Someone to Belong To

by Melody Carlson

Maggie and her son have settled in Pine Mountain, where she has found love again. But trouble lurks as she plans her wedding. As she and Jed are enjoying their deepening love, Amber returns to Pine Mountain—and proves to be more of a distraction for Jed than Maggie wants!

Meanwhile, a land development project divides the community. Can Maggie find a solution that will be good for Pine Mountain and those she loves? As editor of the newspaper, can she remain objective while throwing herself wholeheartedly into the fray?

Chapter 1

Word of Maggie and Jed’s engagement spread through town faster than a change of mountain weather, so that for the next few days Maggie could hardly go anywhere without someone mentioning it. Even after it felt like old news, she was met by Rich from the Eagle Tavern, who stopped her in front of the post office to offer his congratulations.

“Ol’ Jed sure didn’t waste any time, did he?” He sighed and then shook his head, though she knew it was only for dramatic effect. “Never even gave the rest of us half a chance.”

She laughed, then patted him on the arm in a mock-consolatory way. “Well, I guess some things are just meant to be.”

“By the way, Maggie,” he added as he held the door open for her, “I’ve been meaning to tell you that I never did sign that businessmen’s petition supporting TS Development.”

She studied him curiously, unsure of why he wanted her to know. “Thanks for telling me, Rich. I appreciate hearing it. I tried not to take that whole business too seriously last year. I figured once the snow came along things would settle down around here.”

“Looks like you were right.” He pulled down his hat and headed back out into the icy wind.

She smiled to herself as she dropped her letters in the mail. How she longed to tell Rich and anyone else interested about the big surprise TS Development would soon receive! But the deal wasn’t completely sealed yet. And even if it was, they had all agreed to keep the whole thing under wraps until just the right time. So far, Gavin’s plan had gone even better than expected. Stan Williams had been here for two days, and he’d been absolutely delighted with the town and recreational area in general, but when he saw Clyde’s beautiful parcel of property just down the road from Maggie’s house, he didn’t even bother to conceal his pleasure. It seemed the partnership was meant to be, and tonight they would all meet at the hotel to discuss the whole thing over dinner.

She crossed the street over to Jed’s shop, stepping over a pile of freshly plowed snow next to the curb. She’d spotted his pickup just moments ago on her way to the post office and wanted to make sure she caught him before he headed back home to his workshop. He’d been putting in long hours lately trying to fill furniture orders and remodel his house as well as work on the building that would one day contain the new church. She and Leah had both grown a little concerned that he might be overdoing it.

“Hey there,” called Maggie as she spied him placing what looked like a newly made pine table against the back wall of his shop. “Caught you!”

He walked over to her and grinned. “And I’m glad you did!” He swooped her up into a big hug. “Why don’t you pop in and catch me more often?”

“Guess I’d better. It might be the only way I ever get to see you!”

He looked down into her eyes. “Hmm… maybe I have been burning the midnight oil lately. But there’s so much to get done these days, and now that you and I are on track I feel strangely energized.”

“I know what you mean. I think love does that to you.”

“Hey, you love birds,” called Leah as she came in the front door. “I’m back from lunch, so you guys can go finish making out in the back room if you want to.”

Jed laughed. “Thanks, Leah. We might just do that.”

Maggie gently extracted herself from his embrace. “Actually, I stopped by to see if I could talk you into joining Clyde and Gavin and me for dinner tonight. Remember I told you we’re meeting with Stan and his family at the hotel?”

He frowned. “You know I’m willing to do almost anything for you, Maggie, but I honestly think I’d just be extra baggage. And I’ve got so much work to do right now.”

She tried to hide her disappointment. “I know. And I really do understand, but I think your opinion would be helpful—you know a lot about building and design. And… I mostly just wanted to see you myself.”

“How about if I promise that we’ll do something soon—just the two of us?” He looked at her hopefully. “Wouldn’t that be more fun anyway?”

“Of course. But I also want to make sure you’re not working too hard, Jed.” She glanced at Leah for support.

“Yeah, Dad,” said Leah, stepping up with that exaggerated swagger that seems to come only with adolescence. Maggie smiled—she loved that Leah had taken to calling Jed “Dad” lately. And he seemed to like it even more. “Yeah,” she continued, hands on hips, “just the other day, Maggie and I were discussing how we think you’re working way too hard. It’s not healthy. And we mean to put a stop to it.”

He grew thoughtful, then slowly nodded. “You’re probably right.”

Maggie blinked. “You mean, you agree with us so easily? Just like that? We expected a little more struggle.”

“To tell you the truth,” he looked from one to the other, “I’ve been thinking about hiring an apprentice to help me out some. I’ve easily got enough work for two people right now, and the orders just keep coming—”

“I know, Dad. I had a lady call just this morning who wants to do a whole room in rustic birch. I think she wanted a dozen different pieces, all totaled.”

“That settles it. Leah, can you call the newspapers and place a classified ad for an apprentice?”

Leah glanced at Maggie, perhaps a small plea for help, and she just nodded as if to reassure. “Sure, Dad,” Leah answered with confidence. “I’ll get on it first thing.”

Jed turned to Maggie. “So, have you had lunch yet? If I’m getting some help, I might be able to afford the time to get a quick bite to eat.”

She seized his arm.’ “It’s a date, Mr. Whitewater.” Then winking at Leah she said, “And I promise to have him back in—” she glanced at her watch. “Oh, maybe by the end of the day, at the very latest.”

The deli was crowded, and Rosa looked pleased but busy. She just waved to them from the kitchen while Sierra took their order. “I’ll bet Spencer is up on the mountain right now,” she said glumly.

Maggie nodded. “Yeah, he talked his grandma into taking him up. But I thought you were supposed to be up there today too.”

Sierra rolled her eyes. “Cara called in sick this morning, so guess who gets to fill in for her?”

“That’s too bad,” said Jed kindly. “I know how Leah wishes she could get in more snowboarding too, but the alternative wouldn’t be so hot either.”

“Yeah, it’s always feast or famine.” Sierra handed them their drinks. “Just as long as I don’t hear about Cara being up on the mountain today.”

“That’d be pretty low-down.” Maggie tried not to chuckle as they made their way to the only empty table.

“When do Scott and Chloe get back from their honeymoon?” asked Jed as he pulled a chair out for her. She still wasn’t completely used to his courteous, albeit slightly old-fashioned, manners. She remembered that Phil had always been pretty casual about such niceties. But Jed seemed to take the little things seriously.

She sat down. “I think they get back next week.” She smiled dreamily. “Maui must be awfully nice this time of year.”

“It sure was generous of Chloe’s parents to foot the bill for their trip at the last minute like that,” he commented as he stirred his coffee.

“Yeah, Scott was pretty shocked. He’d planned to keep everything local since their finances were fairly well stretched just by the wedding. But I’m sure her folks felt guilty about not helping out with the whole thing. I think it was simply their way of apologizing for being such poor sports at the beginning.”

He laughed. “I’m glad we’re old enough that we won’t have to put up with all that kind of nonsense for our wedding.”

“Yes, it is a relief, isn’t it.” She paused as Sierra placed their order on the table, then Jed said a brief blessing. “By the way, Jed, everyone’s been asking me if we’ve set a date yet…”

He nodded. “I know, I’ve been getting the same drill. I suppose we should talk about it. What are you thinking?”

She picked up her spoon and thought for a moment. “I’m not really sure. I mean, on the one hand, I’ve had moments when I think we should just do it right away, but then I consider how busy we both are. And then on the other hand, I sometimes think we should just wait and give it lots of time.”

“I know exactly what you mean.”

She looked into his eyes, suddenly feeling self-conscious. “And then I think… a spring wedding has always appealed to me.”

His brows lifted. “Spring?”

She nodded.

“As in this coming spring?”

“Well, I suppose we could wait until spring of next year.” She tried to conceal how she felt slightly offended by his reaction.

“No way. I don’t want to wait that long. I guess when you said spring it just sounded so close, like next week or something.” He chuckled. “You know how it can be with someone who’s been a bachelor as long as I have.”

She smiled. “Yes, I’ll try to be patient. And if spring feels too soon—”

“No, actually I think spring might be just right.” Then he grinned knowingly. “But has anyone told you when spring actually comes to Pine Mountain?”

She shook her head.

“We don’t usually see much sign of spring until around May.”

“May sounds perfect.”

“Then it’s settled?”

She looked into his eyes. “Is it?”

He reached across the table and took her left hand in his, gently fingering the shiny new ring on her finger. “I just hope I can wait that long.”

She felt her cheeks grow warm. “Good thing we’ve both got a lot of things to keep us busy then, isn’t it?”

Whisper Pines flourish

After lunch Maggie finished her Saturday errands, then stopped by the fitness center for a quick workout. As usual, the place was busy, but Cherise took time to pull Maggie aside before she left. “It’s all finished upstairs,” she announced with pride. “Want to come up and see?”

“Sure, I’d love to if you can spare the time.”

Cherise glanced around the workout area as if taking a quick inventory. “Everything seems to be under control down here.” As they walked up the steps she explained how she hoped to be able to hire a helper in a month or two.

“Things must be going well then.”

“Yeah. Greg always used to say how this place was nothing more than an expensive hobby and tax deduction. But he was wrong. I can really make a living off it.” She stopped at the top of the stairs and waved her arms in a flourish. “Well, here it is in all its glory!”

Maggie looked around. “Cherise, it’s absolutely fantastic. Even better than before, and I thought it looked good then. That kitchenette is adorable—I love all those bright-colored tiles.”

“Still look like L.A.?” Cherise’s eyes sparkled.

“You bet. Hey, can I plan your housewarming now?”

“You’d really do that for me?”

“Of course. Why not?”

Cherise shook her head. “Oh, I just remember how Greg was always so down on you—acting like you really didn’t give a hoot about someone like me.”

Maggie waved her hand. “Well, Greg was all wet about a lot of things.”

Cherise laughed. “He sure was!”

Maggie instantly felt bad. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to suggest that you guys can’t work this out or any—”

“Don’t worry, Maggie. I know what you mean. But, believe me, Greg’s made it pretty clear that he’s thrilled to have me out of the picture. I think especially now that he’s so sure he’s going to be some big ol’ millionaire with his land deals.”

Maggie smiled. “Well, at least you seem happy.”

Cherise spun around in her pretty little loft apartment. “Oh, I am!” Then she turned to Maggie with a more serious look. “And you know how I’ve been going to church real regular like? Well, I really do like the way Michael preaches. I never heard anyone talk about God like that before. He makes it so real and personal that I’ve actually started praying myself. Can you believe that?”

“Sure. And I think it’s great.”

“Man, wouldn’t Greg be shocked about that!”

Maggie just nodded, thinking to herself that Greg was going to be shocked about a number of things before too long. She glanced up at the retro-style clock on the wall. “Oh, I had better get going, Cherise. But thanks for showing me around—you’ve done an incredible job with this place. And I’ll get back to you about the housewarming dates. Because I really do want to do it.”

Cherise threw her arms around Maggie. “You’re such a good friend!”

Chapter 2

Hey there, Maggie,” called Clyde, waving to her anxiously.

She shook the snow off her coat as she stepped into the hotel lobby. “Am I late?”

“No, Stan and his womenfolk are still upstairs. But come on in here and listen to what Gavin just told me.”

She hung her coat on a rack, then joined the two of them in the waiting area. “What’s up?”

Gavin chuckled. “Well, I was just telling Uncle Clyde how I ran into Greg at Dolly’s Diner today. I’d taken Stan and his family up to hit the slopes, which they were suitably impressed with, I might add—”

“Come on,” urged Clyde. “Get on with the good stuff.”

Gavin nodded. “Anyway, Greg asked me to sit down and have lunch with him. So I figured, why not, who knows, maybe I’ll hear what TS Development is up to these days—not that too much is happening after the snafu with the wetlands issue. Sounds like it’s pretty much at a standstill, although Greg swears Colin Byers’ attorneys are going to work it all out before spring. Anyway, Greg starts talking all friendly and nice, acting like we’ve never had any rift in our friendship at all. And it starts looking like he’s trying to win me over into enemy camp. Then he starts going on about how we used to be such good buddies and all—guess he forgot how he ditched me when I was down and out last summer. The next thing I know, he’s telling me about how I can still get in on the ground floor of his development and make some big money. He knows Clyde here’s just loaded, and maybe I can talk him into getting involved too, and then he says, real good-old-boy-like, how this newspaper really needs to support development like this, if only for the sake of the town. Then he asks if I can’t do something about our editor’s position on the whole thing—”

Maggie groaned. “Yeah, I’m sure he’d love it if the two of you would run me out of town.”

Clyde slapped his knee. “Don’t it just beat all, Maggie? Greg sidling up to our Gavin here, thinking he’s gonna get him and me involved in his half-baked schemes. And all the while we’re closing in on our own sweet deal that’s gonna totally upset his little applecart entirely.” He let out a loud whoop.

Maggie glanced up the stairs, worried that Stan and his family might think their potential business partner was going slightly senile then she patted Clyde on the shoulder. “Okay, now take it easy, Clyde. And before you start planning your big victory celebration, don’t forget you haven’t even signed the final papers yet. Who knows, maybe Stan’s changed his mind.”

“Speaking of Stan…” Gavin spoke quickly, then stood and waved to the family just coming down the stairs. “So, did you all have a good day on the slopes?” he asked as he shook Stan’s hand.

“It was terrific. Nothing but powder and sunshine. And hardly any lines on the chairlifts either. Not that that won’t be changing by next year.”

Gavin introduced Stan’s wife, Claire, and two preteen daughters to Clyde and Maggie, and then they were all led to a large round table reserved for them in a quiet corner. Maggie could see Cindy’s obvious curiosity about this interesting mix of patrons as she seated them, but she raised no questions. Maggie hoped she appreciated how the newspaper had paid to put the Williams’ family up in the hotel’s two finest suites for three nights.

“Are you skiers or riders?” Maggie asked the girls.

“We’re riders,” answered Jessie, the older. “But Mom and Dad are pretty old-fashioned. They still use those silly sticks and poles.”

Maggie nodded to Claire. “I’m old-fashioned too. But my fifteen-year-old son snowboards and he absolutely loves it.”

They all chatted pleasantly about the community, and Claire asked Maggie very specific questions about the local schools, activities, and even churches. Maggie appreciated her keen interest and was pleased to tell her all she could, even mentioning the library that was in development and the building that was being remodeled to house the church. “Of course, there are several other denominations in town too—Episcopal, Catholic, Baptist… you know, the regulars.” She thought for a moment. “But there still isn’t a synagogue. My friend Elizabeth Rodgers pointed that out when she first moved here. She goes over to Byron to worship.”

“Well, I expect this town will be growing steadily from here on out. And in a couple years there will probably be lots of new additions.” Claire glanced over to her husband and he winked.

“Okay, I won’t beat around the bush. We’re very impressed with this community and the potential here. It’s just the kind of place I’m willing and eager to work with.” He looked over to his two girls. “You see, I refuse to develop in an area where I wouldn’t be willing to live myself. And now I’m afraid my girls are going to think we should move up here for good.”

“As a matter of fact,” began Jessie, “can you imagine having a mountain to snowboard on just twenty minutes from where you live!” Her younger sister, Jamie, nodded in eager agreement.

Claire laughed. “It’s certainly something to consider. But think about it, girls, would you really be willing to leave your school and your friends back in Arizona?”

The two girls considered this. Then Maggie spoke up. “Moving can be pretty hard on kids. My son was absolutely furious when I moved him up here last year.”

“How does he like it now?” asked Stan.

“Oh, he loves it. But it took a little adjusting at first.”

When dinner was over and the discussion became more business focused, Claire excused herself and the girls. Maggie walked them back to the foyer and told Claire how much she enjoyed getting acquainted. “And if you do decide to move up here, it’ll be fun getting to know you even more.”

“Well, whether we permanently relocate here or not, you can be sure we’ll have our own unit to use for vacationing. The girls wouldn’t have it any other way, I’m sure.” Her daughters smiled in consensus. “So I’ll look forward to seeing you again, Maggie. And now we’re going up to watch a video and then turn in early. We fly out first thing in the morning.”

When Maggie rejoined the guys, it sounded as if they too were wrapping it up. Everyone seemed quite pleased with all the arrangements, and Stan promised to have the final paperwork sent up the following week. “It didn’t look as if you had many revisions,” he said to Clyde as they stood.

“Well, my lawyer felt that it was all pretty fair and sensibly written up. I suspect the only reason he made any changes at all was just so it’d look like he was earning his money.” This made them all laugh. Then everyone shook hands one last time and said goodnight.

Outside, Gavin sighed loudly. “It looks like we’re on our way.”

Clyde rubbed his hands together. “Can’t wait until those papers are all signed and we get to make our big announcement.”

“That’s one story I could probably write in my sleep,” said Maggie, “I’ve imagined it in print so many times. But maybe we should plan a ground-breaking ceremony, take some news photos, and make it a really big deal.”

Clyde slapped her on the back. “I like your thinking, young lady! That way we can really rub those development boys’ noses into it.”

Maggie’s brow lifted slightly. “Now, Clyde, you’re not going to get all vindictive about this, are you? We don’t want to gloat, do we?”

He made a face. “Well, I sure wouldn’t mind gloating a little. Especially when I think of what they did to old Arnold.”

“I know what you mean. But it doesn’t seem right to act too smug about the whole thing.”

“I s’pect you’re right about that too. Truth is, I never did much care for smugness in folks.” He looked at her. “But can we at least throw a party?”

She laughed. “Why not!”

When Maggie walked into the office on Monday, Abigail gave her a message to return a call to Jeanette Reinhart.

“Did she say what it was about?” asked Maggie.

“No, but she sounded pretty low. My guess is the lawyer told her the case for regaining the old Westerly property is hopeless.”

“Well, that’s what we all suspected anyway. But I’ll give her a call and see what’s up.” Maggie set her briefcase down on her desk and sank into her chair. Just thinking about Jeanette and the tangled mess of the deceased Arnold Westerly’s property and TS Development made her feel tired. She picked up the porcelain figurine the old man had sent her just before his death, then dialed Jeanette’s number.

“Thanks for calling back so quickly, Maggie,” began Jeanette in a flat voice. “I wish I could tell you something a bit more encouraging, but our family attorney said that even with those audiotapes you sent, he can’t make much of a case out of this whole thing. He says it’s a waste of our time and money.”

“I’m sorry,” said Maggie. “We were afraid that would be the case, but we were hoping.”

“Yeah, and the timing for finding this out couldn’t have been any worse as far as I’m concerned…”

“Why’s that?”

After a loud sigh and a long pause Jeanette continued. “I just found out my husband’s leaving me.”

“Oh, Jeanette, I’m so sorry.” She didn’t know what to say.

“Yeah, I guess I’m not surprised. I’d been suspecting he and his secretary were involved with more than just business for a long time. But it seemed so silly to think that… you know, sort of predictable and obvious… I just didn’t think it was really possible. But go figure, huh?”

“I guess you should never say never.”

Another long sigh. “So anyway, when I first heard my husband’s little bombshell I suddenly just wanted to go home—you know what I mean? But not to my own home which, of course, belongs to my husband too. And I wasn’t even thinking about my parents’ house, which was sold long ago. I wanted to go back to Grandma and Grandpa’s house in Pine Mountain. Back to the farm. And then later on, that same day, the lawyer called, and I realized even that dream was entirely hopeless.”

“I’m sorry, Jeanette.”

“Have they torn down any of the old buildings yet?”

“No. This whole thing about the wetlands controversy has put the brakes on everything, at least for the time being. But that’s not stopping Greg from telling everyone that their developer, Colin Byers, is getting it all worked out. If I were him, I wouldn’t be too sure.” She paused, longing to give this poor woman something hopeful to hang onto, but she was committed to their pact to keep news of the latest development completely silent until it was written in stone.

“And… well, I can’t say anything too specific, Jeanette, but there’s another little obstacle coming their way too.”

“Really?” Jeanette’s voice perked up ever so slightly.

“Sorry, I can’t give out any details yet.”

“Well, it’s probably not going to make any difference in the long run.” Her voice had gone flat again. “From what I hear, once these things start, there’s no stopping them. Only delays. What’s the use?”

“Well, you never know, Jeanette. Some obstacles are bigger than others…”

“I wish it were true. Oh, I know I’ll never get the property back, but if only the farm could continue. That, at least, would be satisfying—just for Grandpa’s sake.”

“Well, this little obstacle should all be out in the open in just a few days. And I promise I’ll call you as soon as we know anything for absolute certain.”

“Thanks, Maggie. I appreciate you taking the time to talk to me. I still remember how rude I was to you when we first met—”

“Just forget about that. It was understandable under the circumstances. And, Jeanette, one more thing… I know this might not be of much help to you, but when I lost my husband a few years ago, and I know my circumstances were completely different, I started leaning on God like I’d never done before. And that’s probably the only thing that got me through it all.”

“Well, right now I’m not even sure that I believe in God anymore. Although Grandpa and Grandma taught me differently. But I’ll keep it in mind. Thanks, Maggie, for everything.”

“Hey, Maggie,” said Leah as she sliced tomatoes for a green salad. “We might not even need that ad you helped me write the other day.”

She dropped the pasta into the boiling water and turned. “You don’t mean Jed’s changed his mind about getting himself an apprentice already? Why, he’s going to work himself to—“

“No, that’s not it. But, you see, this guy came into the shop today. And he was ogling all of Jed’s pieces and going over ever single thing and saying, ‘Man, this guy is good… he really knows his stuff… ’ and things like that. And so I asked him if I could help, and he said no, he couldn’t afford to actually buy anything, but he just came in to see how everything was put together and examine the craftsmanship. Then I asked him if he worked in wood too.” She held up her paring knife. “Bingo! The guy said he was still just learning woodworking, but that he hoped someday to be as good as Jed. Then I mentioned the apprentice position, and, man, you should’ve seen his eyes light up like I’d offered him a million bucks!”

“Oh, Leah, that’s great. But did he seem legit? I mean, I hope he’s not some wacko looking for a free ride or anything. I’d sure hate to see Jed get involved with the wrong person right now when he’s already so swamped with work.”

“I know exactly what you mean. So, I asked him a few more fairly direct questions. And he sounded like he was totally serious. He lives in the valley right now, but he comes over here to snowboard on weekends. He’d taken an extra day off today just to have a look around town. He said he quit college after two years because he really wanted to work with his hands. And he’s been working for a cabinetmaker for the last six months, but he says he gets bored because everything is always the same. He said he wants to do something more creative.”

“Oh, Leah, he does sound perfect. Have you told Jed yet?”

“Better than that. I set up an appointment. The guy—his name is Taylor—went out to Dad’s. He might still be there, having an interview. Naturally, I know it’s Dad’s decision and everything. He might even want to wait and see if anyone else responds to the ads that come out tomorrow, one in Byron and then Wednesday in the Pine Cone, though I can’t imagine who in Pine Mountain would make a good apprentice. At least not as good as Taylor anyway.” The way Leah said his name caught Maggie’s attention.

“So, about how old is Taylor?” She turned back to the boiling pot and gave the pasta a casual stir.

“Oh, early twenties, I’d guess…”

Maggie turned back around. “And did he seem pretty nice to you?”

Leah looked slightly irritated. “Well, of course he seemed nice. And before you ask me, I’ll just tell you, he wasn’t too difficult to look at either!” Then she broke out into a big grin. “Tall, curly brown hair, hazel eyes…”

Maggie giggled. “Well, hopefully Jed isn’t aware of how you feel. Or else the poor kid probably won’t have half a chance.”

Leah’s brows shot up. “Why not? What do you mean?”

“Oh, I’m just sort of kidding, mostly. But you know how dads can be about their little girls when it comes to men…”

She smiled. “Gee, that’s kind of sweet, isn’t it? I mean, it’s still strange to think that I have a dad like that, someone who actually cares.”

“Of course he cares,” said Audrey as she stepped into the kitchen and began rolling up her sleeves to help. “Now tell me what exactly it is we’re talking about.”

The story of the remarkable young Taylor was replayed for Audrey, but Maggie could tell that something about it bothered her mother just slightly. Still, she thought it better not to ask while Leah was around and make too much of the whole thing. Who knew whether Jed would even hire the boy or not?

“Oh, yeah!” exclaimed Leah. “I can’t believe I almost forgot. Something else totally weird happened today.” She stopped tossing the salad and turned to Maggie. “And you’re not going to believe this!”

“What?” asked Maggie.

Leah’s dark eyes grew wide as she began to tell the next story. “Well, this lady came into the shop just before closing. I’ve never seen her before, but she just struck up a conversation like she knew Jed and half the other people in town as well, and I figured she was just someone from Pine Mountain I hadn’t met. But then again, she didn’t really look like a local—”

“What did she look like then?” asked Audrey as she sliced some French bread. “And how can you tell the difference?”

“Well, she was dressed nice. Sort of like an executive or some important business woman. She had on this really good-looking tan suede suit, and her shoes and purse matched. Her reddish hair was cut into a very chic style. She was kind of glamorous and pretty, especially for an older woman.”

Maggie and Audrey exchanged looks. “How old would that be?” asked Maggie, knowing she was setting herself up.

“Oh, you know, about your age.”

Audrey chuckled. “That old, eh?”

“Do you suppose she’s someone from a big store, maybe wanting to consign furniture?” asked Maggie hopefully. “If Jed gets a new apprentice, he’ll be able to take on some more accounts.

“No.” Leah continued mysteriously. “She told me she was an old friend of Jed’s!”

Maggie felt a small twinge just then, but wasn’t exactly sure what it meant. “And?” She gave the bubbling pot another stir. “Is that all there is to your story, Leah?”

“No. Here’s the really weird part. When I told her I was Jed’s daughter, she acted shocked, like she couldn’t believe it. Then she came up really close and just studied me as though I was some sort of science specimen or something. And then she said, ‘Well, of course, I should have noticed it right off.’ Then she looked me right in the eye and told me how she used to be Jed’s old high-school sweetheart!” Leah paused for what seemed dramatic effect. “Then she just laughed and said that she should’ve known that Jed would be married by now.”

“And then what did you say?” asked Audrey, no longer cutting bread and appearing almost as curious as Maggie felt.

“Well, I said, ‘No, Jed never did marry…’ but before I could even finish my sentence, she cried out, ‘Oh, I knew it! He said he would always love me!’”

Maggie gasped. She wished she hadn’t, but the sound just slipped out before she could stop it. Then she forced herself to laugh. “You’re kidding. This is so incredible, Leah. Then what did you say to her?”

“I felt kind of embarrassed, most of all for her, I guess. Of course, I told her right away about how you guys are engaged and how happy Jed is, and I kind of went on and on about how great you are, Maggie.”

Maggie felt her eyes grow misty. Then she marched across the kitchen and gave Leah a big hug. “Have I ever told you how much I love you?”

Leah grinned. “Yeah, lots of times.”

“Hey,” said Spencer from the doorway. “What’s going on in here, some kind of love-in or something?”

“Love-in?” exclaimed Maggie. “Where did you pick up an old hippie term like that?”

“We were talking about the sixties and seventies in my social studies class.”

Audrey laughed. “Your mom was just thanking Leah for defending her position.”

“Her position?” Spencer looked confused now.

Maggie waved her hand. “Oh, not really. But Leah was telling us how one of Jed’s old girlfriends came into the shop today. And how she told her that Jed’s engaged.”

“And hopefully she told her to hit the road too,” said Spencer as he snitched a slice of bread. “Any chance of getting some dinner tonight? Or are you guys just going to continue your love-in?”

“Maybe you could go set the table,” suggested Maggie as she handed him a stack of plates. After he was gone she turned back to Leah. “Did this woman give you her name?”

“Yeah. It’s Amber something or other. She said Jed wouldn’t recognize her married name, but she was divorced now anyway.”

“And did she say why she was in town?” asked Audrey with blatant suspicion interwoven between each word.

“Probably looking for her old lover boy, Jed “Whitewater,” said Spencer as he came back in for the silverware.

“Actually…” Leah nodded to him with raised brows. “I think Spence is right on the money.”

“Well, did you give her Jed’s number?” asked Maggie, hoping she sounded unconcerned and casual about the whole thing. And why shouldn’t she? “I’m sure he’d like to see her after all these years. It’s only natural.”

“I wasn’t sure what to do. So I explained to Amber that I never give out his home phone number without his permission, and that I knew he was interviewing someone for an apprenticeship this afternoon. Then she said it was okay, and that she was planning to be in town for a few days anyway, taking a skiing vacation, and that she’d be staying at the hotel and could he please give her a call at his convenience.”

“Do you think he will?” asked Spencer, appearing more interested than before.

“I don’t know.” Leah looked to Maggie. “What do you think?”

“Well, I don’t know why he wouldn’t want to see an old friend, especially after all these years…” Suddenly Maggie felt all three sets of eyes pinned on her. She looked at them in frustration. “Good grief, I don’t know!” She threw up her hands. “It’s up to Jed, isn’t it? But I don’t have any reason to be worried about any of this. I know that Jed loves me and the past is just the past.”

Everyone seemed to relax a little after her reassuring speech. Perhaps they just needed to hear from her that she wasn’t concerned. And as they ate dinner their conversation, as usual, flitted from one topic to the next. But the subject of Jed’s old girlfriend, thankfully, did not resurface.

Still, Maggie knew she wasn’t quite as confident as she had tried to appear. For she, perhaps better than anyone, understood that there had been a serious old flame in Jed’s life. Someone who had somehow wounded him so deeply that he’d closed and locked the door to his heart for years. Now she wondered if this “glamorous-looking” woman might possibly be her. And, if so, what would Jed think of her return? Well, she knew she would call him right after dinner and find out. After all, they were engaged. She had every right to ask him. And besides, he had promised to tell her the whole story someday anyway. What with all the excitement of their recent engagement, she’d nearly forgotten. Until now that is.

But then again, she wondered as they began to clear the table, perhaps she should wait for him to come to her and tell her all about the whole thing. She didn’t want to come across as being distrustful of him, or to appear as if she were questioning his commitment to her. Because she really wasn’t suspicious of anything. Not really. At least not of Jed.

As far as this Amber person went… well, she just wasn’t entirely sure.

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