Can fate-and firemen-do it again? When General Hart and his matchmaking cronies almost burn down the church, quiet bookkeeper Poppy Nelson's ordinary life is turned on its heels. With a mischievous puppy underfoot, a mysterious painting under wraps, and hidden secrets unraveling, will art restorer Dylan Powell swoop in to save more than the town's beloved artifacts.
"Chris Keniston gives us a world you'll never want to leave." Emily March, New York Times Bestselling Author of Eternity Springs series.
More on Hart Land Lakeside Inn:
Come and stay in one of the quaint and cozy cottages at Hart Land—but be warned, once you meet the family and delightful cast of characters, you may never want to leave.
Fiona Hart is the devoted matriarch. Elegant, wise, and arts patron, but despite all her efforts, she has yet to find her own artistic outlet. Lucy isn’t just a housekeeper, she’s part of the family. She also fancies herself a real life Dolly Levy, except she’s much better at cooking up trouble than the perfect match. Innkeeper and retired general Harold Hart believes in hard work, discipline, and whatever his beloved wife wants. Katie O’Leary runs the One Stop, makes the best Irish soda bread this side of the Blarney Stone, and no one is quite sure if it’s more than her baking that has the magic touch. Did we mention the Harts have nine granddaughters?
Having grown up spending summers together on the lake, the cousins are as close as sisters—closer. Each woman knows there’s no place like Hart Land. They can always count on their grandfather’s gruff, their grandmother’s sage advise, Lucy’s fresh baked cookies, Katie’s inspiration, the calming scent of fresh air—and each other.
Follow along with friends, family, neighbors, and guests as the Harts maneuver life’s curves, and just maybe find love along the way.
“You can’t go wrong with a Chris Keniston book!” RaeAnne Thayne, New York Times bestselling author of the Haven Point series.
Look for more books in the Hart Land Lakeside Inn series:
Heather - book one
Lily - book two
Violet - book three
Iris - book four
Hyacinth - book five
Rose - book six
Callytrix - book seven
Zinnia - book eight
Poppy - book nine
Release date: November 27, 2020
Publisher: Indie House Publishing
Print pages: 167
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
“I don’t see any way around this. Dylan isn’t easy.”
“I beg your pardon?” General Richard Powell, U.S. Marine Corps Retired, spoke up via Zoom from the tablet perched on the credenza. “What’s wrong with my grandson?”
“Face it. He’s not in local real estate, he doesn’t fish, he’s not in charge of an annual picnic, and he doesn’t need a place to stow away to write the great American novel. We’ve been at this for hours. There’s simply no way to bring these two together.”
“It doesn’t help any that his work isn’t exactly portable.” Cole’s granddad, Captain Donald McIntyre USN Retired, shrugged.
“We just need to think harder.” Harold knew his Poppy and Dick’s grandson Dylan would be perfect for each other. They just needed to come up with a casual way to accidentally get them in the same place at the same time.
“Why is this match so difficult? We’re eight for eight and it never took this long to come up with an idea.” Jake’s grandfather, Commander Eugene Harper USN Retired, heaved a deep sigh.
Flipping his palm face up, Don made a who-the-hell-knows gesture. “Maybe it’s the church.”
“What does the church have to do with anything?” Gene lifted his gaze from the cards in his hand.
“Something about playing cards in the pastor’s counseling office doesn’t feel right.”
“Too risky getting together at Hart House and having someone overhear or put eight and eight together. Besides, it’s not like we’re playing poker or betting.”
Don shrugged. “You’re right. We’re not plotting to rob the Pope or anything nefarious. Just giving two people well suited to each other a little nudge toward happily ever after. That’s sort of the Lord’s work.”
“It is a nice church.” Frank’s gaze danced around them at the dark wood paneling, the intricately carved trim work surrounding the built-in bookcases, and the exquisite murals on the ceiling and walls reminiscent of the great churches of Europe. “What is it, a hundred years old?”
“Almost two hundred.” The old fieldstone-based building with cedar shingles and a wooden steeple tower that could be seen almost to the next county had been the heart of Lawford Mountain for generations. “The stained glass windows are newer. About a hundred and twenty years or so. When we leave I’ll take you into the sanctuary. The handcrafted features and hand-painted murals will leave you in awe. The sad thing is that anything this old needs lots of reworking. The plumbing is constantly leaking and the tree roots are in constant battle with the sewer lines. When I offered the pastor a little donation to use the church on his day off for my men’s club meeting, he was quick to accept.”
“I’ll chip in some,” one of the voices added, followed by another and another.
Frank nodded. “I’m in too. Now, back to the final match. You said Poppy works here long hours?”
“Some days, yes. Depends on what the church board is up to and how much backup the pastor needs.” Harold reached into his pocket and handed out four Cuban cigars, one for each of his buddies and one for himself. “Maybe this will help inspire us. Since there’s no bourbon here, next best thing is a good smoke.”
“Where did you get these?”
Harold bit back a smile. “I still have a few connections.”
“You’re not supposed to be smoking those,” Dick’s voice boomed from the nearby tablet.
“It’s been over a year since this damn rollercoaster ride started. I’m doing great. Fit as a fiddle. Monthly treatments are over. I’ve been promoted to every six months for follow up.” Harold wouldn’t admit—even to his lifelong buddies—that he’d been scared to death when diagnosed, and had been lucky as hell that all he’d needed to fight this miserable disease was outpatient surgery and monthly immunotherapy.
“That does sound good.” Don focused on his playing cards. “I’ll bid two.”
“It is. At this point one cigar won’t hurt. The best war games were planned with a stiff drink whenever possible, but always with a cigar.” As challenging as the diagnosis over a year ago had been, at least it had spurred him on when it came to his granddaughters. He’d waited long enough for them to make their own matches. It was time.
“Hal’s right. All it took was a few turns of the wrench and when that faucet fell off, my Jake was practically on his way down the aisle.” Gene set his cigar in the make-shift ashtray. “Pass.”
“And despite the tragedy of Adele, we managed to get Eric and the kids to Hart Land.”
“In the knick of time too.” Retired Marine Corps Colonel Francis—Frank—Peterson peered over the cards in his hands.
“Why didn’t Gil fly in?” Don asked about Iris’ grandfather-in-law, Captain Gilbert Johnson USN Retired.
“Fishing with his son.” Frank smiled at his cards. “Four.”
“You know I can’t pass up a four bid.” Harold reached for the kitty of cards in the middle of the table.
“I know.” Frank grinned. “Some things haven’t changed one iota since Annapolis. I almost said five.”
Ignoring Dick’s contented smirk, Harold slid the four new cards into his hand. He and his academy cohorts had three more days together before Gene and Frank had to fly home. Something would come to mind. It had to. Making multiple grandfathers visiting at the same time look like a coincidence hadn’t been easy. Of course, there was always Fate. She did a pretty good job at improvisation. Lily hitting Cole with her car had been sheer genius on her part. Not that he wished Dylan to be hit by a car, but Harold was confident between the four of them here in this room and the rest of their matchmaking troops available when needed, thanks to the modern cyber world, a plan would be hatched sooner or later.
Don took a puff of his cigar and moved the ashtray out of the way and onto the small cabinet under the nearby window. “We could wait for winter and pray for an avalanche.”
“An avalanche?” Harold stopped sorting his cards.
“Yeah, you know, like that movie where the men and women were all snowbound in a small cabin for the winter. Spent most of the time dancing.”
“Seven Brides for Seven Brothers?” Frank frowned.
“Maybe.” Don shrugged.
“We’re not waiting till winter, and we’re not burying anyone under an avalanche of snow.” Harold set four cards aside. Crazy stunts like that were his housekeeper Lucy’s type of shenanigans, and even she wouldn’t go that far. “Clubs are trump.”
Frank sniffed at the air. “How old is the wiring in this place?”
“Old enough. Why?” A familiar and unpleasant smell tickled at Harold’s nose.
The other card players paused and sniffed.
“Something’s burning.” Don pushed to his feet and his eyes grew wide as he reached for the cigar that was no longer on the cabinet.
Arm straight out, Gene pointing at the large window behind them just as a burst of flames exploded from the trash can. “Where’s the fire extinguisher?”
“In the hall!” someone shouted.
The flames licked at the edge of the old velvet drapes. Don kicked the wastebasket away as the other men lurched toward the window, too late to prevent the drapes from going up in flames.
“Oh, hell.” Now Frank was stomping on the burning papers scattered across the throw rug atop two hundred year old pine floors.
Gene hurried back into the small room. “Oh, sh—”
Beating at the fiery rug with the shirts off their backs and the flames spreading to piles of papers despite their efforts, and the extinguisher, Harold stopped and whipped out his phone. No sense going through dispatch, Cole was on speed dial. “The church is on fire.”
By the time the sound of sirens had the men rushing outdoors, the pastor had come from his house across the street and turned on the garden hose. Don commandeered the neighbor’s hose and watered down the cedar shingles. Harold gave a silent prayer of thanks that the place wasn’t totally engulfed in tongues of fire. The Lord had one heck of a way of reminding him smoking cigars was not good for his health. Or anyone else’s. Especially a two hundred year old wooden building. Fiona was going to kill him.
“I don’t know how the ashtray tipped over.” His face painted with guilt, Don stood at his side.
“That was my fault.” Gene sighed. “I bumped the cabinet with my foot. Probably knocked it over.”
“I was sitting right there.” Lips pressed tightly together, Don shook his head. “I should have heard the thing fall into the basket. Should have moved the basket.”
“It could have been me,” Harold said. “My ashtray was on the other end. Maybe I nudged it. What matters is we did our best to contain it.”
The fire trucks pulled up, and like ants escaping a knocked over hill, scurrying to protect their larvae, firemen ran in every direction. Hoses spewed water at the historical building. The sound of smashed glass filled the air and Harold bit down hard on his back teeth, praying the noise wasn’t one of the ancient stained glass windows or the treasured artwork.
“That couldn’t be good.”
“Or could it?” Frank tipped his head and turned to his friends, smiling.
For a moment Harold thought senility had taken over Frank’s thoughts. Then he got it. A slow grin tugged at his cheeks. “I’ll be. Fate—and the firemen—did it again.”
“I feel like a soggy rat after a flash flood.” Poppy stood at her desk. The Lawford Mountain Community Church had survived almost 200 years of winter, rain, drought, feast and famine. She wasn’t so sure it was going to survive one cigar.
“It’s not that bad.” Pastor Robert Sullivan, her boss for the most part and known to all as Bob, smiled at her as if all the pieces of paper on or in her desk hadn’t inflated like a sponge to three times its size.
Well, not in width and length, but the few sheets that had dried since the firemen turned off the torrent of water were stacked much higher, and many no longer fit in folders.
“The water restoration people should be here any minute,” the pastor reminded her. They’d been called as soon as the firemen left the scene and informed him and church board that the building hadn’t sustained enough structural damage to preclude any efforts at rescue.
Her gaze traveled from one corner of the room to the other and out the doorway. Even in the brief amount of time it had taken the local fire department to put out the rapidly spreading fire, it had been more than enough time to soak the few rugs the church offices had. Scurrying to salvage as much as possible, she’d sloshed through the water along with half the town. People had come with their own push brooms and floor mops in an effort to drain the pooling water away from the old pine floors. The sorry scene almost made her want to cry. The church was already struggling to keep up with this beautiful, but old, edifice. They really didn’t need fire and flood on top of everyday wear and tear.
Hands on her hips, Lucy nodded. “I agree with the pastor. We did a darned good job.”
“You’ll earn extra rewards in heaven for this.” Grams stood on tippy toe and kissed Zinnia’s fiancé, David’s, cheek. “If we had to wait for the flood restoration people to get here before removing all this water, these floors would’ve been ruined.”
“And the walls,” Jake, the most recent grandson-in-law added to the clan, said. “Sheetrock soaks up water faster than a thirsty man fresh out of the desert.”
The turnout from town to help had been heartwarming. Jake had brought over every floor squeegee and wet vacuum he had in stock at the hardware store. Mabel had contributed a nonstop supply of hot coffee and tea. Poppy’s sister Lily had kept all the volunteers energized with both sugary and protein-heavy treats from the Pastry Stop. Katie kept everyone hydrated with bottles of water and sports drinks.
At one point, with so many bodies bumping into each other trying to sweep the water out the door, vacuum up the water, or carry out whatever treasured pieces of furniture and artwork weren’t bolted down, the pastor finally had to send some people home and ask them to please just pray. Poppy wanted to also suggest they give a little extra in next week’s collection box, but decided if ever there was a time to keep her mouth closed, this would be one of them. People had given so much already.
Glancing out the window, the front yard of the church looked like a sorry attempt at a tag sale. The merry widows and most of her cousins were toweling down the wooden furniture they’d successfully removed before it soaked up anymore of the water. Some neighbors held blow dryers plugged into orange extension cords and aimed at the furniture to help with the deep-down drying. Metal cabinets and wastebaskets were scattered about. At least odds were in their favor that the sun would continue to shine until it was safe to move all the belongings back inside.
“You look awfully pensive.” Her grandmother slipped an arm around her waist. “It will be fine. You’ll see.”
“I know.” Somewhere deep in her heart Poppy knew everything would work out, but the images in the back of her mind stuttered her heart every step of the way. Obviously the curtains were gone and would have to be replaced along with the scorched walls, and probably smoke stained ceiling. But it was the gorgeous artwork that normally hung in the counselling room that left her so doubtful. How would they undo the smoke and water damage? With all their other woes, she wasn’t sure the church carried enough insurance for the cost of such a major undertaking.
“You’re still frowning.” Grams wiped at her forehead with her thumb. “Have I ever lied to you?”
That brought a smile to Poppy’s face. “No, ma’am.”
“There you go.” Grams retreated a step, her linked fingers lingering slightly until she fully let go. “Now let’s see if we can find out how long thoroughly drying this place out is going to take, or if we need to set an office up for you and Pastor Bob at Hart House.”
Wiggling her toes within her damp shoes, Poppy looked down at her soiled and slightly torn skirt. The thing had seen better days. Maybe camping out at Hart House for work would be the silver lining on today’s fire. Actually, an angel from heaven appearing out of thin air and putting the place back together the way it was—murals, craftsmanship, and all—would be perfect. After all, she really did believe in miracles.
* * *
“Oh, that does look beautiful.” General Richard—Dick—Powell smiled at his grandson. “Your grandmother is going to love this.”
“I certainly hope so.” Dylan had to agree with his grandfather that the odds were pretty good his grandmother would indeed love the painting. The project was definitely turning out better than he’d expected. It had been years since he’d attempted anything original for his own pleasure. The hope was that this portrait of his sister’s children and his grandmother would be the perfect gift for her upcoming birthday.
From the other room he could hear his business line ring and the phone’s answering machine pick up. Screening calls was a necessity when he was deep in a project. “This is Pastor Bob Sullivan from Lawford Mountain in New England. We’ve had a recent… incident at our church and would like to get an idea of your fees and availability.” The man hesitated a long beat before adding, simply, “Thank you.”
His grandfather’s gaze darted back and forth to the hall doorway and back to Dylan, almost intentionally averting the phone as if it might reach out and bite him. What was that all about?
The business line rang again.
Having kept his focus on the painting in front of him, he’d barely paid attention to the previous caller. A second call within minutes had his head snapping up.
“This is General Harold Hart. I’ve been told on good authority that you’re the best in the business. You should be hearing soon from Pastor Robert Sullivan. The church will of course be having a bazaar or some other event to raise funds for your services, as well as your travel expenses from Texas.” The voice cleared his throat. “I would like to make a major—anonymous—contribution to the fund. Please get in touch with me as soon as possible.” The rough voice that sounded every bit a Marine disconnected the call. Though for all Dylan knew, army generals sounded as rough and gruff as Marine Corps generals. Maybe even the air force. But a general and a pastor? An interesting combination off the battle field. “Odd.”
“What is?” His granddad frowned at the canvass in front of Dylan.
“Not the painting. The two phone calls.”
“What’s so odd about two phone calls?” On that question the phone rang one more time.
Once again, the voicemail system kicked in. “Hello Mr. Powell, this is Nadine Baker. Your name has been floated around as someone who can be trusted with a two hundred year old building.”
Poised for the next stroke, the hand holding the paint brush lowered slowly to the palette of pastel colors. The words two hundred year old had caught his attention.
“The town will of course be responsible for your fee, but the Merry Wid—my women’s group—would like to contribute anonymously to the cause.”
Today seemed to be the day for charitable hearts.
“If you could kindly return my call to discuss figures before you speak with Pastor Sullivan, that would be very nice. Thank you.”
“That’s what’s odd about three phone calls.” Now he put the palette down on the nearby table, swirled his brush in the jar, and let his mind turn with curiosity.
“This can’t be the first time you’ve had three phone calls in a day.”
“Perhaps not in a day, but certainly back to back and all about a pastor.”
“You mean a church.” Lowering his chin to peer at his grandson over the brim of his eyeglasses, the retired general’s voice dropped a few notches as well. “I know you’ve done church restorations before.”
He had. It was some of his favorite work, depending on the need. The two projects in Italy had been his most favorites. “Yes.”
“So what makes these calls so odd?”
“Usually I deal with one person and any anonymous donations are made to the church, not to me.”
“Oh, well. I wouldn’t know about that.” His grandfather took a step back and a deep breath. “Are you interested?”
Keeping quiet, Dylan proceeded to clean his brushes. He’d pick up again tomorrow in better light and with a clear head. “Maybe.” Truth was, he was more than interested. How many chances did a man have to work in the United States on two hundred year old artwork? But it was his grandfather’s curiosity that had his interest at the moment “So, what aren’t you telling me?”
As expected, his grandfather snapped around. Eyes wide with surprise—or guilt—blinked, dropping the military veil of authority to hide whatever was going on in that complex mind of his.
“What makes you ask that?”
“Just a hunch.” Something about the way his grandfather looked lost somewhere between awkward and uncomfortable made him think perhaps the old man knew more than he was letting on. Though what the connection could be between his grandfather and an ancient small town church was beyond him. Maybe he’d been watching too many reruns of Law and Order, he was developing a cynical mind.
His granddad hesitated, seeming to search for his words. Another oddity in its own right. The former Marine Corps general was never at a loss for words. “There isn’t much to tell. Recently a friend mentioned there’s been a fire at his local church. A very old building with murals. Stories got kicked around about restoring the Mona Lisa and the Sistine Chapel and somewhere in there your name and the recent job you did for the Atlanta Museum of Art came up.”
“The Mona Lisa has never been fully restored. Too risky.”
“Yes, that was mentioned. Anyhow, these calls may or may not have something to do with that recent conversation. After all, you are one of the best in the country. Why shouldn’t they want you?”
Well, there was nothing nefarious in his grandfather discussing art or bringing up that Dylan was indeed a conservator/restorer of fine art by trade. And his reputation had indeed grown to national recognition in recent years. So why did he have this strange nagging feeling, reminiscent of a small spider loose and crawling up his back?
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