Copyright © 2016 Jan Scarbrough
Bluegrass Homecoming: Prequel
Media > Books > Fiction > Romance Novels
Category/Tags: Second Chances, Weddings, Seasoned Romance, Small Town, Contemporary Women
Digital ISBN: 978-0-9971919-6-7
Saddle Horse Press Digital release: November, 2016
Edited by: Karen Block
Cover Design by: Kim Jacobs
All rights reserved. The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work, in whole or part, by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, is illegal and forbidden.
This is a work of fiction. Characters, settings, names, and occurrences are a product of the author’s imagination and bear no resemblance to any actual person, living or dead, places or settings, and/or occurrences. Any incidences of resemblance are purely coincidental.
This edition is published by agreement with Saddle Horse Press, PO Box 221543, Louisville, KY 40252.
Prequel: Bluegrass Homecoming
More about the Bluegrass Homecoming series
About Jan Scarbrough
Other Books In the Bluegrass Homecoming Series
Secrets: Bluegrass Homecoming
Nom de Plume: Bluegrass Homecoming
Other Bluegrass Books
The Montana McKennas Series
h1=. Prequel: Bluegrass Homecoming
Grace Baron had always been the good wife, in spite of a marriage based on a careless indiscretion, and sustained not by love, but by old-fashioned morality. She’d raised her daughter, bit her tongue, and silently lived with her guilt. Now that she’s a widow, she can’t help being glad for her sudden freedom. She’d never live her life like that again. Without a sense of control. Without deliberately making a choice about her future. And that future would never involve getting married again.
Small town lawyer Howard Scott has buried two wives. His steadfast belief that it’s never too late to find true love keeps him open to whatever joy life has to offer. He doesn’t want another socialite wife. This time he wants a hometown girl. Someone stable, maybe a little naïve, but feisty enough to keep him on his toes. Someone like Grace Baron.
Howard’s gentle, old-fashioned courting makes Grace feel alive again. Would marrying Howard be the trap Grace fears, or would it finally give her a kind of freedom she’d never imagined?
h1=. Chapter 1
Thursday Grief Support Group
First United Methodist Church
Heritage Springs, Kentucky
“I’ve buried two wives,” the man said. “I miss them. I’m not good living alone.”
Grace Baron pressed her lips into a tight line, and her gaze flitted from the only man in the circle to the three other widows. They’d all been left behind to cope, just as she had. They weren’t doing well, it seemed, by the looks of them, especially a young woman sitting next to her crying and dabbing her eyes with a tissue. She couldn’t stop the tears. Her grief consumed her.
Was there something wrong with her? Why didn’t she miss her husband of almost forty years? In fact, in her heart of hearts, she was glad for the sudden freedom. She’d always been somebody’s wife and mother, defined by those roles. All she wanted now was to live a little in the time left her.
There was only one problem—she didn’t know[_ how _]to live.
She didn’t know herself—her wants, her likes. Being submissive to her husband in an old school way, she’d never explored the world. Herself. Her grief came more from regret, not sorrow. And guilt. She had a lot of that—from her mistakes as a young woman to those she’d made with her only daughter. And a big part of her was sad she’d never stood up for herself. Never had the courage, the courage she’d somehow given her daughter.
“Do you know how you’re going to handle your grief, Howard?” June Hobson asked.
June was the volunteer who ran the support group and Grace’s childhood friend, a friendship that had suffered during her marriage. The church didn’t have a trained professional, but June had lost her husband almost fifteen years earlier. She’d seen this grief support group as her calling. Helping others, she’d said, had brought her out of her heartache. So, it had been natural for June to reach out to Grace when her husband died, draw her back to church, and into the group for support.
It had taken more than a year before Grace had felt comfortable enough to join. But here she was, her first day in the group—wide-eyed, cautious, and mouth shut.
“In my opinion, it’s never too late to find true love,” Howard answered. He was serious. His blue eyes stared pointedly at June. “I plan to marry again.”
The young woman next to Grace gasped. “How can you? Isn’t that disloyal to your wife’s memory?”
“I cherish the memory of both my wives,” he said, calmly pointing out he was not new to remarrying. “They both gave me love. One gave me a son. But they are gone now, and I am not.”
It seemed so simple for this man, but it was an option Grace found awful.
“I will never marry again,” Grace said in a quiet tone. All eyes turned to her.
“And why is that, Grace?” June asked.
“I don’t trust love.”
How could she? Not after what she’d gone through being married all those years to Lee Baron.
“But you love your daughter,” June observed.
Grace lowered her eyes and stared at her hands. She hadn’t made herself clear. The inability to communicate had been one of her problems during her marriage. She looked up at the members of the group. “Between a husband and wife,” she clarified.
The room was silent. Only the quiet sobs of the woman sitting next to Grace broke the stillness.
“That’s the saddest thing I’ve heard all day,” Howard finally said in his deep baritone voice.
Grace lifted her gaze to meet his compassionate one. She knew this man. How could she not know the former mayor of Heritage Springs and a prominent town lawyer? They’d never personally met, never been in the same social circles, but Howard Scott was well known to everyone in the small community.
As they stared at each other, Grace became defensive. What right did he have to judge her? She’d lived her life the best she knew how. She’d been loyal, accepting the consequences of her actions. Pleasing her parents, her husband. In the end, she’d not pleased her daughter and lost her, but she’d made her choices for reasons she thought moral.
Raising her chin and tilting back her head, Grace refused to buckle under the man’s scrutiny. She’d spent her life doing that. Never again. No, never again.
“Mrs. Baron, wait!”
Grace paused at the church door, turned, and watched Howard Scott hurry toward her.
He came to a halt, towering over her. “Mrs. Baron, I’m afraid I hurt your feelings.”
“Why?” His presence unnerved her. She rarely spoke to a man alone except for the grocer behind the checkout counter or the clerk at the cleaners.
He lowered his head, his gaze seeming to devour her face, sweep across her body and return to her eyes. She shifted her stance, his direct inspection making her uncomfortable. “It was presumptuous of me to comment on your remark, especially since I know nothing of your circumstances,” he said.
Well, it had been rude. And there had been nothing she wanted to do more than snap back a sarcastic reply, but she was unable to open her mouth to say so. Too many years of biting her tongue, keeping silent, lay between her and this man who had come to apologize.
In the silence, Howard ran a hand through his gray hair. He had plenty of it for a man his age. Not like Lee who’d lost his brown hair early and wore an ill-fitting toupee, as if that could effectively hide the bald spot on his head.
“The thing is, we’re supposed to open up in the group,” Howard went on. “I’m simply used to speaking what’s on my mind in there.” He smiled, as if at a private joke. “As a lawyer, too much of my life has been spent watching what I say, choosing my words in front of a judge or client. I enjoy the grief support group. It gives me a chance to say what’s on my mind. I hope you come to enjoy it too.”
That was the most a man had said to her in years. The sincerity on his face and the kindness in his voice overwhelmed her.
Grace searched his eyes. The crow’s feet at the corners were like hers, there because of age. He had wrinkles that were hard to hide—on his brow, at the sides of his lips. She dropped her eyes quickly, ashamed of staring at his face. “I want to thank you for apologizing,” she said.
“I want to thank you for being so understanding.”
Looking up again, Grace caught his smile. It was a pleasant smile, without the smirk she had so often seen on her husband’s face.
Taken aback, Grace turned away and reached for the door handle. Howard stepped forward, beating her to the handle, and pushed the massive front door open. Standing aside, he let her pass through into the gray February afternoon. His gallantry disconcerted her more than anything, and she rushed down the steps as if she couldn’t get away fast enough.
He followed her. “May I see you to your car?”
“I walked.” Grace glanced up at him. He was a tall man, lithe and muscular. He appeared to keep himself in shape. She felt tiny beside him. “I live up the hill from the square.”
“I see,” he said. “Then I’ll walk you home.”
“There’s no need.”
“But I want to.”
He fell into step beside her, measuring his strides to hers. Surprised by his chivalry, Grace tried to swallow her bashfulness. What was she supposed to say to this man? How was she to act?
“I don’t have a car,” she admitted. That was a point of conversation, perhaps.
“If you live near the square, you probably have little need of one,” he said. “I bet walking keeps you in shape. No need for the gym and boring exercises.”
“No, I don’t go to a gym.” In fact, the climb up the cracked sidewalk from Heritage Springs’ historic downtown square hardly winded her.
“Not many people our age are as healthy as we,” Howard commented. “Many people can’t take a walk like this.”
“Really?” She’d never considered it. In fact, she’d never considered much of anything about her age or state of life, not until Lee dropped dead of a heart attack. Then she’d confronted the fact she was nothing without being Mrs. Lee Baron. Marriage had done that to her.
No. She had done it to herself. Trapped in a loveless marriage, she’d withered away, letting the person she had always wanted to become die a long, slow death.
They soon reached Grace’s two-story frame house with its wraparound front porch. The house was white, just like the picket fence surrounding it. Lee’s grandfather had built it in 1909. An old-fashioned porch swing suspended immobile from the ceiling joists. This was home. It was her only inheritance from the man she’d devoted so many years to. She supposed she loved the house. At the very least, she was used to it.
They paused at the gate. “This is lovely,” Howard said.
“I’m sure its location makes it worth a lot of money.”
Grace shrugged. “I hadn’t thought about that.” What was she supposed to do with this man now that she’d reached her destination?
He must have read her mind. “I won’t keep you,” he told her. “I needed the walk, and accompanying you was a perfect excuse to get outside. We’ve had a warm winter.”
“Yes.” Grace gazed up at him. She put her hand on the gate.
There was a hesitation. A pregnant pause. What were they both waiting for? She didn’t know what to say or do. Did he expect her to invite him inside?
“May I ask you something, Mrs. Baron?”
“Grace.” There was no reason for him to be so formal.
“Grace.” He smiled down at her, a comforting, gentle smile.
Grace felt her heart stutter in her chest.
“I was wondering, Grace, if you would accompany me to a dinner next weekend in Louisville.”
She drew a sharp breath. “Me?”
“Yes.” He rushed on. “You don’t have to decide right now. It’s a week from this Saturday. You can tell me next week at the support group.”
“I told you, Mr. Scott…”
“Please call me Howard.”
Grace flashed a wry smile and started again. “I told you, Howard, that I have no intention of marrying again. If you think to invite me on a date simply to coax me into changing my mind, you are sorely mistaken.” When had she ever spoken so bluntly to a man? She felt a rush of heat on her cheeks.
And he laughed. He had the audacity to laugh at her. Her cheeks flamed now with indignation.
“Oh, Grace, you are so delightful! You are exactly the woman I need to go with me, and yes, it is a date of sorts. But you will be my protector. Having you with me will discourage other women. Being an eligible bachelor at my age is very difficult, you see.”
She didn’t see. “I don’t understand.”
Howard’s expression softened, and he spoke in a slow, serious voice. “I have no ulterior motives. I simply need you to be by my side at this dinner. I often have to fend off gold diggers. I’m tired of it. A woman who knows her mind, who’s comfortable in her own skin, is refreshing.”
Was that how he saw her? Grace hardly recognized the woman he described. It confused her. She didn’t know how to react.
He must have seen her hesitation. He clasped her hand. “As I said, you don’t have to answer me now. Let me know next week, will you?”
“Yes,” she said, sounding breathy even to her own ears. “I’ll let you know.”
“Good!” He squeezed her hand again. “Until then.”
Howard turned on his heel and strode down the sidewalk toward the square like a man who’d just won a victory.
Slowly, Grace raised the hand he had held and touched her lips with it. What had happened to her? What was this turmoil spinning in her stomach? And what in the hell would she tell Heritage Springs’ former mayor when she saw him again?
h1=. Chapter 2
The next morning, after a sleepless night, Grace pulled on her coat, picked up a loaf of homemade banana bread, and crossed the street to have tea with June Hobson. Over the years, June had often invited her for morning tea, but until Lee passed, Grace had not taken her up on the invitation. Now she looked forward to it, meeting the other widow at least twice a week to share recipes and a bit of small town gossip.
Discussing the grief support group would bend the rules. What happened in support group stayed in support group, didn’t it?
But what happened after support group was fair game for discussion.
“I was so surprised,” Grace said after telling June about her walk home the previous day. “I didn’t know what to say.” She stirred half-and-half into her cup of Earl Gray tea, trying to act nonchalant. She hadn’t discussed an eligible man with another woman in what seemed like a lifetime.
“Oh, my!” June didn’t seem to know what to say either.
“Why did he single me out? I’ve just joined the group.”
June brought her cup of tea up to her lips, sipped it, and set it down in the saucer. “I swear, I have no clue,” she said. “He was telling the truth about the gold diggers. I’ve seen widows, and even married women, throw themselves at him. It’s got to be disconcerting.”
“To say the least.” Grace tasted her tea. Whatever his reasons, she felt flattered.
“Maybe it’s because you’re a new member in the group. He doesn’t know you.”
“You know men, at least men our age, like to pursue a woman. In our day, we weren’t as forward as women today, even though women were becoming liberated and burning bras. In a small town, it was different. I remember many nights waiting patiently by the phone for Peter to call me.” June sighed and glanced at a portrait of her departed husband. “It never crossed my mind to pick up the phone and dial him.”
Grace had to smile. “That was when we still had to dial a phone number. We had landlines and no one had ever heard of a cell phone.”
June nodded. “It’s a new age. I’m not sure I like it.”
“I’m not sure either,” Grace agreed as she sipped her tea, losing herself in her thoughts.
Years ago, almost forty years, Grace had waited for Lee to call. She’d been patient. And when he did call, when he did take her out, she was so into pleasing him, enthralled by the whole experience of having a boy like her, that she did things without thinking of the consequences. She’d lived with those consequences until the day he died. The sad part was she’d never been able to right the wrong. Nothing was ever good enough for Lee. Nothing made up for one mistake. Instead, that slip-up seemed to magnify year by year, and as she lost control of her life and then her daughter, she’d fallen deeper into despair.
She’d never told anyone—not her daughter Kelly, not June—but after Lee’s death, she’d spent a lot of time coming to grips with her life. After marriage and Kelly’s birth, Grace had become dependent, relying on Lee for everything, afraid to make a move without his approval. That’s the way she’d been brought up by highly religious parents with strict views on a woman’s place in marriage. She behaved as a wife should behave.
Slowly, over the past year, she’d broken free of the shoulds that had restrained her for so many years. Before, she would never have considered going anywhere without Lee. Now she was able to visit June for tea and go to the church support group. Baby steps. She was changing. Maybe not fast enough, but at her own pace. In her own mind.
“I believe you should accept his invitation,” June said, then nodded her head as if she liked the idea. “You’ve told me you want to get out more. What better opportunity could you have but to go to dinner with Howard Scott?”
Grace let June’s suggestion roll around in her head. Her stomach felt awash in acid. Why was she so frightened? Unlike Lee, Howard was a big man. Imposing. Did that scare her? He was also courteous and kind. And again unlike Lee, he’d treated her with respect. Even though she’d made it clear she wanted nothing from him, he said he only wanted her companionship. What was so scary about that?
Or was she afraid of herself? Of the stirrings of womanhood he’d awakened in their short walk home? Good grief. Even admitting that scared her, causing a sharp pain in her stomach. But she’d been fearful most of her life. She was tired of it. Tired of being a mouse. Tired of playing the good wife. She’d proven she could be one, that’s for sure, but at what cost? Her own selfhood. Odd that she’d realized it so late in life. But thank God, she had finally come to her senses.
“Going to dinner doesn’t mean more than that,” she told June.
“It doesn’t mean you’re going to marry the man,” June agreed.
“Heavens, no! I’m tired of taking care of a grouchy old man.”
Grace took a bite of banana bread and chewed it slowly. Swallowing it, and then taking a deep breath, she gave June a tiny smile. “Okay, then. I’ll accept his invitation.”
“Good for you!”
That decision made, Grace realized she had another problem. “What in the hell am I going to wear?”
“You ought to remarry, son,” Howard Scott said. He removed the lime garnish from his glass and sipped his margarita, all the while staring at a younger version of himself.
Wednesday evening was their regular night out for dinner. They usually stuck pretty close to home, preferring the Tex-Mex cuisine at the local restaurant on the square. His son was divorced, unhappily so. He’d give anything to see Rob happy again.
Rob dipped a corn chip into the bowl of salsa and waved the chip at his father. “I’m not eager to try a second time.”
“I don’t know why. It’s never too late to find true love.”
“It’s different for you, Dad. Both your wives died. Mine left me for another man.”
“And I say good riddance too.”
Howard could tell Rob didn’t agree, but he needed to get over that sentiment. That cheating wife of his was no good for him. His son needed to start over again. Don’t look back, Howard always said to himself. You’re not going that way.
“It’s been two years since the last Mrs. Scott died,” Rob pointed out between bites of chips and dip. “I’d say you’re slipping, old man. Why haven’t you married again?”
Howard scoffed at his son’s remark. “Have you seen the pickings in this town lately? A man my age has few good-looking women to choose from.”
Rob frowned, deriding his father’s observation. “What about a younger woman?”
“Now why would I want to rob the cradle?” Howard sipped his drink. “Most younger women are only after one thing.” He paused dramatically, lifting his eyebrows for effect. “My body.”
Rob laughed. “More likely they’re after your money.”
“I can tell you don’t know how hard it is to be rich and handsome.”
Poking fun at each other was a family tradition. From the time Rob had been little, Howard had played with him, kidded him, perhaps as a way to counteract the seriousness of his first wife, Rob’s overcritical mother. Now, she’d been a woman impressed by her social position in their small Kentucky county seat, controlling their married life as if she was running the communication office in the White House.
Fearing another social climber, Howard had gone to Louisville to select his second wife, a woman who turned out to hate small town life. Their marriage had been amicable until the end, but she’d never been happy in Heritage Springs. He had sensed this discontent but always remained at a loss about how to change it.
The waitress brought two beef and bean burritos drenched in enchilada sauce, placed one in front of each man, and all conversation ceased while they dug into their meal.
Tomorrow was the weekly grief support group at church. Grace had promised to let him know if she’d go to dinner. Howard hoped she’d say yes. Memories of her charming authenticity had preoccupied him all week. Time had aged her, but just enough to highlight her mature beauty. There was elegance about her, a quiet reserve that he liked.
Finishing with his meal, Howard wiped his lips with a napkin and surveyed his son. Rob had taken over his law firm, just as he’d hoped. It was too bad his son didn’t have his own son to carry on the family tradition. His wife had not wanted children. Howard figured that had been the greatest disappointment of Rob’s life—until the divorce, of course.
“I have a likely candidate for the next Mrs. Scott,” Howard revealed at last.
Rob perked up. “Well, that’s more like it.”
“I met her at the support group last week. She’s a widow too.”
“You seem to like widows.”
“Tried and tested,” Howard acknowledged with a nod of irony. Then he smiled remembering Grace’s reluctance to walk with him. “It’s strange I’ve never met her before. She’s lived in town all her life. She doesn’t care who I am. She’s not a social climber.”
“Who is the paragon of virtue?”
Howard smiled again remembering her name. He hoped it wasn’t a silly smile, one inappropriate for a man of his advancing age. “Her name is Grace Baron.”
Rob almost choked on his glass of ice water. “Kelly’s mother?”
“I’m not sure. We haven’t conversed long enough to discuss the names of children. Why? Do you know Grace?”
His son looked a shade paler, almost as if he’d seen a ghost. “I knew a Kelly Baron in high school.”
“Grace lives in a white house on Main Street.”
“That’s the same family.” Rob sat forward and put his elbows on the table. “Kelly’s father was a real SOB. I felt sorry for her. And her mother seemed under the man’s thumb as well.”
Howard shrugged. “The man is dead and gone. I doubt he can control Grace from the grave.”
He could tell he’d thrown his son for a loop by mentioning Grace. Or was it the daughter? Perhaps it was too soon to confide in him, just as it was perhaps too soon to dream again. But he was lonely, dammit. He was only sixty-six. He wanted to remarry. And Grace was a lovely woman who knew her own mind. She intrigued him. Finding her after two years of living alone was a godsend.
Rob had pulled himself together and reached for the tab. “My turn tonight, Dad.”
“I’ll let you. Turnabout is fair play.”
Reaching for his wallet, Rob shook his head as if expressing disapproval. “You know something? For a smart lawyer, a former mayor, and a heck of a good man, you are still damn crazy.”
Howard laughed, throwing back his head. God, how I love this boy. It’s too bad his son’s marriage had not given him a child.
“You know what they say, son?” He gave Rob a pointed look. “An apple never falls far from the tree.”
h1=. Chapter 3
Dinner was held in a private Louisville home. Grace had no idea where it was located, except it was on the east side of the city. The hour-long drive from Heritage Springs in Howard’s silver Lexus SUV with its fancy leather interior had been pleasant. Howard’s music system played a nostalgic mix of fifties and sixties pop such as Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole and even early rock and roll recordings.
She’d been shy when Howard came to her house to pick her up. Coming up with something to say proved difficult. Thank goodness listening to the music meant she didn’t have to carry on a conversation. Why had she agreed to this torture? Shouldn’t she be home in her pajamas and woolen socks?
But she wasn’t. And when Howard opened the car door for her at their destination, she stepped out into the cold night air feeling like a queen arriving at court.
He took her hand, as if to give her confidence, and fell into step beside her as they walked the paved sidewalk to the front door. It opened immediately to a white-coated servant and the glare of bright lights and sound of shrill laughter.
“These are my business partners,” Howard said, leaning down to whisper in her ear. “Relax and have a good time.”
Easy for him to say. He’s from this world.
In the vestibule, the waiter took their coats and her purse. As soon as they walked into the formal living room, they were immediately swept into the festivities. The atmosphere was electric. Loud. Intense. Two women sat on gray facing sofas in front of an ornate fireplace, its fire blazing. A cluster of men, deep in conversation, stood in front of a large floor-to-ceiling oil painting of vibrant reds and blues.
Another white-coated waiter approached and silently offered a tray of crystal goblets filled with wine.
“Red or white?” Howard asked.
Grace swallowed hard. Lee didn’t allow alcohol in the house, but he was not here. She tipped her head, took another breath and answered, “Red, if you please.”
With something in her hands, she didn’t feel defenseless. That was a welcome relief.
Howard also took a glass of red wine, held it up to her in a silent toast, and smiled at her over the rim as he took his first sip. Grace felt her eyes grow wide with wonder, pleased by his attention. She returned his salute with a nod and small smile. Then she took her first sip.
A woman approached dressed in a silver cocktail dress with a draped neckline showing off her perfect pale skin. Her hair was artificially silver, piled in a bouffant style reminiscent of the nineteen sixties. She wore strappy heels and was almost as tall as Howard.
Grace couldn’t help wondering how many facelifts the woman had undergone, and for once, she was not a bit concerned about her unkind thoughts.
“My gracious, Howard Scott, I thought you’d never arrive!”
“I’m here now, Margeaux,” Howard said with a friendly grin.
Margeaux grasped Howard’s shoulders, puckered, and kissed the air near both his cheeks one right after the other. Grace had seen that sort of affectation done on television, usually by Europeans, but never in real life.
“Margeaux Smithson, may I introduce you to my date, Grace Baron?”
Date? Grace glanced at Howard and then at the silver-haired woman. She transferred her glass to her left hand and offered her right to the hostess. “How do you do?”
Margeaux took hers in an imitation of a handshake. It was limp, hardly worth doing. Yet her gaze was anything but lifeless. Speculation sprang in the hostess’ eyes as she gave Grace a good, hard look. Then she dismissed her almost as soon as she let her hand slip from Grace’s grasp. The obvious nature of the woman’s disregard was almost amusing if it wasn’t so rude. Wasn’t Grace enough of a threat?
Turning her attention totally to Howard, Margeaux caught his arm. “Come in, dear. You haven’t seen the Bradfords or Drakes for months. Or us either. Where have you been keeping yourself?”
But Howard wouldn’t leave Grace behind. He dislodged himself from Margeaux’s grip and turned back to Grace. “Come meet the whole team,” he said, holding his hand out to her.
Grace caught it and allowed herself to be drawn forward alongside Howard. After being introduced first to the gentlemen, Grace found herself sitting beside Sissy Bradford and facing Candice Drake, who sat on the opposite sofa.
Margeaux Smithson flitted around the room, like a bird afraid to light, not a bit interested in socializing with the wives. Her husband appeared to be the oldest of the four men, maybe nearing eighty. He certainly had wed a significantly younger woman. She was perhaps in her very early sixties.
“You must tell us your secret, Grace, honey,” Mrs. Bradford said, leaning toward Grace.
“Howard hasn’t brought a date to one of these functions in over a year,” she whispered. “Not since that last disaster with a forty-something woman who was definitely after his money.”
So that is why Howard wants me for protection.
Glad for the security of the glass in her hand, Grace took a sip of wine. How should she respond to the inquiry? She hardly knew Howard Scott.
“Oh, Sissy, don’t be so forward,” Candice said in a scolding hiss. “Grace isn’t interested in our tittle-tattle.”
“Well, she must have done something to catch Howard’s fastidious eye.”
What had she gotten herself into? Was she a pawn in a game she knew nothing about? She felt terribly out of her league.
Suddenly, Grace longed to be home in her pajamas. But as she took a deep breath and another sip of wine, she reminded herself of her own ulterior motive. She’d spent years at home in her pajamas reading books and living other people’s lives vicariously. It was time to live her own life, and if her presence helped Howard in some way, she was glad to assist. After all, he’d shared his heartache in the safety of the support group. She seriously doubted he’d ever spoken his true feelings to this group of so-called friends.
As he nursed his glass of wine, Howard kept a close eye on Grace. She seemed to be holding her own with the ladies. He liked that. It also tickled him to have annoyed Margeaux by bringing a date. He’d guessed right, realizing six months ago he was part of Margeaux’s future playbook. As soon as Bob Smithson died, his widow would make herself the number one candidate to be the new Mrs. Scott.
But Howard had other ideas. He didn’t want another socialite wife like his first two. He wanted a hometown girl. Stable. Maybe a little naïve, but feisty enough to keep him on his toes. He saw that kind of woman in Grace Baron. He longed to know her better.
“She’s an attractive woman, Howard,” his host said.
The other men had drifted away, deep into a political argument. Bob had evidently noticed where Howard directed his riveted gaze.
Caught red-handed Howard grinned into his wine glass then took a sip. He was self-conscious about his reply. “She is, isn’t she? Grace has lived in Heritage Springs all her life, but as small as that town is, I never met her until last week.”
“Then it was meant to be,” Bob observed. “I believe things happen in their own time.”
“Yes, perhaps you’re right.”
His partner’s philosophical musing grabbed Howard’s attention. He liked the meant to be part. It solidified his own thinking in a way he’d not yet mentally verbalized, even to himself.
Margeaux came up cooing about dinner being ready and drew Bob away, leaving Howard standing in front of the oil painting for a moment. The oil was a riot of color, like Grace’s simple, but bright cocktail dress. She wore it well, with an elegance he hadn’t expected. As he watched her chatting with the wives, he was drawn even more to her petite beauty.
They might be old, but they weren’t yet in a nursing home. There was plenty of spirit left in both of them, and Howard was determined to take advantage of it all.
Dinner was soon served in a formal dining room. The table accommodated eight and was completed by parsons chairs upholstered in a yellow, blue and rust fabric. Grace didn’t talk much as she ate a dinner of herb-roasted salmon, grilled asparagus, and classic Caesar salad. A bottle of Pinot Grigio was paired with the salmon. Nice and light, but still fruity and fragrant. Grace found herself sipping her second glass of wine that evening, suddenly feeling untroubled and a little giddy.
She listened with interest to the conversation. The discussion around the table was fascinating. For one thing, she learned these “partners” of Howard’s were a horse racing syndicate. The four families owned three Thoroughbred horses, two of them in training.
Talk of running their horses at Keeneland in the spring and even during the undercard on Kentucky Derby day, the first Saturday in May, sounded exciting. The syndicate’s horses weren’t major stakes winners, but they weren’t claimers either. The partnership had good money tied up in the venture, and splitting the cost made it doable for each one. They were enthusiastic, but maintained, what seemed to Grace, a realistic view of their prospects. No Derby winners in their stable, she heard them say, but one mare was in foal to the industry’s leading sire. They had high hopes. Maybe, this foal, due any day now, would be the one—their “big” horse—their Triple Crown champion.
Grace admired Howard even more because, not only did he have big dreams, but he also did something to make them a reality unlike Lee, who never dreamed, never wanted anything more in his life than his comfortable job and traditionally strict household.
“Thank you for coming with me,” Howard said later that night while handing her into his Lexus for the return ride home.
Grace settled into the comfortable leather seat. When he climbed into the driver’s side, she turned to him and said, “I enjoyed myself. Thank you for inviting me.”
“It was my pleasure, Grace.” He gazed at her a moment, and then added, “Truly.”
Heat flushed her face. She was glad for the darkness. Her gaze searched his for a moment longer, and then he turned, starting the engine.
Once more, the music soothed her. The movement of the car and the effects of wine relaxed her. It wasn’t long before her eyelashes drifted shut. Yet, she wasn’t quite asleep when she felt Howard covering her hand with his. And she smiled.
h1=. Chapter 4
Why did she startle at every phone call? Grace had no reason to think Howard would phone her. In fact, he had left her at her door Saturday night with a formal handshake, a curious grin, but not a word about seeing her again.
That was fine. Did she really want the complications of dating? At fifty-eight, she’d finally found freedom from responsibility. A bit of peace. As she’d told June Hobson, a man didn’t fit into her idea of a new life.
Yet, every time the phone rang, Grace jumped. She would rush to the landline phone in the kitchen as if expecting Howard to be on the other end. It made her feel like a teenager. But the shortness of breath, the rush of excitement seemed silly at her age.
Once, after almost breaking her neck to reach the phone before it quit ringing, she was disappointed that it was merely her daughter Kelly. They were estranged, to say the least, but the wedding of Grace’s granddaughter in late April was something safe for them to discuss.
“C.B. wants you to wear pale blue,” Kelly informed Grace, in her most imperious way. “The mothers and grandmothers are wearing tea length. Do you need help picking out something suitable?”
“No, I don’t.” Grace was hardheaded enough not to be honest with her daughter. She’d already purchased “something suitable.”
“Good. This is an elegant affair, Mother. Please don’t disappoint.”
“I have no intention of disappointing,” Grace had replied and then silently hung up, ending their conversation as she’d ended so many others. It was difficult to talk to Kelly.
The truth was Colleen, or C.B. as Kelly called Grace’s granddaughter, had already visited Heritage Springs earlier that month, chatting with Grace about the wedding, gushing about her fiancé Daniel, and asking her to wear pale blue. Bless, Colleen. The young woman gave Grace hope that the trouble with Kelly might be resolved one day.
Years ago, Kelly had made it clear she was angry with Grace, feeling hurt and betrayed. Granted, Grace’s lack of support had caused hostility on Kelly’s part. But no matter how many times Grace wished to make amends, she could never breach Kelly’s stubbornness. So their rift remained—sad and painful.
After Colleen’s visit, June had driven Grace to Lexington for a shopping spree. The dress Grace found was, of course, a shade of light blue and tea length, just as requested. It was the most beautiful garment Grace had ever put on her body—a princess cut chiffon dress with spaghetti-straps and a lace, long sleeve jacket. She felt elegant in it, almost like a different woman, the woman she longed to be.
But Howard Scott had thrown a monkey wrench in her carefully crafted widowhood. For the week after their date, Grace went about her business, telling herself it didn’t matter if he didn’t call. They weren’t in a relationship. He didn’t have to call her. Besides, she wasn’t going to give control of her life again to a man. And before she knew it, Thursday arrived and so did the afternoon grief support group.
When Howard came in, he sat across the circle, gazing at her, his features strong and unmistakably masculine. Grace watched him, hardly able to catch her breath. Despite her outward calm, her heart beat in erratic rhythm. What was the connection between them? Did she imagine it? She broke eye contact and looked away.
June began the session with a general question to the group. “How have you been this week?”
Nods and smiles greeted June. “It was great,” one woman said.
The woman who had been in tears last week reported, “I survived.”
“My week was very busy,” Howard told the women in the circle. “Plus, I had a very nice dinner with friends on Saturday night.”
Grace quickly glanced up at Howard and their gazes locked—his eyes a piercing blue. She ducked her head, suddenly bashful. Panic gnawed at her. Surely the whole group could see the heat in her cheeks.
“Grace, how about you?” June singled her out.
Grace gathered herself. How was she going to answer? She would never confess she’d spent the week hugging her phone waiting for Howard to call.
“My week was very uneventful.” Leveling a pointed look at Howard, she smiled reluctantly. “It was quiet. Boring, in fact.”
“Well, we can remedy that,” June announced. “The church has asked us to help get ready for the July Fourth celebration in the square. Once again we’re going to raise money for the Heritage Springs Children’s Club. I know you’re a big supporter of that organization, Howard.”
“Yes, it’s a worthy cause.”
“So you see,” June went on. “Between now and July, none of us will have time to be bored.”
Grace sensed June’s motivation. If they were working, they wouldn’t have time to be sad. Busyness was thought to be a therapy for grief.
After a longer session that day, Grace came out of the church to find daylight fading. The air had grown crisp, promising a spate of cold weather. Grace paused on the top steps and pulled on her leather gloves. The church door opened behind her, and Howard was suddenly by her side. He didn’t say anything. He didn’t ask permission, simply fell in beside her as she went down the front steps.
Was he walking her home again? His presumption both thrilled and unnerved her. Grace didn’t know what to say to him so kept a steady pace up the hillside, her gaze straight ahead, her breath white against the waning light of the afternoon. When they stopped on her doorstep, the silence between them seemed way too awkward.
“Oh, heavens,” she muttered, making up her mind. Tossing back her head, she met his eyes. “Would you like to come in? I have coffee and tea.”
Immediately, she blushed. Had she really thought that? Did he remember, just as she did, the sexy sixties book Coffee, Tea or Me?[_ _]She’d seen it on her father’s bedside table when she was a kid and flipped through it before it suddenly disappeared after her mother caught her looking at it.
For goodness sakes, she wasn’t offering herself. Would he think her remark presumptuous?
But he was grinning at her as if he remembered the book too. And as if he didn’t mind her misstep, laughter crinkled his eyes. He seemed good-natured. Friendly. Uncritical.
“I’d love a cup of coffee,” he said, “if you’ll have one with me.”
“I’d be honored.”
Grace brought him into her home, trying not to wonder if he would compare it to his house in the Locust Grove subdivision, the better part of town. What did it matter? At her age, she couldn’t worry about that. In fact, determined not to worry about appearances, she took him to the kitchen. She felt comfortable there. Less vulnerable. A framed cross-stitch picture hung on the wall that read No matter where I serve my guests, it seems they like my kitchen best. She’d hung the sampler soon after Lee’s death in a display of independence since her husband had been critical of her hobby.
“Please have a seat,” she said, and went about gathering the ingredients for the coffee maker.
“You have a lovely home.”
Grace brought a small glass pitcher filled with half-and-half to the kitchen table. “Thank you. I’ve cleaned it out since my husband’s death, gotten rid of a lot of junk, but there is so much more to get rid of. I really should downsize.”
“It’s hard, don’t you think? After a spouse dies?”
“Yes, but no harder than when Lee was alive.”
Howard had the kindness not to question her remark. Why had she said that about Lee? Not many people knew the truth about her husband—how hard he was to live with, how controlling. Kelly knew of course, but she’d had the good sense to leave long ago.
As she surveyed Howard Scott, smelling the woody spice of his aftershave, a wave of understanding washed over her, an insight that was the culmination of the year of soul searching. She caught her breath suddenly and turned away. Sticking with her husband had been Grace’s choice and now she knew why.
Blood rushed to her head, making her dizzy. Why had she never thought of it that way?
Covering her confusion, she reached for the cabinet door and brought out her finest bone china—two teacups and saucers glazed in bright white and accented with platinum rims. She never used her wedding china, but this afternoon called for her best.
After pouring coffee and serving slices of banana bread on china plates, Grace sat down beside her guest. She added half-and-half to her coffee and brought the cup to her lips.
Howard sipped his coffee then placed his cup on the saucer. “Once again I fear I’ve said something to trouble you.”
“No, no.” He had read her reaction wrong. “It’s just that something struck me just now. Something very profound. As if a light went on in my head.”
He glanced briefly at her under his eyelashes and then picked up the coffee cup again. “Do you care to share it with me?”
Grace forced herself to breathe slowly. “I don’t know.”
“It might help if I told you I haven’t been able to get you out of my mind all week.”
“You haven’t? I mean, really?”
“Yes, really, Grace.”
“Oh, my goodness.”
He looked soberly into her eyes. “So, you see, I have only your best interests at heart. If you need someone to confide in, I’ll be happy to listen.”
Something about this man charmed her. His formality. His decency. For some reason, there seemed to be a strange vibe between them, more than a physical connection, for sure.
[_Heavens don’t go there. _]Sexual thoughts hadn’t crossed her mind for ages.
Caught in the moment, Grace took a leap of faith. “Have you ever experienced an insight, so deep that it speaks to your very soul?”
His gaze questioned hers. “Go on.”
“Just now, as we were talking, I understood why I stayed with my husband through all those years of unhappiness.”
Howard didn’t say anything. The compassion in his eyes and his attentiveness told her he cared.
“I stayed out of guilt. My guilt. I always knew that. We’d been indiscrete before we were married and got caught. I felt I must pay the consequences.” Her explanation was evasive at best. She just couldn’t bring herself to put the whole truth into words.
“This may sound odd to you, Howard, but I realize now I also stayed to punish him. By not divorcing him, I was a constant reminder of our carelessness. He couldn’t escape it, and neither could I. By staying married all those years, never divorcing, we punished each other, don’t you see?”
Howard took another sip of coffee as if to let her revelation sink in. “I’m not sure I totally understand, not knowing what you believe to be your carelessness.”
“Yes, of course.” What had made her think he’d comprehend?
He reached across the table and took her hand. “You don’t need to tell me your history, Grace. We all make mistakes. That is how we learn. The fact my presence here helped you gain self-awareness is all that matters to me.”
Why had she stupidly opened up to this man? It was as if their fledgling friendship had taken a serious turn. And it frightened her. But her sudden perception had been important to her. If telling him scared him away, what did she care? She had no intentions of anything coming from this friendship. She simply wanted to live a little.
And she felt pleasantly alive in his presence.
h1=. Chapter 5
Conversation turned from profound to silly, and by the time Howard left, darkness had fallen and Grace was laughing out loud. She hadn’t laughed in a long time.
Watching him stride down the sidewalk, she noticed the street lamps captured his tall, athletic frame and strong set of his shoulders. Sure, his face was wrinkled and his hair gray, but the man still had much to give. There was a lot of living left in him. She hoped she could in some way be part of it.
Why was she yearning for his friendship? Well, duh! Because I’ve never had such a relationship, stupid. She’d kept herself isolated from people. Isolated from life. She did want to experience life. She wasn’t dead yet!
Surprised by the direction of her thoughts, Grace turned away from the window and dropped the lace curtains. The darkness made it feel later than six o’clock.
After straightening the kitchen and eating a sandwich for supper, Grace went to bed with a good book. Books had been her friends for years, but tonight after reading for an hour, she couldn’t get into the romance. She couldn’t relate to the twenty-something heroine who threw herself in the path of the hunky hero. Taking off her reading glasses, she turned the book upside down on her chest and rubbed her eyes.
For the first time since Lee died, she hated being alone in bed. She focused on the footboard, staring at the spiraled bedposts, looking into the past. Yes, she had plenty of regrets, but at the time things happened, could she have done them differently? What if she’d been stronger, like Kelly? Could she have broken out of the mold she’d poured herself into all those years ago? Devoted mother. Dutiful wife. Grace had lost herself in the process of trying to be moral.
What a shame.
That was one idea of the young she liked—being true to yourself and getting past your hang-ups. She’d not been able to do it then. What about now? What was different? Was Howard the difference?
But who was she to presume? Hadn’t wrong assumptions gotten her into trouble with Lee years ago?
He has sex with you so that means he loves you.
How naive had she been? Pretty innocent. Many girls in her day weren’t as world-wise as today, especially small town girls with old-fashioned values. She’d made a misstep a long time ago and had paid for it ever since.
When Grace’s bedside phone rang, she startled awake. Glancing at the clock, she discovered it was past ten. Not late, by any means. She’d fallen asleep with her thoughts, the book remaining open on her chest.
“I’m sorry to call you so late.”
It was Howard. Why was he calling her?
“Is everything all right?”
“Wonderful! Perfect!” There was excitement in his voice. “Remember the talk of our syndicate horses?”
“Yes.” Where was this leading?
“Our mare, Lady Success, foaled tonight.”
“Oh, that’s exciting.”
“It’s a colt. I was wondering if you’d like to come with me tomorrow to see him.”
Is this a date? But she wasn’t going to ask him. That seemed presumptuous. She shouldn’t go. She had no idea why he was being so nice or what he wanted from her. She shouldn’t let her imagination wander or give into the fantasy of her thoughts.
But wasn’t she through with shoulds? Hadn’t she told herself that? Wasn’t it a perfect opportunity to do something about her promise to herself? Wasn’t this “living a little?”
“I’d love to go with you, Howard,” she said softly.
Woodson Stone Farm in central Kentucky was in the heart of the Bluegrass horse country and only twenty-five miles from Heritage Springs. The day was sunny and cold. Howard picked her up at ten. He was wearing brown corduroys and a tan wool sweater under his coat. She’d chosen her only pair of blue jeans, a turtleneck, and cardigan sweater. They were going to a barn, after all. It might be messy and certainly chilly.
Yet she felt underdressed in Howard’s presence, even though he said, “You look lovely,” when he helped her on with her coat.
They drove the winding roads to the farm in companionable silence past hillsides dotted with horses and old stone fences and white wooden ones, so typical of Kentucky. She sensed a kinship between them that seemed to grow every time they met.
Several miles into the trip, Howard asked, “How much do you know about Thoroughbreds?”
“I’m afraid I couldn’t pass a test on them,” Grace admitted. Lee, with his dull working-class life, had never gone to a racetrack, and always in his shadow, neither had she.
“Let me give you a quick lesson then,” he said. “Thoroughbreds are bred between February and late May. They must be bred with a live cover meaning a stallion actually mounts the mare. No artificial insemination for these horses.”
Howard took his gaze from the road and turned his head to smile at her, a confident, manly smile. As she grinned in return, Grace felt goose bumps rise along her arms, and she crossed them.
Looking back at the road, he continued, “Gestation is eleven months, but the universal birthday for all Thoroughbreds is January first. That’s why we were lucky to have an early-March foal this season. When it’s time for the three-year-old races leading to the Kentucky Derby, our foal will be one of the older horses.”
“Because he was born closer to January first, it will make him more mature than ones born later in the spring.”
“Exactly. You catch on quickly.”
Grace felt the heat of a blush at the compliment. Expressions of praise had been few and far between when she was married.
Then out of the blue, Howard said, “I love how your cheeks redden.”
Her face flamed hotter. Would she ever get used to this man and his flattery?
Several miles down the road, they turned into an open gate and drove between black board fencing until they reached a group of barns. After parking in front of one, Howard hopped out, rushed around the front of the vehicle, and opened the passenger-side door.
The bite of the winter’s day struck Grace as she stepped onto the gravel. A man dressed in khaki jeans, a ski jacket, and a Woodson Stone Farm ball cap came out to greet them.
“Howard!” The two men shook hands.
“Grace, may I introduce Brownie Parsons? He’s the broodmare manager at the farm.”
“How do you do?” Grace accepted the man’s bear-like hand. Brownie was perhaps in his late forties with a head of black hair and a ruddy complexion.
“Glad to meet you, ma’am. I knew Howard would be the first one out here to see the new foal.”
“It’s so near,” Howard said, as if offering an explanation.
The manager turned to usher them into the barn. “No, sir, you are the only one with the passion for horse breeding. The others view it as purely an investment.”
One more hint into the man who had crashed into the boundaries of her life, turning her world upside down. Grace smiled to herself, steeling herself against the odd thrill in her chest. What was happening to her? She’d best be on guard or she’d grow too dependent on Howie Scott.
The barn was a converted tobacco shed fitted with twenty square stalls large enough for foaling. Each one was bedded with straw that spilled from the stall doors into the aisle. The asphalt walkway was covered with interlocking rubber mats. As the trio strolled along the aisle, peering into each stall, their footfalls were muffled by the rubber.
“Here she is,” Brownie announced at an end stall.
Lady Success was deep red, her coat shaggy and nicked from living outside. Beside her in the stall was a red colt with a long white blaze and striking white socks on his long, wobbly legs. He peeked at Grace and Howard from behind his mother, as if curious to see the newcomers.
Howard stuck a hand in his pocket and pulled out a round peppermint candy. He unwrapped the cellophane, and the mare’s ears pricked forward. She hung her head over the stall door.
“I’ve spoiled her,” Howard confided to Grace. He turned to Brownie. “May I?”
“She’s your horse, sir.”
Howard grinned like a school kid and put the peppermint in his palm. Making his hand flat, he offered the round candy. “Here you go, Lady.”
The mare licked up the candy, crunching it between her teeth.
“The old girl has a sweet tooth,” Howard said.
Brownie took what looked like a dog leash from a hook on the stall. “Let’s give the little fellow a taste of Kentucky sunshine.”
He entered the stall with caution. Lady moved away from the door to guard her colt. Satisfied Brownie was no threat, Lady accepted his presence. Then the manager fitted a halter over her head and threaded the leather line through it.
Howard took Grace’s hand and pulled her aside. “We need to give them room.”
Brownie led out the mare, her hooves making soft whop sounds on the rubber mats, and the hours-old colt followed behind, his short strides making it hard for him to catch up to his longer-limbed mother. Howard and Grace fell in behind the little procession.
Howard, however, observed other things. “He’s got good confirmation in his hind end and through his legs.”
“I guess that’s a good thing.”
“All I want to do is give him a big hug,” Grace admitted. “He’s so fuzzy and adorable.”
Howard chuckled and squeezed her hand. “You are so cute.”
Grace didn’t know about that. Breath caught in her throat, and she was unsure of a response.
None was needed, because the manager had reached the paddock with the mare. He led her through the gate and turned her loose. The colt hesitated outside. Lady swung her head back toward her foal and nickered softly. The baby scampered inside the paddock, puffs of steam coming out of his nose. Turning as the gate closed behind him, the colt watched the strange people. His mother, unconcerned about her human audience, dropped her head onto the dull late winter grass and began to graze.
“Best get back to work,” Brownie said. “Stay as long as you like.”
“Thank you for all you do,” Howard said, offering the farm manager his hand.
The two men shook hands again. “My pleasure.”
Grace watched the employer-employee exchange, impressed by the respect the two men had for each other. She’d never seen Lee interact with people like that. He’d been angry. Defensive. Disrespectful to a fault. She should have divorced him years ago, but she’d gotten stuck. That had been her mistake. But change had been impossible. Or so she had thought at the time.
Stepping up to the paddock fence, Grace touched its hard railing and gazed at the mare and foal. Howard joined her. He didn’t know her thoughts. Her regrets. He accepted her as she presented herself, and she was overwhelmed by his acceptance.
“Look at him, Grace. This could be the one,” Howard said, awe in his voice.
Surveying Howard’s face, his eyes shining with hope, Grace smiled. “Yes, he could be the one,” she said softly and wondered to herself if she was talking about Howard or the newborn foal.
h1=. Chapter 6
But Howard couldn’t be “the one.” She’d vowed there would never be another one. What was she letting herself fall into? She’d slipped into marriage with Lee. It had not been intentional. It had simply happened when she’d gotten pregnant. Grace didn’t want to live her life like that again. Without a sense of control. Without deliberately making a choice about what steps she’d take regarding her future.
The only way she knew how to handle her sudden jumble of feelings was to put distance between herself and Howard.
“You can’t quit the support group,” June said the next morning over tea. “You just joined.”
“I’m going to.” Grace stared into her cup as if reading the tea leaves.
She’d kept secrets in the past. Not telling June the truth was easy enough. “I’m going to be too busy.”
June continued to press. “Doing what?”
“Ah—I’m going to get a job.”
“Yes, for the money,” she lied.
June let out a disgusted huff. “Howard Scott is a nice man.” Her regard settled on Grace’s face. “What are you afraid of?”
“I’m not afraid of anything.”
“You can’t fool me. Wasn’t it only a few weeks ago you said you were tired of being scared? You said you wanted to get out more. Live a little.”
“Well, now I need to get a job.”
“I swear, Grace Baron, you are a contradiction.”
Grace shrugged. “I guess that makes me human.”
“Or foolish more like it.”
So on Saturday morning, Grace walked to the town square looking for employment. She found a part-time job at the Country Affair Antiques Store, a small specialty shop. She’d never worked a day in her life, so taking the job was another leap of faith. Ironically, she wasn’t willing to take another kind of leap—into the open arms of a man who acted as if he cared for her.
Avoiding Howard was not difficult. She didn’t attend Sunday services. She didn’t answer the phone. Without an answering machine, it rang and rang. Stopped. Then rang again. If he came by her house, she wasn’t home. She was down at the square learning how to use a new-fangled credit card device.
Thursday afternoon came and went. Grace stayed home. Not scheduled to work, she puttered around her house. It was the cleanest the place had been in years. Clean and sterile. A tomb of her own making.
Late that afternoon when a vigorous knock almost crashed down her door, she knew it was Howard. A light burned in the living room so she had unwisely advertised she was home.
Okay, stop being afraid. Take your medicine.
Dropping the dust rag on an end table, Grace went to the door. He stood in the entrance, bigger than life, more handsome than she remembered.
“Why are you avoiding me?”
She swallowed her fear and stuck out her chin. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“Why have you left the group?”
“That’s a poor excuse.”
How dare he doubt her? “Pardon me?”
Angry frustration showed in his eyes. He scrubbed a hand over his mouth, took a breath, and then asked, “May I come in?”
That was the last thing she wanted, but she couldn’t very well keep him standing in the cold.
Silently, Grace stepped aside. Howard crossed the threshold into her living room. Immediately his presence ignited the room with energy, mirroring the vitality of the man that brought it.
“You owe me a better explanation.”
“I owe you nothing.”
“My God, Grace, have I done something to upset you?”
“Yes.” She threw her shoulders back. “I mean no!”
For some reason, it was easy to stand up to this man. Why was she able to hold her ground? Defend her position? Because he wasn’t Lee, and he didn’t frighten her?
Breath hitched in her throat at the sudden realization. She wasn’t really scared of Howard Scott, only of herself and her reaction to him.
He hesitated the span of several heartbeats, and she almost melted under his wounded expression.
“Please tell me what I’ve done, Grace.”
“You haven’t done anything, Howard,” she said. “It’s just—.” Just what?
“Perhaps you aren’t giving me enough credit.”
Grace surveyed him silently, heart pounding against her ribs.
“Talk to me, Grace,” he pleaded again. “Do you know how crazy I was all week when I couldn’t get in touch with you? I thought something was wrong. You were sick. Then I realized it must have been something I’d done.”
She wanted to crumble before his eyes. Back down from her stance. But she’d promised herself to control her life. Slipping into an easy friendship with this man had made her head spin. Where was the power in that? Certainly not with her.
“You’ve always been a gentleman,” she said through dry lips. “I could not have asked for a better experience with you. I’ve enjoyed dinner. Seeing the horses.”
“I thought I was taking it slow, respecting your reticence. I’m sorry if I overstepped.”
Looking away, Grace fought the regret rising in her throat. If she wasn’t afraid of Howard, who was she afraid of? Of losing control again. Of falling too quickly for a man she didn’t know. Of making another mistake.
She turned back her gaze to connect with his. Once again the power of their bond overwhelmed her. “It isn’t you, Howard.” Longing to grasp his hand, she clasped hers behind her back.
“Then what is it, Grace?” Howard wasn’t as reserved. He reached out and seized her hand in his two big ones. He drew it up to his lips, drawing her nearer to him, and kissed the back of her hand as if he were a gentleman in a movie.
“I’m so unsure of myself,” Grace whispered, watching his lips linger on her hand.
“Do I frighten you?”
“No!” He didn’t. “I scare myself.”
His shoulders relaxed. His expression softened. “Good. It’s not me then.” He glanced around the room. “May we sit down?”
Without her answer, he pulled her toward the sofa. They sat down together, shoulder to shoulder. They didn’t speak. Somewhere in the house, a clock ticked loud enough to be heard in the silence.
Finally, Grace dragged forth the question on her mind. “I don’t know what you want from me, Howard.”
He took up her hand again and ran his fingers across her palm. “I want to get to know you.”
“Because I like you.”
He grinned at her. “Twenty questions?”
“No, I want to understand. Why me? Why now?”
“How can a person explain why he likes someone? I don’t know, Grace.” He seemed disconcerted. His eyes grew perplexed. “I simply feel an attraction to you. As if we are meant to be with each other.”
She felt it too, this connection. But she couldn’t admit it to him. To herself? No. That was even more dangerous.
“Don’t you see? That’s the problem,” Grace said. “You want to remarry. I don’t.”
He nodded. “I thought that might be the problem.”
“So I can’t continue to see you, no matter how pleasant our times together have been. It wouldn’t be fair to you.”
“How about you letting me decide that?” His gaze landed on her face. “I can be the judge of what is fair to me.”
“I don’t want to lead you on. I don’t want to raise your expectations.”
“Fair enough. What if I tell you that even knowing the conditions going in, I still want to be with you?”
Grace frowned and shook her head. “I’d say you’re crazy.”
“My son has already told me that.” Howard laughed at himself.
That seemed to settle it. Howard was crazy, and she’d be crazy too if she continued to see him. Yet a huge part of her heart urged her on. She wanted to live a little, didn’t she? There wasn’t much chance of that happening if she turned Howard Scott away. Not many men in Heritage Springs were beating down her door to meet her.
“What if I agreed to see you?”
“Under the stipulation that you realize I have no intention of going to bed with you or, for that matter, doing something as stupid as marrying you.”
He laughed aloud. “Oh, Grace, you are so lovable! I appreciate your honesty.”
Honesty? She’d been anything but that. However, it felt good for the first time to express herself, to communicate in a way so that Howard knew exactly where she stood. And she felt suddenly free to be with him without worry. No expectations. Just a good time.
She was free to live a little.
h1=. Chapter 7
For the rest of March, Howard courted Grace, much like his dad told him he’d dated his mom after World War II. He liked the sound of the old-fashioned word, wondering if he’d ever courted his other two wives like this. Probably not, but Grace needed special attention. From what June told him, Grace’s life with her husband had been hard and her daughter’s voluntary exile even harder. He was not above showering Grace with a little TLC.
On Saturday, after her shift ended at the antiques store, Howard picked her up at her house and whisked her to a winery for dinner. Located near Lexington, the small venue was surrounded by rows of dormant grape vines. It had a bottling facility that they skipped seeing and a cozy, gourmet restaurant with a warm blaze in the stone fireplace.
“Have you ever been here?” he asked, lifting his glass of wine to her.
Grace blushed in that delicious way he liked. “No,” she replied with a delighted look in her eyes. She returned his salute with her wine goblet.
The next weekend he drove her to Louisville to attend a Broadway Series play in the Kentucky Center for the Arts. On a Saturday when she didn’t work, Howard booked a private bourbon distillery tour. They saw three different distilleries, sampled their various wares, and dined in Lexington that evening. Grace returned home quite giddy, claiming she’d never, ever had a better day.
He wanted it that way. He wanted her smiling and happy. Making her happy pleased him. In fact, he was content again for the first time since his second wife’s death.
That’s when he realized he wanted a future with Grace Baron.
What she wanted was another matter, of course.
Grace had surprised herself by liking her new job. Clerking at the Country Affair Antiques Store was fun. She enjoyed helping others find the perfect treasure and was intrigued by the history of the consignment items people brought into the store to sell.
Often her work got in the way of Howard’s plans for their outings. But that was fine. She didn’t need to be free whenever he called. Years ago, her mother had cautioned her about being too available to boys, but of course, she hadn’t listened. The rest, as they said, was history.
She liked toying with Howard too. Not in a mean way, but playing “hard to get” was turning into a joyful pastime. Of course, she had no intention of being “got.” She’d told him that. He acted as if he understood, but he was certainly persistent. And he’d taken her to places she’d never been.
One Monday, the first week of April, Grace’s shift was near its end when Howard walked into the store. Outside, storm clouds hung low and rain threatened.
He smiled that manly smile that devastated her. She drew in a breath and offered a brief, nervous grin. She couldn’t help responding to him. For some reason, his mere presence caused goose bumps to rise up on her arms.
Standing on the other side of the counter, he suddenly turned serious. “I came to drive you to my house,” he said.
Grace had never been to his house and was not about to go now, especially when his tone had turned so insistent. “Whatever for?”
“Because there’s a tornado watch, and I have a basement.”
“You’ll be safer at my house if something should happen.”
“I’m not going to your house.”
Her words elicited a brief laugh. “Dammit, Grace Baron, why are you so stubborn?”
“And why are you such a control freak?”
“Because I care for you, that’s why.”
That brought her up short, and she stared at him a moment. Her heart hammered in her ears like the rumble of thunder in the distance.
“I’m going home.”
“Okay, then I’ll drive you.”
“Suit yourself.” She turned away from him and picked up her purse from beneath the counter. “Sally, I’m heading home,” she called to the owner, who came out of the back storeroom.
“Be careful,” Sally called.
Grace looked over her shoulder as she headed for the door. “Don’t worry about me. Howard is driving me home.”
She felt odd—in control, but vulnerable at the same time. She didn’t feel beat down, filled with despair, as she had when married. No, she felt accepted for herself. Totally cared for and loved.
Her steps faltered.
She caught her breath.
Howard took her arm and ushered her out as the rain started to fall. He opened the car door, and she slid inside.
When he climbed into the driver’s seat, Howard shot her a look mixed with concern and irritation. “I wish you’d let me take you to my house. This storm might be a bad one.”
“I’ve ridden out plenty of bad storms in my house.”
Silence filled the car. Was he mad? Grace glanced at Howard’s set face, his eyebrows furrowed. He started the car. The ride home wasn’t long. He pulled alongside the curb in front of her house and turned off the ignition.
Then he broke his silence. “I’m staying with you until this is over.”
Grace opened her mouth to object.
“Dammit, Grace, this is the anniversary of the April 3rd, 1974, tornadoes.”
Her eyes widened. She remembered that horrible, fear-filled day when Kentucky, Ohio, and much of the Midwest were overwhelmed by a record number of tornadoes. Louisville had been hit, but not as hard as Brandenburg, Kentucky. There had been more deaths in that small town than in Louisville. She’d been in high school then here in Central Kentucky and remembered the warm air sticky with humidity.
“I was in Louisville that day,” Howard said, his face grim. “In law school at the university. I heard a roar of trains south of campus. That’s where the tornado hit, a little more than a mile away from me, striking Freedom Hall and leveling the horse barns at the Fairgrounds.”
“Oh, Howard.” She brought her hand to her lips, understanding his concern.
“I’ve had a healthy respect for bad weather ever since.”
She reached across the seat and squeezed his arm. “Okay. I appreciate your company.”
They made a run for it, getting totally drenched before reaching the porch. Dripping water into a puddle on her hardwood floor, Howard looked like a drowned rat. Grace was no better herself, but she laughed at the once picture-perfect, manicured Mr. Scott with his wet hair plastered to his forehead. She hurried around the living room switching on lamps while Howard watched her. When finished, when the room was brighter, a contrast to the dark storm outside, Grace walked back to him.
“You can’t stay in those wet clothes,” she said in her best motherly tone.
His eyebrows lifted. “I’m beginning to like the way you think.”
“Dream on!” Grace turned toward her bedroom. What did she have large enough for Howard to wear? She’d given Lee’s clothing to charity, but he’d been a smaller man. Returning moments later with a bath towel and an extra large University of Kentucky sweatshirt, she offered them to him. “Maybe these will do.”
Howard accepted the items, staring down at her for many long beats. Heart pounding against her ribs, Grace was caught in the moment. Would things become intimate? Did she want them to? He took one step. Then thunder shook the house, rattling the windows.
“That was mighty damn close.” Howard smiled as if to reassure her. “Point me toward your bathroom.”
“Upstairs, first door on the left.”
As he climbed the steps, Grace didn’t know what to think. What to wish for? Her words said one thing. No way, no how. But her heart was beginning to yearn for another outcome.
“I’ll turn on the television weather,” she called after him. With the local weatherman blaring across the living room warning viewers of the storm, Grace hurried to her own bedroom downstairs, stripped off her wet clothing and dressed in sweat pants and shirt.
She was seated on the worn flowered sofa when Howard returned. He joined her, and they sat shoulder to shoulder. He’d not removed his khaki pants, but his feet were bare, and he wore the tight-fitting sweatshirt.
“A tornado warning was issued for Southern Indiana,” Grace told him.
“Hopefully, it won’t come toward the southeast.”
They sat quietly a few minutes, staring at the flashing TV screen, each wrapped in their own thoughts. Grace felt the heat emanating from this big man. She felt his goodness and caring. She felt her own confusion—her agony of indecision mixed with a determination to do differently, be differently.
Another gigantic clap of thunder vibrated the room. Howard draped his arm over her shoulder.
“I think I should offer you some coffee. Or tea,” she said to break the awkwardness of the moment.
“Or me,” he whispered.
Another roar of thunder. Another flash of lightening. Then the lights flickered and the house went dark.
They sat for several seconds in the darkness, absorbed in the storm battering the house. Grace’s nerves were on edge. Her heart raced. But it was more from Howard’s presence than the thunderstorm.
“Oh, dammit, Grace.”
She turned her eyes from the blackened TV screen to his, shadowed in the darkness. Were her upturned lips inviting? Did she mean for them to be?
“Oh, dammit, Grace,” he said again. Then he pulled her into his arms and kissed her.
As she returned his kiss with equal fervor, she realized this was where she was meant to be. For the first time in her life, Grace felt she’d come home.
h1=. Chapter 8
Colleen’s rehearsal dinner was the following Friday evening in Louisville. Because Grace didn’t have a car, Howard drove her to the downtown hotel and dropped her off. Grace didn’t want him there even though he’d offered to escort her. She didn’t want her daughter to know about him, because she didn’t want anything ugly to spoil their fledgling relationship.
Besides she wasn’t sure of it herself. A few passionate kisses, good vibrations, and fun times—what did they amount to in the long run? She didn’t know if he wanted to marry her, even though his stated objective in group therapy was to marry again. But even though he’d been persistent in dating her, was she really his choice?
And what about her intention not to remarry? How could she lose herself again in another devastating relationship? So she thanked Howard for the ride and agreed to let him pick her up on Sunday. But share in a family event? No. Not when he was not family.
Bless Colleen. She stopped by Grace’s hotel room before the evening rehearsal and dinner. It would take place in one of the hotel’s event rooms. Kelly had chosen to ignore her mother during the festivities as if she only included her because of Colleen’s wishes. Grace had understood her daughter’s message all too well. Things were not right between them. Perhaps they never would be.
“Gran,” Colleen said, hugging her grandmother, “I wanted to see if you have all that you need.”
Grace returned the hug, holding her granddaughter a little longer than necessary, determined to be happy on this happy occasion. Unlike her mother, Colleen was blond. She had two cute dimples when she smiled and a pert little nose that was more pixie-like than Kelly’s. She’d always been a happy child, a little naïve as Grace had been, and kind. In the age of social media, she often communicated with her intentionally backwards grandmother over the telephone and by impromptu visits to Heritage Springs.
“I’m so happy and excited for you,” Grace said. “You and Daniel will have a beautiful life together.”
Colleen flushed with happiness. “Yes, we will! Daniel is so perfect, Gran. I love him so much.”
“I can tell that,” Grace responded with a grin. “And your wedding will be just wonderful.”
When she showed Colleen her grandmother-of-the-bride dress, her granddaughter exclaimed, “Oh, this is lovely! You may upstage the bride!”
“Pooh,” Grace scoffed. “No one can upstage my beautiful granddaughter.”
And so it went, chatting back and forth, until Colleen changed the subject abruptly. “I’m sorry about my mother,” she said. “Daniel says she is an unhappy woman, and I shouldn’t let her unhappiness cloud our marriage.”
Grace sighed. “Daniel is right. I’m afraid your mother carries some heavy burdens.”
“I don’t understand her,” Colleen complained, a frown marring her face. “And she’s always mean to you.”
“Your mother and I disagreed a long time ago.”
“I know. That’s when she moved to Louisville.”
“Yes,” Grace said with a nod. “Her father was very hard on her.”
“Well, I’m not going to worry about ancient history. What about you, Gran? How are you doing?”
Yes, how was she doing? She’d come to suspect she was in love with Howard Scott. But she didn’t want that, not if he didn’t want it too. And was it right, at her age, after failing so miserably in her first marriage, to try again? What if she failed again? What if she ruined Howard’s life as Lee said she’d ruined his?
Grace felt heat in her face. “I’m seeing a gentleman at home,” she revealed with a sheepish grin.
Colleen clapped her hands together. “Oh, Gran! How lovely!”
“Yes, it has been,” she said wistfully. “But I’m not sure how serious he is, or even if I want him to be serious.”
“Of course you want him to be serious,” Colleen countered. “You’re not old. You deserve happiness just like everyone else.”
“I know. But I thought I could make that happiness by myself. By doing my ‘thing.’ I haven’t told you, I have a part-time job now,” she said, changing the subject to avoid delving too deeply into her relationship with Howard.
“That’s wonderful. But what’s wrong with having a man complete you?”
“Are men supposed to do that? Your grandfather never did that for me. I lost myself somewhere along the way.”
“Oh, you know what I mean.” Colleen frowned as if trying to capture her thoughts into words. “A man should bring out the best in you. Allow you to be yourself. You should complement each other.”
“Is that what Daniel does for you?”
Colleen flushed prettily. “Yes. We’re a great team. Oh, I’m so happy, Gran!”
“I know, sweetheart. You look happy. I’m happy for you.”
Pausing a beat, Colleen cast a serious gaze toward her. “Don’t be afraid to love again, Gran. If not this gentleman friend, maybe you’ll find someone else. But never be afraid to love. It’s never too late to find true love.”
Grace took a step back. “Funny. That’s what Howard says too.”
The wedding over, life returned to the new normal for Grace—work, support group, morning tea with June and, of course, visits with Howard. He’d taken her to a Reds baseball game at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati, and they’d watched an afternoon of races at the Keeneland Racecourse in Lexington. Her world had expanded because of Howard, and she’d learned she enjoyed going out and doing. All those years of being a homebody seemed so wasted and sad. Tonight she’d finally had the nerve to cook for him.
He reached across the kitchen table and touched her hand. “I want to marry you, Grace. You know that, don’t you?”
Uncomfortable, Grace stood and went to the stove. “Would you care for more spaghetti or another slice of bread?”
“I’m serious,” was all he said.
Grace turned to look at him. He was watching her through half-hooded eyes. He was so handsome. Such a gentleman. He’d not made a move other than to kiss her. And, oh, how Howie could kiss! She treasured his ability to keep his promise. No going to bed, she’d told him. And he’d wined and dined her, treated her like a queen, just as she’d longed to be treated in her daydreaming days as a teenager, but never put pressure on her to have sex, unlike Lee who had manipulated her into the back seat of his ‘73 Chevy on their third date.
Now that it was out in the open—this obstacle between them—she didn’t know what to say. Part of her thrilled at his words. At his honorable intentions. Part of her longed to be swept away, protected and cherished for the rest of her life. But could she accept his proposal? The other part of her said she wasn’t ready. It had to be in her own time. Of her own making.
“You know I love you,” he said quietly.
Her stomach in knots, she dropped her gaze to focus on her feet. Her heart yearned to say yes, but the stubborn part of her being held her back.
“I’m not ready yet,” she said in a tiny voice. She lifted her gaze. “I’m sorry, Howard.”
A spasm of regret twisted her heart when she saw his face. It would be so easy to agree to his proposal. It would be so easy to let him wine and dine her forever. But at what cost? Herself?
“You’ll not be rid of me easily,” Howard predicted.
“I don’t want to be rid of you.” She clasped her hands together in fear.
He grinned that heart-stopping grin and sat back. “Don’t worry, dear. I’m not going anywhere.”
h1=. Chapter 9
Always true to his promises, Howard continued to call and come by. He even made plans to take her to the Kentucky Derby the first Saturday in May. She’d lived in Kentucky all her life but had never been to the Derby.
With the event only a few weeks away, choosing something to wear at such short notice soon became a problem. June drove her to a mall in Lexington. At Macy’s they found a black suit with an A-line skirt that hit Grace’s knees, and they paired it with a white blouse. She could remove the jacket if it became hot, but the first Saturday in May always had unpredictable weather. A jacket might feel good. Then they searched for a hat, something to go with the suit, and found a black satin and feather fascinator with a fishnet mesh veil.
“My mother wore a veil like this in the ’fifties,” Grace said. “I remember it as a kid.”
“Strange how fashions come and go,” June remarked.
“What goes around, comes around,” Grace acknowledged with a grin.
The important dilemma solved, Grace was free to anticipate the very long Derby day to come.
“I’ve never seen so many people except on television.” Grace stared at the racetrack infield with its general admission revelers already partying at noon. Over one hundred and sixty thousand people attended each Kentucky Derby, in the infield, in the grandstands, and in the fancy, air-conditioned seating areas for the rich and famous.
“Quite the tradition,” Howard said. “Like pretty girls and hats.”
He meant her, and she accepted his compliment without her normal blush. Was she getting used to having Howard Scott around?
They shared an expensive box seat—six folding chairs in the reserved section near the finish line—with two of his syndicate partners, Mr. and Mrs. Drake and Bob and Margeaux Smithson. Of course, Margeaux outshone Grace, wearing a skimpy, flowered sundress and a huge flowered hat. Under the bright May sunshine, her complexion looked taut in just the right places, but she couldn’t hide the wrinkles in her neck or the age spots on the backs of her hands.
Okay, she was being spiteful, Grace had to admit, but the woman rubbed her the wrong way, not in the least because she guessed Margeaux’s ultimate goal was Howard.
And Howard’s my man.
Where had that come from?
But she didn’t have time to dwell on the annoying Margeaux Smithson. There was a full afternoon of undercard races, many of them graded stakes races which Howard explained were the highest level of all. His horse, the syndicate’s Thoroughbred, wouldn’t run until the race right after the Kentucky Derby. It was an optional claiming race, going seven furlongs on the dirt. As Howard told her, a claiming race was one in which a horse could be bought by anyone for the specified “claiming” price. Although his horse was not at the level of better stakes horses running that day, the syndicate chose not to run the three-year-old as a “claimer,” because the horse had potential.
The group wiled away the afternoon picking horses, placing bets, and drinking traditional mint juleps, an iced drink consisting of bourbon, mint, and sugar syrup. Well, to put it more bluntly, Margeaux enjoyed several mint juleps whereas Grace could only stomach one simply to say she’d sipped it at the Derby.
At one point in the afternoon, Grace was left in the box sitting beside Bob Smithson. Everyone else was away standing in lines for the bathrooms or placing bets.
The older gentleman cleared his throat causing Grace to glance up from her racing program.
“I must say, Mrs. Baron, you seem to have blossomed since I last saw you. February was it?”
“Yes, I came to dinner at your house in February.”
“And Howard looks happy.”
Now Grace blushed. She felt the heat creep up her cheeks. “I’m glad.”
The man returned to studying his program. The conversation ended. But the implications of Bob’s remarks spun around in Grace’s head. Had she blossomed? Was she different for knowing Howard?
He returned at that moment carrying a huge waffle cone full of vanilla and chocolate soft serve ice cream. “For you, my dear,” he said and presented it to her with a tiny, formal bow.
She giggled. “Just what I’ve been longing for.”
“Eat up fast. It’s beginning to drip.”
As Grace licked the ice cream, catching the drips with her tongue, she wondered at Howard once more. Lee would never have acknowledged her sweet tooth with a cone of ice cream.
But Howard had swept into her world, turning it upside down and showing her a side of life she’d never experienced. So much was different. Now she could enjoy a simple gift and a sincere compliment. She’d taken a leap of faith and gotten a part-time job. She’d opened up about her feelings—well some of them anyway—in the grief support group. She and June were best friends again since their high school days. And because of Howard, she’d done and seen things she’d never thought to see and do.
Yes, since February she’d changed so much.
And she liked that change. In fact, her life was close to being perfect. Her relationship with her daughter still troubled her, but maybe she could remedy that some day. And she was tired of thinking about Lee, of comparing Howard to Lee. She was wasting her time dwelling on the past. The old heartaches. The mistakes. Now it was time to be young again, lighthearted, and looking forward to her future.
Grace glanced at Howard beside her, a solid presence in her life. She didn’t want to lose him. But she didn’t want to lose herself again either.
As she finished the last crunch of the messy cone, Grace felt the truth seep through her slowly. She was a different person now than when she’d been married to Lee. She’d created that new person, but Howard—no, Howie—had helped. Bottom line—Howie Scott made her better. When she was with him, she didn’t lose herself at all.
Grace watched all the preliminaries on the Jumbotron. The huge television screen in the infield showed the Derby horses in the paddock. The jockeys arrived and mounted. Soon the bugler dressed in red came out of the pagoda in the winner’s circle and played the call to the post. As the first Thoroughbred stepped onto the track and the twenty-horse field paraded in front of the grandstands, the University of Louisville Marching Band played Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home.”
“I love the tradition,” Howard said above the roar of the crowd.
Grace looked up at him. And I love you. Her heart warmed at the thought, and she smiled.
Soon “The Run for the Roses” was over and the winner was draped with the blanket of red roses in the winner’s circle and crowded by owners and media. The first leg of the American Triple Crown was in the books.
But now Howard was tense, anticipating the next race. As the three couples picked their way through the departing crowd, Howard grabbed her hand to keep her close. At the entrance to the paddock, they showed their owners’ badges and were allowed entry. In the grassy area inside the walking circle, they waited. Only an hour earlier, the Derby owners had awaited their horses here. Now Howard and his syndicate shared the same dreams as those racehorse owners.
Grace hoped all would turn out well for Howie…and for her. But she wasn’t thinking about the upcoming race. She’d made up her mind.
Howard fought the excitement building inside. It was the same way with each race—the anticipation of a win, the fear his horse would not come out of the race in good shape. The racing business was a crapshoot, but so was life. He savored the good times, and he endured the bad.
The syndicate’s horse was a bay colt called Dallas in the barn, not his registered name. The horse was not good enough for the ranks of stakes runners, but he was bred well and sound. Dallas seemed to have a will to win. Having a horse with a heart was what every owner wanted.
At the call to the post, the horses left the paddock and walked down the passageway toward the track. Howard captured Grace’s hand and tugged her along after him through the walkway to where they would watch the race from the owner’s section next to the track. He was happy to share this experience with Grace. She took in everything like a kid with a new toy. Seeing life through Grace’s eyes gave him a new appreciation for things he’d so often took for granted.
And she was a wise woman. She didn’t pester him with questions as Margeaux pestered Bob. That type of behavior would drive him nuts, one of the many things he had disliked about his second wife.
The syndicate horse broke sharply and was comfortable setting off the pace in second place behind the leader. The two circled the track in that order until turning for home in the stretch. Dallas poked his head in front, and Howard joined the crowd cheering.
Grace jumped up and down, pumping Howard’s arm. “Go, Dallas, go!”
None of his other wives had enjoyed his hobby with this kind of passion.
Through the last few furlongs, Dallas and the former leader were side-by-side, battling, each striving to win. When they charged under the finish line, Dallas was in front, prevailing by a half-length in a spectacular race.
Howard’s heart soared. Excitement pumped through his body. “We won!” he shouted.
“We won! We won!” Grace bounced up and down beside him. “Oh, Howie! We won!”
She flung her arms around his neck, jumping against him with her own excitement. She felt so good. So right. As if she belonged there in his arms.
He couldn’t help himself. He couldn’t resist. Imprisoning her lips with his, he kissed her, as she deserved to be kissed—as he’d always wanted to kiss her.
“Oh, Howie,” she murmured against his mouth.
He loved her new name for him. Did she realize what this meant? She’d emerged from the stiff formality of the past. She’d let herself go. She’d become her own person.
“Oh, Howie,” she said again. “I want to marry you.”
“What?” Had he heard her correctly? Gently pushing her away, Howard implored her with his eyes. “Don’t say that unless you mean it.”
She gazed up at him, a telltale blush staining her cheeks. “With all my heart.”
“Oh, Grace,” he said with a sigh.
“Will you marry me?” she asked again.
He laughed at himself. “This is a first. I’ve never been proposed to, but of course I’ll marry you, darling Grace.” He pulled her once more into his arms and held her tight. “And we’ll make all our dreams come true and live happily ever after.”
I hope you enjoyed Howie and Grace’s story. Please consider sharing your experience with your fellow readers by leaving a review.
h1=. More about the Bluegrass Homecoming series
To my readers…
I wrote the novel Secrets a few years ago, choosing to explore a romance about a woman caught between the past and her desire to explore her future. I wanted to submit the manuscript to a traditional publisher, but was advised, at the time, this publisher did not like forty-year-old heroines. Since then, “seasoned” romance has come into wider acceptance.
After changing the setting of the story, Secrets becomes the second book in my new Bluegrass Homecoming series, a series that will let me again explore the themes of second chances in the Bluegrass of Kentucky.
To start my new series, I’ve written about the love story of baby boomers Howie and Grace. Their granddaughter C.B. takes center stage in the third book, Nom de Plume.
I foresee more books in the series, because there are many characters in Secrets begging to have their own stories.
h1=. About Jan Scarbrough
Jan Scarbrough writes heartwarming contemporary romances about second chances, single moms and children, and if the plot allows, about another passion—horses. Living in the horse country of Kentucky makes it easy for Jan to add small town, Southern charm to her books and the excitement of a Bluegrass horse race or a big-time, competitive horse show.
With author Maddie James, Jan has written the Montana McKenna series, the story of the family of James McKenna, a Montana rancher whose death changes the lives of his wife and children.
Leaving her contemporary voice behind, Jan wrote My Lord Raven, a medieval story of honor and betrayal, soon to be released, and Freely Given, a collection of short Medieval romances. Her paranormal Gothic romance, Tangled Memories, was a Romance Writers of America (RWA) Golden Heart finalist. Timeless is her latest paranormal romance.
A member of Novelist, Inc., Jan has published with Kensington, Five Star, ImaJinn Books, Resplendence Publishing, and Turquoise Morning Press.
Here are some ways you can connect with Jan Scarbrough.
h1=. Other Books In the Bluegrass Homecoming Series
Want more of the Bluegrass Homecoming series?
Read excerpts from
Secrets Book 2
Nom de Plume Book 3
Bluegrass Homecoming Series
on the following pages.
h1=. Secrets: Bluegrass Homecoming
“Kelly, will you marry me?”
Heat swept Kelly Baron’s face, and it had nothing to do with the warm June day. Choking back dismay, she stared at the kneeling man at her feet. “For goodness sakes, Thomas, stand up.”
Thomas struggled to his feet and sat down beside her on the park bench. His normally flushed face was peppered with sweat, and he had an expectant look in his eyes. “I’m serious,” he said, fumbling in his pocket and withdrawing a small, black, velvet box. “Dead serious.” He lifted the lid.
Secured inside the box was a spectacular princess-cut diamond solitaire set in a white gold, cathedral setting. Kelly was somewhat of an expert about diamond engagement rings because of her daughter’s recent wedding, but she never expected Thomas Dunlap to offer her one, let alone one that looked to be the size of a carat.
Kelly focused on the beautiful ring, avoiding the conflicting emotions whirling in her head and the warning bells ringing in her ears.
Her usually reticent suitor became assertive and removed the ring from its box. “Here. Try it on.”
Before Kelly could demur, Thomas grabbed her left hand and slipped the ring on the third finger.
“It’s too big,” were the only words she could force from her dry lips.
“That’s no problem,” Thomas said, bending over her hand. She could see the thinning spot of hair at the top of his head. He slid the ring up and down on her finger and then raised his eyes. “We can get it sized to fit. What do you think?”
“No, about marrying me.”
That again. Panic set in. It’s not that Kelly didn’t like Thomas. They had been dating since his divorce. He was an elementary school principal in Jefferson County, and she taught fifth grade in a local Catholic school. They liked to walk for exercise, go to Broadway Series plays, and eat Italian. They had a lot in common. But she had never, ever considered marrying anybody, not even when she’d been pregnant with C.B. and needed to get married in the worst way.
“I’m not sure it’s the right time,” Kelly mumbled, looking at the way a thin strand of salt and pepper hair fell across his forehead.
Thomas sat back, opening a little space between them but continuing to hold her hand.
“It’s a perfect time.” His voice lowered turning persuasive. “We’ve dated five years. Colleen is happily married, and you finally settled your great-aunt’s estate.”
“But her house hasn’t sold.” She looked down, avoiding his gaze. Aunt Bess had left her house to both Kelly and Colleen, and when it sold her daughter and new husband would have a tidy nest egg.
“A technicality.” Thomas grasped both hands and renewed his efforts. “Look, Kelly, you’re not responsible for anyone but yourself now. It’s time for you to do what you want and move forward with your life.”
Kelly lifted her eyes to gaze into his face. She blinked. For twenty-one years she’d packed her life full of busyness and responsibility, spending her time taking care of first her daughter and later Aunt Bess. Thomas was right. All that responsibility was over. She would be forty in July. It was time to be a little selfish.
But did that include marrying Thomas?
She shook her head once. “I don’t know. This is so—” her voice faltered, “—unexpected.”
“I know it is, Kelly, darling. But you must have guessed how I feel about you.”
Kelly dropped her gaze again, uncomfortable with his earnest, direct stare. Yes, she had known Thomas cared, but part of her had believed he would never marry again given the hideous nature of his divorce. It wasn’t as if theirs was a platonic relationship. They enjoyed good enough sex twice a month, usually the weeks he didn’t have his son.
She met his gaze again. “What about Clayton?”
“Clayton goes to college in the fall,” he said. “Kelly, you and I are footloose and fancy free, sweetheart!” A smile transformed his face, smoothing out the worry lines in his brow, but leaving Kelly’s chest tight. “We’re good together, professionally and personally. It’s now or never, darling.”
Time for a forced smile. Did she want to spend the rest of her life with Thomas Dunlap? Become Mrs. Thomas Dunlap? No. For one thing, if she ever married, she would keep her maiden name. She would never succumb to an out-of-date tradition. And besides, she was too self-reliant, too used to doing what she pleased with only her daughter and her aunt to consider putting her life in the hands of another.
But Aunt Bess was dead and C.B. was married. Thomas was right. She was free.
“This is such a surprise. Will you let me think about it?” She hated the timid note that crept into her voice. Slowly, Kelly disengaged her hands and withdrew the sparkling ring from her finger. It was too much bling. It was too much pressure. She handed it back to him. “You know I don’t do change well.”
Thomas slid the ring back into its protective velvet box. He had the look of a man receiving a death sentence. She hated to hurt his feelings[. _]She hadn’t quite told him _no, but she hadn’t said yes.[_ _]If the situation were reversed, she’d feel like shit.
“You have a habit of avoiding things,” he said with a sharp shake of his finger, reprimanding her as if she was a six-year-old caught hitting another child on the playground. “It’s a character flaw you need to work on.”
Kelly shifted on the park bench. Thomas was always too blunt. That was his character flaw. She pressed her right hand hard against the bench and fought down her annoyance.
Yet could Thomas be right?
Twenty-one years ago she had avoided telling C.B.’s father she was pregnant, but that was because his mother had found out they were secretly dating and warned her away from him. She made it perfectly clear her son had a future that didn’t include a small town girl from the wrong side of the tracks. It was evident she went behind her son’s back because he never said anything about his mother’s interference. Probably her husband didn’t even know about her scare tactics.
But his mother was right. When they talked about life after high school, he made it clear he didn’t intend to end up in a small town like his father. He intended to go places, be important. Kelly was never part of that future he painted for himself.
When she found out she was pregnant, Kelly couldn’t tell him. He didn’t love her. He would reject her and their child.
And so once Kelly started keeping the secret, she had never revealed the truth to anyone, especially not her own father, who had threatened to beat it out of her and confront the boy and his parents. It was just as easy to avoid telling her mother, who could be bullied by her husband, and later C.B., who accepted life without a father. Leaving her hometown and moving to Louisville put distance between her and the problem.
Thomas cleared his throat. “I won’t wait forever,” he told her.
“Of course not.” Kelly shook off the memories and touched his sleeve. How did she soften her response? “I just need time to process this. Please?”
He kissed her then—a typical Thomas kiss with lips pressed firmly shut and eyes closed. Kelly responded as always, timidly, tepidly—trying to deny the longing in her heart for the love of her life, someone who cherished her, didn’t want to change her, and loved her just the way she was.
Someone she was too afraid to find.
h1=. Nom de Plume: Bluegrass Homecoming
“Eat your oatmeal, Scotty,” Colleen Lyons said with a mother’s practiced voice.
The blond-haired boy stabbed at his gooey oatmeal with a spoon, preferring to pound the table with the end of his utensil rather than use it for eating. Tomorrow her son turned three. It hardly seemed possible. Time had flown so fast. Colleen cast a loving glance at Scotty before she turned to the kitchen counter where the one-cup coffee maker hissed as it finished brewing.
After pouring a generous amount of cream into the steaming cup of coffee, Colleen carried it to the table and placed it near her husband Daniel. He gazed at the morning paper without looking up, without acknowledging her helpfulness. That was all right. She didn’t work outside the home, after all, and being a housewife and mother meant she did additional duties, relieving Daniel of responsibility. He attended med school and needed time to study.
Life would be better once his schooling was complete, but that would be several years away. She could wait. Just as she waited on him daily, Colleen had patience enough for both of them. Nevertheless, she often imagined the future. It was like a shiny object just beyond her reach—Daniel in the pediatric practice with his father, Scotty going off to middle school, and maybe another child to care for, a daughter this time. She’d always wanted a big family.
Yet, there were times when Colleen bit her tongue. Like now. Daniel looked a mess. His hair was tousled and his rheumy eyes rimmed with dark circles. He remained in his pajamas—a loose-fitting Louisville Cardinals T-shirt and gray sweat pants.
She turned back to the stove where bacon sizzled. “I wish you’d drive to Heritage Springs tomorrow for Scotty’s birthday party.”
Using a fork to remove the bacon, Colleen drained it on a paper towel. Then she scrambled free-range eggs in a frying pan that didn’t have bacon grease in it. Daniel loved an old-fashioned breakfast. Cooking for him had been part of their routine since they met in college.
Putting the plate of food beside his paper, Colleen waited for a response. When none came, she drew her mouth into a rigid line. She never challenged Daniel, never complained. But when it came to Scotty, Colleen sometimes gathered her courage to speak.
“Did you hear me?”
Daniel looked up. “What?”
“I said I wished you’d take a break and come to Scotty’s birthday party tomorrow.”
“You know I can’t,” Daniel said. “I have a big exam in two weeks.”
“I know.” Colleen’s shoulders slumped. “I was hoping you’d find the time. Scotty only turns three once. You’re always studying and away from home.”
“We’ve discussed this, Colleen. My education comes first. It’s important to this family.”
Colleen surveyed him with disappointment. He had already turned his attention back to the newspaper. Her husband was doing his best. Becoming a doctor like his father was important to Daniel—to all of them. She fought back a stab of guilt. She shouldn’t complain. It wasn’t good to nag. She needed to be supportive.
“Aren’t you going to eat your breakfast?” Colleen asked with a sigh.
“What?” Daniel glanced up again. “Oh, yes. Sure.”
He laid down the paper and slowly moved the breakfast plate in front of him. Colleen noticed his hands shake as he picked up a slice of bacon.
“I don’t think you’re getting enough sleep.” The observation simply slipped out because it was natural for her to worry.
“I’m okay,” he mumbled, stabbing at his eggs like Scotty played with his oatmeal. “I have to study, you know?”
“Yes, I know.”
Still Colleen felt a niggling disquiet. She didn’t like the way her husband looked. She hated to see him pushing himself so hard, sacrificing so much for them.
Letting out a big breath that was too much like another sigh, Colleen turned back to the kitchen sink and dunked the skillet into a pan of hot, soapy water. She would double down on her efforts. She’d try harder to make life go easier for Daniel—his home life, which was the only thing she could control.
And she silently vowed again not to hassle her husband.
After finishing with cleanup, Colleen lifted Scotty from his booster seat. “Let’s go get ready, pumpkin. Grandpa and Nana are waiting for us.”
Before she left the kitchen, Colleen looked once more at the man she’d married with such joy only four years earlier. Daniel stared at his plate of food. He’d hardly eaten a thing.
Heritage Springs, Kentucky
Scotty scooted off his mother’s lap and ran after the soccer ball Rob tossed across the grass. Kelly Scott’s grandson had changed from a toddler into a little boy almost overnight.
She smiled as she lifted a frosty glass of lemonade and sipped the cold liquid from a straw. She loved her two guys so much. Her husband Rob was turning into a wonderful grandfather. He would have been a wonderful father too, if she had given him a chance to be. She set the glass down on the picnic table, refusing to let out a sigh of remorse.
The past was the past. She’d learned to let it lie. Or at least she tried not to allow guilt consume her. Kelly refused to think about “if only.” Sure, she’d had choices. But at eighteen, she’d thought her options limited. If only she’d had more courage, more self-esteem, she would have spoken up—should have spoken up. If she had, maybe she wouldn’t have raised her daughter Colleen as a single mom. Maybe Colleen would have known her father before she was a woman grown and married.
Kelly slid her gaze over to her daughter. They sat together on the stone patio under the shade of a canvas awning, the canopy keeping the worst of the July sun from their faces. Scotty’s birthday gifts had been opened and the chocolate cake and ice cream eaten. It was good to relax a minute. Good to sit.
Her daughter was so beautiful. Colleen was tall like her father with Rob’s blond good looks. She had a pert little nose and two cute dimples that appeared when she smiled. Pregnancy and childbirth had made a genuine woman out of her, rounding her figure from the slender shape of her teen years. It was nice Daniel had found a way to keep Colleen at home. His mother had been a stay-at-home mom, raising four children. Daniel made it clear he expected to do the same for Colleen and his family.
“I’m sorry Daniel couldn’t make it today,” Kelly said.
Colleen glanced at her mother and then quickly looked away. “He’s studying.”
“Yes, I know. Still, Scotty only has one three-year-old birthday party.”
“Mom, don’t start.”
Kelly didn’t want to start, but a mother’s sixth sense told her something was wrong. Daniel’s schoolwork had reached a crisis point six months earlier with medical school becoming a huge ordeal. At that time, he’d asked Colleen if she and Scotty could leave the house on weekends so he could study in quiet. Trying to save money and do as Daniel asked, Colleen had driven to Heritage Springs every weekend since then and stayed with Rob and Kelly.
Kelly was glad to see Scotty and her daughter so often, but her hospitality was wearing a little thin. Darn it! Sometimes she wanted the weekends to herself. She and Rob were almost newlyweds too. And with her husband busy during the week at his law practice, Kelly selfishly thought she didn’t spend enough time with him.
But she had deprived Rob of watching Colleen grow up. For the life of her, she wasn’t about to say “no” to her daughter’s request. Besides, Rob got such a kick out of pretending to be Scotty’s father on weekends.
Rob was with their little grandson so much he was taking the place of the child’s father.
The thought jarred Kelly. Her mouth suddenly felt dry. She reached for the glass of lemonade. The bitter liquid went down her throat, cooling it, but not her annoyance. In the yard, Rob kicked the ball, and Scotty chased it, trying to mimic his grandfather and boot it back.
“It’s almost five o’clock,” Kelly said in what she hoped was a conversational tone as she turned her gaze back to Colleen. “If you left soon, you might surprise Daniel at home, and he’d have an hour or two with Scotty before bedtime.”
Her daughter looked irritated. Kelly was interfering. But it was her prerogative, wasn’t it? It came with being a mother and wanting her daughter to grow a backbone. For whatever reason, Colleen always deferred to Daniel. Kelly had tried to accept the submissiveness that had come with Colleen’s relationship with Daniel. But she didn’t like it one bit.
Colleen lifted her chin. “Daniel is studying.”
“Yes. He needs the quiet time to prepare for a big exam.”
Kelly returned her gaze to the backyard playing field. Rob scooped Scotty up in his arms and gave him a big hug and kiss.
“I’m glad Rob gets time to enjoy Scotty,” Kelly said with a soft sigh. She swirled the lemonade in her glass. “He didn’t have time with you to watch you grow up. I’m sorry Daniel is missing all this quality time with his son.”
“He’ll have plenty of time when he finishes med school,” Colleen was quick to respond.
“Well, I hope so,” Kelly said. “For Scotty’s sake.”
Kelly glanced at her daughter. Colleen’s mouth was drawn into a thin line. Kelly recognized that look of displeasure. Whether it was with Daniel or with her suggestion, Kelly couldn’t guess.
She looked toward the yard where Rob had put Scotty on his shoulders and trotted around, the child giggling and squealing with glee. No need to press Colleen. The scene in front of them told the story Kelly had tried to convey. Scotty was growing up without his real father.
Nom de Plume: Bluegrass Homecoming, book 3
h1=. Other Bluegrass Books
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Betting on Love
Kentucky Blue Bloods
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Print a printable book list
h1=. The Montana McKennas Series
You might also enjoy a trip the a dude ranch in
The Montana McKennas series
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Callie by Maddie James
Parker by Maddie James
Mercer by Jan Scarbrough
Liz by Jan Scarbrough
h1=. Thank you!
For purchasing this book from
Saddle Horse Press
Grace Baron had always been the good wife, in spite of a marriage based on a careless indiscretion, and sustained not by love, but by old-fashioned morality. She’d raised her daughter, bit her tongue, and silently lived with her guilt. Now that she’s a widow, she can’t help being glad for her sudden freedom. She’d never live her life like that again. Without a sense of control. Without deliberately making a choice about her future. And that future would never involve getting married again. Small town lawyer Howard Scott has buried two wives. His steadfast belief that it’s never too late to find true love keeps him open to whatever joy life has to offer. He doesn’t want another socialite wife. This time he wants a hometown girl. Someone stable, maybe a little naïve, but feisty enough to keep him on his toes. Someone like Grace Baron. Howard’s gentle, old-fashioned courting makes Grace feel alive again. Would marrying Howard be the trap Grace fears, or would it finally give her a kind of freedom she’d never imagined?