Her Very Own Family
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She watched Brady run his fingers over the surface of the rock slabs
An unexpected warmth flowed along Audrey’s arms at the thought of those long fingers doing the same thing to her skin. Maybe she had stayed in the sun too long that morning and baked her brain.
She felt as if she was experiencing Brady overload. She’d caught herself snatching glimpses of him ever since they’d arrived at the store, glimpses she didn’t dare make in the car because he would have noticed.
Each time she looked at him, the more attractive he became.
The archetypal sexy carpenter. She wondered if he looked as good as she imagined in nothing but a pair of jeans and a tool belt.
But she couldn’t risk getting too involved, not when it could put everything she had and was trying to build at risk.
I’m excited to share my second Harlequin American Romance novel, Her Very Own Family, with you. The backdrop of the story is a place familiar to me—the gorgeous northeast corner of Tennessee. The area is verdant, mountainous and filled with soothing creeks and rushing rivers.
The beauty and calm of the setting are just what Audrey York needs when she arrives in tiny Willow Glen. Audrey came to life while I was pondering how someone would respond if she were caught up in a scandal not of her making. How could she start over when the scandal made national news? Could she escape the guilty-by-association way people looked at her and find a man to see and love the real her?
This book is the result of all that pondering, and it is Audrey’s journey to letting go, trusting, forgiving and finding love with a hunky carpenter named Brady Witt, who has his own past to overcome on the road to love.
I hope you enjoy Audrey and Brady’s story. I’d love to hear what you think. You can e-mail me through my Web site at www.trishmilburn.com.
Her Very Own Family
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Trish Milburn wrote her first book in the fifth grade and has the cardboard-and-fabric-bound handwritten and colored-pencil-illustrated copy to prove it. That “book” was called Land of the Misty Gems, and not surprisingly it was a romance. She’s always loved stories with happy endings, whether those stories come in the form of books, movies, TV programs or marriage to her own hero.
A print journalist by trade, she still does contract and freelance work in that field, balancing those duties with her dream-come-true career as a novelist. Before she published her first book, she was an eight-time finalist in the prestigious Golden Heart contest sponsored by Romance Writers of America, winning twice. Other than reading, Trish enjoys traveling (by car or train—she’s a terra firma girl!), watching TV and movies, hiking, nature photography and visiting national parks.
You can visit Trish online at www.trishmilburn.com.Readers also can write to her at P.O. Box 140875, Nashville, TN 37214-0875.
who has been my own real-life hero for nineteen years.
And to Jennifer and Jeanie. Thanks for introducing me
to the world of romance fiction way back when.
Writing groups and friends mean a lot to a writer,
and I’m very fortunate to have great wealth in this area. Although I can’t name everyone, I want to thank three groups in particular for their unceasing support and wonderful friendship. Here’s to you, Music City Romance Writers, Wet Noodle Posse and Romance Bandits.
Finally, huge thanks again to the ladies
who are my partners in my career– my fabulous agent, Michelle Grajkowski; my wonderful editor, Johanna Raisanen; and senior editor extraordinaire, Kathleen Scheibling.
Audrey York scanned the grocery’s shelves, familiarizing herself with the offerings. While they were more limited than what she was used to, that was actually okay with her.
She wheeled her cart into the next aisle and nearly collided with an older man who was staring at the shelf in front of him with what could only be called frantic confusion.
“Which one is it?” he mumbled. “There are so many.” He reached for one kind of cherry pie filling, then another, then back to the original before dropping his hand in defeat.
“Can I help you?”
He jumped as if he hadn’t noticed her or the rattling cart containing her groceries. His eyes, which looked on the verge of tears, glanced from her to the shelf then back to her.
“I don’t know which one to get. My wife always buys the groceries.”
Poor guy. He was clearly out of his comfort zone. She examined the choices. The Glen Grocery might not carry fresh herbs, but it did offer half a dozen types of cherry pie filling.
“What is it for, pie or cobbler?”
“Cobbler. Her cobbler’s the best.”
Audrey smiled then picked up a can. “Then I’d suggest this one.”
He accepted the can as if it were the Holy Grail. “Thank you.” He placed it in the cart alongside a package of chicken thighs, a bag of potatoes, another of flour and a loaf of plain white bread.
Audrey watched him as he moved on up the aisle, something about the helplessness in his eyes tearing at her heart. She fought the urge to give him a hand with the remainder of his grocery shopping. Instead, she continued with her own, sticking to necessities to keep her final bill as low as possible. She didn’t need the fudge-covered Oreos anyway.
By the time she finished her tour of the rest of the store and headed to the cash register with her purchases, the older man was exiting the front door. As she began piling her items on the conveyor belt, she noticed the checker watching the man with a sad expression on her face. She shook her head and echoed the “poor guy” sentiment Audrey had thought a few minutes before.
“He seemed a little lost,” she said to the young woman whose short, choppy magenta hair seemed out of place in quaint little Willow Glen. A quick glance at her name tag revealed her identity as Meg.
“He is,” Meg said. “He and his wife were married for more than forty years.”
His sadness suddenly made sense. “She died?”
“Yeah, about a month ago. He had family visiting for a while afterward, but now he’s alone. I think this is his first trip to the store by himself.”
Tears stung Audrey’s eyes. She looked toward the ceiling to close off her tear ducts, a trick she’d learned from her mother.
“That’ll be $53.76,” Meg said, dragging Audrey back to the present.
After paying and placing all her bags in her cart, Audrey headed outside, hoping the bright spring sunshine would burn away the sorrow she’d felt for the older man.
She stuffed the groceries in the trunk of her Jetta, forcing her mind to focus on the endless list of tasks waiting for her when she got home. She liked staying busy even if she had given up a faster-paced life in Nashville for a more soul-nurturing existence in the mountains of East Tennessee.
As she started for the driver’s-side door, she noticed the older man again. When he wiped his cheek, it tugged at her emotions. She wanted to help him, but what good could she do? Bringing back his wife wasn’t possible, and most people hated pity from others. Not to mention she was still wary about meeting new people, something she’d have to get past if she wanted to make a success of her new life here.
Still, she found herself walking across the parking lot toward him, hoping she’d come up with something to say by the time she reached his side.
“Excuse me,” she said as she came within a few feet of him. “I’m sorry to bother you, but I was wondering if you could help me.”
The man made one more quick swipe at his right eye before facing her.
“I’m new to Willow Glen, and I was wondering if you could tell me if there is anywhere nearby where I could get some nice picture frames, bigger ones.” She held her hands about two feet apart.
“There’s a Wal-Mart down in Elizabethton.”
She shook her head but kept a smile firmly in place. “I was hoping for something a bit more unique, hand-crafted if at all possible.” She was a long way from needing the frames for her wildflower photos yet, but it was the first thing that had tumbled out of her mouth. And it proved a nice, neutral topic.
“Well, I’ve fiddled with a few here and there, though I mainly make furniture now.”
“Really? Then it’s my lucky day.” She extended her hand. “I’m Audrey York. I’m fixing up the old Grayson Mill, turning it into a caf?.”
“Nelson Witt. Nice to meet you.” He shook her hand, the calluses on his weathered palm revealing he did indeed work with his hands. “The old mill, huh? That’ll probably take a lot of work.”
She laughed. “You’re right there. I think I’ve already swept out enough dirt to create a new county.” Her mood lifted when she saw a hint of a smile on Mr. Witt’s gray-stubbled face. Despite everything that had happened in the past year to sour her outlook, it still felt good and natural to help people, to bring some happiness into their lives.
“Guess I could put together some frames and bring them out there sometime.”
“That would be great.”
“When would be good for you?”
Audrey detected how he leaped on the opportunity, probably looking for anything to keep his mind off the absence of his other half. “I’m there pretty much all the time except when I’m running errands.”
“You staying out there?”
“Yeah. I’m turning the loft into my living area, and the bottom level will house the caf?.”
“I’d say something about wondering if that was safe, but I know you young people think yourselves invincible.”
“Considering I’ve lived in the city and been flying across the continent nearly every week for the past five years, this feels as safe as Mayberry.”
“Well, then, when I finish the frames, I’ll run them by.”
After a couple more minutes of talking, Audrey headed back to her car, her heart lighter. She’d probably had no more than five minutes of conversation with Mr. Witt, but she already really liked him. And if she could help ease a little of his pain, then it was a good day.
Not to mention she yearned for new friends here, craved them. The past year had left a yawning, dark hole in her life, and she couldn’t wait to fill it.
AUDREY SPENT the rest of the morning cleaning, burning useless debris and adding to her list of needed supplies while trying not to think about how much those supplies would cost. When she stopped long enough to fix a late lunch of grilled chicken and pasta salad from the grocery’s deli, she heard gravel popping on the lane leading back to the gristmill.
She stepped out onto the small porch attached to the front of the mill. Eventually, it would be the attractive entrance to her caf?, but now only a cheap folding lawn chair and an upturned five-gallon bucket she used for a table occupied the space. She shaded her eyes against the sun and saw Mr. Witt stepping out of his truck.
“That was fast.” She smiled wide, happy to see this potential friend so soon.
Mr. Witt shrugged. “They don’t take long to make. Thought I’d whip together some samples, see if you like them,” he said as he lowered the tailgate of his pickup.
When she saw the size of the wooden crate he pulled toward the back of the truck, she hurried to help him. “Here, I’ll get this side. I’m not much for watching other people do my work.” She added the last, hoping to forestall any argument that he was still capable of carrying a heavy box. She figured he’d had enough reminding today that things weren’t as they’d always been.
Audrey backed her way toward the mill, Mr. Witt following. Once inside, she guided the crate onto the bench stretching along the length of one wall.
“I haven’t been in here in years,” Mr. Witt said as he scanned the interior. “I remember coming here with my daddy when I was a boy.”
“Oh, yeah. Even though you could get cornmeal in the stores, he always liked what came from the mill better. I remember sitting on the creek bank, just watching the wheel turn round and round.”
“That’s one of the things on my extensive to-do list,” Audrey said. “I want to get the wheel operational again. I think it’ll add to the atmosphere.”
Mr. Witt looked around at the mill’s silent gears and aging wood. “Hard to imagine this place as a restaurant.”
“I admit, it’s got a long way to go. But as it happens, you’re my first dining guest.” She extended her arm to point out the small table in the corner, covered with a white cloth and with a vase of daffodils. Her attempt to add a little cheer to the place. “I was about to have lunch, and I’ve got plenty to share.”
“I don’t want you to go to all that trouble.”
“It’s no trouble. I have to eat anyway, and it’s the least I can do for you bringing these frames all the way over here.” Plus, if Mrs. Witt had always done the grocery shopping, chances were she’d also done the cooking. That led Audrey to believe Mr. Witt might not have been eating properly since his family’s departure. Something about him brought out her protective instincts.
“It’s not too far,” he said as he took a seat. “I just live a couple miles down the road from your lane.”
Audrey slid onto the chair opposite him. “Oh, so we’re practically neighbors.”
Mr. Witt shared tales of his youth in Willow Glen as they ate their lunch, making Audrey laugh with the accounts of some of his mischievous antics.
“I think by the time I got out of school, the teachers were ready to throw a party.”
“I can’t imagine why. Doesn’t everyone bring snakes to show-and-tell and put scarecrows in their teachers’ cars?”
Mr. Witt chuckled at the remembered scenes. “But, Lordy, I got payback when I had my own son.”
“Wild one, huh?”
“Whoo-ee. Put me to shame. But he turned out all right, so I guess no harm came of his escapades.”
“You only have the one?”
“Yeah, just one son. Betty…” Sadness drifted across his face at the name. “Betty and I had two children. Brady’s the oldest. He runs the construction company now, even opened a new office where he lives down in Kingsport. Our daughter, Sophie, owns a bridal shop in Asheville, North Carolina. She’s got two little girls who I’ve been known to spoil from time to time.”
“I bet you do.” Audrey smiled, glad the topic of his grandchildren had pushed away the incredible ache it was painful to witness.
“Does your son have children?”
“Goodness, no. That boy doesn’t slow down long enough to date a gal for more than a month at a time. Say, maybe I should fix the two of you up. You’re a pretty girl, hardworking.”
Audrey wadded her napkin into a ball and tossed it onto her empty plate. She tried to push away an ache of her own by changing the subject. “I think my only dates are going to be with a broom and a paintbrush for the foreseeable future.”
“All work and no play…” he teased.
“Opens my caf? and adds to my dwindling bank account sooner.” She took a drink of her water.
“He’s a good-looking boy.” The hopeful tone in his voice nearly made Audrey chuckle.
“Must take after his father.” She patted his hand. “Let’s take a look at those frames.” And steer clear of the topic of dating. She didn’t have the time or the inclination.
Yes, she got lonely and missed being held. But Darren, the man she’d thought she’d marry, had shown her that might never be possible.
Not when any interesting, or interested, man found out who she was.
BRADY WITT HUNG UP the phone in his office, trying not to worry that he couldn’t reach his dad. He’d made attempts all day with no luck. Maybe his dad was out in his shop. Though with the way Nelson had been acting when Brady left, he couldn’t imagine it. With his wife’s death, the life had seemed to go out of Nelson Witt, too.
Brady looked up to see his business partner and best friend, Craig Williams, standing in the doorway.
“Yeah, just can’t get in touch with Dad.”
“He could’ve gone into town.”
“Maybe, but I’ve been calling all day. If he hit every business in Willow Glen, it might take him a couple of hours. And that’s if he spent an hour hanging out with the other old coots at Cora’s Coffee Shop.”
Craig ambled in and sank into one of the chairs opposite Brady’s desk. “Why don’t you take some time off? Go spend it with your dad.”
“I just did that.”
Craig shook his head. “You were dealing with the funeral and the aftermath. I’m thinking you go up and keep him busy, take him fishing, get him in a new routine that won’t remind him of your mom so much.”
Brady leaned back in his chair and sighed. “I don’t think he’s interested in fishing or anything else for that matter.”
“Your parents were so close. That’s why you should go. Left to themselves, sometimes older people don’t last long if they lose their spouse. I saw it happen to my grandma.”
The thought of losing his father so soon after his mom sent a sharp pain through Brady’s chest. But how did you force someone to learn to live again?
“Just a couple of weeks,” Craig said. “We’ve got things under control here. And if you still feel like you can’t do anything after that, then you come back and let time do its thing.”
Brady glanced at the calendar. “I’ve got to finish the bid on the Lakeview project.”
“I can finish it up, get Kelly to help me. Be good experience for her. Plus, it’s not like you’re headed to the wilds of Tibet.”
Brady considered Craig’s words for a moment before nodding. “Okay.” It did make sense to give Kelly, their architecture intern, experience in all aspects of the business.
And honestly, Brady’s heart wasn’t in his work anyway. He couldn’t turn off the anger or pain about his mom’s death. Or the concern about how suddenly old and empty his father had looked in the days after the passing of the love of his life.
Maybe time alone with his dad would do Brady some good, too.
For the hour it took him to drive to Willow Glen, he tossed around ideas in his head, things to do with his dad. Fishing, going to visit Sophie and her family, yard work, watching some baseball, maybe even some renovation on the house.
When he pulled into his dad’s driveway, he noticed the truck wasn’t there. He hadn’t seen the truck in town or in the parking lot of Witt Construction’s main office. It was after five. Where could his dad be?
Even though he knew he wouldn’t find him, Brady did a walk-through of the shop and the house. He’d been in the house while his parents were away from home hundreds of times, but today felt different, emptier. He half expected to step into the kitchen to see his mom at the stove making dinner, an apron tied around her waist and her cheeks pink from the heat. But the kitchen proved even quieter than the rest of the house. His heart ached to know his mom would never again playfully smack his hand away from whatever she was cooking.
He left the lingering presence of his mother behind and stepped out onto the porch.
However this trip turned out, he was getting his dad a cell phone and teaching him how to use it.
“You looking for your dad?”
Brady glanced to his left to see Bernie Stoltz, his parents’ longtime neighbor, in his garden.
“Yeah, I’ve been trying to reach him all day.”
“He’s probably still out at the old Grayson Mill. He’s been spending a lot of time out there with the lady who bought it.”
Shock squeezed the air from Brady’s lungs. His mother had been gone barely a month. Who was this woman attracting his dad’s attention? What did she want from him?
He tried to keep the suspicion out of his voice when he spoke, though. “Someone bought the old mill?”
Bernie leaned on his hoe. “Yep. I hear she’s planning to turn it into a restaurant.”
Brady had a million more questions, but he’d save them for his father. Bernie was a nice guy, but he tended to be a bit gossipy. And despite Willow Glen’s laid-back atmosphere, one thing that had supersonic speed was the gossip chain. Not much else to do in a one-stoplight town.
“Interesting. Well, I guess I’ll run out there and see if I can catch him.”
He waved to Bernie as he headed for his truck, not inviting further conversation. On his way to the mill, he tried not to jump to conclusions, but he knew how quickly some women leaped on newly widowed men, especially ones with money. His surging suspicions brought an image of Ginny Carter to the surface, but he flung it away with a growl.
At the very least something was odd. Only a few days ago, his dad had been walking around in a daze, weighed down by grief. Now he was spending his free time with some unnamed woman at a run-down gristmill.
When he drove within view of the old building, sure enough, there was his dad’s truck under the shade of a big sycamore tree. He rolled to a stop and caught sight of his dad poking his head out the front door of the mill. By the time he stepped out of the truck, his dad stood on the small porch.
“Didn’t expect to see you,” his dad said.
“I’ve been calling you all day.”
Nelson Witt’s gray eyebrows raised. “So you drove all the way up here to check on me?”
“Partly. Decided to take a couple weeks of vacation.”
He saw his dad frown. “I suppose Bernie told you where I was,” Nelson said, almost his old self again.
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