She can’t let go of her dead husband…
Maddie Kinkaid believes her late husband, Jack, gives her advice on everything from ordering a pizza to hiring a carpenter, so when she finds Caleb Walker’s business card on Jack’s desk, she’s convinced that he’s the guy to remodel her kitchen.
He can’t decide if she’s worth the risk…
Caleb is a single father, and protecting his young son means avoiding romantic entanglements. But there’s heat in every kitchen, and sparks ignite between Caleb and Maddie—until disaster strikes.
When Jack goes silent, Maddie’s guilt consumes her, and it looks as if she and Caleb will never find their happily-ever-after—at least, not without a little help from Jack…
TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In Love Built to Last, Maggie Kinkaid and Caleb Walker are both widowers. She’s a teacher and he’s a carpenter. They meet when Maggie calls Caleb for an estimate on remodeling her kitchen. The attraction is immediate, but there are problems. Caleb has a young son that he doesn’t want to jeopardize by entering into a relationship that later goes bad. And Maggie is still hung up on her dead husband who she believes communicates with her through the papers he left on his desk when he died.
The story is cute and tugs at your heartstrings. It’s got a good, strong plot and a few twists and turns that surprised even me. A good book for a rainy afternoon by the fire with a nice cup of tea.
REGAN MURPHY SAYS: Love Built to Last by Lisa Ricard Claro revolves around Maggie Kinkaid, who lost her husband Jack in a car accident, and Caleb Walker who lost his wife Gwen to cancer. From the very start, Maggie and Caleb’s relationship is problematic. Maggie still feels tremendous guilt over Jack’s death, due to an argument she had with him just before he died. She never got the chance to apologize or tell him goodbye. And Caleb is hesitant to fall for Maggie because of his young son, whom he’s afraid will get hurt if a relationship with Maggie doesn’t work out. Still the two are drawn together and a relationship develops whether they want it to or not. Then disaster strikes and everything turns to crap.
Love Built to Last is a story about love, loss, and starting over that is well-written, heartwarming, and a delightful read.
Maddie stirred. Her mind grasped at images that dipped below the surface of her consciousness and sank out of reach. Jack disappeared again, snatched from her dreams. The waking realization settled on her like an icy second skin.
She watched the play of light and shadows on the ceiling. A shaft of sunshine slanted through the windows and dust motes floated in the hazy beam. The digital bedside clock clicked ten, its red numbers accusing her of another wasted Saturday morning.
“Hey, Jack.” Maddie’s voice whispered soft as silk and she closed her eyes. The answering silence stabbed at her heart, the ache so familiar she almost welcomed it as a friend. She ran her hand over the empty pillow beside her. “Make me get up,” she murmured, but didn’t move.
She curled instead under the cool sheets, cocooned in the late morning quietude. She conjured a vision of Jack lying beside her–sleepy Jack, with tousled hair, his blue eyes dark with desire.
She held her breath and imagined his strong hands finding her, warm palms sliding along her body’s curves beneath the oversized tee she wore as a nightshirt. When his hands pulled her close, her heart beat faster.
The phone trilled.
Maddie snapped her eyes open and groaned. She sat up, pushed the tangled mass of dark hair from her face, and snatched her cell from the nightstand. “What?”
“Hi, Mrs. Kinkaid? This is Caleb Walker.”
“Caleb Walker. I’m the carpenter you called. You left me a message about renovating your kitchen.”
Maddie rolled her eyes. “You mean the message I left two weeks ago? That one?”
“Yes, ma’am. Sorry about that. I had problems with my cell. Not that it helps, but your message wasn’t the only one caught in the techno-glitch.”
“You’re right. It doesn’t help.” She twisted up and out of bed, more annoyed that he’d interrupted her Jack fantasy than at his delay in returning her call. She grabbed her glasses from the nightstand and slid them on with her free hand.
“All I can do is apologize, ma’am. If you’re still interested in talking with me about your kitchen renovation, I can stop by this afternoon. I know this is short notice, so we can schedule another day if that would be better for you.”
“I’m busy today until around four.”
“Four works. I really am sorry about this delayed call back.” His apologetic words, delivered in a deep Southern drawl as smooth as a shot of Glenlivet, softened her attitude a wee margin.
“Okay. I’ll see you at four.”
“Hey, don’t hang up.” His intoxicating voice stopped her from disconnecting. “I need your address.”
Maddie rattled off the information and clicked off the call. She dropped the phone on the nightstand and flopped back across the bed. “He’s got a great voice, Jack, like the DJ I loved to listen to in college, remember? The guy who hosted that cheesy love song show. What was his name?” She waited, willing Jack’s voice to pipe up with an answer.
The clock clicked again, loud in the silence.
By ten-forty-five, she stood in the kitchen pouring coffee into a generous mug that proclaimed Teachers Do It With Class, given to her by one of her kindergarten students on the last day of school. Showered and dressed in frayed denim cut-offs and a washed-out T-shirt bearing the words Giving You Paws above the silhouette of a dog and cat inside a paw, she was comfortable, if not glamorous. Good enough, she figured, to spend the bulk of her Saturday sitting with other volunteers outside the local pet supermarket, helping with animal adoptions.
She carried her mug through the dining room and down the hall to Jack’s study. The worn Berber carpet scratched at her bare feet along the way and she acknowledged, as she did daily, that it needed to be replaced, along with the tile floors in the kitchen and bathrooms, and the rust-stained sinks. One of these days, Jack.
On entering the study, she looked past the faded wallpaper that peeled in the corners and showed wear at random areas above the wainscoting, itself in need of refinishing. She ignored the warped ceiling fan with its low-slanted blades and dusty exterior. Her attention, instead, homed in on Jack’s desk.
A gift from Maddie to Jack for their second anniversary, the desk commandeered the space, its cherry finish–the visible parts, anyway–polished to a glowing sheen. It was Maddie’s lighthouse, a beacon of joy in an aging house filled to bursting with dreams that would never be.
It served also as a virtual time machine.
Every paperclip, document, Post-it, pen, pencil, paperweight, notepad, receipt, and scrap of paper that Jack had left on his desk the day he made that fateful trip south to Atlanta remained intact. Even his calculator and laptop sat where he’d left them. If Jack kept it, then he needed it, and if he needed it, then Maddie would never throw it away.
She went first to the narrow credenza behind the desk, mindful of Jack’s coaster from the accounting firm where he had worked. She appreciated the brass and leather construction of the thing because it was sleek and solid, like her Jack, so she favored it and used it now for her coffee mug.
She took a minute to glance at the framed photos of Jack’s family and the one of herself taken on their wedding day.
She stared at the smiling image of her younger self and marveled at her hair wound in a complicated ’do, dressed in a gown that showed off her slender shoulders and hinted, through a miracle of design, at more boobs per square inch than she’d ever possessed.
A bride too late and a widow too soon, she mused. Had she known how things would go, she would have married Jack the second after they met in the freshman quad, instead of waiting the four years until college graduation.
Sliding into the leather chair, Maddie faced the desk, closed her eyes, and inhaled a cleansing breath that would have made her past yoga instructors proud. She exhaled with deliberation and focused on her daily ritual of communicating with Jack. She wriggled her fingers, and the giddiness dancing in her belly prickled along her nerves in anticipation.
“Okay, Jack. I know you told me to call this Walker guy. Should I bother getting a quote from him? He took two weeks just to call me back. Maybe you missed the mark on this one.”
Maddie closed her eyes and slid her hands into the mountain of detritus Jack had left behind. Even now, four years after his death, she found a glimmer of amusement from the mess. In every other area of his life Jack had been meticulous, so type-A he’d made Donald Trump look like a slacker, but when it came to household paperwork, it all landed here.
“I know where everything is,” Jack would say. “That’s all that matters. Just tell me what you need and I’ll find it.”
And he always did. Even now.
Maddie slid her hands through the papers, eyes still closed. She bypassed slick sheets and crumpled ones, ignored an eraser as her hands cruised to the back of the pile. She leaned forward with her chest pressed against the edge of the desk, arms outstretched across the wide expanse. Her fingers exited the mess of papers and collided with the faux Tiffany lamp in the far right corner.
There. A business card stuck up from the pile and rested at the base of the lamp. Maddie took the card between her fingers and extricated her arms from Jack’s papery mess, careful not to knock any of the precious debris onto the floor.
She pushed her tortoise-shell glasses up her nose and leaned back in the chair, excitement humming through her to see what Jack’s answer would be.
“Well,” she huffed, tapping the business card against her fingers. It was identical to the card she retrieved from the pile two weeks ago when she first asked Jack who she should call for a quote to remodel the kitchen.
Caleb Walker. The guy who didn’t return phone calls. Great. Maddie studied the card. The front side touted the man as an architect, carpenter, furniture designer, builder, and restoration specialist. On the back of the card, penned in Jack’s neat accountant’s script were the words, Call this guy.
“You sure about this one? The guy ignored me for two weeks.” But even as she said it, she stood and slid the card into her back pocket.
“Hey, Mads? You ready?”
Maddie jumped. The voice calling from the vicinity of the kitchen belonged to Maddie’s best friend, Jack’s sister, Brenna Kinkaid, and while Maddie had anticipated her arrival, she hadn’t heard her come into the house. In fact, she almost never heard Brenna come in. The woman moved with the grace of a cat.
“Hey.” Maddie strolled into the kitchen and offered herself up for a hug. She poured the dregs of her coffee down the drain and unplugged the coffee maker. Brenna had, as Maddie hoped, arrived with a jumbo cup bearing the logo for the Lump & Grind, the local coffee shop that Brenna owned.
“Mmm.” Maddie sipped the steaming brew, smiled with appreciation, and nodded at Brenna. “Perfect, as always.” She meant the coffee, but might have been referring to Brenna herself.
Today, Brenna, who could make a prison-orange jumpsuit look glamorous, lent her generous curves to a pair of casual capris and a T-shirt the mirror image of Maddie’s, only newer, brighter, and better fitting. She wore strappy sandals studded with princess gems that framed her French pedicure to its best advantage.
“I’m so glad I sprang for the new espresso machine. The customers love him. He’s stainless steel, hot, steamy, buff, and I’ve named him Dirk. Nice, huh?” Brenna wriggled her brows, dark arches over eyes the color of dusky denim-blue. Just like Jack’s. “The place was hopping this morning, and I forgot to grab you one of Greta’s cinnamon buns, so I hope you ate something. Sorry about that. You ready to go?”
Maddie nodded while she sipped the gourmet L&G java, grabbed her purse from the kitchen table, slid into a pair of worn flip-flops, and pushed through the screen door leading to the side porch.
She leaned against the door to hold it open for Brenna and then let it slap shut behind them as they started down the stairs.
“Hey, you shouldn’t just leave the door wide open like that.” Brenna rested her hands on her hips and shook her head. “It’s bad enough you always come and go by your kitchen instead of using your front door like a normal person. At least lock up when you leave.”
“Why would I use the front door when we always park on the side of the house?” Maddie said, amused by Brenna’s observation. “And I’ve told you before, I like coming in through the kitchen. It’s friendlier that way.” Maddie batted her eyelashes and exaggerated a smile, earning an eye roll from Brenna. “And why lock up? Look around.” Maddie turned full circle, her arms extended. “I’m in the middle of Nowhere, North Georgia, half a mile from the main road. Who’s going to sneak in? A deer? One of the cats? Even if someone stumbled across this place, what would they take? The only thing I worry about in there is Jack’s desk, and I can’t imagine anyone caring about what’s on it or in it but me.”
Brenna flicked her sleek hair over her shoulders, folded her arms across her chest, and raised a brow. “Don’t you ever watch Law & Order? CSI? Dexter, for god’s sake? There are serial killers and evildoers afoot. Lock it up, Mads.”
“Seriously?” Maddie groaned. “Oh, sweet Lord. You and your crime show obsession.”
Maddie thrust her coffee at Brenna, fished her keys from her purse, and stomped up the porch stairs to do as she was told. It was easier than an argument she was sure to lose anyway.
“I don’t know why you don’t sell this old place and move closer to town. Don’t you ever get spooked being out here all alone?”
“Never. Jack and I chose this place together. I feel close to him here. And I’m not alone. I have the cats.”
She looked toward the weather-worn barn and noted old Horace sauntering out through the open doors into the sunshine. The tomcat, who’d grown plump since his neutering, stretched his considerable bulk on his favorite patch of crabgrass and twitched his ears when a young calico raced past him and disappeared around the side of the barn.
“Those barn cats wouldn’t lift a paw to help you. They’re a bunch of hedonists.” Brenna handed Maddie her coffee. “All six of them.”
“Only five now.” Maddie frowned. “My sweet Rafael disappeared a couple weeks ago. Poor old guy. Cats wander off to be alone when their time comes. I think maybe that’s what he did.”
“I don’t know how you can afford to keep them all fixed and fed. You’re turning into a crazy cat lady.”
“Go ahead and joke, but I haven’t had one field mouse inside the house. I just regret they have to stay outdoors all the time, but Jack is allergic.”
Brenna’s expression slid into tender lines. She regarded Maddie with a mix of frustration and empathy. “Was, sweetheart. He was.”
“I know he’s gone, but it doesn’t feel like it to me.” Maddie shrugged. “Besides that, he talks to me. If I leave here, I might disrupt the balance. I’m not doing anything that might ruin that connection.”
“Look, I know you have yourself convinced that Jack communicates with you. I wish it were true, really I do. But, honey, Jack is gone. He’s not coming back and you need to accept that.”
Maddie pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose. “Don’t lecture me.”
“I worry about you.”
They stared at each other for a beat, then two. Brenna shook her head, pulled her keys and Ray-Bans from her purse, and changed the subject as they walked toward her Audi.
“Did Mama call you?,” she asked. “She’s fixing meatloaf tonight and I think I heard something about apple pie.”
“She called me yesterday and bribed me with garlic smashed taters.”
“You want to go straight over there after the pet adoptions close? I can drive you back here after dinner.”
They settled into Brenna’s little convertible and strapped in. Maddie yanked her sloppy ponytail tighter and said, “I would, but I have an appointment at four. You’re going to be proud of me. I called a carpenter to come over and give me a quote on a complete rehab of the kitchen. It was the first thing Jack and I were going to remodel after we bought the house, you know? So I’ve decided to get a quote. At least I’ll know what kind of cost I’m looking at if I ever decide to actually do it.”
“Mads, that’s wonderful. I am proud of you.” Brenna’s smile beamed wide. “Who did you call? I hope you got a recommendation from someone you trust.”
Maddie bit her lip and slouched into the seat. She studied the passing trees outside the passenger window with more interest than was warranted.
“I did, in a manner of speaking,” she said. “I’ll give you details later, okay? After I meet with him.”
“You can tell the whole family about it over meatloaf and smashed taters.”
When Brenna didn’t press for more information, Maddie relaxed and settled back into the buttery leather to enjoy the ride.
After returning home from the Giving You Paws adoption day, Maddie started a pot of fresh coffee and went outside. She crossed the wide gravel drive onto the meager stretch of spotty grass leading toward the barn. The scent of wild honeysuckle mingled with the Georgia pines and the earthy scent of young summertime. She marveled at the difference between this, Jack’s hometown of Bright Hills, and the inland Florida town where she grew up. Between the two, she felt more at home here–in part, because Jack loved it so, and because his family embraced her without reservation as one of their own. Acceptance and love created a solid anchor.
Maddie stooped outside the weathered barn to pet Horace. He basked in the sun, sprawled in the same patch of scrub grass where he had been earlier. He purred with enthusiasm when Maddie bent to scratch behind his gray ears and stroke her hand over his spine.
“Where are your pals, big guy? All hanging out in the barn?”
She refilled the cats’ food dishes and replaced the day-old water with fresh. Horace received another bout of scratching and cooing before Maddie left him to go back inside.
She stopped midway between the house and barn to enjoy the view of the field that lay beyond them, a ripple of green that ended acres away at the edge of a state protected forest. Trees dotted the landscape in a random pattern, save for a trio of apple trees in the mid distance which, by happenstance, formed a triangle. Their spreading branches created a leafy canopy which shaded a broad circle of ground. She and Jack had expected their children to play in that field, to climb those trees. They had planned for a tree house and a swing, a waggy-tailed dog, and happy laughter to echo over the hills.
Maddie accepted the sadness that rolled through her and brought with it that split second of disbelief that she stood here without Jack, that he was really gone and wasn’t coming back. She swallowed it back and sighed.
“I told Brenna I’d be at your mom’s later, and now I don’t feel like it. Should I go or make an excuse and stay home?”
She considered sitting at Jack’s desk to find her answer, but the carpenter would be here soon. She tossed her flip-flops by the kitchen door and poured fresh coffee into her mug. It didn’t come close to matching the flavor of Brenna’s specialty brew from the Lump & Grind, but it would do.
The crunch of tires on the gravel signaled the arrival of the carpenter and Maddie padded barefoot over cool tiles to the kitchen door. She stepped onto the porch and waved the black Ford 350 over to the side yard. The driver parked beside her Camry where the gravel thinned and patches of grass sprouted at the driveway’s end, not quite midway between the house and the barn.
“This is the carpenter you recommended, Jack. The guy with the sexy voice.” She smirked. “He probably looks like Homer Simpson.”
Maddie sipped her coffee and waited for the man to climb from the truck. She adjusted her glasses, but didn’t get a good look at him until he slammed the driver’s door and strode toward the house, his long legs making short work of the distance. She blinked twice and adjusted her glasses again. In her experience, people never looked like their voice sounded, and she’d expected him to be older and a lot less–well, sweet Lord. She gulped her coffee and the burn in her throat brought tears to her eyes.
“Mrs. Kinkaid? Hi. Caleb Walker. Friends call me Cal.” He loped up the porch steps clutching a dog-eared notebook in his left hand, his right hand outstretched.
Maddie shifted her coffee mug to accommodate his handshake and the hot liquid sloshed over the side of the mug.
“Ouch!” She thrust the mug into her other hand and shook the offended appendage.
Coffee dripped from her fingers. Her cheeks heated and she imagined how ridiculous she looked, standing there shaking her hand like a fool.
“Sorry.” He took the mug before she could protest and moved around her to hold open the screen door. “Better run that hand under cold water.”
Maddie looked into his eyes, green as moss and pulsing with light. Unsettled, she blurted the first thing that came to mind. “Are you always so bossy?”
Those amazing eyes crinkled at the corners and Maddie didn’t know whether to be swept away by his affability or annoyed by his air of familiarity. He diffused her with a disarming grin and followed her from the porch into the kitchen.
“It depends on who you ask. My sister will regale you with many stories of my bossiness. Mostly, though, I just suffer from a compulsion to fix things.” An apologetic smile accompanied his broad-shouldered shrug. “It’s a genetic defect that I hope you won’t hold against me. How’s the hand?”
“No amputation required.” Maddie held up her hand and wriggled the fingers. “And I owe you an apology. I was rude to you on the phone earlier. You caught me at a bad time. I’m sorry.”
“I don’t blame you for being irritated. Believe me, you weren’t my only unhappy customer. You have my word that ignoring messages is not how I like to do business.” He proffered his hand to shake. “Let’s try this again. I’m pleased to meet you.”
“You really want to squeeze my injured hand with that big paw of yours?”
The genuine concern in his widening eyes teased a smile from her. She extended her hand. “Joking,” she murmured, and they shook, a quick greeting. Maddie’s stomach fluttered with discomfort. She blamed it on the sheer size of him. He stood taller than Jack by almost half a foot and had a heavier build, though he appeared just as fit as Jack had been, and maybe even more so, judging from the spread of his cotton shirt over what Maddie judged to be a very masculine chest.
He radiated male energy that reminded her, by way of an unexpected tightening in her belly, that she hadn’t been touched by a man in a very long time. “Pleased to meet you, Mrs. Kinkaid.”
“Call me Maddie.” Eager to put distance between them she stepped away and gestured to the kitchen cabinets. “So, what do you think? Restore or replace?”
He ran a callused palm over the cabinet doors and eyed the chipped countertop and ’70s floor tiles, an abomination in avocado green and burnt orange.
“Are you just looking to do the cabinets, or do you plan to remodel the whole kitchen?”
“I guess that depends on the cost.” She crossed her arms and rested against the counter. He might be nice to look at, but there was no way he was talking her into a bigger job.
“Here’s the thing, Mrs. Kinkaid–Maddie. I don’t want you to go to the expense of restoring the cabinets and then have it all be for naught a year from now if you turn around and update the appliances and countertops. You’re better off designing the whole kitchen first so you know exactly what you want done, even if it takes you a couple years to do it, you know, a little bit at a time. That way you won’t waste any money.” His grin reappeared. “Think of it as having a road map before you set out on a trip. It’s best to have an end goal, know how you want the finished project to look.”
Maddie relaxed her stance. Maybe this guy wasn’t looking to talk her into anything, after all.
“Would you like some coffee? Or if you prefer something cold, I have sweet tea in the fridge.”
“No, thanks.” He flipped open the notebook and turned pages until he found a blank sheet. He tugged a pencil from the spiral binding and drew a rough sketch of her counters and cabinets.
“If you want to remodel for more space, then these cabinets will have to go. See? Something like this.” He showed her the sketch. “But if you love your layout and don’t want to change it, then restoring the cabinets is fine. If you like, I’ll draw up several designs so you have choices.”
Maddie sipped her coffee while Caleb inspected the cabinetry, took measurements, and jotted notes in his book. He moved around her kitchen, a big man at ease with his surroundings, handsome in a rugged, careless way.
Nothing like her GQ Jack.
He glanced up and caught her staring, and at his smile, Maddie turned away to refill her mug, taking longer than necessary to complete the chore.
“You sure you don’t want coffee? Or tea, or water, or, or anything?” She closed her eyes. Why was she babbling for heaven’s sake?
“No thanks.” If he was aware of her discomfiture, he didn’t let on. “Do you mind if I ask who referred me? My business is word of mouth, and I’d like to thank whoever gave you my name.”
“My husband, Jack. He told me–I mean–I found your contact information mixed with some documents on his desk.”
“Please tell him I said thank you. I’ll look forward to meeting him.”
“I will, sure. I mean, you can’t.” She cleared her throat. “My husband is gone. He was killed in a car accident.” She still couldn’t put her tongue around the words without tripping over them.
Those mossy-green eyes darkened and his expression sobered. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
“It’s been four years, but it feels like yesterday. I think of him like he’s still here. I talk to him.” The second the words popped out of her mouth, she wished them back. What a foolish thing to share with a stranger. She focused on her chunky mug, peered into it as if the answer to life resided inside, and imagined climbing into the cup to disappear beneath the brew.
“I understand completely.” His voice softened. “I still talk to my wife, too. Everyone thinks I’m crazy, but it helps.”
Maddie snapped her head up and a tingling flood of relief washed through her. He didn’t think she was a total nut job. He got it.
“What happened with your wife? If you don’t mind me asking.”
“Cancer. Our son, TJ, had just turned two and we were hoping for another baby, but it wasn’t happening.” He glanced away, and the muscle in his jaw tightened. “Gwen was already a stage four. I lost her three years ago.”
“I’m so sorry.”
He acknowledged her comment with a single nod, and his mouth curved into a crooked smile. “Moving on is tough. But you know that.”
The word required no response and he offered none, but continued to regard her with those amazing eyes. Her cheeks burned and she guessed he recognized her ridiculous embarrassment because, as she looked away, he tapped the notebook against his palm and said, “Okay, well. I’ll call you after I’ve drawn up some sketches with pricing so you’ll have an idea of what your options are.”
“Great,” Maddie squeaked and felt the fire in her cheeks heat up another degree.
“Do you have any ideas I should take into consideration?”
Maddie cleared her throat. “Oh, no, not really. I just want to update what’s here. I’m not very creative in the design department.”
“Nothing has to be set in stone. We can go over my designs, which might spark some of your own.”
“That sounds good.”
Cal faced her and jangled his keys. Their eyes met again and Maddie tingled with uncomfortable awareness.
“Please tell Jack I said thanks.”
Maddie waved goodbye from the doorway and returned to the kitchen where Caleb Walker’s presence lingered. Her stomach tumbled, and she pressed her hand to her abdomen to ease the unfamiliar giddiness.
Caleb Walker understood. And stranger or not, he was the only person in her world who did.
She allowed the invisible tractor beam that was Jack’s study to draw her in. She sat in his oversized chair, relaxed and in her comfort zone at last.
“Thanks, Jack. You were right. He’s a nice guy. Okay, so listen, your mom invited me for dinner, but I don’t really feel like going. I haven’t been over there since school let out, so I know I should go, but I’m feeling lazy. What do you want me to do? Stay home or go to your mom’s?”
Maddie closed her eyes and began her ritual. She poked through the papers until her fingers stopped on one in particular. She pulled it free of the pile and opened her eyes to find she had grasped a yellow Post-it note.
“Pick up dry cleaning. Really, Jack? C’mon. Help me out here.”
There. A pale pink scrap tucked up under the blotter caught Maddie’s eye. She recognized it as coming from her own spiral notebook and read the shopping list written in Jack’s script–2# gr beef, bread crumbs, eggs, chili sauce, onion. Goose bumps rose on her arms, standing the fine hairs on end.
The items on the list were ingredients for meatloaf, which her mother-in-law, Edie, was fixing for dinner.
“Okay, Jack. Guess I’m going to dinner.”
She tucked the paper back into the pile, closed her eyes again, and rested her head against the high back of the chair. She breathed in the scent of the room.
Sometimes, she imagined she caught a whiff of Jack’s spicy aftershave, but the fleeting sensation stayed somewhere beyond reach and, deep inside, she knew it was just wishful thinking.
Caleb Walker hadn’t smelled like aftershave. He smelled of sunshine and the outdoors, clean, earthy, and warm.
Maddie’s eyes flew open. Sweet Lord, where did that come from? Unexpected guilt erupted in her chest and coursed through her in a shameful gush. How could she think of another man, any man, while sitting in Jack’s chair, at Jack’s desk, in Jack’s study?
She pushed from the comfort of Jack’s chair and stood beside the desk, her heart pounding.
“It didn’t mean anything, Jack,” she whispered and assured herself it was true.
A few minutes later, Maddie stood upstairs in the master bathroom brushing her teeth. She turned the faucet off, wiped her mouth on a towel and waited, ears attuned. There it was again, faint but audible: drip…drip…drip.
She dropped to her knees, opened the cabinet, and peered inside. And there it was, a slow drip coming from the pipe. Any slower and it would be nonexistent, which meant it was not an emergency. Thank goodness.
After living in the house for almost five years, Maddie was used to the breakdown of its aging parts. The home and property had been a steal, one that she and Jack jumped on because it offered the private location they preferred at a price they could afford. They bought the place knowing that renovation was a mandatory feature, but in the aftermath of Jack’s death, restoration of the old farmhouse had, for Maddie, lost its appeal.
A glance at the clock told her she didn’t have time to mess with the leak now, anyway, if she was going to make it to her mother-in-law’s in time for dinner. She pushed aside the cleaning supplies stashed under the sink to make room for a bucket to catch the dripping water, and made a mental note to call a plumber first thing in the morning.
In a rush now, she changed from her cut-offs and tee into a bright yellow sundress and sandals, let loose her ponytail and gave her dark hair a quick run through with the brush, grabbed her purse, and headed for dinner at the Kinkaids’.
She stopped at the floral shop inside the grocery store on her way into town and bought a bright bouquet of daisies and tiger lilies, because she never showed up at Edie Kinkaid’s door empty handed.
It was a ritual they both enjoyed, and Maddie saw no reason to change it.
She took her time on the drive, slowing with traffic when she neared the center of town. A quick scan of license plates firmed her assumption that most of the delay was due to tourists from counties south who had traveled north to enjoy Bright Hills’ quaint shops and mountain air. Brenna’s Lump & Grind would no doubt benefit from the influx of visitors, and with that thought came a longing for designer caffeine and sugar.
Maddie ignored the craving, and drove away from the downtown area. She picked up speed and shot a cursory glance at the elementary school where she taught kindergarten, and continued past a garden of young subdivisions, bound instead for the older neighborhoods where the homes boasted oak-lined drives and wide verandas that screamed of old money and Southern charm.
It was into the long drive of one of these that Maddie turned her car. She slowed as she approached the house, as enamored of it now as she had been the first time she’d seen it. The memory made her smile. Jack had reminded her that his last name was Kinkaid and alluded that he was related to Thomas Kinkade, the painter.
“Where do you think he got the idea for all that blossomy color?” Jack had said.
Looking at the house, with its riot of blooming bushes and winding vines, it was easy to believe that Jack’s family home was the inspiration for at least one of the famous paintings. Jack had allowed her to believe his story for only a few moments, laughing at her gasping delight.
“I’m teasing, Maddie,” he had admitted, his sparkling eyes a deeper blue than the morning glories that threatened to overtake the porch. “We have no relation to the painter as far as I know. But if we did, you can bet my mother would have a custom sign hanging off the mailbox proclaiming the fact.”
“It still looks like it could be straight off a canvas, Jack,” Maddie now said aloud.
She cut the engine and took a moment to steel herself. Jack’s presence abided here, in the yard where they used to play tag football on Sundays, under the spreading oak where he had pushed her on the homemade swing, on the front porch where they snuggled on the wicker settee and whispered about their plans for the future, the home they would make, the children they would create and love.
“Maddie’s here!” Jack’s mother, Edie, waved from the front door.
Maddie bought herself a moment to collect her composure by adjusting her glasses. She smiled and waved back at Edie before grabbing her purse and scooping up the flowers she had brought.
“My favorite daughter-in-law!” Edie beamed and glided down the porch stairs with all the grace of a Hollywood matron, somehow managing to make Bermuda shorts and a cap-sleeved T-shirt look glamorous.
“I’m your only daughter-in-law,” Maddie reminded her, offering the flowers and a hug together as a package deal.
“Details, details.” Edie pressed her warm cheek to Maddie’s before pulling back to inspect her. “You look gorgeous, as always. And thanks for the flowers.” Her eyes, so like Jack’s, shone with obvious pleasure. “I can always count on you to brighten things up around here.”
Maddie gestured to the yard. “All you really need is a pair of clippers and a vase.”
“Well, if I bring all the blooms indoors then we can’t enjoy them out here.”
Maddie smiled at Edie’s logic and followed her into the house. “Is Sean coming later? I was hoping to see his new truck.”
“That boy of mine.” Edie shook her head and chuckled. “Bless his heart. He’s the best lawyer in town and he’d rather drive a muddy truck than a shiny sedan. I have to admit, though, as trucks go, he picked a nice one. But no, he won’t make it today. He’s down in Atlanta for the weekend for some concert.” She waved a manicured hand in the air and rolled her eyes. “Probably some woman. You know Sean.”
“How about Papa Ron?”
“In his man cave, watching the Braves’ game, and Brenna is in the kitchen making sangria. The real stuff.” Edie wriggled her eyebrows. “Yum! C’mon. Let’s go snag us a glass.”
“Hey, Mads.” Brenna stood at the kitchen counter, looking like an ad for Southern Living, with her ebony hair wound into a sleek twist and a white embroidered apron covering her designer sundress.
Her strappy heels gave her the illusion of height, but Maddie knew better. Brenna glanced up from her task when Maddie and Edie came into the kitchen. A pitcher of sangria stood on the counter.
Brenna sliced orange wedges and squeezed the juice into the pitcher. A lemon soon received the same treatment. “Have a seat,” she said.
The kitchen table sat in front of a wide bay window overlooking the backyard, which exploded with as much colorful flora as the front. Three wine glasses, already filled with ice, stood on the table, awaiting the flow of sangria.
Maddie picked a chair at the table that afforded her a view of the back yard. She took a sip of Brenna’s concoction and licked her lips. “Oh, wow. This is awesome. What do you have in here?”
“I’ll tell you, but only after you dish about the carpenter.”
“Carpenter?” Edie perked up and leaned in, all ears. “What carpenter?”
“It’s no big deal. I’m getting an estimate on remodeling the kitchen. I probably won’t even do it. I don’t want some stranger in my house all day. Anyway, he came by earlier to look at everything.”
“How’d that go?” Edie pressed.
“He was really fine. I mean, fine as in a nice guy, not fine in the sense of, you know, fine, fine. Not that he isn’t. Fine, that is. He was definitely, um.” Maddie stopped babbling when she noted the amused expressions of her companions. She took a gulp of the fruity sangria and murmured, “Fine.”
Brenna grinned. “Fine. We got that.”
“He’s going to get back to me with plans and an estimate.”
“So you said.” Brenna paused and gave her a look. “So tell us about this carpenter. We want details.”
“What kind of details?”
“Well. He’s fine, right?” When Maddie scowled at her Brenna laughed. “How’d you find him?”
“How else? Jack. When I decided to get a quote, I asked Jack who I should call, and there was the business card just waiting for me to find it.”
“Did you check him out online? Ask for references?”
“Of course. He has a nice website with photos of his work and testimonials from happy clients. He’s the guy who did the restoration on the old Methodist Church downtown.”
“Ooh, nice.” Edie’s eyes rounded. “The difference was night and day when the church had all that work done. Well, listen, honey, I hope his price is right.”
“You get what you pay for. That’s what Jack would say.”
Brenna nodded. “So tell us about him.”
Maddie’s face pinched in deliberate obtuseness. “Jack?”
Brenna poked her in the ribs. “Madelyn Kinkaid, don’t be an itch. Tell us about the carpenter. Is he old and fat? Or fine, fine, fine?”
“What difference does that make?” Silence ensued, making it clear that neither Brenna nor Edie would accept anything less than full disclosure. Maddie blew out a frustrated breath. “Oh, sweet Lord. Okay. Fine. He’s handsome, I guess.”
“You guess?” Brenna choked out a laugh. “Maddie, you’re twenty-eight, healthy, and breathing. He’s either hot or he’s not. Did you flirt a little, at least?”
Maddie’s cheeks warmed. “No, of course not. He wasn’t there to flirt.”
“Well, hot damn, honey.” Edie patted Maddie’s hand, her eyes bright with encouragement. “You should flirt. It’s about time.”
Maddie shook her head. “No, no. It isn’t and I didn’t. He’s–”
Brenna held Maddie in a laser stare. “So what’s his name?”
“Uh, Caleb Walker.”
“I know him!” Edie’s palms slapped the table and she beamed. “He’s Big Will and Sada’s boy. We go way back with the Walkers, from our country club days, and Sada and I see each other every other Saturday when we volunteer at the county food bank. Cal picked Sada up one time last year when her car was in the shop.” Edie made eyes at Brenna. “Big muscular guy, with tawny hair, all wavy and gorgeous.” She fanned her face with her hand. “He’s a hunk.”
Maddie did a mental eye roll. Here we go, Jack.
“So what’s going on with you two?” Edie leaned closer to Maddie.
“There isn’t anything going on. I just met him today, and only because Jack gave me his number.” At Edie’s and Brenna’s pursed lips, Maddie laughed. “I know you two think I’m nuts, but he really did. Anyway, like I said, the more I’ve thought about it the less I want a stranger in my house, so I may not even go ahead with the renovation.”
“Forget the kitchen. We’re talking about the carpenter. And he’s fine, right?”
Maddie ignored Brenna’s wicked grin. “Yes, fine, but I didn’t mean–I just meant–”
“Don’t be embarrassed.” Edie patted Maddie’s arm. “We know you’ll always love Jack. But you’re too young to be alone, and you’re by yourself in that old house out in the middle of nowhere. I’m glad you’ve met someone nice.”
“I haven’t.” Maddie emitted a frustrated laugh. “He’s just–oh, never mind.” She took another healthy swig of sangria and rolled her eyes. “You two are impossible.”
“You’re just figuring that out?” Papa Ron emerged from the lower level of the house and stepped from the stairs through the basement door and into the kitchen.
He wore his customary summer attire of Bermuda shorts and Hawaiian shirt, today more teal and yellow than his usual red and orange. “I’m glad you’re here, Papa Ron,” Maddie said. “These two are trying to play matchmaker.”
“Well, you ought to know that no woman can stand to see another woman without a man to boss around.” He rubbed his beer belly and sniffed the contents of the pitcher. “What’s this fruity stuff?”
“That’s sangria, Daddy. Homemade by my own two hands.” Brenna hefted the pitcher. “You want some?”
“Nope. Save that girlie stuff for you ladies. I’ll stick to my beer.” So saying, he pulled a bottle from the refrigerator and twisted off the top. “Call me up for dinner,” he said, as if they needed a reminder. “Game’s over, but the postgame interviews are on, and then I’m watching reruns of Law & Order.”
He shot a meaningful look at Brenna. “There’s a marathon.”
Edie topped off their glasses with more sangria. “That man. Give him a ballgame with a Law & Order chaser–doesn’t matter which one of the spin-offs, any will do–and he’s a happy camper.”
“Jack was the same way.” Maddie drew a line with her finger through the dripping condensate on the outside of her glass.
“I wonder if Caleb Walker likes Law & Order?” Brenna nudged Maddie with her shoulder. “What do you think, Mads?”
Amused, Maddie replied, “That you have an unhealthy attachment to crime shows. Now, stop being an itch. I have no idea what Caleb Walker watches and it isn’t any of my business. Or yours, for that matter.”
“Well if you ask me–”
“I didn’t. He’s the carpenter who’s going to quote me more than I can afford to turn my kitchen into a beautiful and functional space. That’s all. And you know what Jack would say? That you’re always looking for smoke where there isn’t a fire.”
Brenna snagged an orange wedge from her glass, nibbled the fruit, and pointed the rind at Maddie. “You know what else Jack used to say? There’s heat in every kitchen.”
© 2015 by Lisa Ricard Claro