Darby Lane and Russell Gunn had been inseparable friends from their early years in the Horseshoe, their wonderful Baton Rouge neighborhood of Southern comforts and childhood fancies, all the way through to graduate-school dreams and beyond. Then the unthinkable happens: a tragic accident takes Russ's life, and Darby's world is shattered. Returning to the Horseshoe in utter despair, Darby clings to the only family she's ever known: the three wily and colorful aunts who raised her.
Her long journey to healing takes hold as Darby begins to see Russ's brother Ben through new eyes. Suddenly love blooms in the place of grief, and now, with the help of her aunts, Darby faces the challenge of reuniting Ben with his estranged father—if they can get through the conniving schemes of Ben's social climber stepmother. Calling on the same tender care and patience with which she builds custom dollhouses, Darby begins to create a new life out of her loss—and comes to understand that love truly can conquer anything.
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About the Author
Hometown:Summerville, South Carolina
Place of Birth:Hastings, Pennsylvania
Read an Excerpt
The houses on Thornberry Lane near the outskirts of Baton Rouge were always the main draw on the Historical Tour for tourists. No one could explain why or how a cul-de-sac with just five houses could be called a lane or why, since it was outside of the town's historic district, it was on the tour. Some speculated it was because the Lane family owned three of the houses on Thornberry Lane. Others said it was because it was like an oasis, with each house sitting on a full acre of land with an enormous bed of flowers in the middle. Whatever it was, everyone in Baton Rouge agreed Thornberry Lane was the most beautiful sight they'd ever seen.
Gawkers and tourists aside, Baton Rougies, as some referred to themselves, were loyal to three of the inhabitants of Thornberry Lane. Not so to the inhabitants of the two houses on the end that belonged to the Gunn family. Outsiders, they said, nouveau riche, others said. The truth was that when Marcus Gunn was finally on the verge of being accepted by the Rougies, thanks to the Lane sisters, he up and married his second wife, Bella. The Rougies and the Lane sisters closed ranks, and it was a greased downhill slide for Marcus Gunn and his new wife. The Junior Leaguers, along with the members of the Garden Club, Historical Society, and Rotary sniffed that Bella's shady past -- which they were convinced included an out-of-wedlock child, something no amount of digging and searching could prove -- her bleached hair, her pancake makeup, her faux jewelry, not to mention her hoity-toity attitude, would be a disgrace to the Rougies. And, the Rougies whispered, she was twenty-five years younger than Marcus, which could mean only one thing. Bella was a gold digger and after Marcus's money, of which there was plenty. She was no stepmother to Marcus's three children, they said. Wicked stepmother was more like it, they hissed among themselves after they said over and over, "Those poor children; thank God for the Lane sisters and the love they showed the children."
The Lane sisters could attest to that fact, and they did, every chance they got. They fed and took care of the three children as much as was allowed. Bella didn't care as long as they weren't, as she put it, under her feet.
The final consensus on Bella Gunn was that she was not only white trash, she was tacky as well. That particular statement probably had something to do with the fact that Bella wore a tiara to church services on Sunday morning.
Lydia Lane, oldest of the Lane sisters, and known to friends and family as Dodo, stepped out onto her flower-bedecked veranda and stared across the wide acre of rainbow plantings and cobblestone paths that led out to the street and the main road. She cringed the way she always did when her gaze settled on the two Gunn houses situated at the ends of the horseshoe-shaped lane. They were a blight on the landscape. A deliberate blight, thanks to Bella Gunn. And there was nothing she or her sisters could do about it.
Dodo stared at the rotting wood, the broken windows, sagging verandas, doors hanging on one hinge, and the dilapidated steps that were a danger to any child wishing to explore haunted houses. Every night she prayed that the buildings would collapse or that lightning would strike them. What she was looking at was all the result of Bella Gunn's being denied entrance to the Christmas tour. Bitter and angry over the Rougies' refusal to accept her, she'd deliberately allowed the two Gunn houses in the shoe to fall into their present condition. That, and her hatred of the three Lane sisters, who were on the selection committee for the Christmas tour.
Not more than an hour ago, Mary Ellen Prentice had called and said she'd heard from Emma Rangley, who heard from the Baptist minister's own lips that Bella had said in a fit of pique that the reason she was denied entrance to the tour was because of the location of the house she'd designed on the outskirts of town. Now Bella was going to concentrate on the houses in the shoe and reapply. According to Emma, Bella's parting shot had been, "They won't dare turn down a house in the shoe, much less two houses in the shoe."
Just watch me turn you down. There's a young man and his family that belongs here in the shoe, by right of inheritance, not by trickery and chicanery the way Bella was doing. A young man and his family she'd give up all she held dear to know again.
Shielding her eyes from the bright sun, Dodo whistled between her teeth the way a small boy would to attract a friend's attention. Her sister Vivian, better known as Diddy, banged the screen door of her house, which was opposite Dodo's, and waddled over to the veranda railing. "What? Why can't you use the phone like other people do when you want to speak with me? It's not ladylike to whistle between your teeth, Dodo." She was breathless as she, too, leaned on the railing.
The skinny little woman with the spiked hair waved her sister's comment aside. "I swear this is the worst day of my life. I should have killed that woman or, at the very least, pushed her into that grave yesterday. But no, you had to stop me!"
Diddy Lane's plump cheeks flushed crimson. "No Lane has ever been in trouble with the law. I wouldn't do well visiting you in prison, and that's where you would have gone if you had done that. If it's any consolation to you, Dodo, I wanted to do the same thing. We're ladies, and ladies do not go around pushing people into open graves. I just wish . . . Lord, I wish so many things, but mainly I wish Marcus hadn't had that last stroke. He's so out of it he doesn't have a clue as to what is going on. Bella calls the shots these days. Then again, she's been doing that forever, it seems, so I guess it's not new at all. It's just so sad that someone as vital as Marcus could be felled like this."
Dodo looked down from the railing at a border of begonias that were so lush and colorful they looked like they'd been painted on the cobblestones lining the house. "And where is that wayward sister of ours? She loved Russell as much as we did. She said she would be at the funeral. She wasn't there! I'll tell you where she is, she's probably out lollygagging with some young stud forty years her junior," she said vehemently.
Diddy's plump cheeks flushed again. "At least she does her lollygagging off scene in New Orleans. Oh, God! There she is! Would you look at her!"
Dodo reared back as her sister Harriet, known to her sisters -- and those in town who still remembered her -- as Ducky, stepped out of the stretch limousine. She wore a dress that resembled gossamer, or maybe a thousand sheer hankies sewn together, draped on her voluptuous frame. A wide lacy straw hat, with real flowers and satin ribbons trailing down the sides and back, adorned her head. Outrageous designer sunglasses finished off her look. Ducky never wore anything that didn't carry a designer's name on it. A purse as big as a suitcase was the only thing she carried. She was boohooing behind the dark glasses as she made her way up one of the cobblestone paths that led to her sisters' houses. The stylish, pointy-toed, backless heels made it a difficult task. Both sisters watched as their sister kicked them off. One landed in the middle of the begonias, and the other settled atop one of the oleander bushes.
Both Dodo and Diddy pursed their mouths at the sight. "Such a lady," Diddy muttered.
The wayward, free-spirit sister removed her sunglasses to see her siblings better. What she saw made her say, "Oh, will you two stuff it already. And before you can ask me where I was, I was attending to business, and as much as I tried, I just couldn't get back in time. I feel awful."
Ducky met Diddy by the steps, and together they walked up them to Dodo's house. "I take it our niece isn't here yet. How are we going to handle all this?" Ducky asked as she quickly bussed each sister on the cheek.
Dodo, a martial arts expert in her prime, pivoted on the balls of her feet before she smacked one hand into the other. "Very carefully," Dodo responded. "I was just telling Diddy I think this is one of the worst days in my life. Darby," she said, "is devastated. She's blaming herself, which is silly, but what can you expect? Russell was her best friend since they were three years old. Why am I telling you something you already know?" she dithered.
The Lane sisters looked at one another. Dodo, age seventy-two, Diddy, age seventy, and Ducky, age sixty-nine, a hair away from seventy, were suddenly squabbling like teenagers as they started to blame one another for their niece's trip to Scotland.
Diddy drew herself up to her full five feet and glared at her sisters. "Tell me, how does one tell one's niece, who, by the way, is thirty-three years old, that she shouldn't travel outside the country. She went on business. Darby does what she wants when she wants. We are not her wardens, Ducky. Is that a nightgown you're wearing?" she sniped.
Ducky hitched up the front of her gossamer dress. "No, it is not a nightgown. It's the latest in fashion. I bought it in Paris two months ago. It certainly beats that . . . that . . . whatever it is you're wearing, Diddy. As for you, Dodo, give up the ninja crap already and dress like a female." Exhausted with her little speech, Ducky sent her straw hat sailing across the veranda. It landed with precision on one of the wicker chairs. She then strode barefoot across the grass-green carpet and sat down on the swing. "Sit! Sit already. We need to make a plan here. Refreshments would be nice."
"Yes, they would," Dodo said as she sat down on the swing next to her sister. It was obvious to both sisters that there would be no refreshments forthcoming.
Ducky reached for one of the fans hanging off the arm of the swing. She started to fan her perspiring face. Fans hanging off chairs and swings on front porches was a Southern thing. "Now, I want you two to tell me what the hell happened to that darling boy Russell."
Diddy glowered at her fashionable-looking baby sister. "He died, is what happened," she snarled. A second later she burst into tears.
"And then they . . . they . . . they donated his organs. Every single one that was . . . donatable," Dodo said as she dabbed at her own eyes. "They buried a shell of Russell. Everything was gone, his eyes, his heart, his lungs, his liver . . ."
Ducky stopped fanning herself to stare at her stuttering sister. "I'm getting the picture, Dodo. An organ donor has to be an exceptional kind of person. Russell was young and athletic. I'm sure his organs were in . . . excellent condition. How did the accident happen?"
Dodo jumped up and started wringing her hands. "Do you want the truck driver's version or do you want Bella's version?"
"Both," Ducky snapped. She started fanning herself again.
Diddy whipped a wad of tissues out of her pocket and proceeded to shred them. "The truck driver said Russell veered across the yellow line and hit him head-on. He said he couldn't stop in time. It was one of those eighteen-wheelers, and it happened on a main highway. Bella's version is that Russell committed suicide. I don't believe that for one minute, and neither does anyone else. Something was wrong with the brakes of his car, according to the police. For some reason he was driving his girlfriend Claire's car. Russell was looking forward to Darby's return. As a matter of fact, he was supposed to meet Darby in Atlanta, then they were going to visit friends and drive home together. Does that sound to you like someone who was contemplating suicide?"
A small brown bird flew onto the porch before it settled in one of the luscious green ferns hanging from the ceiling. A second bird flew straight to the fern and settled down between the thick fronds. "They have a nest in there," Dodo said inanely.
The bright, sunny day beyond the front porch suddenly dimmed as gray clouds from the south moved across the summer blue sky. The scent of new-mown grass was like a heady aphrodisiac. Ducky eyed her sisters as they seemed to shrink into themselves.
Dodo started to pace the green carpet. The black-felt slippers she favored, to go with her ninja wear, made scratching sounds that grated on the ears. She bent down to pluck a yellowing leaf from one of the straw baskets full of yellow Gerber daisies that lined the veranda and steps. She tossed it over the railing.
"Marcus should have known his own son's wishes as well as Bella. They didn't bury Russell because there was nothing left to bury but his bones. What I mean is they buried Russell but not all of Russell. God, I don't know what I mean. Now that Darby has inherited all of Russell's money -- which, by the way, is a dizzying amount -- do you think she might finally settle down and buy a house of her own? She wouldn't have to travel so much with her little business and could go the catalog route the way a lot of small businesses do. Being a home owner is almost a full-time job, don't you think?" When no one responded to the question, Dodo sat down cross-legged on the porch, dropping her head into her hands.
Just then the rain started to fall, and Ducky said, "Refreshments would be really nice right now."
Dodo turned to look at her sister to see if she was dying of thirst. Satisfied that she wasn't about to expire, she said, "The door's open, fetch it yourself. And, while you're about it, bring something for Diddy and me."
"Feisty, aren't we?" Ducky said, getting up from the swing. "As a hostess you are sorely lacking, Dodo." She swished her way to the front door, her hankie dress clinging to her voluptuous curves.
Diddy walked over to the railing to stare out at the rain, which was coming down like a waterfall. "We need the rain," she said vaguely. "I think you should have thinned out the begonias, Dodo. I love the shell pink color. My lavender ones are just as pretty, don't you think?"
"Shut up, Diddy. I'm not in the mood to discuss rain or begonias. That girl is going to have a nervous breakdown when she gets here. I have a terrible feeling she's at the cemetery. Why would she go there? Tomorrow would be soon enough. Do you think that's where she is?"
"Yes. I just didn't want to say it out loud. Maybe we should go and get her," Diddy mumbled.
"Maybe we shouldn't. If she wanted us to go with her, she would have come here first. I thought Ben or Mary would have stopped by today." Ben and Mary were Russell's siblings.
The screen door creaked as Ducky elbowed it, a tray in her hands. Three glasses and three bottles of beer, along with a flower in a bud vase and monogrammed linen napkins, graced the tray.
The Lane sisters were beer drinkers in part because of the family-owned business, which was a brewery that distributed beer worldwide.
The sisters clinked their glasses together, their eyes wet and somber.
"Diddy and I think Darby went to the cemetery. She's probably sitting in the rain and the mud crying. We should have gone to get her. Why didn't we do that?"
"Because she wants to be alone with her friend. If she even went there," Ducky said as she licked the top of the beer bottle. She seemed surprised that it was empty.
Dodo, who was sitting in a yoga position on the green carpet, unwrapped her skinny legs and entered the house. She returned with three more bottles of beer. She handed one to each of her sisters. All three proceeded to swig directly from the bottles.
The rain continued to cascade from the heavens. The birds in the fern overhead chirped their displeasure as all three sisters' hair started to frizz up from the mist sweeping across the veranda.
"Maybe Darby isn't going to come back here," Diddy said.
Dodo scoffed at the remark. "She has to come back here. This is where her family is."
"Let's face it. Maybe she went to a motel so she wouldn't have to endure all the clucking we'd do over her," Ducky snapped. "She's smart, that niece of ours."
As was their custom when the three of them were together, Diddy lined up the empty beer bottles. She finished her beer with one huge gulp and plopped it down at the end of the line. "I'm going, I'm going. I know it's my turn. Don't talk about anything till I get back. One each or two each?"
"Two," Ducky and Dodo said in unison. Diddy trotted off to complete her mission.
"This is our personal wake for Russell," Ducky said. "I can't believe that snot Bella didn't invite us to the official one. I don't care for myself, but it was so tacky of her. The whole town must be talking this to death." She sniffed to show what she thought about that particular statement.
The rain continued, the birds in the fern kept protesting, the empty beer bottles continued to line up as the sisters sat glumly on the veranda, each worried about what she would do when their niece finally arrived.
It was dusk when the hard, driving rain turned into a steady downpour. The sisters were bleary-eyed but unwilling to enter the house. All three of them refrained from looking at the mountain of empty beer bottles Diddy had tossed into an old bushel basket. "We should eat something. I don't think Darby is coming back tonight."
"What would you suggest?" Dodo asked.
Ducky ran her hands through her frizzy hair, trying to flatten it. A useless struggle. "This is your house, isn't it? You're supposed to play hostess even if you don't feel like it. You must have something in your refrigerator. No bean sprouts or any of those weeds you insist on eating."
"I never did like you, Ducky, so don't go telling me what to do." It wasn't true. All their lives they'd snapped and snarled at one another just to make their lives a little more interesting. It was how they communicated, and none of the three took the comments seriously. The only thing they never argued about or were at odds over was their niece, Darby.
Darby had come to them from the East at the age of three when her parents died prematurely within months of each other, their brother, Germaine, keeling over on the golf course from a heart attack, and dying on the way to the hospital. A month later, his wife, Ann Marie, unable to cope with a child and the loss of her husband, stepped right in front of a car and was killed instantly.
How she wished Gerry were here now. He'd always been their shining light, older by three years and never embarrassed that he had three sisters trailing after him. They'd been such good friends, advisers to each other. Even now, all these years later, the three of them talked of Gerry constantly. What would Gerry think, what would Gerry do? So long ago, Dodo thought sadly. They'd raised Darby as their own, and no child anywhere in the universe could have asked for better stand-in moms, as she referred to them.
"How about peanut butter and jelly? We'll have to use spoons because I don't have any bread."
Diddy pursed her lips. "How will peanut butter and jelly settle in our stomachs with all the beer we drank earlier?"
"That's a very good question, Diddy. My God, it's humid. All right, I'll take the bean sprouts," Ducky said as she again started to fan herself. "The mosquitoes are starting to come out. Should we adjourn indoors?"
Dodo was saved from a reply when she noticed headlights turning into the narrow driveway that was shared by all five houses on Thornberry Lane. "I think she's here, but it doesn't look like her Jeep."
In the blink of an eye, the sisters were at the railing at the top of the steps straining to see into the early twilight.
"It's Ben Gunn!" Diddy said.
"Lord, he's holding up Darby! My God, what's wrong with her?" Ducky squawked. "Did you ever see such a handsome young man?" she added as an afterthought. "She's barefoot."
"So are you, so what's the big deal. My God, she's covered with mud. Look at her hair. That's her favorite yellow linen dress. It's ruined," Dodo said, flapping her arms up and down.
At the foot of the steps, Ben Gunn looked up, and said, "Ladies, I'm bringing your niece home. She could probably use a nice warm shower."
Diddy eyed the handsome young man holding up her niece with suspicion. "She looks like she's drunk!"
"That too. I found her at the cemetery drinking from a whiskey bottle. She bought it for . . . Russ in Scotland. At one of those duty-free shops," he clarified.
Darby was like a rag doll, her legs buckling, as Ben Gunn tried to transfer his hold on her to her aunts. It wasn't working. "Why don't I take her upstairs to the bathroom and just put her in the shower. If you're up to it, you could make some coffee."
"There will be none of that, young man!" Diddy said imperiously. You make the coffee, and we'll see that our niece gets to the shower." Ben shrugged his broad shoulders.
The transfer was made, albeit sloppily, as the three sisters pushed, dragged, and shoved their niece up the long circular staircase. Ben watched until they were out of sight before he made his way to the kitchen. He knew where everything was. As a child, he'd virtually lived in one of the three houses on Thornberry Lane, along with his brother, Russell, and his sister, Mary. The good old days. The happiest days of his life.
While the coffee dripped, Ben sat down, his long legs stretched out in front of him. He looked around. It was the same kitchen he remembered but with updated appliances. He'd done his homework at the round oak table. He'd eaten cookies and had milk at the same table, along with Russ, Mary, and Darby. He'd eaten so many meals in this house and the other two that he lost count. He had his own bed, as did his sister and brother, in all three houses.
It was sixteen long years since he'd been in this house, yet he felt like he'd just returned home even though it was a tragic homecoming. His broad, athletic shoulders slumped, but he straightened back up when Dodo entered the kitchen. She ran to him and hugged him so hard he winced.
"Trust me, Ben, we'll make Bella pay for this."
Copyright ©2006 by MRK Productions, Inc.