|Shelby Russell steered her gray Malibu onto Highway 34 past the city limits sign of Dover, Mississippi, bracing herself against a sudden rush of painful memories. Coming home was the last thing she wanted to do. She'd turned her back on the small Southern town fifteen years ago and never looked back. Every goal she'd set for herself had been achieved. She'd risen through the ranks of Harmon Publishing to become senior editor of Tween Scene magazine, the top-selling publication for preteen girls in the country. It was a highenergy, high-stress job, and she loved every minute of it. But it was also the reason she was coming home.|
Shelby eased the car to a halt behind a short line of cars waiting for a train to pass; the blinking red warning lights at the crossing were an unwelcome reminder of why she was back in Dover. A heart attack. She'd laughed in the doctor's face when he'd delivered his diagnosis. Heart attacks were for old people. She was only thirty-four. True, she'd had only a very mild one, but the tests didn't lie, and if she didn't eliminate the stress and change her lifestyle, she wouldn't be around to continue her exciting career. She'd already lost two grandfathers and an aunt to heart disease. She couldn't ignore her medical history.
The crossing gate lifted, and Shelby eased forward with the traffic. So here she was, coming home to stay with her grandmother, her life in chaos, her future in doubt. She was thankful that she had someone here who still cared about her, someone she could turn to when the world didn't make sense anymore. And right now, nothing did.
Her gaze surveyed the changes in the once-familiar surroundings as she followed the two-lane road toward town. The fields and piney woods surrounding the small town had been replaced with new shopping centers and an industrial park. A sprawling attendance center filled what once had been cotton fields. Courtesy of the new auto plant no doubt. Gramma had told her the plant, situated between the towns of Dover and Sawyers Bend, had brought about huge changes to both the once-dying towns.
As the highway gave way to downtown, the changes became more evident. The majestic courthouse still dominated the center of the town, but the surrounding trees were bigger and the elegant wrought-iron fence was a crisp shiny black. The historic gazebo, Dover's iconic symbol, still stood proudly in one corner of the grounds, like a Victorian jewel in the late-afternoon sunshine. The four streets flanking the square, lined with 19th-century brick buildings, all sported freshly painted facades in a variety of colors. Many storefronts had bright awnings providing shade; others had flower-draped balconies. The entire area looked like a water-color painting of the quintessential small Southern town. The Dover she remembered looked nothing like this.
Shelby pulled to a stop at the red light, willing herself not to look at the store on the corner, but the temptation was too great. Her gaze traveled to Durrant's Hardware. The real reason she'd stayed away so long. Matt Durrant was here. Her heart pounded. Was Matt in the store right now? Had he taken over the family business? Probably. It was the reason she'd left. They had wanted different things out of life. Incompatible things.
The light changed and she focused on the road ahead, trying to push all thoughts of Matt to the back of her mind. She failed. Did he ever think about her? Was he as handsome now as he'd been then? Had he married?
Gritting her teeth, Shelby forced all thoughts of Matt and the past aside and focused on making the turns that would take her to Willow Street. She pulled into Gramma's driveway and stopped, taking a moment to appreciate the two-story redbrick house. Nestled on a tree-lined street on the south edge of town, the foursquare-style home was a mirror image of the house next door. Their expansive lots butted up against the woodlands. Both homes had been built by Gramma's great-great-grandfather and his brother, who helped found the railroad town, then known as Junction City. Her heart warmed as she gazed upon the stately dwelling. The large front porch, the potted chrysanthemums and the massive live oak tree in the yard all welcomed her home.
Memories of feeling safe, loved and happy flowed through her even as tears burned behind her eyes. She'd left here so full of dreams, determined to conquer the world, but she was returning with her life in turmoil. Mentally she kicked herself for holding a pity party. She might be down, but she wasn't out. She would beat this. She would not let this health issue ruin her future. It was merely a matter of blocking out the fear and taking control of her life. She'd learn to relax. She'd learn to de-stress. She'd learn to be peaceful if it was the last thing she ever did.
Shelby let off the brake, guiding the car to the left of the Y-shaped driveway between the twin houses, and parked beneath the shade of a giant live oak. Her cramped muscles protested angrily as she unfolded herself from the vehicle, and a wave of exhaustion and defeat settled upon her shoulders. The long drive from New York to central Mississippi had been intended to give her time to relax and slow down. Instead, it had allowed too much time for regret and introspection. Neither of which eased her stress.
Gramma Bower burst through the front door and met her as Shelby topped the porch steps. Shelby's mood brightened at the sight of her grandmother's sweet face.
"Oh, my precious baby girl. I didn't think you'd ever get here."
Shelby went willingly into the warm, familiar hug, clinging to the woman who had been her refuge throughout her childhood. The loving embrace siphoned off much of her fatigue and eased her fears. Coming home to Gramma had been the right thing to do. She stepped back, taking a quick inventory. Gramma's hair was grayer, and there were more lines in her dear face. A few more pounds hugged the sturdy frame since she'd last seen her, but Gramma was still the same woman who had always loved her unconditionally.
"Child, let me look at you." She frowned. "You look tired."
Leave it to Gramma to get right to the heart of a matter. "I am. It was a long trip."
"Well, I know you said you needed to rest, but I had no idea. You're pale as a ghost." Gramma shook her head. "Come on inside. I have sugar cookies for you."
The moment Shelby stepped inside the old house, her senses exploded with memories. She inhaled the familiar aroma of furniture polish, potpourri and fresh sugar cookies. The wood floors creaked a welcome beneath her feet as her fingers gently touched the worn spot on the newel post.
Her gaze quickly traveled around the rooms. Nothing had changed. The furnishings were still in the same place, as if time had stood still. Shelby soaked in the comfort of the old surroundings. Her own life might be in turmoil, but Gramma's house would always be her safe haven. "It's good to be home, Gramma. I've missed this place."
"Well, it's right where it's always been."
A lump of shame rose in her throat. "I know." Since leaving town, Shelby had stayed in touch with her grandmother and made the obligatory Christmas visits to her mother and stepfather's home in Pensacola, but she had staunchly avoided a visit to Dover. She couldn't risk running into Matt.
As they walked through the hallway, past the gallery of family photos, Shelby saw the picture of her aunt Teresa on the wall, and her conscience stung. She'd missed her aunt's funeral, her mother's only sister and a woman only ten years older than herself. Tween Scene magazine had been putting together their double Christmas issue at the time and that had seemed more important. Now Shelby winced at her callousness. "I'm sorry I didn't make it back for Aunt Teresa's funeral." Shelby followed her grandmother into the kitchen.
"I understood, baby. Really I did." Gramma smiled, handing her a plate of still-warm sugar cookies.
Shelby briefly thought about the dietary rules the doctor had laid out. Her mouth watered at the savory aroma, banishing her guilt. There was no need to start that healthy lifestyle right now. Tomorrow was soon enough. Sinking her teeth into one warm and sweet cookie transported her back in time. She was ten. Her father had deserted her and her mother. Shelby had run to Gramma's, scared, confused and in tears. Ellen had baked a batch of cookies and they'd talked and watched movies well into the night.
Gramma pointed at the plate and raised her eyebrows. "Eat up. Those might be the last ones you get for a while."
Shelby stopped midbite. "Why?"
"I work part-time at the church during the week, and I volunteer at the hospital whenever I'm needed. Besides" Gramma planted her hands on her ample hips "you're not supposed to be eating all that sugar."
Shelby pursed her lips. "I don't think a few cookies will do any harm."
Ellen frowned. "I see you haven't lost your habit of avoiding the unpleasant. Is this how you rose to the top of your field? By avoiding things?"
"No, of course not."
"You are following the doctors' instructions, aren't you? You're watching what you eat and exercising, taking your medications?"
Shelby reached for another cookie. The sample medications the doctor had given her had nearly run out, and the prescriptions were still in her purse. Filling them would make this whole thing too real. Too final. "I'm going to."
"Going to? When?" Gramma huffed out a puff of irritation. "Shelby Kay, you've got to take your heart disease seriously. This isn't something you can avoid. Baby. I've already lost a husband and a daughter. I don't want to lose you, too."
The pleading in her grandmother's voice punctured her defenses and exposed the gnawing fear in her spirit. Tears welled up in her eyes and clogged her throat. She was a lost and confused child again whose world was crashing in around her. Gramma's love was the only thing that had saved her. And God's grace.
She pressed her fingers to her lips as the fear took hold. "Gramma, I'm scared. How could I have had a heart attack and not even know it? I thought it was indigestion."
Gramma came to her side and pulled her shoulders. "Oh, my baby girl. I know. I'm sure the doctor explained to you that the symptoms are very different in women. But you can get through this if you'll just rely on the
Lord." Shelby shook her head. "It's not only my health, Gramma. The company I work for, Harmon Publishing, was bought by a competitor. I might not even have a job to go back to. The new management assured us everything would continue as before, but it's only a matter of time before the pink slips are handed out."
"I'm so sorry to hear that, but it's only a job, after all." Gramma squeezed her shoulders again. "It'll all work itself out."
Shelby pulled away, wiping her face with her palms and shaking her head. "It's more than a job. This magazine is my life."
Gramma scowled. "Nonsense."
"My career is who I am." Shelby stood and paced a few steps. "This is what I've worked for my whole life, and now I could lose everything." Shelby buried her head in her hands. Gramma came quickly to her side, patting her back.
"You don't know that. You're facing a lot of obstacles right now, but you have your brains and your experience. You can always find a job. This might be the best thing that ever happened to you."
Shelby gritted her teeth against the idea. "How could losing my career be a good thing?" Her grandmother stiffened, and Shelby realized how belligerent and disrespectful she'd sounded. "I'm sorry, Gramma. But I don't want to lose my job. It's important to me."
"Better your job than your life." Gramma stared down at her. "Seems to me, you've forgotten who to turn to when you're lost."
Shelby sank back down onto the wooden chair and tried to swallow her irritation. She wasn't surprised by her Gramma's comments. Her grandfather had been a minister. "Church talk" had been commonplace here. There had been a time when she had embraced her faith, depended upon it, but after she'd left Dover she'd drifted away. She'd channeled all her energy into school and then her career. Along the way she'd lost her connection to her faith.
Gramma patted her hand and slid the cookie plate toward her. "Enjoy your cookies. Today is your homecoming celebration. Tomorrow we'll face the changes you have to make."
Shelby nodded, feeling the fear and anger ease a bit. She had resisted coming back to Dover, but now she knew it had been the right decision. A few days here under Gramma's loving care would ease anyone's stress. A new hope blossomed in her heart. She had six weeks in which to accomplish her goals. First, get a handle on her health. Second, avoid Matt Durrant at all costs. That shouldn't be too difficult. She'd have no reason to go to his hardware store, and he lived on the opposite side of town. And maybe, if she could relax quickly enough, she could cut her leave in half and get back to work sooner, and that would decrease her odds of running into Matt.
Matthias Durrant. The only man she'd ever loved. They'd promised to love each other forever, to be together always, but it hadn't worked out that way. Matt had changed the plan, and she'd been terrified of losing her dream.
She'd never regretted her decision. So why did she find herself wondering what her life would have been like if she'd stayed here with him? Followed his dream instead of her own? There was no point in thinking about it. The door to the past was closed forever and couldn't be reopened.
Matt Durrant rested his wrists on the steering wheel of the old battered van, smiling as his passenger opened the door and got out. "Thanks for your help today, Carl."
The man nodded and raised a hand. "My pleasure. That roof should have been repaired months ago. We need more volunteers."
"Amen to that."
"Thanks for dropping me off at the house." Carl smiled. "It saved Nancy a trip to pick me up."
"No problem." Matt watched as his friend walked up the drive toward his house. The front door opened and his wife, Nancy, walked out to meet him, wrapping him in that special kind of hug only a wife could give. Matt looked away, ignoring the sudden ache in the center of his chest, and put the car in gear.
But the image replayed in his mind as he drove the Handy Works van toward his home on the opposite side of town. He'd once had that kind of love. Until three years ago, when cancer had taken his Katie away. He called up a memory, looking for the comfort that normally soothed his wounded soul, but it didn't come. Instead he found a gray void.