Her Baby, His Love
Copyright © 2017 Lynne Marshall
The Tule Publishing Group, LLC
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
No one could ever have convinced Taylor Clark that a stupid newspaper announcement would change her life forever. Until now.
During a lull on the job, a co-worker nurse at St. Stephens Hospital handed the paper to her. She blinked, shook her head, and glared at the headshot of the two lovebirds. The pills she’d carefully assembled in cups for her assigned patients scattered across the floor. In the photo, a dashing Clayton Montgomery III, her boyfriend, smiled in a white tuxedo and black tie with his betrothed, a gorgeous blonde named Sara Jean Lippman. Her stomach knotted so tight, she thought she might hurl.
According to the article, the woman was a Santa Barbara multimillion-dollar realtor. The heading read: Local Renowned Architect—that would be Clay, Taylor’s latest boyfriend. The guy who’d picked her up in a coffee shop two months ago—Weds. The paper indicated last Saturday as the date. The weekend he’d told her he had to go out of town to meet a new client. How stupid could she get?
Never mind last Sunday’s Social News headline, the one in her mind read: Duped RN Gets Dumped for Millionaire Blonde.
But he’d said he loved her, Taylor, yet now he was married.
She’d been nothing more than his on-the-side girlfriend. When would she ever learn? Guys these days weren’t into committing to relationships. Not with her anyway. All she had to do was look back at her short list of boyfriends to prove her point. #1 from high school had convinced her to wait for him while he was away at college. She’d stayed behind in Coeur d’Alene going to nursing school, secretly planning a small wedding, until she’d heard through the grapevine he’d met someone else. #2 stuck around a whole year, but when she suggested they take the next step, he went running. Last she’d heard he was working for the U.S. Forest Service in Sawtooth Wilderness. Obviously, he’d rather commune with trees than commit to a permanent relationship with her. #3 was sweet enough at first, but he’d lied about having a degree in business and having good job potential. While she’d worked all day, he’d lounged on his parent’s sofa watching Discovery TV. You fool fool fool!
In her experience men either lied or cheated, and she’d finally had it up to here.
That night she cried until dehydration threatened to set in, then rolled off her bed and found her laptop. She rubbed her swollen eyes and booted up the computer. Onto the Internet she went, pointed and clicked … and changed her destiny.
Diligent as always, one week later she was reinventing her life. Again.
And here she was.
The city appeared like a hologram in the distance surrounded by brown and yellow rolling hills and a puddle of frothy white clouds resting in its basin. Above it a never-ending blue sky. The sign read Charity, Montana, population 15,000, and for the first time in a week, Taylor smiled.
The address and directions from the rental service on the Internet led her to a small cul-de-sac a few streets from the main stretch—one long block serving as the business hub of the small city. She’d been driving since early yesterday morning from Ventura, California to west of Flathead lake, nearly twenty-four hours straight—with bathroom and coffee breaks—to get here, and was exhausted and ready for a break. Her back ached and her legs needed a workout, but most of all she needed a bathroom. Again.
She pulled up to her new address and as if her heart and lungs had been yanked out of her chest and strangled, breathing was out of the question. Holding her breath, she double-checked the Internet printout. It showed a lovely little Craftsman-styled cottage, yet before her sat a rundown hovel at the center of two other cottages all in varying degrees of disrepair. How much disappointment could she take? Taylor rechecked the address in her GPS then once convinced it was indeed correct, burst into tears. No mistake. This was the home she’d leased for the next year.
A light tap on the car window interrupted her sobs. Startled, she looked up to find an elderly woman with bright white hair and pink lipstick. The woman’s penciled in brows tented with concern. “Are you all right?” she asked.
Taylor struggled to regain a modicum of composure, sniffed and wiped her eyes before rolling down her window. “I was hoping I’d had the wrong address, but I guess this is the place I’ve rented,” she said, pointing to the shabby cottage.
“Oh, then you’re my new neighbor,” the woman said. “Come in for some tea. I’ve got the key for you, darlin’.”
She didn’t have anywhere else to go, and she needed that key, and the lady seemed nice. Taylor got out of the car digging and searching for a tissue in her purse.
“I’m Dixie Westcook dear, and you must be Taylor.” The diminutive lady shook Taylor’s damp hand and led her up the walkway to her porch with a jaunty step and jiggling flesh beneath her multicolored floral blouse. In the corner sat a small round white wicker table and chairs with a pyramid shaped teapot smack in the middle.
“I’ll get another cup, wait here.” She disappeared behind a squeaking door with a frayed screen. “Do you take sugar, darlin’?”
“No, thanks,” Taylor hollered into the house, while noticing an array of quirkily shaped and colorfully painted clay pots lining the porch railing, similarly designed as the teapot before her.
Within seconds the plump and pleasant woman returned. With withered, tremulous hands, she placed what looked like a hand painted teacup in front of Taylor. “Milk?”
“Yes, thank you.”
Dixie poured rich dark liquid, smelling of orange peel and cloves into Taylor’s unique cup, adding warmed milk. Dixie almost sat, but halfway there straightened to a stand. “Oh, I’ll be right back. I’ve got some scones and huckleberry jam inside. Won’t that be a nice treat? Now, don’t you mind me, darlin’, go right ahead and drink that tea.” Mrs. Westcook babbled on while returning inside. “There now, isn’t this special, Chuck, having tea with a new neighbor on a fresh, early-summer day?”
Taylor tried to look through the screen for any evidence of another person inside, but couldn’t see a thing. A faint mew answered her question. She couldn’t help smiling. Gram had always loved cats, too.
“This is, Chuck,” Dixie said, when she reappeared releasing the hefty red tabby from one hand and flapping the screen door closed with her hip. She carried a small plate of scones in the other. “I named him after my dear departed husband of forty years. A woman’s gotta have someone to talk to, and Chuck is a good listener, aren’t you Chuck?”
Chuck ignored her and licked his paw.
The eccentric older lady reminded her of her Grandmother and it comforted Taylor. At least one of her neighbors was nice. While they drank their tea, she showed the bosomy Mrs. Westcook the misrepresented Internet picture of the cottage she’d leased.
“Oh, dear, that would be a few years back, wouldn’t it.” Dixie glanced over her shoulder to the neighboring porch. “A new coat of paint and a few bushes up front will do a world of good,” she said with an optimistic lilt. “You know, like a facelift. And once he’s finished yours, maybe he’ll start on mine.”
Who, her landlord? Her cheating, misrepresenting landlord?
Dixie beamed before slurping another sip of tea, evidence of pealing gray paint on the porch wall over her shoulder.
Taylor indulged in two of Dixie’s tasty scones, especially liking the tart jam, only then realizing how hungry she was. When she finished, she remembered how tired she was and that she needed a bathroom. “Did you say you had my key?”
“Oh, yes. It’s right here around my neck so I wouldn’t forget where I put it. Joe left it with me yesterday. I swear that man could fix anything from a broken shutter to a broken heart.”
Was “Joe” her landlord? Taylor glanced at her new home. “Well, he’s certainly got his work cut out for him.”
“I’ll vouch for him. He’s been working inside in the evenings this past week. He’s a good man, and I’m sure, sweetie pie, that he plans to fix the outside as well.” She removed a long chain that dangled the key over her chest.
“Thank you for the tea, Dixie. The scones were delicious.” Taylor stood to leave.
“You’re welcome. Anything you need, you just ask.”
Taylor headed for her own porch leaving the lady and her cat to their one-sided conversation. As she walked away, she heard Dixie explain the entire circumstances of Taylor’s misfortune to the lounging feline, in case he’d missed any part of it.
The front door screen hung by a single hinge. A scribbled note had been taped to the frame. I’ll be by on Monday for last minute repairs. Look around and make a list of what you need done. She had to read it twice in order to decipher the determined and slanted cursive.
Have I got enough paper?
Her new neighbor had planted a thought in Taylor’s mind. Later, after a nap, she’d stop by the local hardware store and pick up some paint samples. She placed the key in the door and found the mechanism sluggish. It took two hands to turn over the lock. I better add this to the list.
Still struggling with the front door, she used her shoulder to finally push through. Recently waxed hardwood floors shown from a quaint living room, and to the right, through an arch, a cozy dining room. The kitchen was small but had been updated with new black and stainless steel appliances. The inside of the cottage was surprisingly clean and smelled of fresh paint and disinfectant. Her outlook brightened as she finally headed for the bathroom. Black and white tiled floor, original claw footed tub with surrounding shower curtain. And the plumbing worked! Things weren’t nearly as bad as she’d thought.
After unloading the U-haul trailer of what she could by herself, her back ached, and she was exhausted. There’d be no more stooping, lifting, or moving today, not unless she wanted to hurt herself. She tried to take a nap, but the gallons of coffee she’d ingested on the overnight road trip, not to mention the two cups of tea she’d downed with Dixie’s scones, wouldn’t let her.
Dixie had mentioned that coat of paint and a few plants. Hadn’t she seen a nursery on the outskirts of town? She’d buy some large flowering shrubs to put in front of the porch to brighten things up. The handyman could plant those after painting the outside of the house.
Twenty minutes later, tired but wide awake, Taylor arrived at the nursery. She parked and savored the sight of acres of gravel decorated with neatly placed rows of potted trees, shrubs, roses, creeper vines, assorted flowers and ground covers. Wind chimes jingled peaceful melodies as the dry afternoon breeze, laced with myriad scents, whispered through the nursery called Heaven’s Door. From this vantage point, she had to agree, it did seem like a little piece of heaven. Everything reminded her of Monet paintings. The beautiful multi-colored vista lightened Taylor’s drooping mood.
She wandered toward a small brick and wood structure off to the right, beyond that, a patio. It was cool and sheltered with several rows of indoor and shade plants, which were thriving, and she sensed the obvious care that went into tending the delicate flora. Taylor walked out the back door to a second small hut, which served as a potting station. Yard decorations, planters and designer stepping-stones cluttered the dirt floor, along with ceramic fawns, assorted fountains, playful fairies, frogs, gargoyles, Buddha statues, and mischievous looking angels.
The owner had a sense of humor. She liked it.
At the back of the hut, she glanced up to what seemed like a never ending blue sky then out toward the yellow grasslands, flat and wide as the eye could see. Feeling oddly renewed, she focused back on the nursery with assorted arches, fences, planter edging and arbors leaning against a long brick wall. Nothing had been overlooked for the serious home gardener or professional landscaper, and goodness knows she needed some serious help with her new place.
Fully captivated by the sight of this small oasis of beauty in an otherwise ordinary town, she stopped and took a long, tension-releasing breath.
Sunshine, lush foliage and acute silence brought a sense of peace to her duped and dragging frame of mind. Her eyes drifted. Secluded far in the back was a wood arbor and matching fence which marked the entrance to an ornamental Venetian topiary garden. She wandered over. The arbor sign said “Private.”
She stood in awe for several moments, lost in thought. A rowdy crow squawked, interrupting her respite from the chaos of her personal life. She shifted back to the business of beautifying her own unkempt bungalow and the looming mental adjustment she’d need to adjust to the facts. This town was her new home for the next year whether she liked it or not. She may as well get used to it.
The nursery seemed almost deserted on the late Saturday afternoon with the exception of a handful of shoppers and two workers. The first was a short burly man with a shaved head and a prominent scowl etched across his brow. Tattoos covered bulky muscles on both arms and looked like colorful scary-looking sleeves from wrist to shoulder. Aside from his gruff appearance, he worked with delicate precision as he trimmed brown leaves and pinched dead blooms from a rosebush. With the man looking more like a convict than a gardener, she hesitated to ask for his assistance, though he gave a benign smile when she passed.
“Anything I can help you with?” he asked with a friendly, surprisingly high voice.
“I’m not sure, so far, I’m just looking.”
“Let me know.” He went back to his task.
The other man further back—tall, blond—worked in solitude wearing headphones at the far end of the fruit and flowering trees. Absurd as it seemed for never seeing the man before, he worked with sincerity and purpose and something about his demeanor drew her to him. When she approached, he wiped away sweat and dirt with his sleeve then removed his headphones, and appearing surprised, asked, “How may I help you?”
“I’m looking for something to brighten up a really dreary front porch. Something big, bushy, and flowery.” She used her arms to demonstrate big and bushy, feeling a little silly.
Perspiration dampened his shirt. He smelled of loam and mulch. Rich brown earth covered his hands and packed beneath his nails. Speckles of dirt accentuated the pores on his face and dusted sun-bleached dark blond hair. He used a dirty hand to comb it back from his face. Clear, topaz-colored eyes shifted quickly upward from her feet to her face, and then squinted into a courteous smile. His near translucent gaze unsettled her. It seemed to pierce right through her safety barrier and made her edgy. She flashed a business-only smile for protection.
He stood and his height distracted her even more. Well over six feet tall, the sturdy nurseryman silently guided her to the flowering shrubs.
“Something like this?” He pointed with long, graceful fingers toward lantanas.
Wow, he’d figured out what she’d meant. “Exactly.”
“This one’s real hearty. It likes full sun and will bloom through early fall until it gets too cold. It’s a good ornament plant. Once it gets going it doesn’t require a lot of upkeep. You just need to cut it back after winter in time for spring blooms.”
His voice was deep and soothing, and she wished he would spend more time talking to her, though considering her long history with men, she should know better. Shouldn’t she?
“What color do you like?”
She looked around and forced an answer as unwanted warmth crept up her cheeks. “This orange one looks good.” Why did he make her so nervous?
“Rub your fingers over the leaf. Now smell,” he said.
She did, and was treated to an intense herbal burst. “That’s wonderful.”
He returned a pleased smile, then helped her choose two of the healthiest fire-orange lantanas. “How about these two?”
She nodded again. “Perfect.”
He loaded the large five-gallon containers onto a flat metal wagon and pulled them up to the register with little effort. She followed behind his lanky strides. Once there, slowly and meticulously he calculated the totals.
Taylor tried not to stare at him so she bought extra planting soil and one small decorative pot she spotted at the last minute. It looked like the ones she’d seen lining the railing of Dixie’s porch.
“This pot is pricey,” he said as he verified the cost. “Are you sure?”
She lifted a brow. Why would he try to dissuade her? Wasn’t the point to sell, sell, sell? She gave him an assertive nod.
“These pots are hand painted by an eccentric Southern lady here in town,” he said.
“Would that be Dixie Westcook?”
An odd look flashed in his eyes as he nodded.
“If they’re hand painted, they’re definitely worth it,” she said. “They’re beautiful, don’t you think?” This one sported a lily pad and pond scene good enough to rival a Monet knockoff.
He smiled and one dimple popped up on his cheek, and while she was in the territory, she noticed a small patch of reddish beard growing just beneath his lower lip.
As he continued to smile, she glimpsed a tiny gap between otherwise straight front teeth. His grin seemed kind and welcoming. Oh, please don’t do that. She smiled back and felt her cheeks warm up, again. They stood grinning at each other for an awkward moment or two before it occurred to her that he was waiting for her to pay.
“Oh! Excuse me.” She got out her debut card then handed it to him. “Here.”
He was still smiling when he took it. Fine lines fanned out from those pale brown eyes on an otherwise tanned face. He had a long nose, masculine and appealing. Deep creases shot up his cheeks and accentuated his single-dimple smile. She recovered from his charming assault while he ran the card through the machine.
When the nurseryman handed her the receipt, she avoided his gaze. All men were scoundrels weren’t they? He walked her and the purchases to the car in humble silence making her want to squirm; still she couldn’t ignore how well he filled out his jeans. After pulling the wagon to the bumper, he lay plastic on the back seat and car floor with great care placed the shrubs inside.
He certainly didn’t seem like a scoundrel. Problem was, neither had Clay, nor Matt, nor Gary, nor Rich, at first, and her judgment was still in serious need of adjustment.
“Thank you for all of your help,” Taylor said. “It was very … helpful.” Cringe.
“You’re welcome, Taylor.” He surprised her. She figured he noticed her name from the debit card. She looked for a nametag or something on him, but couldn’t find one. Once again, stuck without words, and hesitant to ask his name figuring what was the point, she simply nodded when he shut the hatchback.
Just before pulling the empty cart back to the front of the nursery, Joe Collins stopped and watched the sleek, auburn-haired woman, with amazing green eyes, wipe the dust from her hands and get into her car. He’d noticed her when she’d first walked into the nursery. He’d gone back to work, but attempted to keep track of her whereabouts without being too obvious. Because of the headphones, he’d hardly heard the sound of her sandals crunching on gravel when she’d approached. The sight of the woman’s feet, complete with a delicate braided silver toe ring and deep red pedicure, had highjacked his attention. Something he hadn’t allowed himself to feel in ages had made itself known and surprised him. Attraction.
Those feet were attached to long, shapely legs that had been close enough to touch, and a verse from the Song of Solomon came to mind – How beautiful your sandaled feet… your graceful legs are like jewels, the work of a craftsman’s hands. To distract from his wayward thoughts, he’d spoken to her and helped her choose the plants.
His gaze lingered on the foot that dangled gracefully a second or two before slipping inside her car. He returned the headphones to his ears and released the pause button as she backed out and drove off. Another verse accompanied an uncomfortable longing. Who is this that appears like the dawn, fair as the moon, bright as the sun?
Now itchy and restless, he switched from classical to country. The up-tempo song helped blast away his unwanted feelings until a short time later, when Brad Paisley sang some words that hit home, and Joe agreed that life was more interesting now that Taylor had come to town.
End of excerpt