READ A SAMPLE OF Dogwoods in Springtime from the Seasons of Love collection
I miss you.
Caroline Ballard awoke with the same thought she’d had every morning for the past three years. Such a long time ago, but it seemed only yesterday that two patrolmen knocked on her door to deliver the news that her husband was gone.
“I’m sorry to inform you, ma’am; there was a wreck on Route 22. A drunk driver crossed the center line and hit your husband’s vehicle head-on. He was pronounced dead at the scene.”
She’d been proud of herself. She hadn’t swooned or dissolved into tears or laughed hysterically. She’d nodded politely, thanked the officers for their time, and closed the door.
Shock had gotten her through the next few days. She barely remembered her sister arriving to help with funeral arrangements; hell, she didn’t even remember calling her sister. Taylor had been there for her, offering comfort and support, but the day after the service had returned home to her one-year-old daughter and left Caroline to deal with the after.
For that’s how she thought of life now. Before Greg died and after.
Greg Ballard was the love of her life. Though they’d attended the same high school, it wasn’t until college that they began dating after Greg ran into her – literally – on the quad while trying to catch a frisbee. Knocking her flat on her ass, he’d mumbled “sorry,” then went back to his game without helping her up.
Shouting a filthy name at his back, she stood and brushed herself off before stalking away, unaware that he’d turned and stared after her; catching a frisbee to the head for his trouble.
The next morning he’d shown up at her dorm room with an oversized apology card picturing a sad kitten, a bunch of smiley face balloons, and three dozen roses. “I didn’t know if you like chocolate or not, so I left it in my car. I’ll run down and get it for you if you want.”
“All of this is supposed to make up for your incredible rudeness?” Her mouth twitched as he shifted uncomfortably.
“Well, yes.” He hoped she’d accept his gifts because his arms were getting tired. “What more do you want?”
“An apology would be nice.” Shaking her head as he thrust the flowers at her, she said, “A verbal apology. From you – to me. Not some stuff you picked up at the mall.”
“This stuff cost me almost a hundred bucks,” he said irritably, brushing past her and depositing the items on the bed.
Shutting the door, she crossed her arms and watched as he poked around her room. “Find anything you like?” she queried sarcastically.
“These are nice,” he replied, holding up a pair of lacy, neon green panties, waggling his eyebrows.
“Give me those!” she snapped, snatching them out of his hand. “And wipe that smirk off your face! How old are you anyway, twelve?”
“Nineteen, as a matter of fact.” His hazel eyes flashed mischievously, sandy brown hair falling across his brow. “So it’s an apology you want, is it? Here goes – I’m sorry I knocked you down and subjected myself to language that would make a sailor blush. Will you have dinner with me tonight?”
She erupted into laughter, accepting his invitation between wheezing breaths. “On one condition.”
“You tell me your name. It’s obvious you know mine.”
Her laughter faded. All this time, she’d thought he was apologizing, and he didn’t even have the right girl. Just how many had he offended anyway? About to read him the riot act, his expression caught her attention, and she knew he was teasing. Able to give as good as she got, she replied, “Actually, it’s Mallory,” giggling at the flicker of uncertainty in his eyes.
From that moment on, they’d been inseparable. Dinner had turned into breakfast the next morning, and the only time they weren’t seen together on campus was when they were in class. He was studying to be an engineer, and she was an art major. The library, dining hall, each other’s dorm; where there was one, there was the other. Caroline brought him home over winter break, her parents falling as much in love with him as she had. Even Taylor thought he hung the moon.
For spring break, they spent the week in the Hamptons with his father, step-mother, twin brother, Alex, and two-year-old half-sister, Riley. While the elder Ballards were a tad on the reserved side, – “don’t worry; they’re that way with everyone” – Alex accepted her immediately, with Riley shadowing her the entire week, clinging fiercely to Caroline’s neck the morning she and Greg left to head back to school.
On the last day of finals, Greg proposed, and by the beginning of their junior year, they were living in a cramped apartment off-campus enjoying wedded bliss while carrying a full course load. They each also worked part-time jobs, and it seemed they were apart more than together, but they made it work. The celebration of their twenty-third wedding anniversary six months before his death was testament to that.
Finding herself widowed at forty-three, Caroline dealt with the situation the best she could. She managed to keep busy; sorting through his belongings, donating his clothes to the homeless shelter, dividing up various tools and grown-up toys to his friends and colleagues. She sold his car, canceled his cell phone service, and transferred the bills to her name. But he was still there, every moment of every day.
So she’d thrown away every reminder of him save for photos and a few keepsakes; his lucky marble (she’d never understood that one), a small bottle of his cologne, and his favorite t-shirt which she folded up and tucked away in a box in the back of the closet. It didn’t help.
One of her girlfriends talked her into taking a Feng Shui seminar, the instructor advising her to cleanse the home of his energy. Caroline thought it sounded like hooey, but the next day she followed the procedure step-by-step starting with the bedroom, throwing open the windows to allow fresh air to replace the old, scrubbing down the walls with pine cleaner, pouring salt on the mattress, and washing the drapes.
At the end of the day she was exhausted, and she’d missed some grains when vacuuming the salt off the mattress, but she fell into bed ready for a peaceful night’s sleep.
I miss you.
Waking with those three words in her head, she did the only thing she could think of. She fled.
Nestled among green ash, black oak, and tulip poplars in south central Kentucky, the cabin had belonged to her parents, a place of weekend getaways and summer vacations. A gravel lane wound its way among the trees, opening into a sunshine-filled clearing, where her mother had planted perennials such as irises, lilies, and salvia.
The setting was beautiful no matter the season, but Caroline loved springtime the best when flowers popped out of the ground and dogwoods bloomed in the woods, their delicate white blossoms suspended mid-air like softly falling snowflakes.
Though the end of March, spring was right around the corner; at least she hoped it was considering the unseasonably cool temperatures.
Stretching languidly, allowing herself a few extra minutes under the covers, she planned her day. A trip to town was past due; she was out of blank canvases and almost out of paint. She’d received a notification the previous evening through her website that she’d sold a painting, which necessitated a visit to the post office once the artwork was wrapped and ready to ship.
Stopping by the grocery store wouldn’t be a bad idea, either, as the refrigerator held a single egg, a half-empty jar of pickles, and a bottle of mustard. The pantry didn’t contain much more; stale cereal, a can of kidney beans, and an empty jar of instant coffee.
It was decided then. She’d jump in the shower and head to town…oh, wait…she had to wrap the painting first. Okay, shower, painting, town…crap! Why was there no water coming from the showerhead?
Moving over to the basin, a trickle of water dripped from the faucet when she turned it on. Hurrying to the kitchen, she repeated the action at the sink, a spittle of moisture the result. “Fabulous! Now what?”
A week earlier, an electrician had been in to fix a faulty light switch in the living room. Now an issue with the plumbing. She’d paid the bill – a quick glance at her checkbook confirmed it – so the trouble lay with the water company or her water line. Either way, her day was shot as she couldn’t go out in public without a shower first.
She phoned the water company’s emergency line, but there was no record of a problem. Her next call was to a local plumber. Having never had a need for one, she searched online, a local business catching her eye.
Clear Pipes Plumbing – “We keep you flowing.”
Placing the call, a male voice on the other end of the line assured her he’d arrive within forty-five minutes. While waiting, she munched on dry cereal, ignoring the staleness, and made herself as presentable as possible given the lack of water. A swish of mouthwash took the place of her toothbrush; an extra swipe of deodorant under each arm completing her grooming. She brushed her hair back into a ponytail, frowning at the glints of silver showing among the blonde. Her frown deepened when she glanced at the clock. Forty-five minutes, my foot! It’d already been an hour. “Come on. I don’t have all day.”
To take her mind off of waiting, she boxed up the painting she’d sold and set it by the door. As soon as the plumber left – if he ever showed up, that is – she’d take a quick shower and try to salvage her day. Her first stop, however, would be to a local coffee shop. She was jonesing for a cup in the worst way.
Gravel crunched in the driveway, and she glanced out the window. Finally! A white pick-up truck emblazoned with a plumbing logo pulled to a stop by the front porch. About to move to the door, Caroline paused. The man who slid out of the driver’s seat was attractive, and it surprised her that she noticed.
Rick Spencer smiled disarmingly, hoping to charm the woman who was standing in the open doorway, trying unsuccessfully to hide her irritation. “Sorry I’m late. I had a bit of an emergency when I was leaving my house.”
“I hope everything’s alright.” Caroline’s eyes clouded. Her first thought being an auto accident of some sort, she glanced at his truck which appeared unscathed.
Following her into the kitchen, Rick offered an explanation somewhat sheepishly. “My dog got out. He’s still a puppy, actually. Nine months old. He shot out the door the second I opened it and was halfway down the street before I made it to the curb. Thankfully, we live on a quiet road, so there was no traffic, but he was heading towards a busy intersection.”
The image of her plumber chasing his dog down the street was amusing, and she surprised herself by asking, “What kind of dog is he?”
“A mutt. I guess he’d have some fancy hybrid name – Labrashepmatian or something like that, but to me, he’s a mutt. And a great one, at that.”
“What’s his name?” Not overly fond of dogs, Caroline wondered what fueled her interest
“Flux. He’s this brownish color with a black mask like a German Shepherd and dark spots like a Dalmatian. The floppy ears, whip-like tail, and soft muzzle are all Lab. You should meet him sometime.”
“I’d like that.” Where had that come from?
“So, no water, huh?”
“What? Oh, yes. Not a drop.” Caroline walked over to the sink and turned the handle on the faucet to demonstrate, her hand shaking slightly. What was wrong with her? “It’s the same in the bathroom, too.”
Rick set his toolbag on the counter. “No worries. I’ll get it running for you in no time.”
“Thank you.” Watching as he knelt on the floor to turn off the water valve under the sink, she took in the view, admiring how his butt filled out his jeans, not a plumber’s crack in sight. Realizing he’d catch her ogling if he looked up, she retreated to her studio determined to strike the handsome contractor from her mind.
That was easier said than done, as he began whistling a jaunty tune, the notes mingling with the clanging of pipes. She heard the front door open and couldn’t resist peeking out the window, her eyes following him until he strutted around the side of the house and was lost from view.
He was almost as handsome as Greg, in a different way, of course. Dark, brown hair in need of a trim curled up at his collar in an inviting way, begging to be touched. A hint of playfulness shown in eyes that were a shade lighter than his hair and his smile was lopsided, a boyish grin on a grown man’s face.
It’d been a long time since she’d noticed physical attributes of the opposite sex and couldn’t help feeling a little guilty, like she was being disloyal to Greg’s memory. Still, there was nothing wrong with looking, and since she would need a shower later anyway, she decided to do some work in the flowerbeds.
Her gardening gloves and a trowel in hand, she strolled outside, glancing around the yard. She hadn’t heard the plumber – Rick – come back inside and assumed he was checking something on the outside of the cabin. Kneeling in the flowerbed, she’d just pulled up her first clump of dead weeds when her assumption proved correct, and he reappeared around the corner.
“Oh, hey, there you are,” he said, moving briskly towards her. “I wanted to show you what I found.”
“That was quick.” She squinted up at him, the sun behind him causing him to appear in silhouette. Rising, she brushed dirt off her jeans and followed him around back where a large area of sodden ground met her. “Oh, that doesn’t look good!”
“It’s not. The pipe that runs from the street to your house burst. I’ve shut it off at the meter, but from the amount of water here I’d say it busted a few hours ago.”
“So I’ve been paying to water the lawn?” she quipped humorlessly.
“Essentially,” he nodded. “My suggestion would be to call the water company and let them know what happened. Maybe they can adjust your bill. And I’ll take some off of mine considering I got here later than I promised.”
Caroline glanced at him, then back at the mess in the yard. “That’s not necessary. You weren’t that late, and you had a good reason.”
“Thanks again for understanding,” Rick grinned. As irritated as she’d appeared when he first arrived, she seemed to have gotten over it quickly. He was glad because he found her attractive, and would’ve been disappointed if she turned out to be a bitch.
His romantic pursuit would have to wait though, as there was business to attend to first. “Here’s the situation – I’ll have to dig up this part of the yard to get to the pipe. Depending on what I find, I may or may not be able to fix it.”
“As a customer, I feel I should tell you that statement doesn’t inspire confidence.”
“What I mean is, I have the feeling I’m not going to like what I find when I dig out the pipe, and I suspect you’ll like it even less.” He leveled his gaze at her. “Do you have any idea what kind of pipes these are?”
She regarded him quizzically. “Water pipes?”
He chuckled. “Yes, they’re water pipes. But do you know if they’re PVC or galvanized?”
Her blank stare answered his question.
“What year was the house built? Do you know?”
“That I can answer,” she said. “It was built in 1973. My parents bought it in the early 80s and used it mainly as a summer home.”
“I see. And you’re here for the week?” He told himself he was asking purely for business reasons, but the next few seconds seemed to stand still until she replied.
“Actually, I live here year-round. I moved in three years ago.”
The sadness in her tone gave him pause, dampening his elation at her response. “Alone?”
“Yes,” she replied, hesitant to impart too much information to a virtual stranger. “Does that affect the repairs?”
Rick shook his head, searching for a plausible explanation for his question. “Not at all. But the water will be off for several hours; maybe more than a day. That can be a big inconvenience to a family.”
“I’m sure I’ll manage. So what do you think is the problem?”
“Based on the year it was built, my gut tells me these are galvanized pipes. I won’t know for sure until I dig down to the break, but if they are, they’re most likely corroded and filled with sediment. Have you noticed a loss in water pressure?”
“Come to think of it, I have. I thought it was because of the dry winter; you know, not as much water in the basin. Plus, living out as far as I do, I’ve never had great pressure, to begin with.”
“Part of the reason for that is these pipes. If I swap them out for PVC or PEX, I think you’ll notice a big difference.”
Caroline frowned. “I’m assuming a big cost accompanies that big difference.”
Rick chuckled. “It ain’t cheap. And I’d suggest you get at least one estimate besides mine if you decide to go ahead with the change.”
“Really? A contractor telling me to get a second opinion? That’s a new one.”
Rick shrugged. “It’s how I do business. This is too big an investment for you to take my word on it. Not that I’m telling you wrong. I just believe that you should have options.”
She regarded him carefully, studying his face for any hint of deception. “I’ll consider your suggestion. In the meantime, can you get my water back on today?”
“I’ll do my best.” Grinning, he pulled out a receipt book from his bag. “Let me work up a quick estimate, so you’ll know what to expect.”
Caroline waited while he figured his bill, amused by his serious concentration as he worked the numbers. She gave it a cursory glance when he handed it to her, then did a double-take at the labor charge. “I may not know much about plumbing, but I do know you’re undercharging on your labor. That’s not necessary.”
“I told you I’d give you a break.” He tucked the book away. “Besides, in a short while you’re going to hate me, so maybe this way I can earn a few points.”
“Hate you, huh?” She smiled, surprised at how easily it came to her. “Is it going to be that bad?”
“Well, your yard is going to look like an excavation site, which I guess it will be. And to most people, an hour or two without running water feels like days.” He walked to his truck and began unloading equipment. “Oh, yeah. You’re going to hate me.”
Knowing she should leave him to his work, she followed him, not ready to break off the conversation. “It kinda already feels like days. I’m not used to missing my morning shower.”
“You look great,” he commented sincerely.
She was caught off guard by how good his comment made her feel. It’d been a long time since someone had complimented her. “Thank you. I wasn’t fishing, you know.”
His mouth twitched. “I know. If you’d been fishing, I would’ve said you look stunning.”
The sound of her laughter was foreign to her ears. Rick’s sense of humor reminded her of Greg, but instead of the hollowness she associated with his loss, she felt hope blossoming within. “I’d better let you get to work. I’ve taken enough of your time.”
He knew she was right; he needed to get his butt in gear, but was reluctant to leave her company. The matter was decided for him when she gave a small wave and headed back to the flower bed. Taking the hint, he gathered up his tools and began to dig.
Five and a half hours later, with a short break for lunch, he reached the broken pipe, and his suspicion was confirmed. Galvanized pipe. Why did that make him happy?
Covered in mud from head to toe, he climbed out of the hole and did his best to scrape the filth from his clothing. Giving up after a few attempts, he pulled off his gloves, thankful they’d kept his hands unsoiled for the most part. Now to break the bad news to the homeowner.
“Anyone in there?” he called through the screen door. He’d looked around outside, but the yard was empty, the flower beds neat and tidy, the green foliage of daffodils poking up from the dirt.
“Come in. I’m in the kitchen.”
“Uh…you’d probably rather I didn’t.”
“Why not? Oh!” Caroline’s face peered through the screen. She stared for a second then burst out laughing. “You look like you’ve been rolling in the mud!”
“In a way, I have.” Her mirth was contagious, and he joined in, laughing at his appearance. “Would you mind stepping outside? I’d like to show you what I found.”
She grabbed her jacket on the way out. The day had turned gray and gloomy, winter’s chill hanging on. “Aren’t you cold?” she asked, noticing his bare arms below the rolled-up sleeves of his shirt.
“No. I worked up a sweat. Downside of the job, but it keeps me warm on cold days. Doesn’t do much for my social life though.”
He had to be teasing. A man with his looks and personality who owned his own business would have no trouble finding companionship. The thought bothered her. Before she could figure out why Rick began explaining the mess in front of her.
“Unfortunately, I was right. Your water line is corroded, at least the section I can see. But if there’s this much sediment close to the house, I guarantee it runs all the way to the street. It’ll need to be replaced. Now for the bad news.”
“That was the good news?” she joked. Faced with a potential savings-account-draining-expense, she was in a wonderful mood.
Rick looked at her oddly. Most homeowners dissolved into tears with such news, but not Caroline. She seemed relieved. “It was. The bad news is you’re going to be without water for at least a week; maybe two. Even if you decide to go with a different contractor, I think you’ll find they’ll give you the same approximation.”
“I’m not going with anyone else. I made some calls earlier.” She regarded him thoughtfully. “If you have time in your schedule, you’re hired.”
He had an inkling she was offering him more than a job. Playing it cool, he remained professional. “Thank you. I’m free to start right away. For starters, I’ll patch this pipe so you can have water tonight.”
“That would be wonderful!” She sighed, picturing the hot spray pelting her skin, her thoughts taking a wild turn as she imagined she wasn’t alone in the shower. What the hell?
Striking the image from her brain, she avoided Rick’s curious gaze, afraid he’d be able to read her thoughts. She hadn’t had sex since Greg died, hadn’t even thought about it, so why did her libido pick now to awaken?