Home Is Where the Heart Is: A Christian Romance
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Going home was never something she thought she’d do, but when a personal tragedy wrenches Isabella back to Heartstone, her life collapses in pieces around her. Her intention is to return to the city as soon as she ties up loose ends. Instead, she discovers that her heart never really abandoned the place she once called home, while a familiar face from her past fills her with hope for a second chance in the midst of the rubble of her life.
Baker moved back to Heartstone with his two daughters years earlier when he lost his wife to cancer. He left behind a corporate job to take up a position as pastor of the local church, and he’s since grown used to a country life alone with his girls. But when he sees Isabella again, feelings long since buried rush to the surface.
Heartstone hasn’t changed at all since Isabella’s childhood years, but she isn’t sure she still belongs in the small, tight-knit community. Rather than returning to the city, Isabella discovers that things left undone and secrets newly uncovered keep drawing her back to face her own mistakes and the truth about a God she’d never believed existed.
A sweet and heartwarming second chance Christian romance set in the small community of Heartstone, where no one’s a stranger, and where a hot, summer Christmas turns everything on its head.
Release date: December 6, 2018
Print pages: 129
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Home Is Where the Heart Is: A Christian Romance
Isabella Proctor balanced the tray of coffees on one arm and turned the door handle with her other hand. She spun around and pushed the door open with her rear, careful not to drop the bag of pastries she held between her teeth. Once she was through, she hurried past the security desk toward the closest elevator and pressed the up button. The senior leadership meeting was already underway, and Simon had sent her out for more coffee and pastries.
She thought she’d gotten enough of everything they needed when she’d come into the office at seven to prepare for the meeting, but then Mr. Hampton the chairman had shown up with more people than expected and she’d had to rush out again. She was pretty sure why she’d been sent, even though she was an associate director and the room was full of associate directors. She’d learned over the years that being the only female manager had its downside.
The elevator dinged, and she waited impatiently for the doors to slide open, then stepped inside and pressed the button for the sixteenth floor. In her skirt pocket, her phone buzzed and she grimaced. That was the fifth time in a row her phone had rung – no doubt it was Simon wondering where she was. But she couldn’t move any faster, so he would just have to wait.
Isabella knew how much Simon despised waiting – for anyone or anything. Her heart pounded and a cold sweat broke out on her forehead. She hated when he was in a mood, and he certainly was today.
She’d known it was a risk to date her boss, and had resisted his advances for three long years, but she’d finally given in. At first it had been romantic, exciting and more fun than she’d dreamed. But it hadn’t taken long for his true colours to be exposed – and for her to discover he hadn’t really left his wife like he’d said he would. He’d promised her at least once a month since that he was finally ready to make a fresh start, but as far as she knew nothing had changed. Why had she always believed him before?
More sweat trailed down her spine and made her shiver.
Now that she thought about it, Simon seemed to be in a foul mood more often than not these days. He told her it was because business was bad and he was under a lot of pressure. But whatever the reason, he’d been impossible for weeks now and she wasn’t sure what she could do to make things better.
When the elevator opened at level sixteen she stepped out, the tray of coffees wobbling on her open palm. Her legs ached after running a block to the cafe in her Steve Madden pumps and she was bathed in sweat. She’d have to go to the bathroom to wipe her armpits dry the first chance she got.
The boardroom door was closed and she paused there for a slow, deep breath. It was an important day. She’d pitched an idea to Simon for how the company could snag a high-value potential Stakeholder Engagement client, and they planned to present it to the board for approval. It was a new approach, and he wasn’t sure the board would go for it, but he’d agreed she could try. Butterflies fluttered in her stomach and she closed her eyes a moment before reaching for the door handle.
Just as she did, the door flew open, knocking the coffees from her hands. The cups fell to the floor and the hot liquid splashed out all over the patterned carpet – and across her skirt and legs, burning as it landed. She cried out in pain.
Simon stared down at her, his face thunderous. His cheeks were red and sweat gleamed across his brow. With narrowed eyes, his gaze traveled from the spill to her face. “Isabella! Clean up this mess and bring more coffee! There are people in there –” He pointed into the boardroom. “– who only have instant to drink. Why in Heaven’s name the espresso machine chose today to give up the ghost, I’ll never know, but you need to be more careful. And this time, don’t take so long!”
Isabella straightened her skirt and handed him the bag of pastries. “Can’t some of us just have instant? I ran a block in heels to get this coffee and I still have a presentation to make to the board. How am I supposed to get the coffee and be back in time to do that?” She’d worked for weeks to get the presentation just right, and she couldn’t very well give it if she was running off to the cafe. Not to mention how it would look if she was dripping sweat and sporting coffee stains on her skirt and stockings.
Simon clutched the bag in one hand, the other resting on the door handle ready to drag it shut. “Presentation?” he snarled. “I’m making the presentation, you know that. It’s an important pitch – I can’t have just anybody giving it. And anyway, you’re getting coffee.” He yanked the door closed.
Her eyes widened and she gasped as anger burned in her gut. How dare he? Somewhere deep down inside she’d known this would happen. When she’d taken her idea to him, he’d acted as though he wasn’t entirely sold on it, but she could tell from the gleam in his eyes she was onto something. Over the weeks leading up to the meeting he’d tasked her with preparing all the materials and going over the research for the presentation, while insisting she keep him informed and prepare copies for him of everything she did.
Now she knew why. He’d never intended for her to make the presentation. And no doubt he’d pass the whole thing off as his idea, his work.
Her throat tightened and she choked back a sob. She’d been an associate director for Smithson Communications for five long years. She’d fetched coffee, compiled research, made phone calls, set appointments … all while her male counterparts took the lead on client accounts and climbed the corporate ladder.
Every time one of them was promoted and she wasn’t, she’d bitten her tongue and vowed to work harder, be better, make certain she was noticed for her achievements. She’d never intended to have a relationship with the boss. But he’d been so charming, so handsome and had known all the right things to say to convince her she was special to him and that a relationship between them wouldn’t change anything.
She hugged her arms around her chest and stared at the closed door, listening to the hum of conversation behind it. What had she been thinking? Her parents would be ashamed of her if they found out. They told her all the time how proud they were of her hard work and her success, not knowing how far she’d strayed from their values. Since moving to Sydney, she’d done so many things she wasn’t proud of just to get ahead. And now she could barely remember why. She almost didn’t recognize herself anymore.
She turned and made eye contact with Sherri the receptionist. Sherri offered Isabella a sympathetic half-smile as she picked up the phone. “Smithson Communications, how can I help you?” she chirruped in the same tone she repeated over and over, all day long.
Isabella sighed and stooped to pick up the scattered coffee cups. She carried them to a trash can, tossed them in, then went to the kitchen for paper towels. After she’d done what she could to clean the stains off the carpet and her skirt, she went to her desk.
That desk, nestled into a cranny beside the admin cubicles, represented one of the many promises Simon had made to her but not kept. She was supposed to have a space of her own in the associate directors’ suite, but he’d asked her to wait for a chair to open up. None ever had, so she remained in a cramped cubie with the admin officers and assistants.
Not anymore. She picked up an empty box from a nearby desk and began scooping all her personal belongings into it.
“Whatcha doin’?” asked Magda, a financial assistant whose desk always smelled of chocolate and lavender. She popped a truffle into her mouth and chewed slowly, her piggish eyes peering out over half-moon glasses.
“Quitting,” murmured Isabella, fishing fruit, photographs, hand moisturizer and personal notes from her drawers.
Magda’s eyes widened in surprise and she frowned. “What? Whaddaya mean?”
“I mean, I’m quitting!” cried Isabella, her cheeks burning. “I’m leaving. You can tell Simon when he gets out of the board meeting. I’ve put up with him and his ridiculous demands for the last time. I don’t know why I stayed this long. Why didn’t I see it? He never had any intention of promoting me, supporting me, or taking me seriously. He promoted four other associates over me – four! And I just stuck around, believing his empty promises. Well, no more. I’m gone – he can figure out how to save this company from financial ruin on his own.”
The box full, she penned a quick letter on a sheet of printer paper and carried it to Simon’s office. His desk was always obsessively tidy, never a file out of place, and it reeked of expensive aftershave. She wrinkled her nose. Then she rested her hand on a stack of files that sat in his outbox and pushed hard, scattering them across the desk. On top of the mess, she placed her scrawled letter of resignation.
Red-faced and nostrils flaring, she returned to her desk to finish packing. When she was finally done, she tucked the box under her arm and marched out of the office, Magda, her mouth ajar, stared after her, for once at a loss for words. Isabella nodded to Sherri and pushed open the large glass door for the last time.
As Isabella waited for the elevator, her rage began to dissipate and her body shook. What was she doing? She’d just quit her job without any other position lined up. She’d never done that before. She wasn’t rash or spontaneous – she was a planner, a thinker. And yet it felt so good! She wished she could see the look on Simon’s face when he realized she was gone. But she knew that if she’d stayed to give him her resignation personally, he’d talk her into staying.
And she didn’t want that. She wanted to quit – the job, and him.
A sob escaped her, but she frowned and shook her head. No, she wouldn’t cry, not yet. Maybe when she got home, but not here.
Her phone buzzed again, and she fished it out. Simon. She shoved it back into her pocket unanswered. If she talked to him now, she knew he’d wheedle his way back into her good graces. She was no good at holding a grudge and he knew it. Right now she needed time and a little space. She knew she’d have to talk to him at some point, but not now – especially when the conversation was likely to start with him ranting about instant coffee.
By the time she got home, the gravity of what she’d done had overwhelmed her. She opened her apartment door, rushed in and fell gasping onto the leather sofa. She’d never had a panic attack before, but even as the pinpricks of light danced before her eyes she knew she needed oxygen. She put a cushion over her face and breathed slowly and deeply into it until she felt calmer.
“Is that you, Issie?” her roommate Helen called from the kitchen. She walked into the living room, an apron tied about her ample waist and a mixing bowl in her hands. “I thought I heard you come in. What are you doing home so early?”
Isabella sat up on the couch and pulled her knees beneath her chin, letting her long skirt fan out about her legs. “I quit my job,” she whispered, staring at the blank TV screen in front of her without blinking.
“What?” Helen stopped stirring, eyes full of concern.
“I quit my job,” she repeated numbly. “Just like that. Simon spilled coffee all over me and yelled at me and took credit for my proposal, and I’d just had enough. So I left. I didn’t even tell him – I threw a note on his desk and walked out.” She laughed, a crazy low laugh, then stopped and blinked slowly.
“Well, I’m sure you could just go back tomorrow and say you were out of sorts. It’s not too late”.
“No! I don’t want to go back. Ever. He’s never appreciated me. And I shouldn’t have …” She closed her eyes and chewed her bottom lip.
“Slept with him?”
Isabella’s eyes flew open and her gaze met Helen’s.
“Yeah, I knew,” said Helen, one eyebrow arched as she fought a smile and started stirring again. She sat on the couch beside Isabella. “Not your smartest move.”
Isabella groaned and put her hands over her face. “I know. Ugh. I’ve messed everything up.”
Helen set the bowl on the coffee table and rubbed Isabella’s back. “Yeah. But maybe this is the change you need. You can finally do something you love. You haven’t been happy in that job for a long time.”
Isabella managed a hollow laugh. “Yeah, something I love – I can’t even remember what that is. It’s been so long since I loved anything.”
Helen stood slowly and picked up her bowl. “Well, if it makes you feel better, I was just about to make a salted caramel upside-down pudding. I’m trying out new recipes for the winter dessert menu.” Helen was sous chef at a trendy restaurant called Sandy’s a few streets over. Everyone in Sydney knew her desserts were divine.
Isabella smiled and nodded. “That does make me feel better. I’ll make the sacrifice of being your taste tester. If I must.” She laid her hand across her forehead and grimaced dramatically.
Helen laughed and headed back into the kitchen, then called over her shoulder. “By the way, your parents phoned – they want you to call them back when you get a chance. Something about coming to visit you.”
Isabella frowned. “Did they say when?”
“No, but it seemed like they meant soon. Your mum sounded kind of stressed. Anyway, give them a call when you can.”
“Okay, thanks.” Isabella stood and tucked the box of her personal items back under her arm. She walked to her bedroom, dropped it and her purse on the floor, kicked off her pumps with a sigh of relief and lay on the bed, curling up onto her side and slipping her folded hands beneath her cheek. A giant lump formed in her throat as tears pricked her eyes.
She knew calling her parents would make her feel better. A chat with them always put things into perspective and helped her to see things more clearly. But she dreaded telling them about Simon and the way she’d resigned – especially over the phone where she couldn’t see their faces to gauge their reaction.
In fact, maybe it was time she visited home. She’d been putting it off for months because work was so busy – Simon insisted he couldn’t possibly manage without her. But now there was nothing holding her back. She could go home for a few weeks, get her bearings and decide what to do next. It would be good to see Mum and Dad, and time in the country always brought a peace back to her soul that she’d never found in the city.
She rolled over, pulled out her phone and dialled. It rang, but no one picked up. They mustn’t be at the house – perhaps they were checking the beehives or feeding the horses. She tried Mum’s mobile phone instead, but it went directly to voice mail. Never mind – no doubt Mum would call back soon.
Her phone buzzed in her hand and made her jolt. Heart thumping, she held it up to read the screen – oh no. Simon. She should have known he’d call as soon as the board meeting ended, no doubt wondering where the coffee was. Or perhaps he’d seen her note or spoken to Magda. Needless to say, she let it go to voice mail again.
She let her hand fall back to her side and closed her eyes. Without even hearing his voice, her body was still bathed with sweat. She knew if she spoke to him, his honeyed words would drag her back in. There was something about him she’d never been able to resist – he knew just what to say to manipulate her. He’d been manipulating her this whole time, and she’d been too blind with love – no, with infatuation – to see it.
The phone vibrated again. Still fuming, she answered it without checking. “Stop bothering me, Simon – I’m not coming back!”
“Issie?” Aunt Cindy’s confused voice echoed down the line.
Isabella sat up in bed and smiled. “Auntie Cindy! How are you? Boy, am I glad to hear your voice. You won’t believe the day I’ve had …”
“I’m sorry to hear that, honey. But I’m afraid I have some bad news.”
Isabella’s eyes widened and her breath caught in her throat. “What is it?”
Cindy sobbed. Her voice broke when she tried to speak, and she cleared her throat to start again. “There’s … your mum and dad were involved in a traffic incident on Highway 84. The police are telling me they lost control of the vehicle and rammed into the side of a cattle truck. I’m at the hospital now … I’m so sorry, honey – they didn’t make it.”
A clock on the wall ticked slowly in step with her heart. Her breathing slowed.
“Yes, sorry … I’m here.”
“Did you hear what I said, honey?”
“Yes, I did. I …”
“I …” Cindy sobbed again, her voice trailing off.
Tick, tock. Tick, tock. Isabella’s head was spinning, but she knew what she needed to do. “I’m coming home.”
A gulp through the phone. “Good, honey. It’ll be good to see you. Just give me a call when you get here, okay?”
Isabella blinked back tears. “I’ll catch the first flight I can. See you soon. And Auntie Cindy?”
“Yes, honey.” Cindy sounded tired now.
“Thanks …” Her throat choked on the word and she couldn’t go on.
“Love you, honey – fly safe.”
When Isabella hung up, she sat on the side of the bed for several minutes while the tears snaked down her cheeks. This couldn’t be happening. It wasn’t real. Mum … Dad … they were vital, strong, alive. There must be some kind of mistake. She’d fly home and discover it was someone else’s parents who’d died in that accident. Not hers. It wouldn’t be her life turned upside down, but someone else’s. None of this was real. It couldn’t be.
* * *
Isabella parked the red hatchback rental car beside the shed and twisted the key. The engine died and the blaring radio faded to nothing. She sat in silence, her eyes focused on the white wooden house in front of her. A wide veranda wrapped around the outside and the tin roof glinted in the bright afternoon sun. Summer in Heartstone was always hotter than Sydney. She’d forgotten just how stifling it could get.
How could she go inside? She knew what she’d find – empty, hollow rooms no longer filled with Mum’s laughter or Dad’s talkback radio programs. He loved listening to those programmes while he sat in his La-Z-Boy, kicked back, his feet up and his eyes closed after a hard day’s work on the farm.
She took a long breath and opened the door, stepping out of the air-conditioned car into the hot summer day. Her hair clung damply to her forehead as she traipsed across the uneven ground to the front stairs.
She heard a sudden patter of feet and turned just in time to be knocked backward by a blur of black-and-white fur with a long pink tongue. She giggled as the tongue found her face. “Hector, no, stop it! Ugh – what have you been eating?” With a grimace, she pinched her nose closed and struggled free. Hector’s tail wagged furiously, his tongue lolled from one side of his mouth as he watched her, his head cocked to one side.
“Holy Moses, dog, you’ve got to stop eating dead stuff. That’s disgusting!” She clambered up the stairs, Hector following close behind. “I’ll bet no one’s thought to come by and feed you, huh? Well, I’ll see what I can find inside. Anything would be better than whatever you’ve been scavenging.”
The front door was unlocked and she pushed it open and stepped inside, her stomach clenching. The place looked as though her parents had just stepped out and would be back at any moment. She exhaled slowly and went to the kitchen, the tic-tac of Hector’s toenails on the linoleum the only sound in the still house.
Washed dishes stood dry in the draining rack beside the sink. Unpaid bills lay in a stack on the end of the counter beside a half-drunk cup of tea. A magazine on the dining table was opened to the crossword in the back – almost complete – with a ballpoint pen resting on the page. She ran her fingertips over the table, a lump forming her throat. Where had they been driving to? It didn’t seem as though they were headed anywhere for the day, since they’d left so many things unfinished. They must have thought they wouldn’t be gone long.
Her chest ached and her eyes smarted. She still couldn’t believe they weren’t coming back, even after stopping at the coroner’s office in Milton, the closest metropolitan centre to Heartstone, and identifying their bodies. Just the memory of that made the bile rise in her throat. She swallowed and breathed deeply.
Isabella slumped onto a barstool at the counter, laid her head on her arm and sobbed, finally letting out all her pent-up emotions. Hector sat beside her, nuzzling her leg.
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