Cover image for The wedding tree
The wedding tree
Berkley trade paperback edition.
Physical Description:
424 pages ; 21 cm.
"National bestselling author Robin Wells weaves a moving epic that stretches from modern-day Louisiana to World War II-era New Orleans and back again in this multigenerational tale of love, loss and redemption. Hope Stevens thinks Wedding Tree, Louisiana, will be the perfect place to sort out her life and all the mistakes she's made. Plus, it will give her the chance to help her free-spirited grandmother, Adelaide, sort through her things before moving into assisted living. Spending the summer in the quaint town, Hope begins to discover that Adelaide has made some mistakes of her own. And as they go through her belongings, her grandmother recalls the wartime romance that left her torn between two men and haunted by a bone-chilling secret. Now she wants Hope's help in uncovering the truth before it's too late. Filled with colorful characters, The Wedding Tree is an emotionally riveting story about passion, shattered dreams, unexpected renewal and forgiveness--not only for others, but for ourselves"--


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Hope Stevens thinks Wedding Tree, Louisiana, will be the perfect place to sort out her life and all the mistakes she's made. Plus, it will give her the chance to help her free-spirited grandmother, Adelaide, sort through her things before moving into assisted living.

Spending the summer in the quaint town, Hope begins to discover that Adelaide has made some mistakes of her own. And as they go through her belongings, her grandmother recalls the wartime romance that left her torn between two men and haunted by a bone-chilling secret. Now she wants Hope's help in uncovering the truth before it's too late.

Filled with colorful characters, The Wedding Tree is an emotionally riveting story about passion, shattered dreams, unexpected renewal and forgiveness-not only for others, but for ourselves.

Author Notes

Before she became a USA Today bestselling author, Robin Wells was an advertising and public relations executive, but she always dreamed of writing novels--a dream inspired by a grandmother who told "hot tales" and parents who were both librarians. Her books have won the RWA Golden Heart, two National Readers' Choice Awards, the Holt Medallion and numerous other awards. She now lives in Texas with her husband, but will always be a Louisiana girl at heart.

Reviews 1

Library Journal Review

Wells (Still the One) moves from contemporary romance to a multigenerational epic that begins in contemporary Louisiana and flows back and forth in time with a second story line set in World War II-era New Orleans. At 91, Adelaide McCauley is dying in the hospital, but her mother tells her she can't "cross over" until she reveals family secrets to her granddaughter. Hope, who lost everything when her short-lived marriage fell apart, offers to move to Wedding Tree, LA, to help her grandmother clean out her house. There, Hope discovers she isn't the only one with a broken heart. Adelaide reveals stories of a woman who longed for passion and adventure, only to yield to family pressure and contemporary standards. Her story is mixed with Hope's narration and that of Matt Lyons, the widower next door who is raising two young daughters. The narrators tell a moving story that becomes heart-wrenching when examining Adelaide's history. VERDICT Women's fiction fans will appreciate this character-driven story of two generations of women. The spirited protagonists will appeal to readers looking for women who overcome obstacles to find success and love.-Lesa -Holstine, -Evansville -Vanderburgh P.L., IN © Copyright 2015. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



ACKNOWLEDGMENTS raves for the novels of robin wells title page copyright dedication acknowledgments 1: adelaide 2: hope 3: hope 4: matt 5: adelaide 6: hope 7: adelaide 8: adelaide 9: adelaide 10: hope 11: matt 12: hope 13: adelaide 14: hope 15: adelaide 16: hope 17: adelaide 18: matt 19: hope 20: adelaide 21: matt 22: adelaide 23: adelaide 24: hope 25: adelaide 26: adelaide 27: matt 28: adelaide 29: matt 30: hope 31: matt 32: adelaide 33: adelaide 34: matt 35: hope 36: adelaide 37: hope 38: hope 39: matt 40: hope 41: adelaide 42: hope 43: adelaide 44: matt 45: adelaide 46: matt 47: hope 48: matt 49: matt 50: hope 51: hope 52: hope 53: adelaide 54: hope 55: hope 56: hope 57: matt 58: hope 59: adelaide readers guide 1 adelaide Funny, how you keep telling yourself, someday. Someday I'll get organized. Someday I'll get everything sorted out. Someday I'll tackle the tasks I've been dreading all these years. I kept waiting until I had a big block of time. A few free days, I thought. And, of course, they never came. No day is ever really free. And the truth is, if I'm entirely honest--and I haven't been on this topic, I admit it now--I didn't want to sort through my belongings. Sorting through meant looking back, and looking back meant confronting things I'd spent most of my life trying to avoid. So I put it off and put it off, and then, just when I worked up my resolve and finally got started, this happened. I'm foggy on what exactly it was this is--I can't remember how I ended up here--but here I am all the same, hovering over my own body in a hospital room. I'm pretty sure it's the hospital in my hometown of Wedding Tree, Louisiana, because I've visited lots of friends over the years and I recognize that awful gray linoleum flooring. When you're visiting someone who's really bad off, you spend a lot of time gazing down so you don't have to look at their pain. Anyway, here I am, floating against the ugly acoustical tile ceiling, looking down at an old woman with tubes snaking out of her nose and her arm veins. Apparently I'm not dead yet, because the old woman's chest is falling and rising, and a machine wired up to her is steadily beeping--so hard to believe that ghastly-looking old gal is me! But if I'm up here watching the goings-on, I must be on the way out. Which means it's too late to make good on my intentions to sort everything out and do what I should have done sixty-something years ago. "Never put off till tomorrow what you should do today." I turn my head at the familiar voice. "Mother?" She's floating beside me. At least, her head is--and her shoulders, too. The rest of her seems to trail off into vapor, but maybe my soul has poor eyesight. Mother's hair is pinned up prim and proper, with neat waves on the sides, just the way she always kept it, and she's wearing the dress with the starched lace collar that she was buried in forty-something years ago. "Did I--did I just die?" I ask. "Not yet, although if I were you, I'd die of shame, looking like that in a public place." She looks down at the woman on the bed and clucks her tongue. Mother always had the highest standards for appearance and comportment, and clearly the woman on the bed was violating all of them. Her--no, my-- hair is an unruly tangle of gray, far too long to be age appropriate. My skin is a blotchy testament to the fact I hadn't stayed out of the sun as Mother had warned, and my mouth gapes open in a most undignified fashion. Still, a hospital room isn't exactly a public place, and-- "Don't you sass me, young lady." I was hardly young--on what planet was ninety-one young? Besides, I didn't think I'd spoken aloud. "Thoughts, words--they're all the same," Mother says. "It's all energy. There are no barriers on this side." Oh my. "Oh my, indeed." "What happened?" "You fell and hit your head. You're unconscious, and you're having an out-of-body experience." "So I can't possibly help how I look." "A lady always manages to look her best for visitors." Oh--I had visitors! My view widens, like a zoom lens being reversed, to see three people gathered around my bed. I can only view the tops of their heads, but I'm sure the stocky man with the bald patch standing at the foot of the bed is my son, Eddie, and I think the tall, auburn-haired man beside him is his partner, Ralph. I've always known Eddie is the way he is--they call it gay now, although in my day, that meant happy, and Eddie was always a sad, tentative, nervous boy. The word for Eddie's kind, a word I only heard whispered when I was young, was queer . I never thought badly of him for it. The way I figured it, Eddie liked men, just like I did, and he can't help it any more than I could. If someone told me to start liking women that way, I don't reckon I could, so it stands to reason that Eddie couldn't, either. I tried to explain that to Eddie's father, but he wasn't having any of it. Charlie thought it was a character flaw and a choice. He took it personally, as if it were something Eddie was doing to annoy him--which couldn't be further from the truth, because all poor Eddie ever wanted was to please his daddy. But he couldn't, and he couldn't change the narrow minds of other townsfolk, and in a town as small as Wedding Tree, where everybody knew everybody else's business, well, it was no wonder Eddie went to college in California and never moved back. How old is he now? Fifty- or sixty-something? So odd to think that my baby is that old. The top of his head, all bald like that, looks a lot like it did the day he was born. The sight makes me want to cry. Oh, how I wish I could see Eddie's face! Click. All of a sudden, Eddie is framed in a portrait lens. Oh, my--my soul is a camera! Well, that makes sense. It's been an extension of my body throughout my life. I've been taking pictures for so long that I tend to frame things, to look at them and move my right finger, as if I'm pressing the shutter. This moment--freeze it, capture it, make it live forever. And this moment. And this one. And this one here. "She pressed my hand," a young woman says. My view twirls as if my head were on a swivel mount. Click. Oh, there's my granddaughter, Hope, sitting on my right, holding my hand. Such a lovely girl . . . So beautiful, with her wavy light brown hair and eyes the color of iced tea--so much like my late daughter, Rebecca. The thought sends a stab of pain through me. "Is Becky with you?" I ask Mother. "She's on this side, but they wouldn't let her come with me. Said you don't get to see her until you clean up the mess you've made down there." "You mean . . . I'm going to get well?" "Well, now, Adelaide, that's like everything else in life. It's entirely up to you." Was it? Was it really? I wasn't sure that anything in my life had really been my doing--except for the mistakes, of course. Mother levels me with a steely frown. "If you know what's good for you, missy, you'll get back down there and unleash the truth." Unleash--as if it were a dangerous animal. Well, that is about right. "I was trying to when I ended up here." "You were going about it all wrong. You need Hope's help." I look back at my granddaughter. She looks so sad--sadder than she should look at the prospect of an old woman passing. She'd been sad when I'd last seen her, too--which was when? I was fuzzy about the recent past. All I knew was that when that cad of her ex-husband cheated on her, he'd stolen something from her--something more than her inheritance and her art gallery and her home, all of which he'd purloined right out from under her. That lowlife had robbed her of her view of herself as lovely and lovable. We females are so vulnerable to that. Most of the women I'd photographed over the years didn't have a clue how lovely they really were. They'd look in the mirror and just see flaws--then, years later, when they looked back through their old pictures, they always exclaimed, "I was so thin back then!" or "I had such nice skin!" In the present moment, so many beautiful things go unseen, eclipsed by some over-imagined imperfection. Men don't have that problem with their physical appearance--at least, not the straight ones. They all think they're irresistible just the way they are. Most of them, of course, are completely deluded. But other men, like Joe . . . Oh, why was I thinking of Joe now? I did not-- not --want him to be my dying thought, not after spending so much of my life trying to forget about him. "You get back down there and tell Hope everything," Mother says. Everything? "Yes, everything ." My soul flushes scarlet. Oh Lord--was this a foretaste of hell, having my mother read my thoughts? Mother shot me her most reproving look. "I--I don't see how that will make a difference," I mentally stammer. "Yours is not to wonder why; yours is but to do or die. Now get to it, and no dillydallying." Mother turns her neat bun toward me, as if she were about to leave, then whips back around. "And be sure to dig up what Charlie buried." The beeping machine attached to the old woman in the bed stops for a moment, then rat-a-tat-tats like a high-speed shutter. "What? What did he bury?" She lifts her eyebrows in that I'll-brook-no-nonsense way of hers. "That's what you need to find out, isn't it?" My soul flutters. "Do you know? My memory isn't very . . ." "You didn't forget." Mother's voice is cold steel. "You never had the nerve to find out, and this is your last chance to rectify the situation." "But . . ." But Mother is gone. Not so much as a vapor trail remains. Click. A feeling of suction, as if I were being vacuumed downward from the ceiling, followed by heaviness, and then . . . Oh, my head! Oh, how it hurt. And my chest! Heavens to Betsy! Mother hadn't said anything about my chest. "She's awake!" my granddaughter says. "Gran's eyes are open." I stare at her. She looks a little like Becky, but she isn't. Becky is gone. Hope is alive. And apparently, so am I. Although I have to say, it doesn't seem to have much to recommend it. 2 hope Do you know what day it is, Mrs. McCauley?" Dr. Warren leaned over Gran and shined a penlight in her eyes. Gran scowled. "Of course I do." I wasn't so sure. Gran had seemed to recognize me when she first opened her eyes, but then she'd closed them again, and when she reopened them a moment later, she called me by my mother's name. I'd hated to correct her, because her eyes had held such a blue sky full of happy that I didn't want to disappoint her. Eddie had done it for me. "It's Hope, Mom. Becky is gone, remember?" "Gone where?" Uh-oh. Uncle Eddie and I had exchanged a glance. Fortunately, that was the moment Dr. Warren--an angular, hawk-nosed man in a heavily starched white coat--had stepped into the room. I'd relinquished my bedside seat and stood with Eddie and Ralph as the doctor had asked Gran to move her arms and legs, to turn her head, to stick out her tongue, and to perform half a dozen other motor tasks. She'd passed each test with flying colors. Dr. Warren moved the light to Gran's left eye. "So what day is it?" "Friday," Gran said. The doctor moved the light to her right eye, then switched it off. "Actually, it's Sunday, Mrs. McCauley." "Oops!" Gran gave a sheepish grin. "Guess I had one of those lost weekends I've always heard about." I laughed along with everyone else, but I was worried. Gran's memory had always been encyclopedic. Facts, dates, numbers--she was more reliable than Wikipedia. "Glad to see you still have your sense of humor," Eddie said. Gran squinted up at him. "Charlie?" Eddie's face fell. "No, Mom. It's Eddie." "Oh, yes, yes, of course. Eddie, dear. And . . ." She frowned at Ralph. "Ralph," the lanky man supplied, putting his hand on Eddie's shoulder. "Eddie's partner." "Yes, yes, so nice to see you. When did you two get in from Chicago?" "We live in San Francisco, Mom. Becky and Hope lived in Chicago." "Oh right." Her blue-veined hand went to her forehead. "Is Becky here?" Eddie and I exchanged another look. "She died, Mom. Three years ago. Her car crashed, remember?" "Oh no." Gran's hand drifted down her mouth. Tears formed in the corners of her eyes. "Oh, dear. I . . . I'd forgotten." My fingers tightened on the steel railing. In the first few weeks after Mom's death, sometimes I'd awaken and have a pain-free moment. Then the memory would hit, and my heart would squeeze like a wrung-out dishrag, and I'd feel all tight and twisted and knotted up. I hoped Gran wasn't going through that hard, searing, brand-new pain all over again. "Loss of memory is typical of a head injury," Dr. Warren said, adjusting his wire-rim glasses on his hooked nose. He was looking at Gran, but I'm pretty sure he was really speaking to Eddie and me. "So is emotional lability and confusion." Gran's gaze landed on me. The lack of recognition in her eyes alarmed me. "I'm Hope," I volunteered. "Your granddaughter." "Oh, yes, yes, of course. Hope, honey! It's so good to see you. My mind is all clouded up right now--you'll have to excuse me. How long have you been here?" "Since early this morning." The clock on the wall said it was nearly four o'clock in the afternoon, which meant I'd been there for about twelve hours. "I came as soon as I heard." I'd gotten the call from Gran's next-door neighbor, Mrs. Ivy, at eight thirty Saturday night. I'd been in my sublet apartment in Chicago, pulling on my pajama bottoms--the ones optimistically printed with sheep jumping over fences--and surfing the on-demand cable TV menu for a movie I could stand to watch. Which isn't as easy as it sounds, now that I've grown bored with revenge movies. I've been bloodthirsty for nearly twelve months, and I consider it a sign of progress that I've moved beyond wishing the horrible, painful, humiliating things portrayed on the screen would happen to my ex-husband. Still, I can't stomach romances. All those happily-ever-afters make me want to hurl. I can't stand movies about friends, either, because the woman I'd caught in my bed with my husband had been my very best friend--my high school BFF, my college roommate, the maid of honor at my wedding, who'd helped me pick out the very linens she was lying under my husband on. So anyway, I was surfing for a quirky independent film, or maybe an action/adventure movie, while tugging on my pajama bottoms at a ridiculously early hour in the evening--which I know is a pathetic thing for a thirty-one-year-old single woman to do alone on a Saturday night, but then, I'm apparently no better at being single than I was at being married--when the phone rang. I hopped over to the bedside table, one leg in my pj's, one leg out. The area code was southern Louisiana, but I didn't recognize the number. "Hope?" said a wavering falsetto. "It's Eunice Ivy--your grandmother's neighbor." A cement block of alarm hit my chest, sinking me to the edge of the bed. "I've already talked to your uncle Eddie, and he asked me to give you a call," she said. Heaviness pressed on my clavicle, constricting my airflow. I immediately feared the worst. "What happened?" "Your grandmother fell." My free hand covered my mouth. "Oh no." "Yes, I'm afraid she did. Her new neighbor on the other side--he's Griff and Peggy Armand's widowed son-in-law; he moved to Wedding Tree a few months ago with his two children. He bought the old Henry place. He's a very nice man, and--" "My grandmother," I interrupted. "What's happened to my grandmother?" "That's what I'm trying to tell you," she said, her southern accent maddeningly slow. "Matt Lyons--that's his name, the name of the new neighbor--saw Adelaide's shed door open, which was unusual--it wasn't even the day that Mr. Pickens comes to mow her lawn, and anyway, he's very conscientious and wouldn't just leave the door ajar--so he went over to check. He knocked at the front door first--he's very polite, this Matt Lyons--but Adelaide didn't answer. So he went around back to the shed, and that's when he found her." My palm was so sweaty the phone started to slip. I tightened my fingers around it. "How is she?" "Well, she fell. That's what I'm trying to tell you." "Yes, but what . . . Was she . . ." I couldn't bring myself to think, much less actually say, the words. It was a telephone call a lot like this one that had brought me the news about my mother. I shouldn't have answered the phone , I thought wildly. If I hang up, maybe it won't have happened. I wanted to hit the "End Call" button; I wanted it so badly I could practically hear the dial tone. But I didn't. I couldn't. "What happened?" "That's what I'm trying to tell you," Mrs. Ivy repeated. So tell me already. For God's sake, just tell me! But another part of me wanted her to continue her conversational meandering, to put off the facts as long as possible. "He found her lying on the floor of the shed," she continued. "Apparently she hit her head and fractured some ribs." A flashlight beam of hope gleamed through my fear. People don't talk about fractured ribs if someone is dead--do they? "How--how is she?" "Well, pretty bad." "But she's alive?" "Yes." I lay back on the bed, relief melting my bones. "The ambulance came and took her to the hospital," Mrs. Ivy continued. "I have the key to her house, so I went in and got her insurance card, then took it to the hospital. You know how hospitals are about getting the paperwork right. They don't want to do anything unless they have the insurance information, so I found her purse--it was in the kitchen, by the--" "Mrs. Ivy, I really appreciate all your help on this," I broke in, "but please, just tell me . . . How bad is Gran? Can she talk?" "Oh, no, dear. She hasn't regained consciousness yet, which has the docs pretty worried. They fear she had a stroke. They're running all kinds of tests, and Eddie is catching the first flight out. He asked me to call you so he could hurry up and make his travel arrangements. He said he'll call you as soon as he's en route to the airport." Gran and Uncle Eddie were the only close family I had left. My father had died when I was seven, and Mom was killed in a car crash three years ago--which was one of the reasons I think I married Kurt as quickly as I did; I wanted to feel like I belonged to someone. "I'm coming, too. Can you . . ." I hated to ask, but I hated the idea of Gran being all alone at the hospital far more. "Can you or someone else in town stay with her at the hospital until Eddie or I get to Wedding Tree?" "Oh, it's already arranged, dear. Your grandmother's women's circle from church and her poker club and her Yahtzee group are taking shifts until Eddie or you arrive. And I'm pet-sitting Snowball--she's right beside me, wagging her tail--so you don't have to worry about her." Thank God for close-knit small towns. The very thing my mom had always hated about Wedding Tree--the way everyone was always up in everyone else's business--was a blessing at a time like this. As soon as I hung up, I flew into frantic action. I booked the first flight out, threw God-only-knew-what into a suitcase, and called my boss's voice mail to explain I wouldn't be at work on Monday--which wasn't really a problem, because I didn't really have a boss. For that matter, I didn't really have a job. I was working as a temp at a graphic design firm, where I mostly updated websites. I used to run the ridiculously upscale art gallery Kurt and I had bought with my mother's inheritance, but we sold that--for a huge loss, I might add--as part of the divorce settlement. We also sold the extravagantly expensive home Kurt had insisted we buy--a house with a mortgage far greater than its value, thanks to the real estate market crash--and I currently would be homeless if a friend of a friend hadn't sublet me her apartment while she spent a year in New Zealand. As a result of the divorce, I had no home, no job, and next to nothing left of the considerable amount of money I'd inherited. Money that, in hindsight, was the real reason Kurt was so keen on marrying me in the first place. He'd burned through it at a rate that would have horrified me if I'd know the full extent of it--but I hadn't, because I hadn't wanted to see it. Like an ostrich, I'd kept my head in the sand. I still try very hard not to think about that, because it makes me feel like even more of an idiot than I already do. Anyway, I landed at the New Orleans airport around three in the morning, then rented a car and made the hour-long drive to the Wedding Tree Parish General Hospital to find Eddie and Ralph already there. The three of us had been keeping a bedside vigil, taking turns dozing in the room's two recliner chairs and talking with a constant stream of visitors, ever since. "What's the last thing you remember?" Dr. Warren asked Gran. "Talking to Mother." Eddie pressed his lips together as if he were trying not to cry. I awkwardly patted his back. Even though he was my mother's brother and a generation older than me, there was something boyish about him that brought out my maternal instincts. Maybe it was his babyish cheeks or his teddy bear build--but most likely, it was the way he wore his tender heart on his sleeve. He squeezed Gran's hand. "Mom, Grandmother's been dead for more than forty years." "Oh, I wasn't talking to her down here ," she said in a don't-be-silly tone. "I was talking to her up on the ceiling." Eddie blinked, his eyes overbright and moist. "Do you remember falling?" "No." "Do you remember going to the shed? That's where your neighbor found you." "What on earth was I doing out in the shed?" Eddie shrugged. "Beats me, but it looked like you'd taken a shovel off the hook on the wall." I saw a glimmer in Gran's eyes. She remembers , I thought--but instead of explaining, she turned to Dr. Warren. "When am I getting out of here?" "That depends on where you think you're going." His craggy face creased in a friendly smile. "Home, of course." "Well, we'll talk about that later. You're here for a while, Mrs. McCauley. You sustained a serious head injury, and we need to keep an eye on you and make sure you don't have any bleeding or swelling in your brain. You've also fractured some ribs. We'll have to see how you do when we get you up and around." "But I'll get to go home, won't I?" Dr. Warren patted her leg through the blanket. "We'll talk about all your options later. Are you in any pain?" "My head feels like it's cracked open, and it hurts to breathe." "I'll order something to make you more comfortable. Just relax and get some rest, and I'll be back to check on you later." He said something to the nurse. As she fiddled with the IV drip, he scribbled on the chart, then signaled for us to follow him into the hall. "How is she?" Eddie asked as soon as the door closed behind us. "I'd say she's doing very well, considering her age. There are no signs of a stroke. But she's had a severe brain injury." "She's awfully confused." Eddie folded his arms across his chest as if he were trying to hug himself. Dr. Warren nodded. "That's to be expected." "How long will it last?" "She's likely to improve, but at her age, and with this level of trauma . . ." He paused. His face got that apologetic-sympathetic-uncomfortable look people get when they have to deliver bad news. "I'm afraid this was a life-changing event." A life-changing event . A chill went down my arms. Such simple, everyday words, yet put together in that order, in this situation, they were catastrophic. The doctor flipped through the chart. "She was living alone?" Eddie and I both nodded. "I'm afraid that's no longer going to be possible. You'll need to make other arrangements." "She's very independent," I said. "Can't we wait and see how her recovery goes?" The doctor shook his head. "The fact she fell indicates that living alone is no longer a safe option. When you add in the effects of severe brain trauma, well, it's just not advisable." "What if she won't agree?" Eddie asked. "You'll need to convince her." "What if we can't?" I asked. A tense pause stretched in the air. "If a person is deemed to be a danger to herself or others, Social Services will step in. It's preferable, of course, for the family to reach a resolution." He looked at Eddie, then at me, his eyes full of that apologetic-sympathetic-uncomfortableness again. "Does she have any family in town?" Eddie shook his head. "Well, then, I suggest you contact Pine Manor." "Gran hates Pine Manor," I protested. I'd gone with her to visit some of her friends who lived there last Christmas. On the way out the door, she'd grabbed my hand. "Promise you'll give me cyanide before you let Eddie put me in this place," she'd begged. I can't say that I blamed her; the place smelled like old carpet, canned peas, and pissed Depends. "Well, it's the only elder care facility in Wedding Tree," Dr. Warren said. "But there are some fine nursing homes and assisted living facilities in Hammond and Covington." Eddie shook his head. "There's no point in moving her someplace where she doesn't know anybody. If she has to move, she'll come with me to San Francisco." "That's your call, of course." He closed the chart and pushed his wire-rim glasses up on his nose. "In any event, she'll be here for several more days, so you'll have a little time to reach a decision. If need be, we can temporarily put her in Pine Manor or a similar facility until you complete your arrangements." He slid the chart into the plastic holder on the back of the hospital room door. "I'll check back on her in the morning." Eddie rubbed his jaw as the doctor's loafers thudded down the hall. "Ralph and I have tried to talk her into moving to California for years. She can live with us, or move into an assisted living center." I'd sat in on many of those conversations--the last one being during the past holiday season. "As I recall, she wasn't really opposed to moving." "No. The problem is, she insists on sorting through everything in her house here first. She keeps saying she'll do it, but the truth is, I don't think she even knows where to start." Ralph's lips curved in a wry smile. "Well, it is a daunting task." "Beyond daunting," Eddie sighed. They weren't kidding. Gran had grown up during the Depression, and her mantra seemed to be "Never know when this will come in handy." She'd mended socks and underwear, saved bread bags and twist ties, and reused sheets of aluminum foil long before recycling was trendy. Her home was clean and orderly--she was by no means a candidate for Hoarders --but every drawer, every closet, every shelf was stuffed. "We should hire one of those estate liquidation companies," Ralph suggested. "I tried to talk her into that a couple of years ago," Eddie said. I remembered it all too clearly. "It was the Thanksgiving you were in London, Ralph." Eddie nodded. "She threw a fit. I've never seen her like that." I'd never seen Gran so agitated, either. She'd thrown her napkin on the table, her face flushed, the cords standing out on her neck. "I won't have some stranger pawing through my things!" she'd hissed. "I'll do it myself, and that's all there is to it." She'd left the table in the middle of Thanksgiving dinner and refused to sit back down until we promised to drop the topic. "Well, she doesn't have a choice now," Ralph said. "Maybe she does." I was thinking aloud, and was a little surprised to find the words coming out of my mouth. "Maybe I can stay in Wedding Tree and help her." Eddie put his arm around me. "Hope, honey, that's a sweet thought, but it's just not practical." "Why not?" The idea felt like a beacon in my brain, clear and bright, shining through the fog of depression and lassitude and indecision that had immobilized me since my divorce. My pulse rate kicked up. "Hope, it would take months," Ralph said gently. "I've got the time." The light in my brain gained additional wattage. Heat flowed through my veins. Eddie's arm tightened into a squeeze. "I know you want to help, but you haven't thought this through, honey." What he really meant was, Here Hope goes again, making another rash decision. It hurts to admit it, but I have a bit of a track record of acting first and thinking second. There was that time on my college study abroad program when I didn't make the plane home from Athens because I'd decided to run by the Acropolis one last time, and the professor in charge called Mom, who insisted he file a missing person report--but something got lost in translation and the police thought I was a fugitive wanted by American authorities, and I ended up spending two terrifying nights in jail. And the time I lost the rarer-than-hen's-teeth entry-level job at the Art Institute of Chicago that my mother had pulled all kinds of strings to get me, because I changed around an exhibit to showcase Renoir's little-known Vase of Flowers instead of his more famous Two Sisters , which, in my opinion, is overexposed. And, of course, there was my disastrous decision to marry Kurt four months after my mother's death. My mother used to say I am overly optimistic and too impulsive, even on my ADHD meds, but I didn't believe her. Her death and my rebound-from-grief marriage had changed all that. I no longer had boundless faith in the goodness of the universe, the intentions of others, or my own abilities. "You'd have to put your whole life on hold," Eddie said gently. "What life?" I turned my hands palm up. "I don't really have one." Ralph patted my back. "All the more reason you need to stay in Chicago and build one." "Maybe this is just the way to do that." Conviction swelled in me like a religious experience, infusing me with a sense of energy and purpose that had been lacking for months. Maybe years. "A few months in Wedding Tree would give me a chance to figure out my options and decide what I want to do next." "A few months in Wedding Tree will make anything look like a better option," Ralph said. "And maybe that's exactly what I need." Ralph and Eddie exchanged dubious looks. But then, they didn't know what my life was really like--how isolated and shut off and rudderless I'd become. You couldn't even say my life was adrift, because drifting implied movement. My life was stuck on a sandbar and completely fogged in. "Look--I'm working as a temp. My sublet is up in two months, and I don't have a clue where I'm going to move. My friends are all married and busy with their families or else they've moved away, and jobs in the art world are harder than ever to come by in this economy." I was voicing things I hadn't even allowed myself to think. Depression had kept me catatonic, but apparently I'd subconsciously been fretting about my future, because relief flooded through me as I talked. The prospect of getting out of Chicago and helping Gran sort through her belongings gave me a sense of direction, of meaning, of usefulness. "This is perfect timing. Helping Gran would help me." Eddie sighed. "Hope, honey, do you remember what Mom's house looks like?" "Yes." "When was the last time you looked in her attic and storage shed and garage and closets?" "It's been a few years." Maybe even a decade. Come to think of it, I might have been twelve the last time I was in the attic. "She's only continued to add things to them. Every square inch is crammed and bulging." "Well, it has to be tackled by someone. Might as well be me." "You can't simultaneously sort out the house and take care of Mom. We don't even know what level of care she'll need." Ralph thoughtfully rubbed the auburn stubble on his jaw. "We can hire home health care workers." Eddie and Ralph exchanged another long look, the kind of look that's a whole conversation. I felt a burst of longing; I'd never been that closely attuned to anyone. Certainly not to my husband, not even in the early days, back when I'd thought things were good. Eddie ran a hand down his face. "Hope, honey--you're tired. This is a huge commitment, and it doesn't need to be decided right now. Go to the house, take a good look around, and sleep on it." He reached in his jacket pocket, pulled out a key, and handed it to me. "You need sleep, too," I said, noticing the shadows under his eyes. "Why don't we take turns staying here with Gran tonight?" "Nah. I'll be fine. I can sleep like a log anywhere." "That's true," Ralph said, kneading the back of Eddie's neck. "He fell asleep at a Warriors game last week and nearly slid off the seat." "You can't blame me." Eddie tilted his head down to give Ralph better access to his neck. "Our team was twenty points ahead." "My point is, he can nod off in a chair just as well as on a bed. Maybe better. He'll be sawing logs as soon as his butt hits a cushion." Eddie nodded. "It's one of my many mad skills." Ralph ended the neck massage and swatted Eddie's butt. "And you have very many, very mad skills." Eddie playfully elbowed him in the ribs. "Not in front of the children." I laughed, but felt more wistful than amused. Eddie and Ralph had been together for more than a dozen years and shared the kind of warm, easy affection I'd hoped for in my own marriage. "I, on the other hand, require a prone position," Ralph said, "so I'm off to the Mosey On Inn." Ralph was allergic to dogs, and Gran had a shaggy mixed breed named Snowball, so Ralph and Eddie always stayed at the town's only inn whenever they visited Wedding Tree. Eddie hugged him good-bye, then kissed my cheek and turned toward the door to Gran's room. "Sure you'll be okay here alone?" I asked. "I won't be alone. I'll have Mom for company." "Not to mention his grandmother on the ceiling," Ralph said dryly. Eddie rolled his eyes. "I'll chalk your insensitivity up to sleep deprivation this time, but it better not happen again." He turned the "Visitors Welcome" sign on Gran's door around to read "Patient Sleeping--No Visitors Allowed" and made a shooing motion with his hand. "Now get on out of here, you two. I need my beauty sleep." I peeked in as Eddie entered the room. Gran was sleeping peacefully, her chest rising and falling. Eddie plopped into the bedside recliner, kicked back the footrest, and closed his eyes. Satisfied, I backed out. Before the door even closed behind me, the soft snuffle of Eddie's snore rose from the chair. 3 hope I always wax nostalgic when I first see Gran's house after a long absence, but this time, I steeled myself against it. I'd watched quite a bit of HGTV over the last few months, and I'd learned about the importance of curb appeal. I would try, I decided, to view the house through the objective eyes of a potential buyer. My heart sank as I pulled my rented Sonata onto the familiar herringbone-patterned brick driveway and gazed at the gabled two-story house. I'd been here at Christmas, but my eagerness to see Gran and my sentimental attachment to the place apparently had obscured the fact the house was in need of an extreme makeover. Well, maybe not extreme, but at least substantial; the gingerbread trim needed painting, the gray wooden siding was dingy with mildew, and the railing on the wraparound porch looked like a gap-toothed fighter who'd lost a few rounds. The landscaping wasn't any better. The gardenia bush on the west side hulked over the living room window, the azaleas in the front bed gasped for fertilizer and a trim, and the centipede grass had been hijacked by dollarweed and dandelions. The only spot of color was a large patch of tulips blooming in the front flower garden. I climbed out of the car, grabbed my bag from the backseat, and headed toward the house, noting additional needed repairs with every step. A board on the third porch stair shifted under my foot, the paint curled and flaked off the porch railing, and the screen door sported several tears and dents. The hinges squeaked as I opened it and inserted the key into the faded red front door. The lock tumbled, and I pushed the door open. The scent of Gran's house--of a million home-cooked meals mingled with floor polish and old furniture and the lavender potpourri she always kept by the door--flew out to greet me, sweeping me up in a whirlwind of olfactory-borne memories. All attempts at objectivity abandoned, I stepped through the door and into my past. Funny, how almost all of my childhood memories were based here. I'd only visited Gran at Christmas and during summer vacations, yet my recollections of this place were sharp and clear, while memories of most of my childhood in Chicago were blurry or nonexistent. Maybe it was because this was where I'd felt most alive, I thought, dropping my keys on the bureau in the foyer. Gran's house had always buzzed with possibilities, with wonderful things just about to happen--Christmas presents waiting to be opened, cake icing needing to be licked from beaters, long summer days stretching out like magic carpets, as full of promised delight as the stack of canvasses Gran always bought me. Mom used to fly me down to Louisiana when school let out in early June, then pick me up again in August. While she managed portfolios and brokered big deals in Chicago, I ran barefoot, frolicked through schedule-free days, and indulged my passion for painting. Gran has always been my biggest fan and supporter. She'd noticed my love of art when I was about four years old and she caught me sitting cross-legged on her white chenille bedspread, staring at the print of Van Gogh's Starry Night that hung over her high oak headboard. I told her that if I looked at it long enough, the stars seemed to spin. "Would you like to paint a picture like that?" Gran had asked. I'd nodded, and that very afternoon, Gran had taken me to the store, bought me paint supplies, and set me up with a little easel on the back patio. I worked out there until nearly bedtime, when I'd declared my painting finished. "That's beautiful, sweetheart," Gran had said. "It's very nice," my mother had remarked when I'd proudly shown her the piece a couple of months later. "But shouldn't the big star be on the other side?" "Oh, I wasn't copying," I'd said. "I looked at the sky myself." "That's my girl." Gran's laugh had vibrated against me as she enfolded me in a big hug. "Don't ever stop viewing the world through your own eyes, sweetie." "Who else's eyes would I use?" I'd asked. Gran had laughed again. "You'd be surprised, honey. You'd be surprised." To my delight, Gran had hung my painting right over the Van Gogh print in her bedroom--and she'd taken to framing and hanging each summer's crop of paintings in the "art gallery" between two of the three bedrooms upstairs. "You shouldn't encourage her," I'd overheard my mother say one evening years later, between my sophomore and junior years in high school. She and my grandmother had been sitting in the kitchen, and I'd been in the dining room, sketching a mural on the wall. I was listening to my CD Walkman, but I'd pulled the headset off for a moment, and the solemn tone of my mother's voice had made me put my ear to the door. "She needs to start thinking about colleges and majors, and art isn't a serious career." The words had knifed me in the heart. My mother was an investment advisor, all about P&Ls, track records, and potential. "She seems pretty serious about it to me," Gran had said. "Come on, Mom. There's a reason the word 'artist' is usually paired with the word 'starving.'" "She could always teach." "Then she'd be starving for sure. Traditional female roles don't allow a woman to make a decent living." "Well, dear," Gran had said, "making a living isn't the same as making a life." I'd failed at both, I thought now. My shoulders slumping, I left the main door open so air could circulate through the screen, shuffled into the living room, and flipped the switch for the overhead light. The old chandelier cast a soft glow over the cypress floor, the floral chintz curtains, and the hodgepodge of furniture that ranged from inherited Victorian antiques to 1980s-era "modern." My eye went to the crowded collection of photos that covered the walls--a rogue's gallery of my family, with a special emphasis on my mother and Uncle Eddie as children. Centered over the sofa hung an old sepia-tone photo of my great-grandmother and great-grandfather. In the manner of old photos, they were formal and unsmiling. Next to it was a photo of them sitting on the back porch, playing cards and laughing. If Gran hadn't told me who they were, I never would have recognized them as the same people. Gran had taken the porch picture with a Kodak Brownie when she was seventeen. She'd told me she'd hidden in the bushes and caught them unawares so that they wouldn't stiffen up like a couple of corpses. As long as I could remember, Gran always had a camera handy. In the back of the house, she'd had a darkroom, where she used to let me help develop close-ups of flowers and bugs and leaves. I inhaled deeply as I stepped further into the house, hoping to detect a hint of darkroom chemicals. No such luck. I'd once told my mother how I loved the smell of Gran's darkroom. "Oh, I don't," Mom had replied. "I think it smells like thwarted dreams and female repression." My mother had been big on female empowerment. Gran said she was a women's libber, although Mom preferred to think of herself as a feminist. She was certainly a glass-ceiling breaker, a role model for women who wanted more out of life than a home, a husband, and children. She'd told me that Gran had worked as a photographer for the New Orleans newspaper during World War II and had dreamed of being a travel photographer, but she'd been the victim of a "misogynic era" and a "chauvinistic husband." My mother had been talking, of course, about her father. According to Mom, he'd been withdrawn and silent, always hiding behind a newspaper or a TV program. When he did talk, it was usually to offer some kind of "helpful" criticism, usually about her appearance or demeanor. She needed to smile more and study less. Her hair always needed combing, or her clothes needed pressing. He was dismissive of her deeply held political convictions or even her stellar grades. "No man wants to marry a know-it-all," he used to say. Mom said he lacked respect for women. Gran said he was just old-fashioned and stubborn and sincerely believed that he knew best. He'd been raised to always please his parents, and he couldn't understand children wanting a life beyond their family and hometown. Gran said the fact he was paralyzed in his late twenties had left him out of touch with the changing world. My mother said there was no excuse. He'd died before I was born, so I don't have any memories of him. I do have a memory of Gran and my mom visiting his grave when I was about five. They'd taken some roses, and I recall Mom crying as if she were trying to squeeze her soul out of her tear ducts as Gran laid the bouquet on the headstone. The savagery of my mother's grief had scared me. Mom was always in control, always logical, always practical. I thought she was above sentiment. Where had this storm of emotion come from? What could I do to make it stop? Was it somehow my fault? Years later, when I was a teenager--I must have been fifteen, because I was driving my mother's Mercedes and she was in the passenger seat, and the only time she willingly relinquished control of the wheel was when I'd been a student driver--she said something disparaging about her father. "If he was such a jerk," I'd asked, "why did you cry so hard that time we visited his grave?" "Because I never had a chance to impress him." She'd smoothed her already-smooth hair, which was an unusual thing for Mom to do. "You wanted to impress him?" She'd lifted her shoulders. "'Impress' might be the wrong word. I wanted to--oh, I don't know. He just always made me feel . . ." My mother, who was always so sure of herself and never at a loss for words, had an uncertain wobble in her voice. ". . . inadequate." She'd clamped her lips together and turned her head to the passenger window. I'd kept my eyes on the road. I was afraid she was crying again, and the thought of my always-together mother crying scared me to death. Mom never said that her father was the reason she disliked spending time in Wedding Tree; she said Gran loved to visit us in Chicago and that there was a lot more to see and do there, which was true enough. Besides, she'd always add--Wedding Tree was too rural, the people too nosy, and the pace of life too slow. Which were the very things I'd always loved about Wedding Tree. The community was like a fuzzy blanket--it made me feel safe and relaxed and cozy. In Chicago, I always felt hurried and pressured. Maybe it was because Mom packed my after-school life with activities and appointments and play dates. When we were at our apartment, she was always working on something, and I felt like I had to be constantly productive, too. "It's important to make something of yourself, to become someone," Mom used to say. "Isn't everyone already someone?" I once asked. "You know what I mean," she'd said. "Successful." Yeah, I knew what she meant. Success to my mother meant academic achievements, professional accomplishments, and important titles. A type-A overachiever, Mom went from high school valedictorian to summa cum laude MBA graduate at Northwestern to vice president at a publicly traded investment firm at a time when female executives were unheard of. She'd wanted her only daughter--the daughter she'd had at the age of forty-two--to follow in her footsteps and benefit from all the inroads she and her fellow female type As had made in the seventies and eighties. The problem was, my idea of success didn't jive with hers. I didn't want to become an attorney or doctor or high-powered executive. I didn't want to wear designer clothes or go to power lunches or board meetings. I just wanted to paint--to lose myself in a flow of creativity, to produce art that captured my thoughts and feelings. Mother never said I was a disappointment, and I know she didn't want to make me feel like one, because her father had done that to her. But deep inside, I'm pretty sure I disappointed her all the same. Pushing aside my thoughts, I opened the front windows to let in a breeze--it was a cool day in late March, not warm enough to warrant air-conditioning--then went upstairs to my mother's old bedroom, the room where I always stayed. I dropped my bag on the floor, peeled off my clothes, and took a long shower in the vintage black-and-white-tiled bathroom. When I came out, I rummaged in my bag and threw on a pair of sweatpants and an old T-shirt. I thought about taking a nap, but it was getting late and I felt kind of wired. I decided to look around the house and see just what I was getting myself into. I wandered downstairs into Gran's bedroom. It looked the same as it always had. Gran's big oak bed with a curved footboard sat against the wall opposite the door, the large, elaborately framed print of Starry Night hanging over the high oak headboard, my smaller painting, in a simpler frame, hanging above it. I smiled and focused my gaze on the Van Gogh print. I still love it, but now I appreciate it for different reasons. Now I love the way Van Gogh lets you see his brushstrokes, how he didn't try to hide the effort, how he lets you see where he dabbed and dawdled and meticulously layered color on color, where he reworked the parts that weren't right until they matched the picture in his head. Even in a print, you can tell that his paintings are uneven and textured and layered with paint, and you just know that there are probably different colors under the colors you see, and maybe even a whole other picture under the picture you're looking at. The underneath picture is probably just as beautiful as this one, but he needed it as a base to build this one on, so it's okay that you don't get to see it. It's enough to know it's there. I'm sure God can see it. I wonder if people in heaven can see it, and if maybe one day I'll get to see it, too. I wonder if cats can see it. They look at things with those funny slanted eyes, and I've always thought they must see things we don't. But there I go, off on a mental tangent. My mother used to scold me for getting distracted, saying I needed to stay on task. When I'd told Gran one summer that I sometimes got in trouble at home and school for daydreaming, she'd given me a big hug. "That's the sign of a creative mind." She told me that when she was a girl, her mother had called her a flibbertigibbet. The word had made me laugh and had become something of a secret code between us. I pulled my gaze away from the print and looked around the room. The furniture--a matching oak highboy with an attached mirror, a blanket chest, and two night tables with lamps on either side--was covered with a fine film of dust, but Gran's bed was as neatly made as ever, so neat you could bounce a quarter off the old white chenille bedspread. Her terrycloth slippers peeked out from under the bed, and I was certain I'd find her pajamas folded and tucked under her pillow. I hadn't been in her closet since I was a child. I used to love to play in there, to try on her shoes, to put on her dresses. Her closet was large and cedar lined, and it smelled like an old forest. Remembering what Eddie had said about it, I walked across the room and opened the door. "Holy Moses," I muttered. The cedar scent was still there--but instead of space under the clothes where I used to play, every square inch was taken up with boxes--boxes stacked on the floor and on the shelves above the hanging clothes, boxes reaching up to the ceiling. The hanging rods were jam-packed with clothes that would probably bring a fortune at a vintage store. I personally loved vintage clothing--I was a regular at several vintage stores in Chicago--so I rifled through the hangers. They were so crammed together that I could barely move them. A filmy swatch of fabric way at the back caught my eye. Curious, I wrangled the hanger free and pulled it out. "Oh wow," I murmured. It was a pale blue peignoir set--a sheer float of a robe that went over an equally sheer nightgown. The floor-length gown was embroidered with strategically placed clusters of rhinestone-encrusted white flowers. I held it up in front of me. I had never seen anything so lovely, so ethereal. What a shame that people didn't wear things like this anymore! I wondered what year it was from. My guess was the forties or early fifties. Before I stopped to think about it, I pulled off my sweats and slipped the nightgown over my head, then, carrying the robe, headed for the cheval mirror in the bedroom. Holy cow--I looked like Lana Turner, minus the styled hair and makeup. The gown fit as if it had been custom made for me, with embroidery strategically placed to cover my naughty bits. I twirled around, admiring the back. Embroidered flowers formed an optical thong, then gracefully trailed down my leg. I had to hand it to the designer--he was a master of peekaboo. It was gorgeous. It was sexy as sin. It was the kind of thing a woman would wear on her honeymoon, back in the days when wedding preparations involved sultry French words like trousseau, peignoir, negligee . I let out a sigh. Such magical words from another era. I wondered what occasion Gran had bought this for. Or had it been a gift? I'd seen pictures of Gran as a young woman, and she'd looked a lot like Katharine Hepburn. She'd had the same tousled, shoulder-length hair, the same air of confidence, the same dazzling smile. Maybe she-- "Are you the tooth fairy?" A child's voice abruptly startled me out of my thoughts. I whipped around to see a little girl wearing shorts and a Disney princess T-shirt, staring at me from the bedroom doorway. She had long blond hair with bangs and the kind of poreless skin you usually only see on dolls. I wasn't very good at estimating kids' ages, but I guessed she was about four. "Wh-who are you?" I stammered. "How'd you get in here?" "I'm Sophie. I came in through the doggie door." She looked up at me, her brown eyes solemn. "Are you the tooth fairy? 'Cause my sister has a loose tooth." "Umm, no. No, I'm not." I grabbed the robe and hurriedly pulled it on. "What are you doing in here?" "I came to see Snowball and Mizz McCauley. Sometimes she gives me cookies." That sounded like Gran. Grinning, I struggled to fasten the sheer robe, which was fitted on top and held together by a rhinestone clasp at the waist. "She's not here right now. Do you drop in through the doggie door very often?" "Sometimes." She tilted her head up and looked at me hopefully. "I know where the cookie jar is." I laughed. "Well, then, why don't you show me?" I followed her into the kitchen, the floaty circle skirt of the robe billowing around me. She dragged a chair from the breakfast table to the counter, the leg screeching on the wooden floor. She climbed up, stood on the seat, and reached for the cat-shaped jar on the counter. Lifting the lid, she pulled out an oatmeal cookie. "Would you like one?" she asked politely. I smiled at her hostessing skills. "Yes, thank you." "You're welcome." She handed it to me, then extracted another cookie. Replacing the lid with great care, she set the cookie on the counter, climbed down, moved the chair back to the breakfast table, then retraced her steps to retrieve her treat. She carried it to the red stool in the corner--the stool where I'd spent hours as a child watching Gran bake--climbed up, and regarded me. "Are you a princess?" I looked down at the floaty negligee and smiled. "No. I'm Mrs. McCauley's granddaughter." "Nuh-uh." She shook her head. "You're too old to be a granddaughter." An irrational sense of dismay swept through me. Ever since I'd turned thirty, I'd become sensitive about my age, and as the numbers crept higher--next fall I'd be thirty-two--so did my awareness of my biological clock. "You look more like a mommy," Sophie said, biting off an edge of cookie and considering me as she chewed. "But you're dressed like a princess or the tooth fairy." It took some effort, but I didn't laugh. "I promise I'm neither. But, Sophie--does your mom know where you are?" She nodded solemnly. "My mommy knows everything." Her mother must have told her the old "mothers have eyes in the back of their heads" line that had made me search through my mother's hair while she was asleep. "She's in heaven," Sophie continued. "She lives there with God." "Oh." The geoplates of my heart shifted. Losing my mother at the age of twenty-eight had been horrible. I couldn't imagine losing a mother as a preschooler. "Well, your dad must be worried about you." "Nah. He's busy." "So who's watching you?" "Gramma was, but she left and Aunt Jillian took over." "So . . . what's Aunt Jillian doing?" "She's busy with Daddy." She took another bite and chewed. "My sister hopes she's gonna be our new mother." Ooo-kay. I wondered just how busy they were. "Where do you live, Sophie?" "Next door." She pointed to the left. "Well, as soon as you finish your cookie, I think you should go ba--" "Sophie!" A deep male voice drifted through the front screen door. "Sophie!" "In here!" the girl yelled, so loudly I jumped. Steps sounded on the porch. "Hello?" called a male voice. "I'm in the kitchen with a lady who looks like the tooth fairy," Sophie shouted. "Come meet her!" The screen door squealed open, and a moment later, a tall man filled the doorway. He had dark hair and blue eyes, and he was wearing a starched white shirt unbuttoned at the neck, with a loosened blue-and-gray-striped tie. He was good-looking, if you're shallow enough to notice such things--which, unfortunately, I am. I'd like to think it was the element of surprise that turned me into a tree and made me just stand there, rooted to the floor, but the truth is, he looked like a cross between Jake Gyllenhaal, Hugh Jackman, Bradley Cooper, and a young George Clooney, with a nose that looked like it might have once been broken, because it was just a little bit skewed to the left, and something about that slight imperfection made my stomach speed-bump. It took several beats of silence for me to realize he was staring back in a way that made me highly aware of my state of deshabille. Deshabille-- another of those old-fashioned, peignoir-related French words. Once something enters my head, my thoughts keep circling back to it at the most inappropriate moments. A friend who majored in psychology said it sounded like OCD, but I never talked to a doctor about it, because having ADHD was bad enough and if I was more screwed up than that, I really didn't want to know about it. Anyway. Here was this smoking-hot man in my kitchen, and I'm dressed like a 1940s screen siren, and it felt all kinds of weird. I shifted the cookie to my left hand. "Want a cookie, Daddy?" Sophie asked. "Uh, no thanks." He pulled his eyes from me and knelt down by his daughter. I couldn't help but notice the way his thigh muscles bulged under the summer-weight wool of his gray pants. The guy was ripped. "Sophie," he was saying to his daughter, "you know you're not supposed to wander off." "I came to see Mizz McCauley, but the tooth fairy princess lady was here instead." The man turned Gyllenhaal-blue eyes on me. "I apologize for my daughter barging in on you." "Oh, she didn't barge in . . ." I hesitated. I didn't want to get her in trouble, but on the other hand, I didn't want him to think I'd been standing out in the yard dressed like Mata Hari, luring stray children inside. ". . . exactly. I mean, apparently she regularly visits my grandmother." "So you're Mrs. McCauley's granddaughter," the man said, straightening. Sophie scrunched up her brow. "You're really a granddaughter?" I smiled down at her. "We come in all ages." "Really?" Sophie asked. "Sophie!" called a woman's voice from outside. "Sophie!" "In here!" Sophie bellowed. "Come on in." Great, just great. At this rate, the whole town would soon be in the kitchen, wondering why I was dressed like Lana Turner. The porch door squeaked again, and a moment later, an attractive blonde about my age walked in. Her eyes widened as she took me in. She glanced at the man, then back at me, then rushed to Sophie. "Honey, we were so worried! You know you're not supposed to leave the yard without an adult." "I didn't. I came over to see Mizz McCauley." The woman smoothed Sophie's hair. "I'm Hope Stevens," I explained, extending my cookie-free hand. "I'm Mrs. McCauley's granddaughter." "I'm Jillian Armand." She gave my hand a tentative squeeze. The man held out his hand. "And I'm Matt Lyons." His palm was solid, his fingers strong. A rush of adrenaline zinged through my veins. The name sounded familiar, but I couldn't remember where I'd heard it. Touching him made it hard to remember much of anything. "How's your grandmother?" asked Jillian. "Better. She's regained consciousness." "Glad to hear it," said Matt. "I was really worried when I found her in the shed." Pieces of information clicked together in my head. That's why I recognized his name--Mrs. Ivy had mentioned it on the phone. Come to think of it, Gran had mentioned it last winter when she told me about new neighbors moving in next door. "I owe you a huge thanks." Matt lifted his shoulders. "It was unusual for her shed door to be open, so I thought I'd better check." "People in Wedding Tree try to look out for each other." Jillian's gaze flicked over my gown, then darted away, as if she were embarrassed. "But we can talk about all that later; it looks like we caught you at an inconvenient time." She nudged Sophie toward the foyer. "We need to get out of here and give you some privacy." "Oh, um, that's all right," I stammered. "Are you here with your husband?" Jillian asked. "My husband? Oh, no. He's not--I mean, I'm, uh, divorced." Oh, God--did she think I'd been in the middle of an afternoon delight? The attire certainly suggested it. Holy furburgers--did Matt think the same? My face burned. "I was just, uh, trying on some of my grandmother's clothes. I was looking in her closet . . . I'm a vintage clothing freak, and . . ." My voice trailed off weakly. "Well." Jillian glanced at Matt as she herded Sophie toward the door. "We should leave you in peace." "Oh, no, it's okay," I babbled. Way to go, Hope. Beg them to stay so you can humiliate yourself some more. Jillian opened the screen door and ushered Sophie onto the porch. "Nice to meet you. I'm sure we'll see you later." "Bye!" called Sophie. "Thanks for the cookie." "You're welcome." "Sorry for the intrusion," Matt said. I could tell he was trying to keep his gaze above my neck, but it slipped downward as he exited the house. A wave of heat flushed over me. Terrific, I thought, closing the heavy door behind them and sinking against it. Nothing like making a good first impression on the neighbors. 4 matt I can't believe she was trying on her grandmother's clothes," Jillian said as soon as we'd stepped through the front door of my house. "I can't believe those clothes belong to anyone's grandmother," I remarked. My head was still reeling with the image of the fresh-faced brunette in that sheer gown and robe, standing in the kitchen, eating cookies with my daughter. The juxtaposition of the domestic scene with the erotic attire was jarring, to say the least--not to mention sexy as hell. I have to admit, the sight had aroused me as nothing had in the two years since my wife's death. My reaction to the tousle-haired woman left me feeling edgy and oddly guilty. "What's wrong with playin' dress-up?" Sophie asked. "Nothing, honey." Jillian smiled down at her, then gave me a pointed look. "If you're four." "I thought she looked bootiful," Sophie said. I didn't get a back view, but I imagined Sophie was right. "I can't believe she opened the door wearing nothing but a nightie," Jillian sniffed. "She didn't," Sophie said. "I crawled in through the doggie door." I laughed, then realized laughter was an inappropriate parental response to the situation. I forced my mouth into a more somber line. "It's wrong to sneak into people's homes that way, sweetie." Sophie gazed up earnestly. "Mizz McCauley doesn't mind." "You've crawled into her house before?" Jillian asked, her voice alarmed. "Yeah. Mizz McCauley said I can come in for a cookie anytime I want." Jillian frowned. "Sophie, it's very rude to go into someone's home uninvited." I was a lot less concerned with manners than with the fact that my just-turned-four-year-old had been unsupervised--repeatedly, apparently--long enough to visit a neighbor. "What's Gramma doing while you're roaming the neighborhood?" "I dunno. I only go over when you're home." My daughter was making these unauthorized visits on my watch? Oh, terrific. I knew I wasn't in the running for Father of the Year, but this was veering into intervention-from-the-authorities territory. "Sophie, you know you're not supposed to leave the backyard without someone with you." "I don't go through the gate or out the front door. I just go through a hole in the fence." "That's leaving all the same." My voice must have sounded firmer than I'd realized, because her bottom lip trembled. She looked up at me in a way that made me feel like a monster. Oh hell. I was hopeless at disciplining the girls, because I hated to make them unhappy. Christine used to tease me about how they had me wrapped around their little fingers. As usual, she'd been right. God, she'd been right about so many things. The thought made the Christine-shaped hole in my heart ache. Up until a few months ago, grief would strike like an unexpected karate chop, sudden and fierce. Now it was just a flat, dull emptiness that expanded and contracted. I sort of missed that ragged edge of grief, so sharp it was almost tangible. It had felt like a physical link to my late wife. "Am I in trouble?" Sophie's voice wavered. I crouched down beside her and pulled her into my arms. "No, sweetie. But now that you know it's wrong, don't do it again." "Okay." She hugged me back, then pulled away and flashed me a smile, her sunny mood instantly restored. "Can I go play with Zoey?" "Sure." I blew out a sigh as she scampered off to the den. Jillian put a hand on my arm. "I'll help you keep a closer eye on her." Her palm felt heavy and hot. I shoved my hands in my pockets as an excuse to move away. "I was home. It's my responsibility." Although technically, Jillian was partially to blame for this lapse, because she'd cornered me to tell me how she'd taken the girls to the park, preventing me from actively watching them. "I'm happy to help. I love Sophie and Zoey as if they were my own." Yeah, but they're not. The uncharitable thought gave me another twinge of guilt. Jillian gave me a smile that seemed a little too intense and lasted a little too long. "Well, all's well that ends well. I'd better get dinner started." "You don't need to do that." The truth was, I was ready for her to leave. But she was already moving toward the kitchen. "I promised the girls I'd make spaghetti and meat sauce. Mom bought all the ingredients this afternoon." I swallowed as I followed her. When I first moved to Wedding Tree, Jillian occasionally cooked dinner for the girls when I was held up at work, but lately, she was doing it even when I was home. I wanted to break the pattern, but tonight didn't seem like the time to do it, what with promises made and ingredients bought and all. "What can I do to help?" I asked. "You can chop the onions." I'd hoped she'd say "nothing," so I could leave the room. Working beside her in the kitchen seemed too couple-ish, too . . . intimate. Jillian was my sister-in-law, but lately, she was acting more and more like a wife. I hadn't foreseen this complication when I'd moved from New Orleans to Wedding Tree in January. Christine's mother and father had offered to help with the kids, and it had seemed like the ideal solution--especially after the third nanny quit. The girls didn't do anything in particular to drive the nannies away, although heaven knows they can be a handful. The first nanny, Miranda, had been a gem. A grandmotherly woman with a gold front tooth and a nurturing nature, she stayed with us for a year and a half. The girls were at their worst then--it was right after their mother's death and all of us were raw. She'd been a lifesaver. But then Miranda's daughter had triplets, and she'd moved to Houston to help her--which was understandable, but it left us in the lurch, and the girls grieved Miranda almost as much as they'd grieved their mother. I put the girls in daycare, but one or the other was always sick, and as the attorney heading up the Public Protection Division of the Louisiana Justice Department, I had court dates and other hard-to-miss job obligations, plus I had to frequently travel. So I hired Ashleigh. I should have known better--she was a nineteen-year-old anorexic brunette who reported for nanny duty in high heels--but I was desperate. She was inattentive and constantly texting her friends, interested only in planning her nights out, sulking if I needed her to stay late. As soon as she found a job that left all her evenings free, she was gone. The woman after her was Gretchen, and well . . . the girls just never warmed to her. She was fortyish and hyper-efficient, but her personality was as frosty as her streaked hair. The girls started throwing tantrums and clinging to me and acting out in ways that the pediatrician said were normal for kids who've experienced a loss, but I couldn't help but think it was partially due to Gretchen's aura of detachment. When she told me another family had offered her more money, I wished her luck and said good-bye. Excerpted from The Wedding Tree by Robin Wells All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.