Authors: Emily March
“At least I had the good sense to keep my reaction—and face it, my attraction to Gabe Callahan—to myself,” she said as they walked briskly down Aspen Street headed toward the lake. “I know I’m oversensitive, projecting my own past experience into current events.
Gabe isn’t my husband, Sage isn’t my business partner, and I’m not going to walk into my own home and discover the two in the midst of betraying me.”
“Greg Sullivan better hope he never crosses my path,” Aunt Janice declared. “I’ll take a tire iron to him.”
Nic grinned. That was no idle talk. Aunt Janice would do it.
“It’s been four years, and I still have moments where the memories catch me off guard. I guess it’s only natural that I’m more wary when it comes to men.”
“Between your skunk of a father and snake of a husband, you’ve had some bad breaks. You need to find a man like your uncle David.” Janice smiled wistfully and glanced toward the hill to the north, where her husband rested in Eternity Springs Cemetery.
“Don’t I wish,” Nic agreed. “Problem is, men like that are hard to find.”
“You just have to know where to look.” Janice shot her a sidelong look and said, “Your mom can tell you that.”
Nic stopped dead in her tracks. “Mom?”
“You’re kidding me!”
“Nope. He’s a widower she met on our trip to Italy. He lives in Miami and they see each other quite a bit. I think it’s serious.”
Nic was thrilled for her mom, yet her feelings were hurt. “Why hasn’t she told me about him?”
Janice grabbed Nic’s hand and squeezed it. “She’s afraid. She loved your father deeply whether he deserved it or not.”
“Trust is a real issue with her as a result. She’ll tell you about Alan—that’s his name, Alan Parks—when she’s more secure in the relationship. I thought it best to give you a heads-up.”
Nic understood about trust. It was one of her bugaboos, too—as her reaction to Sage and Gabe’s interaction proved. “I’m glad for her, Aunt Janice. Shocked, though. It’s been such a long time since Bryce Randall walked out on us. She said she’d never love again, and I believed her. I’m shocked she let this Alan Parks get close.”
“He was sneaky about it. I like the man.” It had begun to snow, and Janice flipped the hood up on her coat and suggested they turn around. “My blood has gotten thin while living in Florida. So, what about you, honey? Do you see yourself falling in love again? Maybe with this hunky Callahan guy?”
“I admit I thought about it, but I don’t think Gabe is the guy. It appears that the walls around his heart are higher and thicker than mine. I do hope I’ll fall in love again someday, though. I want to.”
Nic tilted her face toward the sky, felt the cold kiss of snowflakes on her cheeks, and smiled. “Bryce P. Randall III and Greg Sullivan played havoc on my past; I don’t want to give them the power to ruin my future.”
“You go, girl. I’m glad to hear you say that. I’ve worried about you, you know. When you moved here as a girl, you were like a young Hester Prynne wearing a scarlet
-for-illegitimate on your shirt. I don’t know that your mother ever realized how deeply affected you were by the fact your mother wasn’t married to your father, but David and I saw it.”
“We lived in a very conservative town. It was hard.”
“I know, dear. And I know that you were hurt by Greg and his wandering penis. I’ve been afraid you wouldn’t stay at the plate and take another pitch.”
Nic grinned at the expression her aunt had used, then declared, “I refuse to be a quitter, Aunt Janice.”
They reached the corner of Aspen and Seventh and turned toward home. Nic’s gaze lifted toward Murphy
Mountain. “That said, I’m afraid that learning to trust a man again will be more difficult than falling in love will be. Trust is a tough one—just look at Mom.”
“It’ll happen for you.” Aunt Janice linked her arm through Nic’s. “I believe in that old cliché about time healing all wounds.”
Nic nodded and added, “Time, distance, and Eternity Springs.”
Ten days later, Nic recalled the conversation as she pulled her truck into the driveway at Cavanaugh House and sat for a moment, looking at the sprawling Victorian. The place looked postcard pretty with snow icing the gables, the mountain behind it, and expanse of yard in the front. “Time, distance, and Eternity Springs,” she murmured. That would make a good marketing slogan for Celeste’s healing center. She’d have to remember to tell her.
The initial cleanup in the wake of the fire was just about finished. Unfortunate though it had been, the fire had worked magic on the town’s off-season economy, providing a windfall to local contractors and the building supply store. The Elkhorn Lodge benefited from visits by various inspectors and historical experts brought in by Gabe, and Sarah said the sales of the cinnamon rolls she baked for the Mocha Moose had tripled in the weeks following the fire.
While the north wing of the house had been a total loss, harm to the rest of the manse was for the most part limited to smoke and cosmetic damage. Celeste had moved home over Thanksgiving weekend. She liked being on-site and in the thick of things, able to interact with the workers as they wired and papered and painted. Because Cavanaugh House’s current kitchen facilities—a dorm-size refrigerator, a coffeepot, and a microwave—gave her the perfect excuse to dine out
most evenings, she often shared supper with Gabe at the Bristlecone and discussed her ideas for the prayer garden, the hot springs pools, and any other new thoughts that had come to her that day.
Nic exited her truck, then hurried up the walk and onto the Victorian house’s sprawling porch. Light from the entry hall fixture shone through the front door’s leaded glass. She wiped her boots on the doormat, then stepped inside. The scent of sawdust and popcorn greeted her. As she removed her coat and gloves and hung them on the hall tree, in addition to the banging of hammers from somewhere upstairs, she heard female voices coming from a room down the hall. Sounded like Sarah and Sage were already here.
With her plan moving forward, Celeste had determined that she needed help compiling a formal inventory of the contents of Cavanaugh House, particularly the basement and attic. Nic, Sarah, and Sage had jumped at the opportunity to explore the multitude of boxes, trunks, and chests squirreled away in the nooks and crannies of the Victorian house, and they’d taken to spending a couple of hours each afternoon at the task. The inventory already had unearthed some gems. The vintage clothing had caught Nic’s fancy. Sarah swooned over the silver tea service. Once Sage got a look at the art glass they uncovered, she eyed each unopened trunk like a gift box on Christmas morning.
In addition to dozens of pretty things, they had unearthed a mountain of paper. Town records, old newspapers, account books, and diaries offered a potential treasure trove of information. Once they made a master list of everything, they intended to dive into those. They all hoped the written records held the key to the Cellar Bride’s identity.
Nic walked into the room to see Sage at the desk in front of the computer and Sarah seated on the sofa, a
box of delicate glass Christmas ornaments at her side, a yellow legal pad and digital camera in her lap. “Sorry I’m late,” Nic said.
“Lori told us you had to make a run out to the Double R this morning. Is the horse okay?”
“She will be.”
“Good.” Sage reached into the bag beside her desk, saying, “And, now that we’re all here, I want to show you what I found. Wait until you see this.”
She held up a small leather-bound book. “Remember that photo album I took home yesterday? This was tucked inside it. It’s a diary written by a woman named Elizabeth Blaine.”
Sarah carefully set down a hand-blown glass Christmas ornament and looked at Sage with interest. “Elizabeth Blaine married Harry Cavanaugh, one of the founders of Eternity Springs.”
“The time period this journal covers is January first to June first, 1892. Elizabeth and Harry are engaged. The wedding is set for August. It’s fascinating reading, and I’m only through the first three months.”
Sage handed the journal to Nic, who said, “That’s after he’d built this house, though. I don’t suppose you read anything about the mystery bride?”
“Not yet, but that thought occurred to me, too. Also, it reads as if she kept a journal by habit, so we might find more diaries as we go through all these boxes.”
Sarah tucked a short dark curl behind her ear as she said, “Zach Turner told me he heard back from the vintage wedding-gown expert. Judging by the lace on the train and the unique design of the embroidery around the neckline, she dates that gown as late nineteenth century. This is cool!” Her eyes sparkled. “We might solve the mystery before the sheriff’s department does. Hmm … wonder if I could get Zach to bet me?”
Nic snorted. “Shoot, I’ll bet you could get Zach
Turner to do anything your heart desires. I saw his car at your house again last night.”
“Why won’t you believe that Zach is simply my friend? Nothing romantic going on there. Besides, he didn’t come to see me last night. He brought Lori home.” Sarah hesitated, then confessed, “She and Andrew had a fight, and he left her without a ride.”
Sage folded her arms. “That weasel. I hope she finally dumped him.”
“She’s okay?” Nic asked as she sank into an overstuffed easy chair.
“Yes. Angry, but okay. She finally came out and admitted what I’ve suspected for a while now. He’s pressuring her for sex.”
Nic scowled. “I hope she told him to tie a knot in it. She’s been nothing but clear about her views on that subject since she turned fifteen.”
“Fourteen. She asked me to buy her the promise ring on my thirtieth birthday. Nothing like being illegitimate to know for a fact you don’t want to repeat the mistake.”
“Don’t talk that way. You’ve never said that Lori was a mistake!” Nic jabbed a finger at the on button on the laptop she’d left on the chair’s ottoman the previous day. “I agree with Sage. I hope Lori broke up with that little slimeball. He knew her stance when he started dating her.”
“She’s thinking about it.” Sarah glanced up at the mantel clock and frowned. “I think she’s torn because she’s afraid she won’t have a date to the Christmas dance and she doesn’t want to miss it.”
“She should go alone or with a group of girls,” Sage suggested. “Girls do that in other parts of the country. They usually have more fun that way because girls actually like to dance.”
“I’m afraid Eternity is still behind on that trend,” Nic
said as the Westminster chimes of the grandfather clock in the entry hall rang out the hour.
“Enough of reality.” Sarah said, standing. She grabbed the TV remote from the mantel and pointed it toward the small flat-screen Celeste had provided for entertainment while they labored. “It’s fantasy time. The game is on. Buffs versus OU. College basketball at its finest.”
“That’s why I smell popcorn.” Nic propped her legs on the ottoman, her computer in her lap, and settled in for the show. “Excellent. I’d forgotten we had a game today.”
“Not me.” Sage tossed her a bag of popcorn, still warm from the microwave. “I came prepared.”
As Nic tore open her bag, her gaze focused on the television. Thirty seconds later, the three women sighed as one. “Coach Romano.”
“Be still my heart,” Sage declared.
Nic clicked her tongue. “Slam-dunk.”
“Put me in, Coach,” Sarah said. “I’m ready to play.”
Standing a muscular six foot five, Coach Anthony Romano had wavy back hair, luscious brown eyes, and a perpetual five o’clock shadow. He was in his second season as assistant coach and recruiting coordinator for CU, and according to his bio on the athletics department website, Coach Romano was a bachelor.
The most devoted sports fan of the three of them, Sarah had been the one to bring the coach to their attention after a three-margarita discussion led to an extended search for the perfect fantasy man. Coach Romano was the only man all three agreed on, and he’d become the focus of their tongue-in-cheek fangirls’ club.
It was silly, slightly embarrassing, and fun.
“That’s a new suit,” Sage observed.
“You’re right.” Nic took a bite of popcorn. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen him wear blue before.”
“He’s a god in gray.” Sarah clicked her computer mouse and a printer began to hum.
Sage nodded in agreement. “Not many men can pull off the suits-and-sneakers look, but I have to say, it really does it for me.”
“It’s the artist in you, Sage. You need something with a bit more flair than straight
Sarah clucked her tongue. “I wonder how he feels about sperm donation. Don’t you think the two of us would make beautiful babies?”
Something in her smile, a wistfulness, signaled to Nic that this wasn’t fangirl nonsense for Sarah. “Wait just a minute. Babies? What’s that all about? I thought you couldn’t wait for your nest to empty. That’s all I’ve heard about since Lori’s sixteenth birthday.”
“Yeah, well, it was easier to be happy about her leaving home when the date wasn’t staring me in the face.”
“Sarah, Lori is only a junior. She still has a year and a half of high school.”
“Don’t you know how fast that year and a half will go? We have to do college visits this spring!”
To Nic’s shock and surprise, tears welled in Sarah’s violet eyes, then overflowed. Sage and Nic shared a look, and the basketball game was forgotten. Both women crossed to the sofa and took seats beside their friend.
“Honey?” Sage asked. “What’s wrong?”
Nic didn’t need to ask. She’d known Sarah Reese for most of her life. Despite the struggles she faced as a single mother in the small town, Sarah loved being a mom to Lori. From Girl Scout leader to perennial field trip mom, basketball team mom, and chair of the prom committee, Sarah did it all. Both she and Lori had thrived as a result. “You’ve had me fooled, Sarah Elizabeth. I really thought you were tired of fund-raisers and sports banquets. I thought you were looking forward to this next stage of your life.”
Sarah’s lips wobbled. “I lied. I don’t want her to be a senior. I don’t want her to graduate. I don’t want her to go to college. I want her to still be six years old.”