An ill wind is brewing up a storm and as usual, Rachael Jones is in the middle of the fray. If the local banker succeeds in bulldozing the Victorian houses she’s trying to save, she’s in for yet another rough time before the skies clear. The only bright spots on the horizon are her friendship with Luke… and her secret rendezvous with Mac…Is Rachael meant to weather the storm with Luke, who touches her heart and soul so intimately, or with Mac, who knows each sweet secret of her body?
Rachael Jones took a deep breath and looked up at the town hall’s ornately sculpted tin ceiling. Whether or not God was paying any attention or even up there at all might be debatable. Assuming He was, she certainly wasn’t first in line for any favors – she hadn’t been to church in weeks. But like Grandma Jones always used to say, You have to keep looking up, especially when things aren’t going your way. You never know when you might catch a glimpse of a rainbow.
Of course, her Grandma had also told her she shouldn’t upset the applecart, which was a shame, because Rae seemed to have an innate talent for stirring things up.
“Your Grandma Jones would roll over in her grave if she could see you now,” local banker-realtor-insurance agent Wilbur Putt said, smirking at Rachael.
She looked at the mayor. “Is he allowed to say things like that? Because my personal life really isn’t relevant to the question of whether or not I’m qualified to represent Mrs. Armerding’s best interests in the matter of her real estate. It certainly has no bearing on whether or not this property should be rezoned for commercial use.”
“He can say whatever he wants to.” The mayor looked at Wilbur and smiled. “That doesn’t mean he should.”
At least she didn’t have to wonder whose side the mayor was on, or, the two council members in the front row whose lips were curled with contempt. Luke had warned her that these city council meetings could be brutal. Who would have thought a bunch of gray-haired old people could be so vicious?
Wilbur glared down at her. “I’ve been the Armerding’s real estate agent for the past fifty years. If that doesn’t entitle me to say what I think, I don’t know what does.”
The past, Rae thought. You just don’t get it, do you?
“I may not have many friends in this community, and I may not have lived here very long, but I do care about this town. My roots are here. I moved here because I wanted to be closer to my family.” But not too close, Rae thought. “And because my Grandma thought I had something to offer this community. She knew I intended to open a business when she left me her house.” Her grandma was the one person who had always believed in her, no matter what.
Wilbur snorted. “You care nothing for this town, or the people in it. You’re just here to make a fast buck.”
Rae resisted the urge to grab Wilbur’s cane and whack him on the head. Where was Luke? Anne? They’d both promised they’d be at the meeting. She looked at Mrs. Armerding’s tight-lipped entourage of attorneys and the frail old woman at her side. She was clearly on her own.
“Everybody knows Chester Armerding intended to bulldoze the house on Rose and build assisted living units.” Wilbur sputtered. “The architect has already drawn up the plans. Chester may be gone, but I’ll not stand by and see his wishes ignored by some upstart young woman who thinks she knows what’s best for this town. It’s not going to happen. Not while I’m around.”
Which might not be very long by the looks of things.
“Calm down, Wilbur,” Wilbur’s wife whispered loudly enough for everyone within five or six rows to hear.
Lord, Wilbur did look like he was about to have a coronary. The way things were going, Rae was likely to get blamed for that, too.
The mayor pounded his gavel. “Wilbur, I need to remind you one more time that Mrs. Armerding’s right to list the properties with Wild Rose Realty is not being disputed here. If you’re implying what I think you are, you’re going to have to take it up with a court of law.”
“The only reason we’re here,” Wilbur retorted, “is because Ms. Jones filled Gladys’ head with nonsense about turning these houses into a bunch of cutesy little antique shops, teahouses, and bed and breakfasts. We all know that no one in their right mind would have given Rachael Jones the time of day.”
Great. Luke had heard rumors that Wilbur had planned to question Mrs. Armerding’s competency, but she hadn’t thought he’d actually stoop so low. This was not going well. Maybe she should have hired her own lawyer, or some friends. Or stayed home. No one would have questioned the old woman’s sanity in the first place if she hadn’t hired Rae.
But Rae was the one who stood to lose everything if the city council voted against their request for rezoning. “Sir, I have facts and figures on the jobs that will be created and the revenues that will be generated if this property and the others are approved for adaptive reuse.”
“Jobs and money for whom?” Wilbur strutted back and forth, his fingers hooked in his suspenders. “More outsiders? Perhaps if your grandma was still alive and in need of a safe, assisted living apartment, you’d be more concerned about the plight of Maple Valley’s senior citizens.”
“I’m extremely sympathetic of the need for more senior housing. I just don’t understand why you need to bulldoze a vintage Queen Anne Victorian to create space for it when we’ve got cornfields surrounding the town in all four directions.”
Ominous-sounding laughter rumbled through the room.
“With an attitude like that, maybe we should be questioning Ms. Jones’ sanity,” a man said loudly. “Or maybe she doesn’t appreciate how valuable good farmland is these days.”
“Or hard to come by,” a woman said from the audience.
So it wasn’t enough that the whole town thought she was a ruthless, money-hungry bitch who preyed on naive old widows. Now she’d offended half the farmers in the county.
“We seniors don’t want to live on the edge of town,” Wilbur’s elderly mother, Wilma, said. “The lot on Rose Street is centrally located so we can have easy access to the doctor’s office and the grocery store.”
Rae looked at Mrs. Armerding’s attorneys. Nothing. The bastards were obviously content to let her be the heavy. Fine. If that’s what they wanted…
“This whole town is less than thirty blocks long,” Rae said. “And furthermore, if these old people could walk the five blocks from the house on Rose to the Piggly Wiggly on Main with an armful of groceries, they wouldn’t be in assisted living apartments, would they?”
“Order,” the mayor said, banging his gavel.
“I think the question of Ms. Jones’ motivations is very pertinent,” said a young woman Rae didn’t recognize. “She’s the one who put all these radical ideas into Gladys’ head in the first place.”
A light flashed in Rae’s face as she sat down and reached over to clasp Mrs. Armerding’s hand. She glanced sideways and got a glimpse of Mac McPhearson. Well, at least the pictures of today’s events would be good. Mac couldn’t take a bad photo.
Rae looked around the room while the mayor tried to regain order. The Mitchell County Messenger could always be counted on to connect whatever dots the grapevine hadn’t already filled in. Not that they’d sell many copies of this edition… half the town was here to get the news firsthand.
“Poor Gladys,” Wilma said from the second row in a quivery voice. “I’ll betcha she’s been brainwashed.”
“Please reserve unrelated comments until the end of the hearing,” the mayor said, banging his gavel again.
Rae could see the headline now – Wealthy Widow Labeled Loony for Hiring Wild Rose Realty. That about said it in a nutshell, didn’t it? Someone from this town finally believed in her enough to trust her to represent them, and everyone assumed the poor woman was insane.
She looked up again, more timidly this time. If Wilbur’s threats to have Mrs. Armerding declared incompetent lost her this listing, or even deterred the council’s approval of their request for rezoning, not only would several of the town’s loveliest houses be bulldozed, but Rae might as well call Wilbur Putt and list her Grandma’s house for sale, because her chances of making it as a realtor in Maple Valley would be over.
A hush fell over the room as the attorney nearest Mrs. Armerding raised his pinstriped arm and helped her to her feet.
“It was pure providence that I ended up sitting by Rachael Jones in church one morning earlier this year,” Gladys said, her knobby hand clutching her cane. “She’d been in Maple Valley only two weeks, and hadn’t the foggiest notion who I was.”
“I’ll bet she didn’t,” Wilbur muttered in a voice just loud enough that the city council members could hear him.
Do not let him get to you, Rae thought, trying her best to look angelic. To what avail was anybody’s guess. Heaven knew Wilbur and the mayor didn’t seem particularly impressed.
“Rachael and I struck up a conversation after the service,” Mrs. Armerding continued. “She noticed I was a little stiff around the joints and offered to walk me home.”
Rae nodded. That was the Sunday she had visited the Presbyterian Church.
“I invited her in for a cup of tea, and discovered we shared a love of Prairie-style architecture,” Mrs. Armerding said. “Although I never had the pleasure of seeing her at church again, we continued to get together for tea and cookies.”
A buzz rippled through the room as Methodists, Lutherans, and Baptists who’d assumed Rae was going to the Presbyterian Church assimilated the fact that she wasn’t. Until now, each congregation had envisioned her safely ensconced in the arms of some other flock. Once they compared notes it wouldn’t take long to figure out she wasn’t attending anywhere. Oh, well. So much for being saved the embarrassment of being thought a heathen.
“And it was at one of these hen parties that you revealed to Rachael Jones that you were the sole inheritor of over three million dollars worth of real estate holdings?” The mayor asked.
Now she knew what it felt like to be a dartboard.
“We occasionally spoke of Chester and our real estate acquisitions, but never their value. Rachael has a sincere appreciation for turn-of-the-century architecture, as do I.”
“And this mutual affection for old houses was your basis for disregarding your husband’s wish that Wilbur Putt sell this property to be used for senior housing?”
Mrs. Armerding’s eyes glinted. “I was there when each of these homes was purchased. I scrubbed floors, painted ceilings, and planted petunias at these houses for decades. I oversaw their upkeep and found renters to live in them. Last month I made the decision to entrust the sale of my seven favorite homes to Rachael Jones of Wild Rose Realty. She’ll see to it that they aren’t torn down. Her specialty is finding buyers who turn tumbledown old houses into spiffy looking places just like they were when they were new. That’s just what she’ll do if you people will let her.” She thumped her cane on the floor and sat.
Rae flashed Mrs. Armerding a smile and patted her knee. If that little speech didn’t prove the old lady was still sharp as a tack, she didn’t know what would.
“Mister Mayor.” Wilbur sprung to his feet, his belly shaking. “If that doesn’t prove that Gladys Armerding is under the influence of this woman, I don’t know what does. It’s painfully obvious Ms. Jones has been prompting her.”
“Brainwashed, I tell you,” Wilma said. “Poor Gladys.”
Selling Gram’s house and making a fresh start in some other town didn’t sound half bad about right now. Too bad she’d spent every dime she had moving to Maple Valley. She turned her head and scanned the room for Luke. Meeting Luke had complicated matters even more. He obviously wasn’t going anywhere – if she wanted to be with him, neither was she.
“Fine,” the mayor was saying. “But if you’re talking about competency hearings, or condemning these properties for purposes of eminent domain so you can force Gladys to sell, then you need to let your attorneys battle this out before you involve the city council. Motion for rezoning is tabled. Mrs. Armerding’s request is denied until your lawyers can duke this out.”
Rae bent down to pick a wild rose that was half hidden under a pile of soggy leaves and maple seeds. It had rained so hard during the night that she’d been tempted to call off walking. But Rae had figured if anyone could cheer her up, it was Anne Brady.
Anne caught up to her and peered at the rose. “I’m sorry I didn’t make it to the courthouse yesterday.” She touched one of the rose’s petals. “I’m surprised it’s not frozen.”
“The leaves must have protected it from the frost.”
“I’d planned on being there,” Anne said, “but the daughter of a friend of Stephen’s mother’s called first thing yesterday morning and invited me to go to Garden Club as her guest.”
Rae stepped to the right to avoid a mud hole in the trail. “I knew it wouldn’t take long for you to make friends.”
“They seem like a nice group,” Anne said. “Stephen has known many of their husbands since elementary school.”
“I’m very happy for you.” Rae looked over her shoulder at her friend, swallowed her jealousy, and smiled. Anne would be an asset to any group she was invited to join. She was a true sweetheart if there ever was one.
“So tell me how things went yesterday,” Anne said. “The Messenger said the council tabled your rezoning request.”
“Thanks to Wilbur Putt,” Rae said, watching a pair of spruce trees whose lacy boughs were bobbing in the wind.
“Stephen says a lot of people respect his opinion.”
“The mayor certainly does.”
“At least the paper seems to be on your side,” Anne said. “When I saw the wild roses on the front page, it almost seemed like Mac was sending you a bouquet in his own subtle way.”
A quick image of Mac’s longish hair and trademark slouch formed in Rae’s mind. She tried to squelch the rush of heat she felt spreading to her cheeks. “The photo was stunning – that doesn’t mean it has anything to do with me. The wild rose is Iowa’s state flower, for heaven’s sake.”
“The caption said New Life Blossoms at the End of a Season. That’s a little too prophetic to be a coincidence.”
“He obviously stumbled across some roses in the park just like we did,” Rae said. “End of story.”
“Believe what you will,” Anne said. “I think Mac likes you, and it can’t hurt to have someone at the paper in your corner.”
“I guess if anybody would understand what I’m up against, it’s Mac. I think it’s been almost two years since he came to town and people are still mumbling about poor old Lester.”
“The old man whose job Mac got. No matter that Lester was so old he couldn’t tie his own shoes say nothing about putting film in his camera, the prevailing consensus was that He was local, by God, and if that meant putting up with a few blurry pictures, so be it!”
Anne laughed and kept walking. “I think you should try to get to know Mac better. You two would make a cute couple.”
“Mac McPhearson?” Rae said. Well, there were those broad shoulders, the soft, inky hair, and the deep brown eyes – Mac McPhearson was one of the most handsome men she knew. She’d give him that. But a relationship with him? She was thirty-eight years old. She wanted a home, family, stability, marriage, and more than anything, acceptance. Mac was a classic lone wolf personality. Sexy, yes, but not what Rae was looking for.
Anne smiled. “I know I’ve never met Luke, but if you’ve been friends for almost a year and he hasn’t made a move, my guess is he’s a confirmed bachelor, commitment phobic or gay.” Her smile faded. “That’s why I think Mac…”
“Not a good plan. I know you haven’t met my family yet, but Mac and they would be like mixing oil and water.”
Anne turned on the path and waited for Rae to catch up. “Is what they think really that important to you?”
“I didn’t give a rip until I moved back here. But this is where they’re from. Besides, I’ve caused them enough grief.”
It was ironic that now, when her Mom and Dad’s disapproval had little power over her, she was surprisingly inclined to want to please them, to spare them the heartache she’d been the cause of at sixteen, twenty-five, or thirty-two.
“I know you have your heart set on things working out with Luke,” Anne said, “and I hope they do. If I’ve learned one thing about you in the six months that I’ve known you, it’s that you’re not afraid to go after what you want.”
Her words may have been intended as a compliment, but they left Rae feeling like she was a piranha on a manhunt.
“I just hate to see you pinning all your hopes on Luke. And I’ve seen the way Mac looks at you. He may not be from around here, but he can be very charming when he wants to be,” Anne said. “You never know – your parents might find him refreshing.”
“You can’t be refreshed when you’ve never been fresh.”
The woods ended abruptly, and the soft dirt path gave way to hard cement sidewalk.
Rae looked down First Avenue at the majestic old houses that had made her want to live in Maple Valley. Painted ladies lined the wide, maple-edged streets wearing gingerbread, fish scales, and spindle-railed verandahs like fine millinery and crinoline petticoats.
The first few bars of Ode to Joy reverberated through the air. Rae stopped and twisted her fanny pack to the front so she could reach her cell phone.
“Wild Rose Realty,” Rae said, as if she hadn’t noticed Luke’s number on her caller ID, as if her heart wasn’t doing flip-flops inside her chest.
“Hey, Ray of Sunshine. Did I catch you at a good time?”
Rae looked at Anne, hoping Luke’s voice was carrying. See? She wanted to say. This isn’t just some one-sided fantasy I’m having here. We even have nicknames for each other.
Rae cradled her phone to her cheek. “Well, there are millions of customers standing in line outside my door waiting to list their properties with me so they too can be denied variances, threatened with law suits, and subjected to mental health assessments, but other than that, I’m free.”
“Mom’s friends at the beauty shop told her what happened. Did the mayor say how long it might take for him to review the findings and make a decision?”
“Mrs. Armerding’s lawyers said it could be anywhere in the neighborhood of six weeks to six months, depending on the judge’s docket should there have to be a hearing.”
“I suppose your hands are tied until then,” Luke said.
She slowed her pace and nodded. “Not much I can do until this whole thing blows over. Hey, aren’t you almost done picking corn? Maybe we should skip town and go on that dream vacation we’ve been talking about.” They had talked about vacation plans – not about going together, but she figured it couldn’t hurt to plant the idea. If Luke didn’t already know how she felt about him, it couldn’t hurt to drop a few subtle hints, could it?
“Great idea except that we have different dreams. You said you wanted to cruise up the Atlantic Coast and down the St. Lawrence Seaway to Quebec City, and I want to see New York City,” Luke said.
“We could do both. My ship leaves from New York Harbor.”
Luke’s laughter reverberated through the speaker of her cell phone. “Seriously, I called because I was hoping you were going to be home tonight. I need to talk to you about something I’ve been giving a lot of thought to. If you’re up for a little truth serum and a heart to heart, I could stop by about seven.”
“I’ll see you in a couple of hours.”
“What was that about?” Anne asked. “You’re turning ten shades of red.”
Rae tried to squelch the eager feelings bouncing around in her head. “It’s probably nothing.” But it could be something. Her fantasies could be reality by the end of the evening.
Anne looked skeptical. “So tell me! What did he want?”
“To talk to me about something important.”
“And you’re thinking…?”
“Well, it depends on what he’s got on his mind. Hopefully, the same thing I have on mine. Which will preferably happen before I’m eighty years old and no longer orgasmic.”
Anne shrugged. “Maybe this is your lucky day after all.”
“A girl can dream,” Rae said. The sad fact was, she never really knew with Luke. They teased, they goofed around, they shared great hugs and tender embraces that held the promise of intimacy. But that was it. At least until now.
They crossed the street adjacent to the City Park. Rae headed for the nearest park bench, rested her foot on the seat and leaned over to retie her shoe. The brass plaque on the back was only inches from her face.
In Loving Memory of Winston Putt III
~ Hero ~ Husband ~ Brother ~ Son ~
A Leader Who Was Loved By All.
“Wilbur’s older brother,” Anne said. “Stephen told me he was the town’s youngest mayor. He was killed in the Korean War.”
The wind whistled through the tall maples lining both sides of the street and ruffled Rae’s already curly hair into a tangled knot.
“You should never dismiss someone like Wilbur,” Anne said. “His family has too much power in this town. Even the ladies at Garden Club said you should take him more seriously.”
“They were talking about me?” Rae said.
“You ruffled a lot of feathers when you stole Mrs. Armerding’s listing from the bank,” Anne said.
“You act like I purposely dropped a house on the Wicked Realtor of the East,” Rae said. “I was simply minding my own business when the house started to spin. I heard a loud splat, and that was that. This is not my fault.”
Anne laughed. “I’m not saying the way Wilbur is treating you is right, but even you didn’t think he would simply roll over and play dead when Mrs. Armerding handed these listings over to you, did you?”
“I guess I was naive enough to think that there was enough business in this town for more than one realtor.”
“And there is. You just have to be patient. You moved back to Iowa because you wanted to make a fresh start and be nearer your family…”
“Who love me dearly as long as I refrain from asking them for money or doing anything to embarrass them publicly. Both of which I’m precariously close to having to do.”
“You wanted to make a difference in a small town where no one appreciated vintage houses, and you have,” Anne said.
“It’s taken me almost a year to get my first big listing, and now my ethics are in question. Even if I do get to keep the listing, it’s almost guaranteed that our requests for zoning variances will be refused, which means I probably won’t be able to sell any of the houses anyway. By the time this is over, I’ll likely be on my knees, groveling for Wilbur to give me a job.”
“Wow, you are cynical today.”
Rae looked up and said a little prayer. If she’d ever needed divine intervention, it was now.
“Anything else?” Anne asked.
“Well, I have only three friends in the whole state of Iowa, one of whom I have apparently unreciprocated feelings of passion for, and…”
“There’s more?” Anne said.
“Well – the whole town is talking about me. And I live in a basement,” Rae said, laughing. “Absolutely nothing is going right, and I have to be nice and take it all because good girls don’t do anything to make their Grandmas look bad.”
“Even when they’re dead?”
“Especially when they’re dead. Poor Gram’s not even around to set the record straight.”
Anne didn’t break her stride. “The important thing is that you have a dream and you’re going after it. I know we’ve only known you for a few months, but Stephen and I certainly hold you in the highest esteem.”
“Well, thanks. Hopefully the town elders won’t try to have you declared incompetent, too.” Rae leaned over a chain link fence to pet the Erdmann’s dog, whose tail was wagging like a metronome in anticipation of her daily trek by his yard.
“I don’t know what I thought would happen when I moved back here, but it wasn’t this.” Rae gave the dog a pat on the head and caught up with Anne.
“Five years from now, when you have lots of friends and your business is flourishing, you’ll look back and chuckle to think you were ever so discouraged,” Anne said.
“All I know is that I’m tired of being patient and waiting for everything to turn around,” Rae said, picking up the pace. “Maybe it sounds hokey, but I’ve really been praying hard about all of this. Heaven knows my judgment hasn’t been all that good in the past, but I truly thought I was doing the right thing when I moved here. Maybe it’s time to take things into my own hands. What does God know anyway?”
“Well, some would say quite a lot,” Anne said, looking like she wouldn’t be surprised if a lightening bolt hit them
“I’ve heard it a million times,” Rae said. “Rachael, you have to learn to weather life’s little squalls if you ever expect to enjoy the sunshine after the rain.
“Well, all I can say is, watch out, because if God doesn’t come through pretty darn soon, there’s going to be one hell of a storm.”
“Well, then. Maybe it’s a good thing you do live in the basement.” Anne rolled her eyes and glanced up at the sky.
By day, Sherrie Hansen operates a Victorian bed & breakfast and tea house called The Blue Belle Inn. By night, she enjoys writing novels, quilting, playing the piano, renovating old houses and traveling. Sherrie and her husband live in Northern Iowa.