A Harvest Heart by Denise Weimer

CHAPTER ONE

This was the day her mother and sister would understand why she wasn’t coming home.

She had it all planned out—the carefully decorated apartment she shared with two other graduates cleaned, a special luncheon prepared, and a tour of her new office and her favorite shops and a coffeehouse lined up for the afternoon. Once they saw her in their element—her hip university town, full of energy and creativity—they’d understand why the rural foothills paled in comparison.

Hope Richardson gave the pitcher of peach tea—Great-aunt Olivia’s recipe—another stir with her long-handled, wooden spoon. That should sweeten them up. She’d even made her mom’s chicken salad and served it on plates with seasonal cubed melons and muffins from the local bakery. She surveyed the spread on the cement countertop, placing the tiny crystal bowl that held sprigs of fresh mint next to the glasses. All she had to do was add ice.

She was checking her watch when a knock sounded on the door. “Ooh!” Her heart skipped a beat.

With one final glance around the living room, approving its wide, wooden floors, mixed-media artwork, and comfy, neutral furniture, she sped across the rug and threw open the door.

A mirror image of herself, a petite redhead with a peaches-and-cream complexion, shoved a hand in her face and squealed. “I’m engaged!”

The octagonal diamond could’ve taken her eye out. She took hold of her twin’s dainty fingers and moved the ring back to viewing range. “Oh, Faith, I’m so happy for you! When did this happen?” Not that it was a surprise. Faith had been dating her boyfriend, Neal Watkins, almost since meeting him freshman year at the hometown liberal arts college they’d both attended.

“This past weekend.” Faith gave her a little hug before moving into the living room to allow their mother to enter the foyer.

Hope embraced her, too, but her gaze followed Faith. This past weekend? Monday afternoon, Mom had called and asked if they could come to Athens later this week, the first visit since she’d moved from student housing into her new apartment on Prince Avenue. She’d thought that was the reason, but … “Is that why you wanted to come?”

Faith did a little spin as she looked around, making the skirt of her ecru eyelet dress swirl. “Yeah, I wanted to tell you in person.”

“And, of course, we wanted to see your place.” Mom wrapped her hand around Hope’s wrist, her touch gentle. They got their slight height and build from Mom but their coloring from her mother, now passed away. “And it’s lovely. Very chic.”

“Thank you.” She made a small, sweeping gesture. “I’m fortunate that my roommates already had the living room furniture. They just asked me to add some accessories and artwork.”

“And you’ve done a wonderful job, but then, we always knew you were great at decorating.”

“I like the old brick, though it still feels kind of like a warehouse.” Catching her lower lip between her teeth, Faith ran her hand along the wall.

“Well, we are in the old bottle works for the Coca-Cola plant.” Hope waited until her sister raised an eyebrow. “There’s normally a long wait list. I’m lucky Keira and Mindy’s roommate moved out and got married.”

“Are they here? Keira and Mindy?”

“No, they’re at work. I have lunch ready, but I can show you the place first if you’d like.”

“Of course, honey.” Mom lowered her big leather purse next to the sofa and smoothed her floral-print blouse over her tan slacks. Her molasses-and-silver curls looked extra sprightly today.

Hope gave them a quick tour, ending on the wrought-iron-fenced, third-floor balcony that provided a view of the parking lot for the businesses in the bottle works complex and the leafy lot across the backstreet. A solid wall of humidity smacked them in the face the minute they stepped outside the air-conditioning, but Hope pretended not to notice. “This part of Athens, Normaltown, has a really cool vibe. You probably noticed the beautiful old homes as you drove in, and there are lots of independently owned businesses. And we’re just steps from downtown.”

“Something which is good for your new job.” So why did Mom press her lips together, as if she disapproved? Did she still not believe that Hope could make a living planning special events? She’d given the best parties in Habersham County growing up. Everyone had said so. Her degree in Hospitality and Food Industry Management had trained her how to take it to a professional level.

“Yes, my office is there.”

Faith patted away the perspiration popping out on her lightly freckled nose. “And the big Greek houses? I guess you’re close to them too?” She scanned the horizon as she backed inside again.

“Not far. There are some on Prince, but more on Milledge.” Although that meant nothing to her mother and sister. They’d hardly visited during her years at the university, preferring her to come home to Clarkesville over breaks. And that she’d done as little as possible, opting to take summer classes and jobs. As long as she remained in Athens, she could keep her pain packed tightly away, like the souvenirs of the past in the suitcase under her bed. She ushered her mother inside and slid the door closed. “We can take a ride later past some of them. They’re beautiful—antebellum, Victorian, and Edwardian. You’d love them.”

If only they could focus on the town’s architecture and traditions instead of the fear they’d expressed over Hope’s job. She aspired to create memories of life’s milestones. They worried that would deteriorate to one long, sodden beer-fest of tailgate bashes and graduation parties.

“I’m sure we would, sweetie, but we can’t stay long.”

Why did her mother and sister always have a different plan, even after they said they’d be available all day? Hope moved to the kitchen and inserted the first glass under the ice dispenser. “Oh, but I told you about those stores and my favorite coffeehouse. And don’t you want to see my new office?”

“Maybe a couple quick stops, but then we’ll have to head on. Faith and I have a meeting about our business permit at five.”

Given the hour-and-a-half drive back to the foothills, they’d be rushed, indeed. But she swallowed back her disappointment. “About Aunt Olivia’s cottage?”

Since Mom had inherited her aunt’s English Tudor-style home late last year, she and Faith had been immersed in plans to turn it into a book and antique shop. It had seemed the perfectly logical choice, an outlet for the interests of both.

“That’s right.”

Hope frowned. “I thought you’d taken care of all that paperwork with the city already.”

“Not quite. We’ll tell you about it later, after Faith shares her news.” As her more introverted daughter slid onto a barstool, Mom smiled at Faith, then back at Hope. “My, those plates sure do look good. Is that my chicken salad recipe?”

“What else?” All three glasses now filled with ice, Hope poured the drink into each. “And Aunt Olivia’s peach tea.”

“How … appropriate.” Faith sent their mom a sidelong glance.

Those two always shared their own private language, but was Hope imagining it, or were they extra mysterious today? “Okay … well, I set the table, so can y’all help me carry everything over there? It will be more comfortable than eating at the counter.”

“Sure.” Mom grabbed two plates and made her way to the farmhouse-style table where Hope had arranged a bouquet of daisies from the local market. They each settled behind a square, woven placemat and a bluish-green, stoneware plate. Mom offered to bless the food.

Once she finished her prayer, Hope looked up with the expected comment. “So, Faith, tell me all about this engagement. I must admit, we were surprised it didn’t happen at Christmas.”

“Yes, we’ve been talking about it for a while, but Neal wanted us to graduate first. He was going to wait to pop the question during fireworks on the Fourth of July”—she paused, offering a dreamy smile to the far wall, a cantaloupe chunk impaled mid-air on her fork—“but some of his plans got changed, so he took me up to Anna Ruby instead. He had a picnic set up and everything.”

“The perfect setting for two people who spend every weekend hunting down waterfalls.” Hope chuckled. The popular National Forest park lay just above Helen, a short drive from Clarkesville into the southernmost tip of the Appalachians. “But you said his plans changed. What did you mean?”

Faith chewed and swallowed before answering. “So you know how he was going to work in the finance department of the university?”

“Mm-hm.”

“Well, his dad got him a job at a prestigious accounting firm, making almost double.”

Hope’s muffin lodged in her throat for a moment. “But don’t his parents live in Chattanooga?”

Faith nodded. Both she and Mom remained silent, watching Hope.

“You don’t mean …”

“We’re moving to Chattanooga.”

Hope’s fork clattered to her plate. “What? When?”

“After the wedding. His position begins the first of November when this other guy retires, so we set our date for mid-October. And I want to ask you to be my maid of honor, although I’m sure you saw that coming.” Faith beamed at her as if she hadn’t just lobbed a ballistic missile.

Hope’s fingers groped for the handle of her utensil. She dropped it again and settled for folding her hands in her lap. Clammy. They were clammy. “Of course, I’ll be your maid of honor. I wouldn’t have it any other way. But Faith—Mom—what about your shop?”

Faith leaned forward. “Naturally, I can’t do that anymore. I’ve let the library know I’ll work through August, then I’ll devote my time to the wedding and getting ready for the move. I’ll continue my studies for my master of library science in Chattanooga.”

She opened, then closed her mouth. “What about Aunt Olivia’s house? Are you going to sell it now?” She turned a frown upon her mother. “I can’t imagine it going outside the family. Aunt Olivia was like a grandmother to us after Grandma passed.”

A tinge of panic curled her last sentence upward. The cottage was not her style, with its long, leaded windows, half-timber over stucco and brick construction, and heavy wood interior trim, but they had so many wonderful memories there.

“Take a deep breath, dear.” Mom made a leveling gesture, the same one she’d always made whenever a younger Hope had gotten rambunctious, as Mom used to call it. Inside, Hope shrank to her five-year-old size, but then her mother gave a conspiratorial wink, acknowledging her feelings. “It’s that very thing that made me realize what I should do.”

“What’s that?”

“Well, I still need an income, and I admit, a social outlet. Losing Olivia, then your dad, and now your sister …” Her voice trailed away as she stole a glance at Faith, then swept her lashes down. She sponged up crumbs with the remnants of her muffin. “And the house is in a prime location, just off the square. Everyone knows Clarkesville has been a retirement hot spot for a decade, with no sign of its popularity waning in sight.”

“Okay, so …?”

Faith tapped the rim of her glass with her short, sensibly unpainted, index-finger nail. “It’s win-win. And think about it. Who made you love parties to begin with?”

“Those Halloween bonfires we’d hold for all our friends? And while we were roasting our marshmallows, Dad would come lumbering out of the woods in that ridiculous skeleton mask with the black hood?” Hope’s chuckle strangled off, and she patted her lips with her napkin.

“Aw, honey.” Mom tilted her head.

But, shaking hers, Faith pressed on. “Farther back. When we were little girls.” She tapped her glass again and widened her eyes.

“The tea parties? With Aunt Olivia? You loved those.” All the doilies and lace and rose-speckled china had fulfilled her twin’s childhood fantasies.

“And you didn’t?”

“I loved the food. I just wanted bigger portions.”

“But didn’t Aunt Olivia teach you how to set up for a party? Really? She did everything to a T, no pun intended. All our friends begged to be invited.”

“Well, that was true, but I still don’t get it. Where are you going with this?”

Mom pressed her napkin onto the table and spoke in a decisive tone. “I want to open Aunt Olivia’s cottage as a tea room.”

Hope stared at her as she had at her Spanish professor when he went on one of his R-rolling rampages. “A tea room. What do you know about running a tea room?”

“Well, not much, but I’ve been doing a lot of reading. And researching. Kathy Bonner, my herbalist friend, showed me where I can order large quantities of various types of tea online, and I figure I can contract with a local baker for the goodies. We’ll have to get special licensing if we’re going to serve food. That’s what our meeting is about this evening.”

She blinked several times. “Fine, but what about antiques? That’s all you’ve talked about for months.”

Mom shook her head. “Once I sold the pieces from Olivia’s estate, people would expect new merchandise on a regular basis. Faith was going to handle my buying trips, she and Neal, on their mountain jaunts. That’s more than I can do. It was hard, but I had to let go of that. Instead, I plan to use Olivia’s antiques to furnish the tea room. She had lots of tables and chairs, china, silver …”

“Can’t you see how perfect it will be?” Faith clasped her hands under her chin. “An English Tudor cottage as a tea room?”

Hope sat back and let out a small puff of breath. “Well, I can picture it, so I guess that’s a start. But this is all so sudden.”

Mom’s face grew somber. “And there’s a catch.” She played with the necklace she often wore, Dad’s wedding ring on a long chain.

“What’s that?”

“We need you.” Faith delivered the words with her dark brown eyes trained on Hope.

A jangle of alarm straightened her spine. “We? You’re leaving!”

“Not until fall. First, I have a wedding to plan, and Mom has a tea room to open. And we want you to be part of it. To spend these last few months with us.”

“Spend?” The faint little word sounded as though it were falling down a deep well … from which there was no return. Spending meant an investment, and she’d invested her time, her efforts in Athens. Hope spread her hands. “But … I have a job here. A very good job. Good enough to pay for a very nice apartment. I have friends, connections. This is where I live. Where I need to be to launch my career.”

Mom reached out again, placing her hand over Hope’s arm. “I know this is a lot to process, but we were hoping you could take some time off. Didn’t you say that summer is the slow season for your job?”

“A job I just started!”

“I know, and I’m sorry about that.” She glanced at Faith. “But we had no idea that Neal would have to move to Chattanooga. You can imagine how this breaks my heart.”

Yes. She could imagine.

“Hope, this will be our last adventure, just the three of us.” Had Hope’s expression changed at her last thought? Seemed as though Mom was reading her mind by playing this particular card. But had it ever been just the three of them? Hadn’t it been four, then two-plus-one? “Both your sister and I need your expertise. Who else would we call on for help?”

That brought to mind all those university bills that Mom had paid for sacrificially—the reason she needed an income now.

Faith spoke softly. “Mom can’t do this alone. And neither can I.”

“I mean, I’ll do what I can, but I’m not a wedding planner. And tea rooms aren’t really my thing. Maybe you can just call me if you need extra advice and I can come home on weekends.”

Mom thinned her lips and played with her napkin ring. “I don’t know if that would be enough.”

“It wouldn’t.” Faith tucked a strand of her fiery, wavy hair behind her ear. “And you know how social stuff stresses me out. Trust me, I wouldn’t be asking if I wasn’t already overwhelmed.”

She’d often found Faith hiding in her room whenever she invited groups of friends over. In high school, her sister had avoided extracurricular activities and football games, although Hope had cheered and Dad had coached. Even when Mark Springer had quarterbacked their underdog Raiders to the playoffs senior year. She’d always said she felt awkward in the student section and got harassed for sitting with their mom. And dances? No way. Not even prom. It was a miracle that Faith had dropped a stack of books next to Neal’s table in the college library.

More importantly, she’d left Faith to look after Mom not even a year after the aneurysm had stolen their father. And what she’d hoped had proven true. She could put it all behind her in a different place. She could forget that home no longer felt like home without Dad there.

But she owed them both a debt for that freedom.

Hope pulled herself out of the past to refocus on her sister.

Moisture shone in Faith’s eyes. “I need you to come home now, Hope.” She hooked her index fingers together, their symbol from childhood that twins were stronger together. An arrow to the heart. Hope couldn’t remember the last time Faith had done that. Or maybe she just hadn’t been looking.

“All right.” She heaved a sigh that felt as though it might shatter her sternum. “I can’t make any guarantees. But I’ll ask my boss if he can hold my position until August. And I’ll ask my roommate if her cousin can take over my lease for summer semester.”

“Thank you!” Laughing in relief, her mother rose up and pressed her graying, tawny curls against Hope’s russet waves. “Oh, thank you. God is going to give us our best months together yet. This will be an autumn we always remember.”

Hope couldn’t answer. Wasn’t fall when things dried up and died? For their sake, she was going home, but possibly at the cost of everything she’d spent the last four years trying to regain.