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Authors: Annie Jones

Barefoot Brides

BOOK: Barefoot Brides
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Praise for
ANNIE JONES
and her novels

The Barefoot Believers

“Jones's story is filled with snappy dialogue and likable characters.”

—
Romantic Times BOOKreviews

The Sisterhood of the Queen Mamas

“Infused with humor and hometown charm, Jones's easygoing, chatty style will hook fans of chick lit and mom lit, as well as readers of Neta Jackson's Yada Yada Prayer Group series.”

—
Library Journal

Mom Over Miami

“Hannah's struggles are down-to-earth and will touch hearts.”

—
Romantic Times BOOKreviews

Books by Annie Jones

Steeple Hill Single Title

Sadie-in-Waiting

Mom Over Miami

The Sisterhood of the Queen Mamas

The Barefoot Believers

The Barefoot Brides

Love Inspired

April in Bloom

Somebody's Baby

Somebody's Santa

ANNIE JONES
Barefoot Brides

For Carrie and Chris,
With love and prayers for your own
happily ever after!

 

A
bducted Child Found Living in Same Town as Birth Family

R. Hunt Diamante

Sun Times
editor

Santa Sofia, Florida. Dorothy “Dodie” Cromwell never gave up hope of finding the daughter her ex-husband abducted from the family home near Atlanta, Georgia, more than thirty years ago. Little did she know that, for much of that time, she and her two older daughters, Dr. Kate Cromwell and Jo Cromwell, both formerly of Atlanta, had spent their summer vacations in Santa Sofia just a few miles from where the missing child was being raised by local fishing boat icon and fry cook, William Jay Weatherby, more commonly known as “Billy J” of Billy J's Bait Shack and Seafood Buffet.

“She worked as a caretaker of the Cromwell's summer cottage and the one across the street from it since she was sixteen. She never met them face-to-face until they came down looking to sell the place two months ago,” reported Weatherby of his foster daughter, Maxine, who works in property management. He had taken the child in when her biological father abandoned her in Santa Sofia when she was still a toddler.

The four women realized their connection when they matched a photograph found in the Cromwell cottage to one already in Weatherby's possession.

“Proof was right there on the wall of the Bait Shack, right next to the place where we put up the dinner specials.” Weatherby referred to a framed photo, which he had been told was of his daughter and a distant relative who no longer had any wish to see the child but in fact was of Mrs. Cromwell and her baby taken the day before the abduction. “I feel the Lord's hand in this, I tell you what.”

Chapter One

“T
hat's it?” Kate Cromwell used her antique walking stick, which she had relied upon as a cane since having her foot broken a month earlier, to wedge her way between her sisters. “Surely that's not the whole piece? The story of our lives reduced to a few poorly researched, mistake-ridden paragraphs? I mean, really, most of us weren't even interviewed by that…that…”

“Journalist.”
Moxie Weatherby, whose legal name was not now nor had it ever been Maxine, spoke the word the way she might have said
cockroach.
Then she appeared to reconsider. Cockroaches weren't all that bad, after all, to a person raised in Florida. “Or should I say so-called journalist?”

“Yes, thank you, Moxie.” Kate leaned over the kitchen table where her mother and Billy J had spread the pages of the local paper out for all to see. “This
so-called
journalist reduced our whole story down to ‘I feel the Lord's hand in this, I tell you what'?”

“There are worse things that could be said about people's lives, Kate.” Despite her wise but decidedly snooty-sounding comment, Jo stretched up on her tanned toes and strained to get a better look. “Though I daresay the man could have found so much more to flesh out the story if he'd just made a little effort.”

“By interviewing
you,
no doubt?” Kate meant it as a tease. Only after seeing the fleeting but very real flash of unhappiness in her younger, blonder and more conventionally pretty sister's face did she realize she'd hit a nerve.

She winced. As a doctor and more recently a patient, she should have had more compassion. As a sister? She wasn't quite so cautious about Jo's “nobody ever pays enough attention to me” complex.

“At least you got your title worked into the mix. I'm just one of two sisters ‘formerly of Atlanta.'” Jo pouted in her perfect not-too-pouty way. Everything Jo did, from being one of the most successful up-and-coming Realtors in Atlanta to chucking it all to work for the Lord at Traveler's Wayside Chapel, was done to perfection.

What did Jo have to be put out about? Kate was the one with the rekindled romance—that still hadn't quite seemed to spark into full blaze—with hometown handyman, Vince Merchant. Not to mention her new start as a partner in the local Urgent Care Clinic. And the fact that she was doing all this with a foot basically smashed to smithereens thanks to their own mother's careless driving?

Of the pair of them Kate did think her own story was the more interesting, giving
her
the right to feel more insulted by the lack of recognition. She demonstrated that fact by angling her shoulder in to block her sister's view.

Jo gave Kate a shove, in that “loving” way the sisters had with one another.

Kate almost fell
splat
on her backside.

Jo pretended not to notice.

Kate clomped backward until she got her balance, thumping her cane on the old linoleum floor of the circa 1940s cottage.

“Careful. We don't want a repeat of what happened on the front porch!” Dodie scolded Kate, who wanted to blurt out “it's not my fault” but knew they'd take her to mean the big gaping hole in the front porch was not her fault—when clearly, it
was.

If Kate had heeded the signs Moxie had put on the front porch warning them not to use it, Kate would never have fallen through the rotting wood. But if she hadn't fallen through, she would never have drawn the attention of Vince Merchant, who came charging across the street to her rescue.

Vince Merchant.

Kate sighed.

Everyone looked at her.

Kate's cheeks felt as if someone had just opened the valve on a steam radiator right underneath her. She cleared her throat and banged her cane on the floor again.

“Don't you rattle your saber at me, big sister. The ankle I sprained getting into the cottage on the first day here is completely healed so I can outrun you now.” This time Jo used her slightly more curvy hips to push her way in past her older, more slender sister.

“Use your brains, girl,” Kate shot back, recovering her usual feistiness. “Don't think I'd let a little deal like multiple fractures, metal pins and detached tendons still awaiting further surgery keep me from relishing my place in the Cromwell family pecking order.”

“As what?” Moxie scoffed. “Chief gherkin?”

“Huh?” She'd spent her lifetime running away from her guilt over her youngest sister's abduction and now that they had found each other she had a hard time reconciling that child to this now-confident young woman. “Did you just call me a—”


Pecking
order, Moxie,” Jo enunciated each syllable so that her version sounded very little like Kate's quickly blurted out pi-kn o'ger. “Not pickle jar!”

“I can't help it if y'all talk funny,” Moxie argued in an accent decidedly less Southern than Jo's or Kate's or Dodie's thick Georgia—which everyone agreed sounded a bit like Jaw-jaw to the untrained ear—drawl. “I heard her tell you to use your
brines
and that she wouldn't let a little
dill
stop her, then she carried on about relish and my mind just naturally went that way.”

“Definitely not kosher, baby sister.” Jo's green eyes sparkled at the overblown corn pone imitation of their accents.

“How was I to know my own sister would go sour on me so fast?” Moxie lamented with a laugh.

Jo stepped back, relinquishing her spot to Kate at last. “Oh, I have news for you, as far as this family is concerned—”

“As far as this family is concerned—” Dodie rustled the paper still open in her hands “—it's a sisterhood, girls, not a competition.”

“Yes, ma'am.” The three sisters exchanged a look so sugary it could have candied a hot garlic dill—and left just as odd an aftertaste for Kate.

She
loved
her sisters.

What's more, she wanted to
like
them…

Moxie wiggled into the space left by Jo's retreat.

But they sure did make it hard for her!

“Does it say continued on page so-and-so at the bottom?” Moxie wanted to know.

Dodie looked up and down the length of the page, shaking her head. She glanced at the page facing the story. She thumbed through the sparse offering of sections. Then, having not found anything more about her family, she hoisted the paper up and searched the table underneath. Perhaps she thought some of the greasy inked words might have slid from the pages and now lay strewn across the plastic tablecloth. “That's the whole article.”

“Can't be. Talked to that man for thirty minutes on the phone,” Billy J muttered. “Not so's you'd know it to read that mess. Turned the Bait Shack Seafood Buffet into the Bait Shack
and
Seafood Buffet. As if we was selling chum and night crawlers and right alongside crawfish and calamari!”

“You mean you're not?” Dodie looked at him with a mix of awe and innocence.

 

Jo caught Kate's eye, and they both had to stifle a giggle. Even after all the things they had gone through and despite all their differences, it was good to know they still shared the same snarky sense of humor.

“What?” Billy J scowled at the gray-haired woman at his side.

Kate opened her mouth to rally to her mother's defense, which wasn't hard to do considering the way Billy J batter-dipped and deep-fried everything but the flatware down at the Bait Shack—making it hard to distinguish exactly what was on your plate at any given time.

“I'll have you know, woman—” Billy J spoke first, but whatever it was he wanted Dodie to know got lost in a red-faced bout of smoker's cough that carried the same intense blustering mood as his words but sounded more like the barking of an asthmatic seal.

“I think you have grounds to call for a retraction, Daddy.” Moxie patted her father's back, pounded it, really, as though that would actually quell his coughing fit as she said, “I'll see to that.”

“What about the rest of it?” The coughing did begin to subside. “Fry cook! The man called me a fry cook!”

“I know, Daddy.” The younger sister's tender but firm ministrations continued. She'd done this before. A lot. It showed in her resolute technique, in her calm persistence and in the anxious concern in her eyes.

“I'm a restaurateur!”

“I
know,
Daddy.” More pounding. Less coughing.

“And a renowned fisherman, not a fishing boat icon. Makes me sound like a cartoon painted on the sides of boats up and down the Emerald Coast!”

Kate had to hold her tongue to keep from saying she could actually imagine the big-bellied fellow, with his white beard and captain's hat complete with parrot feather in the band, that way. She wasn't unsympathetic. She understood the man had both self-esteem and health situations, but she didn't have much patience with him today.

He'd done this all to himself. He had been the one to take up so much of the editor's time that no one else had been given a chance. Plus, even though his physician and his daughter had asked him repeatedly, he would not give up his cigarettes. The man behaved a bit like a cartoon character, like an icon that would live forever, and she was tempted to tell him just that. If he would ever give anyone a chance to break in between coughs and comments.

“I have half a mind to complain to the editor and make him redo the whole article,” Billy J blustered.

Moxie pointed to the byline. “It says he
is
the new editor, Daddy.”

Billy J yanked the front page out of the jumble of pages and frowned at the masthead. “Reinhardt Media Enterprises?”

“It's a big media conglomerate.” Jo jumped in to explain. “Very powerful. Very influential. Very—”

“Bad news,” Moxie concluded. “Bad news for our little paper and bad news for our little town.”

No one seemed to have an argument for that. How could they, staring at this awful piece of supposed journalism about their remarkable reunion? Not to mention the amateurish mess of a photo they had run with it.

“Forget the article and the editor.
I
want a retraction of this picture.” Jo flicked her polished nail against the edge of the page, right beside the spot where the left side of her face had been cut out of the grainy black-and-white shot. The vivacious, blond thirty-five-year-old, so meticulous about her hair, her outfits, her shoes—especially her shoes—had been reduced to a blur. Or more precisely, half a blur.

“It was the only photo I had of all of us together,” Dodie offered sheepishly. “Guess it didn't translate well into newsprint. To be fair, it's not the most accurate likeness of any of us.”

That was easy for her mother to accept, Kate had to think, because
her
inaccuracy made her teased-up gray hair helmet look soft and wind-tossed, like an old-time movie starlet's. Took almost a decade off the woman's sixty-six years. Besides, with all of them pressed in adoringly around her, Dodie came off slightly less plump and infinitely more substantial than the flustered and flighty Southern Mee-Maw—even though she didn't have a single grandchild to call her Mee-Maw or Nana or Grammy-Dodie or whatever cutesy name its little heart desired—everyone instantly took her for.

“Now, pretty Miss Jo has a point here, y'all. As photos go, it don't do none of us justice.” Billy J's chair groaned beneath his weight as he scooted in to get a closer look. “No one can tell me that I really look like
that.
Do I?”

Everyone in the room made some kind of noise, but none of them sounded anything at all like an actual answer one way or another.

If the old fellow had been the sensitive type, he'd have been hurt, certainly. But then if he'd been even a tad more sensitive, he'd have gathered the truth about his appearance from all the children through the years who had mistaken him for Santa Claus on vacation.

He shook his head and scratched behind his ear, making the white-and-black captain's hat, which he wore so much people didn't know if he was hiding baldness or just had the world's worst case of hat-hair underneath it, bob up and down. That sent the parrot's feather in the brim bouncing.

“You look like you always do, Daddy. Just the way you are supposed to look,” Moxie reassured him with a pat on his back. “I just hope people aren't sitting in kitchens and diners all over Santa Sofia this morning saying the same thing about the rest of us.”

She had a point. The three sisters, and you had to squint to make sure there were three of them gathered behind the two older folks at the center of the photo, did not fare well.

There was Jo, a power-selling business dynamo who had just come to the realization that money and success and, yes, even great shoes, were no substitute for service and feeling that what you did in life mattered. She'd suffered the worst in the reproduction of the family portrait as the light on her short blond hair made it blend into her face and with the paleness of her suit jacket left her not just unrecognizable but barely discernible.

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