Authors: Sherryl Woods
New York Times
bestselling author Sherryl Woods sweep you away with this acclaimed tale about uncovering long-hidden secrets.
Drawn to an old trunk in the attic, Lara Calhoun is unable to resist finding out what treasure her late, beloved mother had kept hidden away for all these years. Her unexpected discovery soon turns her world upside down and makes her second-guess everything she's ever believed about her mother and about love. Will it lead her straight into Dave Lafferty's armsâor make her turn away from the love of a lifetime?
Sherryl Woods Booklist
The Sweet Magnolias
The Devaney Brothers
The Calamity Janes
The Adams Dynasty
It had been her mother's annual Valentine's Day ritual. Now it was a tradition Lara intended to continue.
She climbed the stairs of the old Victorian house that had been her home for all of her 22 years, opened the door to the attic, and stepped inside for perhaps the first time since she'd stopped playing dress-up there as a child. The old clothes and her mother's childhood toys had been the attraction then. Now it was the locked trunk that drew her across the chilly space.
Dust motes swirled in the beams of sunshine coming through the single round window. Using the rag she'd brought with her, Lara carefully wiped off the lid of the trunk, took the old brass key from her pocket, inserted it into the lock, then hesitated.
Whatever was inside had been her mother's private treasure, something that made Susan Calhoun nostalgic and teary every single February 14, as far back as Lara could remember. And yet she had continued the ritual, though it was obvious that it made her unhappy. It had been almost a year since her death and Lara was determined to carry on the tradition, even though not once in all those years had her mother told Lara or anyone else what was inside the trunk.
After the funeral Lara had asked her father about the mysterious contents. He had shrugged off the question, insisting that everyone was entitled to their whimsâ¦their secrets. Her 24-year-old twin sisters, less curious and more self-absorbed than Lara, hadn't even recalled the tradition. With their big-city careers, fancy homes, and doting husbands, they rarely came home to the small Virginia coastal town where they'd grown up, much less worried about one of their mother's many idiosyncrasies. That had been left to Lara, who identified with her mother in so many ways.
Lara sat down, letting the rays of sunshine warm her, and considered whether she was doing the right thing. Was she invading her mother's privacy? Or was this something her mother would want her to do, now that she was no longer here to carry on the tradition herself?
“Mom, what should I do?” Lara whispered. “I want to understand why this trunk was so important to you. I need a sign. I really, really need a sign.”
Just at that instant, her mother's beloved gray-and-white cat jumped onto the trunk and began purring. Maybe it was a sign, maybe it wasn't, but it was good enough for Lara. She reached for the key and turned it. As she lifted the lid, Prissy leapt down without protest and curled against her side, still purring as if she wholeheartedly approved of Lara's decision.
At first glance, the trunk appeared to be filled with little more than tissue paper, not yellowed with age as she might have expected, but as crisp and white as if it were brand-newâ¦as if it had been replaced frequently with loving care. Lara lifted the top layer and then the next, then gasped as she found the treasure beneathâ¦a wedding dress.
Like the paper, the white satin bore few of the marks of time. The tiny seed pearls adorning the neckline were as neatly in place as if they'd been sewn on the day before.
With an odd sense of reverence, Lara lifted the dress from the trunk and held it up. It was a size eight, her mother's size and her own. Her breath caught in her throat, Lara moved to an old mirror and stared, trying to imagine what her mother must have looked like in this elegant, simple gown. It had been years since she'd looked at the wedding album downstairs or even noticed the enlarged wedding snapshot on the dresser in her parents' bedroom. But gazing into the mirror she had some idea.
Not only were they the same size, but they had the same fair coloring, the same dusting of freckles across their noses if they spent too long in the summer sun, the same periwinkle blue eyes.
Tears welled up as she stared at her reflection and imagined her mother looking just like thisâokay, with her blond hair tidy, not mussed from the wintry breeze outside, and without the streak of dust on her cheekâon her wedding day.
For a moment she hesitated, tempted to try the dress on to get the full effect.
“Why not?” she murmured. Who would ever know?
Quickly she stripped out of her clothes, shivering a bit in the attic's chilly air. Slowly, carefully, she lifted the folds of fabric over her head, then let the dress slip into place. Her fingers trembled as she drew the zipper up in back. Only then did she step in front of the mirror.
As she'd known it would be, the dress was a perfect fit. Gazing at her image, she felt a lump form in her throat. She lookedâ¦radiant, as if she truly were a blushing bride.
Even though there hadn't been a man in her life for months now, even though she had so many things she wanted to do before she settled down, Lara felt the most amazing sense that someone special was just around the corner, that it wouldn't be long before she could wear this very dress at her own wedding. Though her family scoffed, Lara was a very big believer in destiny, and something told her that hers was about to take the most astonishing twist.
* * *
David Lafferty normally didn't take on quick little fix-it jobs like the one he'd agreed to do today. In fact, since he'd reluctantly left his dream job with a major developer in Atlanta and come home to help out in the aftermath of his father's heart attack, Lafferty Construction had been going after major contracts with some of the area's biggest developers. He was happiest when there were major challenges on his plate.
His father had reluctantly agreed to the business expansion, but David knew he would have been happier if the company had been some small, father-son enterprise. Usually he let David decide what jobs to take these days.
But today, for some reason, his father had been insistent that David be the one to waste an afternoon driving to the next county to repair some wobbly steps. He'd gotten the distinct impression that his father just wanted him out from underfoot. Or maybe he was just tired of hearing David go on and on about Chelsea's desire to get married.
Tonight was supposed to be the big night. She was expecting an engagement ring for Valentine's Day, but David just couldn't work up any enthusiasm. Chelsea was a wonderful woman, but he wasn't ready to have a wife or to start a family, especially when he wasn't at all certain that he wanted to stay in Virginia.
Not only that, with Chelsea, there was no spark, no magic. David wanted magic and at 25, he wasn't quite ready to settle for anything less.
He rang the bell at 337 River Glen still debating whether Chelsea was going to get that ring or not. When no one answered, he rang it again, impatient to get the job done and be on his way to the meeting he had scheduled to discuss a huge office building complex that would put Lafferty Construction in the big leagues.
Suddenly he heard what sounded like a startled scream. Testing the handle of the door, he swung it open and stepped inside just as a woman dressed in a wedding gown tumbled down the stairs and straight into his arms.
He found himself gazing into vivid blue eyes and suddenly, without warning, he knew without a doubt that this was the magic he'd been waiting for. And it had literally fallen into his life when he wasn't the least bit ready for it.
“Are you okay?” David couldn't seem to tear his gaze away from the woman in his arms. Aside from a streak of dirt on her cheek, she looked none the worse for her tumble down the stairs. In fact, she looked amazingâ¦as radiant as a bride.
Suddenly it dawned on him that a woman wearing a wedding dress was probably engaged to another man. The thought brought on a powerful surge of pure jealousy, an emotion with which he wasn't at all familiar. He had no idea how to deal with it except to ignore it. He was good at ignoring inconvenient emotions.
“I thought the bride was supposed to toss the bouquet, not herself, down the stairs,” he said, proud of his casual tone.
“Bride?” She stared at him blankly, then glanced down at her dress as if just realizing what she was wearing. “Oh, my. That's why I tripped. I was in the attic when the doorbell rang. I was rushing and I forgot all about the dress. I must have caught my foot in the hem.”
She tugged frantically at the skirt, revealing a shapely calf and probably considerably more thigh than she realized. Dave couldn't seem to prevent an appreciative survey.
“I hope I didn't tear it,” she said, studying the yards of fabric.
“So, when's the big day?” he asked, his voice annoyingly tight.
She regarded him with surprise, then chuckled. “Oh, I'm not getting married.”
Determined though he was to pretend it didn't matter, he couldn't stop the sigh of relief that washed through him. “You're dressed awfully formally for cleaning.” He brushed at the streak of dirt on her cheek.
“Long story,” she said, her gaze locked with his, her voice a little breathless. “By the way, you can put me down now. I'm fine.”
Reluctantly, he set her on her feet, though he couldn't quite make himself release his grip on her arms. It was hard to tell where satin left off and bare skin began. The fabric was cooler, he decided when he finally pulled away.
She stared at him, looking as shaken as he felt. “Who are you?” she asked at last.
“Dave Lafferty. I'm here to fix some stairs. Obviously, I was a bit too late.”
“Actually it's the steps to the attic that need fixing, not these. This little tumble of mine was my own doing. I'm always rushing without thinking. Come on. I'll show you. I'm Lara, by the way. Lara Calhoun.”
Dave couldn't seem to shake the odd out-of-body sensation he had as he followed her to the foot of the attic steps, which were, indeed, dangerously wobbly. There was something about this Lara that seemed strangely familiar, as if he'd known her all his life, yet he knew they'd never met.
Surely he would have remembered a woman with this fragile, heart-shaped face, with hair the color of corn silk and a mouth so tempting it was taking every ounce of restraint he possessed to keep from kissing her and, no doubt, scaring her to death. Better to concentrate on the steps.
“How long have they been like this?” he asked.
When his question drew nothing more than a vague hmm? he glanced up and saw that her gaze was locked on him. “Lara?”
An embarrassed blush crept into her cheeks. “Sorry. I was distracted.”
He knew the feeling. He also could think of only one way to get beyond itâfill the time with innocuous chitchat. He was a master of it.
Instead, what came out of his mouth was an invitation. “What are you doing tonight?” he asked, regretting the impulsive words the instant they were spoken.
He'd done it now. He could hardly back out, now that he'd uttered the invitation. “It's Valentine's Day. Would you like to go out for dinner?”
His gaze locked with hers and he felt that odd sensation in the pit of his stomach. “Or do you already have plans?” It was part question, part plea. If she had plans, he'd be safe. He could go out with Chelsea, who was clearly no risk at all compared to this woman.
Lara regarded him with surprise. “You want to go out with me on Valentine's Day? Surely there's some other woman you'd rather be spending tonight with. Someone you know better.”
An image of Chelsea came and went. He would have to call herâno, stop by in personâand break things off. How could he possibly go out with Chelsea when the woman of his dreams was right here in front of him, lousy timing or not?
And, he thought, allowing himself to enjoy the irony, she was already dressed for the wedding.
* * *
Lara fingered the soft, cool satin of the wedding gown and considered Dave's invitation. She didn't date strangers. She made it a rule never to go out with anyone to whom she hadn't been properly introduced by mutual friends or family. It was an old-fashioned standard, but in this day and age a woman couldn't be too careful. Her only exceptions were for men she'd met and spent a lot of time with through her job working for a restoration architect.
Funny thing about Dave Lafferty, though, it didn't feel as if he were a stranger. From the moment she'd landed in his muscular arms and gazed into his eyes, he'd felt familiar, as if their souls were somehow connected. And it was Valentine's Day. Everyone should have a date with someone special on this most romantic night of the year.
She looked into his green eyes warmed by flecks of brown and felt her heart flip over. She'd never bought into the possibility of love at first sight, but she had a feeling this man could make a believer out of her.
Still, she hesitated. “I don't know.”
“Would it help if I told you that my father knows your father?”
She brightened at that, eager for any excuse to do what her heart was yearning to do. “Really?”
He grinned. “Well enough to call and ask me to come over and do this repair job, anyway.”
“How do I know he didn't just get the number out of the Yellow Pages?”
“Call him. Ask.”
Lara considered doing just that, then dismissed the idea. What if it turned out that her father knew nothing at all about Dave Lafferty or his father? Then she'd be forced to say no to the invitation.
“I'll go,” she said in a rush.
Dave gave her a crooked smile. “Great. Just one thing.”
“Could you lose the dress?”
She glanced down and smiled. “Under any other circumstances, I'd probably be offended by that suggestion, but I suppose you're right. We don't want people to assume this is our wedding night.”
He tensed visibly at the suggestion. “No,” he said in a tight voice. “We most definitely do not want that.”
He sounded as if the very idea panicked him. Too bad, Lara thought, because the idea was suddenly beginning to appeal to herâ¦.