Read 01_Gift from the Heart Online

Authors: Irene Hannon

01_Gift from the Heart

Adam followed Clare down the steps.
 

Her head was bent as she navigated the narrow stairs, exposing the delicate nape of her neck. It made her seem vulnerable. And fragile. And awakened a protective instinct in him. He’d experienced a similar feeling about his late wife. But it had been long absent from his life. Nor did it make any sense now.

For so many years, the only woman in his life had been his daughter, Nicole. Worrying about her had consumed his thoughts and energies. He’d rarely given any other female more than a passing glance.

Now Clare would be living in his backyard. As she’d noted, it was a business arrangement, nothing more. And he would do well to remember that. Even if he was inclined to consider her in a more personal light, it would be a mistake. It was a mistake he’d made once before, and he didn’t intend to repeat it. It wouldn’t be fair to any woman.

Because he just wasn’t husband material….

Books by Irene Hannon

Love Inspired

 

*
Home for the Holidays
#6

*
A Groom of Her Own
#16

*
A Family To Call Her Own
#25

It Had To Be You
#58

One Special Christmas
#77

The Way Home
#112

Never Say Goodbye
#175

Crossroads
#224


The Best Gift
#292


Gift from the Heart
#307

IRENE HANNON
 

is an award-winning author who has been a writer for as long as she can remember. She “officially” launched her career at the age of ten, when she was one of the winners in a “complete-the-story” contest conducted by a national children’s magazine. More recently, Irene won the coveted RITA
®
Award for her 2002 Love Inspired book
Never Say Goodbye.
Irene, who spent many years in an executive corporate communications position with a Fortune 500 company, now devotes herself full-time to her writing career. In her “spare” time, she enjoys performing in community musical theater productions, singing in the church choir, gardening, cooking and spending time with family and friends. She and her husband, Tom—whom she describes as “my own romantic hero”—make their home in Missouri.

 
G
IFT FROM THE
H
EART
 
I
RENE
H
ANNON

For You have tested us, O God! You have tried us as silver is tried by fire; You have brought us into a snare; You laid a heavy burden on our back. You let men ride over our heads; we went through fire and water, but You have led us out to refreshment.


Psalms
66:10–12

To my wonderful husband, Tom, who supported my decision to leave the corporate world and follow my dream. Thank you—always—for your gifts of love and encouragement.

Prologue
 

C
lare Randall drew a shaky breath and reached up with trembling fingers to tuck a stray strand of honey-gold hair back into her elegant chignon. With a sigh, she transferred her gaze from the brilliant St. Louis late-October sky outside the window to the interior of the legal offices of Mitchell and Montgomery. Normally, the hushed, elegant setting would have calmed her. As it was, the tranquil ambiance created by the dove-gray carpeting, rich mahogany wainscoting and subdued lighting did little to settle her turbulent emotions.

Still, she couldn’t help noticing that Seth Mitchell, Aunt Jo’s attorney, had good taste. Or at least his decorator did. The Lladro figurine displayed on a lighted shelf was exquisite, the Waterford bowl beside it stunning. Yet the beautiful items left her feeling only sad and melancholy, for they reminded her of another time, another life, when her world had been filled with such expensive objects. A life that now seemed only a distant memory as she struggled just to eke out a living.

Suddenly the door to the inner office opened, and three heads swiveled in unison toward the attorney.

Please, Lord, let this be the answer to my prayers!
Clare pleaded in fervent silence as her fingers tightened convulsively on the tissue in her lap.

But the distinguished, gray-haired man who paused on the threshold didn’t appear to be in any hurry to disclose the contents of Jo Warren’s last will and testament as he gave each of her great-nieces a slow, discerning appraisal.

Clare wondered how they fared as she, too, turned to contemplate her sisters. A.J., the youngest, was tall and lean, with long, naturally curly strawberry-blond hair too unruly to be tamed even by strategically placed combs. Her calf-length skirt and long tunic top, cinched at the waist with an unusual metal belt, were somewhat eclectic, but the attire suited her free-spirited personality. She seemed curious and interested as she gazed back at Seth Mitchell.

Clare looked toward Morgan. Her middle sister wore her dark copper-colored hair in a sleek, shoulder-length style, and her chic business attire screamed big city and success. She was looking at the attorney with a bored, impatient, let’s-get-on-with-this-because-I-have-better-things-to-do look.

And how did Seth Mitchell view her? Clare wondered, as she turned back to him. Did he see the deep, lingering sadness in the depths of her eyes? Or did he only notice her designer suit and Gucci purse—remnants of a life that had vanished one fateful day two years ago.

She had no time to ponder those questions, because suddenly her great-aunt’s attorney moved toward them. “Good morning, ladies. I’m Seth Mitchell. I recognize you from Jo’s description—A.J., Morgan, Clare,” he said, correctly identifying the sisters as he extended his hand to each in turn. “Please accept my condolences on the loss of your aunt. She was a great lady.”

They murmured polite responses, and he motioned toward his office. “If you’re ready, we can proceed with the reading of the will.”

Clare paused to reach for her purse, glancing at her sisters as they passed by. Morgan was looking at her watch, clearly anxious to get to the airport in plenty of time for her flight back to Boston and the high-stakes advertising world she inhabited. A.J. had slowed her step to take another look at the flame-red maples outside the window.

Clare shook her head and an affectionate smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. No two sisters could be more different. A.J. always took time to smell the flowers; Morgan didn’t even notice them. And their personalities had clashed in other ways, too. As the oldest, Clare had spent much of her youth acting as mediator between the two of them. Yet the three sisters shared an enduring bond, one that had only been strengthened as they’d clung together through A.J.’s tragedy.

And her own.

As Clare followed her sisters into the attorney’s office, her spirits nosedived. The past two years had tested her faith—and her finances—to the breaking point. Her work as a substitute teacher barely kept her solvent, and loneliness—especially during the endless, dark nights when sleep was elusive—was her constant companion. With A.J. living in Chicago, Morgan in Boston and Clare in Kansas City, their contact was largely confined to periodic telephone chats. Which was better than nothing. But not enough. For the past couple of days, as they’d come together to mourn and pay tribute to their great-aunt, Clare had felt a sense of comfort, of love, of warmth that had long been absent from her life. She would miss them when they all returned to their own lives.

Tears pricked her eyelids again, and she blinked them back fiercely, fighting to maintain control. Crying didn’t help anything. It was just a selfish exercise in self-indulgence. Especially when she had no one to blame for her situation except herself. Focus on the present, she told herself resolutely as she took a steadying breath. Just concentrate on what Aunt Jo’s attorney has to say and put regrets aside for a few minutes.

Seth Mitchell waited until the three women were seated, then picked up a hefty document. “I’ll give each of you a copy of your great-aunt’s will to take with you, so I don’t think there’s any reason to go through this whole document now. A lot of it is legalese, and there are some charitable bequests that you can review at your leisure. I thought we could restrict the formal reading to the section that affects each of you directly, if that’s agreeable.”

Morgan quickly replied in the affirmative, making it clear that she was in a hurry. Then, as if realizing she may have overstepped, she sent her older sister a questioning look. Clare nodded her assent, struck as always by Morgan’s focus on her job. Clare had enjoyed her teaching career, but she hadn’t built her life around it. Nor had A.J. put success—in a worldly sense—at the top of her priority list. Clare wasn’t sure why Morgan had become so focused on making the big bucks. But maybe she should take a lesson from her middle sister, she acknowledged with a sigh. Because she could use some big bucks about now. Or even some small bucks, for that matter. That’s why Aunt Jo’s bequest seemed the answer to a prayer.

As Seth flipped through the document to a marked page and began to read, Clare forced herself to pay attention.

“Insofar as I have no living relatives other than my three great-nieces—the daughters of my sole nephew, Jonathan Williams, now deceased—I bequeath the bulk of my estate to them in the following manner and with the following stipulations and conditions.

“To Abigail Jeanette Williams, I bequeath half ownership of my bookstore in St. Louis, Turning Leaves, with the stipulation that she retain ownership for a minimum of six months and work full-time in the store during this period. The remaining half ownership I bequeath to the present manager, Blake Sullivan, with the same stipulation.

“To Morgan Williams, I bequeath half ownership of Serenity Point, my cottage in Seaside, Maine, providing that she retains her ownership for a six-month period following my death and that she spends a total of four weeks in residence at the cottage. During this time she is also to provide advertising and promotional assistance for Good Shepherd Camp and attend board meetings as an advisory member. The remaining half ownership of the cottage I bequeath to Grant Kincaid of Seaside, Maine.

“To Clare Randall, I bequeath my remaining financial assets, except for those designated to be given to the charities specified in this document, with the stipulation that she serve as nanny for Nicole Wright, daughter of Dr. Adam Wright of Hope Creek, North Carolina, for a period of six months, at no charge to Dr. Wright.

“Should the stipulations and conditions for the aforementioned bequests not be fulfilled, the specified assets will be disposed of according to directions given to my attorney, Seth Mitchell. He will also designate the date on which the clock will begin ticking on the six-month period specified in my will.”

Seth lowered the document to his desk and looked at the women across from him.

“There you have it, ladies. I can provide more details on your bequests to each of you individually, but are there any general questions that I can answer?”

Clare vaguely heard the disgust in Morgan’s voice as she made some comment about the impossibility of getting away from the office for four days, let alone four weeks. A.J., on her other hand, sounded excited about the bookshop and eager to tackle a new challenge. But Clare was too caught up in her own bequest to pay much attention to her sisters’ questions.

“Who is this Dr. Wright?” Clare asked with a frown. “And what makes Aunt Jo think he would want me as a nanny?”

“Dr. Wright is an old friend of Jo’s from St. Louis. I believe she met him through her church, and even when he moved to North Carolina, they remained close friends,” Seth told Clare. “He’s a widower with an eleven-year-old daughter who apparently needs guidance and closer supervision. As to why Jo thought Dr. Wright would be interested in having you as a nanny, I can’t say.”

He paused and glanced at his desk calendar. “Let’s officially start the clock for the six-month period on December first. That will give you about a month to make plans. Now, are there any more general questions?”

When no one responded, he nodded. “Very well.” He handed them each a manila envelope. “But do feel free to call if any come up as you review the will more thoroughly.” He rose and extended his hand to each sister in turn. “Again, my condolences on the death of your great-aunt. Jo had a positive impact on countless lives and will be missed by many people. I know she loved each of you very much, and that she wanted you to succeed in claiming your bequests. Good luck, ladies.”

The three sisters exited Seth Mitchell’s office silently, each lost in her own thoughts. When Clare had been notified that she’d been named as a beneficiary in Aunt Jo’s will, she’d just assumed that her great aunt had left her a small amount of cash—enough, she hoped, to tide her over until she got her teaching career reestablished. She certainly hadn’t expected a six-figure bequest. Or one that came with strings.

None of them had.

She glanced at her sisters. A.J. looked enthusiastic and energized. But then, she was always up for some new adventure, and she had no real ties to Chicago. It would be easy for her to move and start a new life. Morgan, on the other hand, looked put out. To claim her inheritance, she’d have to find a way to juggle the demands of her career with the stipulations in the will. And that wouldn’t be easy.

As for Clare—she was just confused. She’d never been to North Carolina, had no experience as a nanny and had never heard of this Dr. Wright. It wasn’t that she minded moving; she had nothing to hold her in Kansas City now. Yet wouldn’t this man think it odd if she just showed up on his doorstep and offered to be his daughter’s nanny?

But Clare needed Aunt Jo’s inheritance. She had to find a way to make this work.

As the sisters paused outside Seth Mitchell’s office, each preparing to go her own way, Clare’s eyes teared up once more. It might be a long time before they were together again. And different as they were, they’d always been like the Three Musketeers—one for all, and all for one.

A.J. also looked misty-eyed as she reached over to give each of her sisters a hug. “Keep in touch, okay?”

“Have fun with the bookshop,” Clare told her. Then she turned to Morgan. “I hope you can work things out with the cottage.”

Morgan returned her hug. “I’m not holding my breath,” she said dryly.

“I’ll pray for all of us,” A.J. promised.

That was a good thing, Clare thought, as they parted. Because they would need all the prayers they could get.

Along with a whole lot of luck.

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