Come inside,” he coaxed.
She dug in her heels despite the gravel nicking at the Italian leather. “I don’t think so.”
“You don’t want to see the house?”
Too many memories lurked within those walls. “I just came to pick up the things from the lawyer.” Yet she couldn’t leave without driving by one last time.
JD frowned, the expression as familiar to Elizabeth as one of her own. “Have you been by the attorney’s yet?”
She shook her head.
“I think you’d better take a look.” He loped up the steps and held the screen door open.
Elizabeth cautiously approached, weighted down by the pull of the memories and the need to run as far away as possible.
Something in the set of his jaw told Elizabeth she wouldn’t like what she was about to see.
She wasn’t sure what was hardest: walking into her grandmother’s house expecting it to be empty or walking in with JD at her side like they had done so many times in the past.
“I had to move the furniture to paint and change out the flooring,” JD said, but Elizabeth couldn’t respond.
The room looked nothing like the one in her memory with thick shaggy carpet and buttery yellow walls dotted with a multitude of family photographs. Nor was it stripped as she had expected. This house boasted gleaming hardwood floors and bare, pale green walls. Two large cardboard boxes sat next to the empty fireplace, the edges of the wooden frames sticking out of the top. Stained covers draped over the furniture, protecting it from both paint and dirt and hiding the familiar floral chintz from view.
“Everything is…still here,” she whispered. “Everything.” It seemed as if someone had just locked the house and left.
She had been expecting to pick up a box of things collected by the painter. She surely hadn’t anticipated this.
“I called in someone to clean.” He didn’t say it, but Elizabeth supposed a foot of dust had coated everything. “Aside from that, it was left exactly like it was the day she died. I had to take the pictures down to paint.”
Elizabeth could only nod.
It had been nearly ten years since her grandmother had passed, but standing in her house, standing there with JD made the memories seem like yesterday. Everything came bubbling to the surface.
“Hey.” JD’s voice sounded, so close beside her. “Are you okay?”
Elizabeth sucked in a ragged breath. “I’m fine.” She gathered herself and put her emotions back on an even footing. Her grandmother was gone, her father was gone, and JD had broken her heart. There were some facts of life that had to be faced head on.
“Can you…stand to see more?”
She nodded, throat clogged. After the shock she just received, she could handle anything. Bring it on.
As far as the renovation, it was about half complete. Elizabeth admitted that the old house had never looked better. JD knew his stuff.
“Most of the major work has been completed.” JD led her down the hallway now painted a beautiful sky blue. “Roof, flooring. Couple of rooms still need some work. Minor stuff, closets, shelves, things like that.”
“Of course,” she murmured still trying to get her breath. She hadn’t expected to be as moved as she was. The house smelled different, like floor wax and paint. Gone was the lingering scent of lilac and sugar cookies that she’d forever associate with her grandmother. Not that it made it any easier.
As for the personal property…all the rooms were in the same state as the living room. Memorabilia packed neatly in boxes, pushed to the side and patiently waiting for someone to sort through the contents. Her grandmother’s clothes still hung in the closet. No wonder her father put off the task. It was overwhelming.
After the ten-cent tour, they stopped on the front porch. Elizabeth had spent many a night on that big wooden porch—with and without her siblings, sometimes waiting on JD to sneak out of his house and find his way over to her.
“I never expected…” She shook her head. This definitely wasn’t in her plans.
“You could hire it done…”
“No.” She couldn’t stand the thought of a stranger going through the family portraits picking out what they thought was best and tossing the remainder. It seemed callous and cruel. She supposed there was a little bit of her sentimental father inside her after all. “I can do it. I just—”
“What?” he asked softly.
“I expected to pick up a box and fly home. I had no idea…” She shook her head again. “I have a hotel room in San Antonio, but the drive.”
“You could stay here.” He nodded his head toward the Victorian.
“I suppose so.”
The house had running water and electricity, plenty of room and comfy furniture. She could go shopping, pick up a few things to eat. All in all it would be the perfect place to stay while she cleaned through the stuff. It wasn’t like she didn’t have the time.
She had at least a couple of weeks before she had to be back in LA. This wasn’t exactly how she had planned to spend those coveted vacation days, but she didn’t have much choice. It needed to be done and her father had left the house to her.
JD tripped down the stairs, then turned back to face her. “Are you going to be okay here?”
Elizabeth nodded, her throat tight.
She needed a hot bubble bath, some dinner, and maybe a brownie. Something—anything—to clear her head and set her feet on the right path.
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a key. “This is the spare. Lock up if you leave. Loveless isn’t as innocent as it once was.”
Elizabeth dipped her head again.
“I still have my copy until the work is complete.”
“So,” JD started, “I guess you’re going to be in town a while.”
“It looks that way.”
He nodded toward nothing in particular. The evening sun was dropping low in the sky, bathing him in a golden glow. “Would you like to go—”
But Elizabeth shook her head before he could even finish. “I’m not sure that’s a good idea.” Now was not the time to pick up where they left off fifteen years ago. And she was afraid that’s exactly what would happen. She was too vulnerable, and he was too potent.
“Really.” It wasn’t quite a question.
She nodded. “In fact, I’m certain it would be a very bad idea.”
“You know,” he said, the light summer breeze stirring the dark strands of his hair. “I’ve been a bad idea where you were concerned since the day we met. I can’t imagine you giving that up now.” Then he turned and walked away leaving Elizabeth alone on the porch, wondering just when she had turned into such a wimp.
JD shoved the key into his truck’s ignition and tried to figure out why he was so mad.
Was it because the last person he expected to see today—or ever again, for that matter—had shown up literally on the doorstep? Or was it because the Bethie Grace of his fondest high school memories had turned into Elizabeth of the elegant skirts and jaunty little gold bracelets?
Bethie Grace had worn faded jeans and his football jersey knotted at the waist because otherwise it hung to her knees, his class ring on a chain around her neck, and his kiss on her lips. While this Elizabeth person was sophisticated to a fault, put together, and confident like someone on one of those makeover shows.
She was as beautiful as ever…maybe even more so. Chestnut hair streaked with golden highlights. Still as slim and trim as she had been back then. She could probably even still fit into her cheerleader uniform.
Now there was a thought that brought back memories.
Lots of memories. After the game… behind the bleachers…down by the river…and a dozen other places scattered around town where they had come together as only the young in love can.
JD shook his head and started the truck. No sense in thinking about that. No sense trying to figure her out. Hell, all he wanted was to share a cup of coffee with her. Catch up on old times and what she was doing now. How her brothers and sisters were faring. Maybe apologize once again. But she wouldn’t even allow him that.
He couldn’t blame her. He’d hurt her so long ago. Betrayed was probably a better word. Funny thing, but when he had broken her heart, his hadn’t been spared either. But in that split second when he first saw her, he’d hoped they could move past that.
Not going to happen. He backed down the drive of the rambling Victorian. There was only room for one lady in his life right now, and he was late picking her up from soccer practice. With a wistful smile on his face, he headed across town.
Elizabeth’s skin prickled as she drove to the grocery store. She felt like she was a guest on one of those prank shows. Whatever was going to happen was about to start…anytime now. Everyone was watching because they knew it too. She was on display. The Girl Who Left And Came Back.
She parked the white nondescript rental on the side of the supermarket. It stuck out like a porcupine at a cat convention, the one car in the lot that belonged to no one in town. She slipped off her sunglasses and tried to glide into the store unnoticed.
In the town the size of Loveless, the idea of going anywhere without running into someone she knew was as inevitable as the softball game at the church picnic.
Still, she needed some food and staples if she was going to stay in her grandmother’s house. That meant a trip to the store.
She didn’t know when, but sooner or later someone was going to say something like—
“Bethie Grace, is that you?”
Elizabeth turned, prepared to tell the person that it was Elizabeth, but as she caught sight of the young woman standing in front of her she had to bite back a school girl squeal. “Candy?”
“It is you.”
Elizabeth found herself surrounded by long, thin arms and pressed up against a round, protruding belly.
For an instant she felt a pang of jealousy, which was ridiculous. She was perfectly happy with her life just the way it was. Evidently, being back in Loveless was getting to her already.
“I heard you were back in town.”
Good news travels fast. “That’s funny, I’ve only been here about two hours.”
“Good news travels fast.” Candy Epperson—at least it had been Epperson when they cheered side by side for the Loveless High Mustangs—wagged her finger at Elizabeth. “I can’t believe you’ve been here that long and haven’t found one of us yet.”
“Came back to take care of your grandmother’s house.” Candy frowned, looked sad for a moment, then gushed, “We have got to go out tonight.”
The only hangout in town. Or at least it had been once upon a time.
“Should you be—”
“Oh, I don’t drink, but I love to go and dance. Kenny works the late shift at the plant, so I have my evenings to myself.” She ran a hand down the front of her belly. “At least for now.”
“Kenny? You mean Kenny Coleman?”
“That’s me, Candy Coleman.”
It was a crazy match if ever there was one.
“It’s perfect. Me, you, Ginger. Holly’s in San Antonio, but maybe she can make it back before you leave. I’m calling Gin right now.”
As much fun as it would be—say, tomorrow night when she wasn’t so mentally exhausted from the trip and so emotionally exhausted from seeing JD and her grandmother’s house again—it seemed like pure torture to go out tonight. But Elizabeth knew better than to say anything. Once Candy got started with something, it was impossible to get her off of it.
“Ginger. You will never guess who I’m standing here talking to in the middle of the Safeway. Nope. Bethie Grace McGee.”
“Actually, it’s Elizabeth. I go by Elizabeth now.”
Candy stared at her as if she’d sprouted tulips out her ears. “I know. Can you believe it?”
“That’s what I said too. Uh-huh. I think tonight.” She paused. “Mom can babysit. It’ll be okay. Uh-huh. That’s what I was thinking. Oh great minds!” She tucked the pink-encased phone between her chin and shoulder and gave Elizabeth two thumbs up.
“Yep, seven o’clock. That should give us plenty of time. Yep. Okay, see ya then,” Candy finished and tapped her phone off. “It’s all set. Ginger’s going to meet us at Barney’s at seven.”
“That’s great.” Elizabeth hoped her voice sounded more excited than she felt. She was excited…just exhausted and excited which almost cancelled each other out.
Candy and Ginger had been her best friends growing up. Even though they had lost touch over the years, Elizabeth didn’t want to hurt their feelings. She would play catch-up with them tonight and then sleep in tomorrow before setting to work cleaning out her grandmother’s house.
With any luck, she’d be back in LA by the beginning of next week.