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Authors: Celeste O. Norfleet

Following Love

BOOK: Following Love
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C
ELESTE
O. N
ORFLEET
following
LOVE

To Fate & Fortune

Acknowledgment

To all the readers who stay up late at night
reading to the last page. Thank you.

To all the readers who write me with comments,
suggestions and praise. Thank you.

To all the readers who patiently, faithfully wait for
my next book to be released. Thank you.

Prologue

T
he scent of fresh flowers punctuated the air in the small room with a heavenly bouquet. Beautifully adorned, the Mayfield Plains Plantation was the perfect setting for their little soiree. Within the lavishly decorated mansion, set aside from the formal dining hall, was the ladies' afternoon tearoom, which was occupied by a small party.

It was the final day of celebration and the last formal flower show of the season. Although it was only the middle of summer, the winter would soon come and a well-earned hibernation was due for all of them.

The ladies, Louise, Ellen, Pearl, May, Julia and Grace, called themselves the Little Girls Flowers Club. Since they'd met while in a ladies' room line at the regional flower show nearly forty-five years ago, the name seemed humorously appropriate. Originally six, only five remained. One, Grace, had moved back to her home in London, England, a year ago.

This afternoon the grouping of five had together celebrated eight first-place blue ribbons, four second-prize ribbons, two best-in-show ribbons and one unprecedented grand-prize ribbon. Now, disbanding in a scattered array—a flight to Colorado, a flight to Boston, and a train ride to Florida—they parted ways. There were two left seated at the large table in the center of the room.

The lunch dishes long since cleared, along with the celebratory champagne, the two sat sipping tea reminiscing the good old days and plans for the coming weeks. Then a moment of silence passed between them.

Ellen Peyton smiled her satisfaction. It had been a good week. A blue-ribbon win for her orchids and begonias; they were the best she'd grown in years. Decidedly it was the new soil mix she been trying out and the new terrace bed she'd had built inside her greenhouse pagoda.

She picked up the ribbon and ran her finger along the gently embossed lettering. Louise looked on, knowing the look on her friend's face. Never bothering with formalities, their friendship was the closest. “If you're not careful you're going to rub the lettering right off that ribbon.” Ellen looked up, seeing her friend of so many years smiling at her. “You want to tell me what's going on? You've been distracted all week.”

Ellen knew that hiding anything from Louise was really impossible. She smiled then sighed heavily. “You remember me telling you that my great-niece, Dena, came to stay with me a few months ago to help me out when I sprained my wrist.”

“Yes, of course,” Louise said, already knowing Dena's tragic circumstances. “It was a perfect idea, her being there helped you with your wrist and hopefully got her out and back to living her life again.”

“I had hoped so but it looks like she's still hiding behind her self-imposed guilt. She never leaves the house, barely eats, and heaven knows when she's going to get herself a social life and meet someone. She's been at the house for three months and not a soul even knows she's even there.”

“The death of her husband still pains her,” Louise said sympathetically.

“She's just about martyred the man. Mind you, I'd be the last to speak ill of the dead, but Forester Graham was a lazy, two-timing, philandering momma's boy with a trust fund, a serious drinking habit and not enough sense to appreciate what he had.”

Louise chuckled softly at the stark honesty as Ellen was well-known for speaking her mind and letting the chips fall as they may. She reached over and took Ellen's hand. They were more than friends, they were family. When one of them hurt, they all did. “She's made the first step, she's left the house and now she's back with you. That's a good thing. And as for Forester, she'll learn to let go.”

“Not until she sees him for what he really was.”

“That, too, will come, in time,” Louise added.

“It's been almost five years,” Ellen said impatiently. “She stayed in that house of theirs and stewed about his memory for too long. It took me almost six months and a sprained wrist just to talk her into getting out of that house and staying with me awhile. Now she wants to get rid of the house and move halfway across the country to start a new life with her son. She needs to be here with her family.”

“Did she sell it?” Louise asked.

“No, not yet. I know it's probably the best thing for her. She just doesn't need to move so far away.”

“How's Dillon?” Louise asked.

“The little scamp gets more handsome as the days go by. He's such a sweet child, fun, loving, nothing like his father, thank heaven. And Adel, that grandmother of his, has near 'bout destroyed everything with her vindictive selfishness. Do you know that she still won't release Forester's life insurance policy or his trust fund to Dillon? It's been held up in her legal mumbo-jumbo law firm for years. Dena's just about worn out fighting with her.”

“We can't change other people, you know that. We can only change ourselves.”

“I know,” Ellen conceded. “I just wish there was something more I could do to help her heal her heart and move on emotionally.”

“Being there with you is exactly what she needs.”

“But I can't be there if she moves away.”

“When exactly does she intend to move?”

“She mentioned the end of the summer. But thankfully the real-estate market is slow right now, so interest in a large, expensive house is sporadic at best. And thanks to Adel, she won't move until she's finished with the legal battle. She doesn't need the money to move or get on with her life. She just wants all this behind her and to walk away from all this without looking back. She's given herself until the end of summer, that's less than three months.”

“I'm sure that's best, and at least she'll be around until then, that's something.”

Ellen nodded, knowing that Louise was right. She would always be there for her only great-niece but she still refused to sit by and do nothing. There had to be something else she could do to help Dena through her sorrow. Moments later she smiled, remembering. “You still make love matches, don't you?”

Louise nodded.

Ellen smiled. “I've been thinking, there's a nice young man…”

“Only when they're ready, Ellen, you know that. The heart can't find love if it's not open to it,” Louise said. Then seeing her friend's disappointment added, “But when she's ready, love will come to her. There'll be no stopping it, believe me. I've watched love a long time, even helped out a time or two. When Dena's ready, love will come.”

“When she's ready,” Ellen repeated despondently.

“Yes.” Louise nodded and winked as she gently squeezed Ellen's hand. “But in the meantime, this is what you do…”

Chapter 1

B
reathe in, breathe out. Repeat,
she reminded herself.

Dena Graham had walked by the window earlier, paused, glanced out then walked away. Ten minutes later she did the same thing. Now five minutes after that, curtains slightly drawn back this time, here she was again. “Oh, God, what is wrong with me?” she muttered with her eyes still glued to her secret treasure.

He, whoever he was, was her voyeuristic pleasure. He'd come a few times before and each time she'd watched from the safety of the house. But now, ever vigilant to his body's movements, she out-and-out stared. She just couldn't help herself.

A few weeks ago he'd stopped by and talked with her aunt at length. She still smiled her naughty obsession remembering his stance as they'd spoken. His hands firmly on narrow hips, rear end perfectly rounded, legs taut and firm; he was built and gorgeous. He'd turned at one point and glanced up at her bedroom window. She'd ducked back quickly then realized that there was no way he could possibly see her.

Then, to her lustful pleasure, a week ago he'd returned. He'd stopped by to move some oversize bags of soil into the greenhouse. Then he'd repaired the side fence, which her aunt had accidentally backed into with her small riding lawn mower.

Now here they were again, him outside and her inside looking out.

Unlike the previous times, this time her mouth hung open like a gapping black hole as the palpitations of her heartbeat shifted to a whole new rhythm. Her eyes riveted to every movement and her mouth salivating, she watched with anticipation each time his tool pulled back and slammed forward, hard and piercing. It was as if the force of his body was slamming into hers and she felt every sweet, savoring penetrating blow. Her cotton shirt did little to dissuade the sudden warmth of the stilled air around her that had suddenly heated up another ten degrees.

His body was perfection. Aptly muscled and strong, it was the kind that came with good genes and hard physical labor, not the kind that came from a monthly membership in a swanky urban gym and pseudo pick-up juice bar. Sweet, rich chocolate-brown, his shoulders sparkled with moisture as the hot sun washed over him and every muscle in his back responded to the pull of the hammer. He swung back, her head bobbed up. He swung forward, her breath halted. God help her, she was enjoying every second of her secret voyeuristic fantasy.

“Over four years of nothing and now out of the blue, you show up. Whoever you are, you've got a lot of nerve,” she whispered through the glass pane, then shook her head and continued to stare. “Umph, umph, umh.”

“What was that, dear?” Ellen asked.

“Nothing,” she said, quickly turning away.

“Lord, it's so good to be home. I'll tell you those flower shows are wonderful, but all-in-all there's nothing like coming back home and being with family again,” Ellen said as she sliced through the last lemon on the cutting board.

“It's good to have you back, Aunt Ellen,” Dena said. “We missed you.”

“I missed you and Dillon, too. But that flower show was breathtaking. I don't know when I've seen so many beautiful species of flower. And my friend, Louise Gates—you've heard me mention Louise, she lives in Virginia on Crescent Island—well, she had the most incredible peonies, big, colorful and full of life. They were truly a work of art. As a matter of fact she'll be stopping by in a few weeks to bring a few samples. I'm gonna try my hand at greenhouse peonies.”

“Oh,” Dena said matter-of-factly, finding her attention drawn back to the window again.

“I told her about the new soil mix I formulated for the layered flower bed in the greenhouse. After that fungus and infestation got ahold of my soil I didn't expect to get much, but using that new mix has really changed things.” Ellen dropped the sliced lemons into the glass pitcher, added sugar and water then stirred. “Anyway, Louise and maybe a few other members of our ladies' flower club said that they'd stop by for a visit later in the month. I can't wait until she sees the new greenhouse producers.”

“Oh,” Dena responded absently.

“So how was your week?” Ellen asked as she added the last few lemon slices, mint zest and a peppermint sprig for garnish.

“Oh,” Dena repeated.

Ellen looked up, seeing her niece distracted and looking out of the window again. “What on earth are you looking at? You've been at the window for the past twenty minutes.”

Dena didn't answer, she couldn't. She'd heard the question, she just couldn't respond. The dryness in her throat wouldn't let her. All of her senses were trained on the single form and awesome power he exuded.

“Aha, yes.” Ellen smiled knowingly. “Julian Hamilton. Now that's what you really need,” Ellen said as she stood behind her niece and peered through the windowpane.

“This isn't gonna work,” Dena suddenly said, dropping the curtain back in place but still staying at the window.

“What isn't going to work?” her aunt asked.

“Me, here, now. I can't do this. I thought I could but I can't. When you were away I started thinking, now that your wrist is better and you don't really need us anymore, there's no real reason for Dillon and I to still be here.”

“Of course there is, don't be ridiculous. Dillon loves it here and this is where you belong.”

“No, Aunt Ellen, not anymore. I think it's time I did something major, so we are going to move to California at the end of summer.”

“California?”

“Yes, Dillon and I already talked about it and he's very excited. So right after his birthday party we're going to move.”

“Dena, Dillon is three, he's excited about ants. This is your home. You're just restless. You need something to do besides think all day. I have my plants and flowers, and now Dillon has his morning and afternoon day school.

“What you need is a distraction or maybe a part-time job, something to busy your mind. You're in this house day in and day out. You need to get out and do something productive. And now for starters, do me a favor and take this outside. It's as hot as the devil out there. Go on, it's high time you got out there and met some new people.”

Dena moved away quickly as if she hadn't been staring at the man for the past twenty minutes and two months. The instant she saw the pitcher of lemonade and glass on the table, she knew. “Aunt Ellen, I know what you're doing. Stop it. You can't just replace one man with another. They don't just pop up like tissues in a tissue box. It doesn't work like that.”

“Of course it does. Child, in my experience, one is as good as another, and if anyone, I should know. Men come along every day, you just have to see the good in them and choose well.”

Having been married four times, twice to the same man, Ellen Peyton, a slender, soft-spoken woman with a mane of salt-and-pepper hair, knew a thing or two about men or at least about falling in love.

Now twice a widow, she enjoyed life to the fullest with her plants. Years ago she'd opened and continued to run a small wholesale nursery that catered to a very select clientele. Interior designers, wedding consultants, upscale landscapers and a few high-end garden centers were privileged to carry her plants. With her botanist background she was an award-winning horticulturist who lovingly cultivated everything around her, including her family.

“I loved Forester,” Dena said barely over a whisper, “even if he…”

Ellen reached over and draped her arm around Dena's waist and leaned her head on her shoulder. “Of course you did,” she said, easily knowing also that the truth had blurred over the years as it's often wont to do. Death had a way of purging wrongs, creating martyrs and sweetening the bitter truth. She could see that the pain of loss, now just over four years, was still raw. So even now there was no way she could say what she really wanted to say.

“I know you loved him,” Ellen added, leaning up to face Dena. “Forester came into your life at a time when you truly needed each other. He was there for you. That's all any woman can ask. But, child, he's been gone for over four years and you need to go on with your life.”

“How can I?”

“You take one day at a time, you heal, you find peace and then you go on. But you never forget the good times.”

“Do you ever miss having a man around?”

“I have men around here all the time,” she said, glancing toward the window.

“You know what I mean,” Dena added.

Ellen smiled and winked. “You're never too old to want a man around from time to time. Now, take this outside.”

“I didn't come back here for this. Dillon and I just needed a refuge for a while, until I sell the house.”

“Well, you were right in coming here. But you need to think of your future.”

“I am. As soon as the house is sold, we're moving west.”

“And then what?” Ellen asked plainly. “Dillon is going to need a father figure. You need to get back out there and enjoy life. It's been too long already.”

“Dillon has me and the memory of Forester.”

“Child, Dillon was only a few weeks' conceived when Forester was killed. He's gonna need someone in his life who's real.”

Dena whipped around with anger but held her tongue. She didn't need a man in her life. Dillon didn't need a man in his life. They'd be fine just as they were, they had each other.

“And before you say it, yes, I'm the last one to go on about the role of a strong man in a young boy's life. Hell, I've raised your cousins alone most of the time. But having my husbands around wasn't just for my sons, it was for me. I needed companionship, I needed love, and so will you when the time is right.”

“But that's just it, Aunt Ellen, I don't. I still have Forester, here, in my heart. He's all I need, at least for right now.”

Ellen smiled and shook her head, knowing that a time would come when her niece would set aside her guilt and pain and come back into the world whole. But until then she knew that it was her job to take care of her.

She saw the hope in her great-niece's eyes. “You, child, have your grandmother's spirit, you've just been suppressing it for so long you've forgotten how it feels to set it free. My sister, bless her soul, was free and full of life, and she passed that zeal on to your mother. But when your mother got married, she forgot, just like you did. Marriage doesn't change a person's true nature, it only makes them better or worse.”

“Aunt Ellen, this isn't about Mom, Dad or Grandma, it's about me and how I feel. I know what I'm doing for Dillon and me. We need a new life away from here.”

“Child, just take this out to that man. He's been working for near about two hours straight in that hot sun without as much as a sip of water. I'm not asking you to marry the man, just take him a pitcher of lemonade.”

Dena looked at her aunt then shook her head. Stubbornness obviously ran in their family. When her aunt put her mind to something, that was all there was. Usually soft-spoken and composed, there was no arguing the fact once she made up her mind.

She had a heart of gold and was a tender touch that'd been known to save a stray cat in the middle of a raging thunderstorm. She was always helping others and trying to fix things—sinks, stoves, cars, and now, apparently, her niece's life. Unfortunately most of her fixes were made worse. So as such, Dena took the pitcher and walked outside, knowing that this was just another disaster waiting to happen.

 

Damned if I didn't do it again.
Julian Hamilton pulled back and with one fierce, penetrating swing slammed hard, using every ounce of strength he could muster. The fury and anger that had built up inside came out each time the sledgehammer met the solid cinder-block wall. He must have been crazy from the beginning.

He remembered his brother's warnings in a quote that would go down in his mental history.
Do you have wedding bells in your pants?

But he'd done it anyway. He'd married then divorced less than a year later; the first of several romantic mistakes that nearly cost him everything, including his sanity.

The latest being the constant phone calls from his ex-wife. Although he hadn't actually hadn't spoken to her, she made a point of relaying her intentions. Unfortunately her intentions were getting back into his life.

He gritted his teeth harder.
Damn.
He just needed to stay as far away from women as possible. Every time he invited a woman into his life, he wound up neck-deep in drama.

Enter Stephanie Hall, his ex-wife, married just one year before she'd left him as soon as her child's father came back into the picture. A child he hadn't even known she'd had until after they'd returned from the honeymoon.

He'd been furious, then devastated. But since the adoption had not been finalized yet, he'd had no claim on the child he had grown to love. That was the beginning of a trend of disastrous relationships.
Slam.

BOOK: Following Love
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