Betsy had barely set her foot back onto Legend soil before being almost lifted off it again.
“Betsy! There you are! I’m so glad you can be here to watch the house while we’re gone!” Dorothy McClain, all five feet of her, swept Betsy into an enthusiastic hug. Immediately the building trepidation she’d felt in the last fifty or so miles melted away. Coming back to Legend, even temporarily, hadn’t been an easy decision. Not after the way she’d left.
Dorothy pulled back gently from the hug, and she moved her attention to the only other occupant of their world at that moment. Dorothy dropped to her knees, her eyes sparkling.
“And how are you, Miss LizBeth Ann? You are certainly looking all grown up.”
Dimples showed shyly, and LizBeth Ann’s big blue eyes grew even larger. Her chubby arm went around her mother’s jeans-clad leg.
Betsy sighed. She really had no one but herself to blame for the fact that LizBeth Ann was unfamiliar with one of the sweetest members of the McClain family. And there was lots more family in Legend…
“Honey, this is your Aunt Dorothy.” Betsy knelt, and LizBeth Ann immediately stepped into her mother’s arms, regarding Dorothy from a safe haven.
Dorothy’s enthusiastic smile never wavered. She rose to her feet, then took a step toward the front door she’d flung wide open. With a twinkle in her eye she looked over her shoulder at the two-and-a-half year-old.
“LizBeth Ann, why don’t you bring your mommy on into the house? Let’s see if we can find some cookies you-all like. I baked chocolate chip this morning. Does your mommy like that kind?”
A smile lit the little face and the dimples showed again. With her head cocked slightly to one side, she looked up at Dorothy. The quick intake of breath indicated Dorothy noticed it too.
When LizBeth Ann cocked her head that way in concentration, she looked so much like Mike. The moment passed; LizBeth Ann looked up at Betsy, and took her hand, tugging a bit, taking a step closer to the house.
“Yes. Mommy likes chocolate chip.”
Half an hour later, some of the awkwardness was gone. The miracle of cookies and milk.
“Betsy, there are a few things I need to show you before we flit off.” Dorothy quickly cleared the table and put the dishes into the dishwasher. “LizBeth Ann, you might have to help Mommy remember some of these things. Okay?”
Hopping off the chair in the large cheery kitchen and smoothing her red-and-white gingham sundress down over her knees, the child gazed seriously up into Dorothy’s eyes.
“Yes. I’ll help Mommy remember. And I can help her do work too. We’re a team. Girls gotta stick together.” She cocked her head again. “Aunt Dorothy, you’re a girl too, huh? You can stick together with us, okay?”
Betsy felt tears sting her eyes, but quickly got herself under control. Tears were pointless, even the happy kind. There had been plenty of the other kind before, when they were still in Legend. There was a lot riding on this homecoming, not the least of which was laying the past to rest.
“All right, then.” Dorothy blinked, too, and wiped her hands on a dish towel. “We girls shall stick together. Come on and I’ll give you the low-down.”
Betsy and her daughter followed the white-haired lady as she wafted out of the kitchen and up the back stairs to tour the second story bedrooms and baths. A while later they came down the large front staircase and looked at the remainder of the first floor—formal dining room, Charles’s home office, family room, formal living room, four-season back porch, Dorothy’s sewing and sitting rooms.
Betsy was introduced to circuit breakers, and plumbing cut-off valves. As many times as she’d been a guest in this house, she’d never needed to know their location. As they walked down the hallway toward the last room on the main floor, Betsy anticipated a quick peek into her favorite room, the library. She had spent many happy hours here, and looked forward to her daughter’s reaction to the large room full of beautiful books. Double walnut pocket doors at the end of the hall were closed, and squeaked a little when Dorothy pulled them open.
Betsy stepped forward, then stopped and stared. “What happened here?” she gasped.
“That’s what I wanted to tell you. I decided to have it redone simply ages ago, and you know how hard it is to get skilled craftsmen—they’re nearly extinct—so I waited and waited, and of course wouldn’t you know it, Greg could only fit us into his schedule this month!” Dorothy paused for a quick breath, her face slightly pink. “So there you have it.”
“So there I have what?” Betsy shook her head as she viewed the devastation.
“This is a big mess, Aunt Dorothy. Who made this big mess in your house?” LizBeth Ann wrinkled her nose. “Mommy, do we gotta clean this up?” She looked suspiciously at Dorothy, as if suddenly the girls weren’t going to be so tight after all.
“No, honey, you don’t have to clean it up.” Dorothy stepped gingerly across the room which was littered with scraps of wood, dirt, sawdust, and miscellaneous wads of paper. “There is a man named Greg Andrews. He—he has a business of redoing people’s houses.” She picked up an empty soda can and retraced her steps to join them at the double walnut doors. “When there’s a big project, sometimes it makes a mess. Cleaning it up—that happens after.”
“Oh.” LizBeth Ann tiptoed to a wooden sawhorse and studied it. “What’s this?”
“It’s called a sawhorse, honey,” Betsy said. “Carpenters use those—”
“Can I ride it?”
“It’s not that kind of a horse, sweetie. It’s to put wood on, when the carpenter is going to saw the wood.”
The quizzical look again. “Oh.”
Betsy looked at Dorothy. “So. Greg Andrews. I don’t know that name.”
“He moved here just a year or so ago,” Dorothy answered. “He does beautiful work, and got so busy he had to hire help.”
“That sounds good.” Betsy looked around, searching for hints of the beloved old library.
“Uh-huh. Deluxe Home Improvements is the company name. You’ll see his little signs in people’s yards after he’s done renovation for them. You know Legend. Word of mouth is enough, really. But Greg’s still got some city in him.”
“Hm. So he hires local people?” Legend always needed new employers. The small town was far enough from any cities to make commuting expensive.
Just then Charles McClain arrived, loudly. “Dorothy!” His booming voice resounded throughout the house. McClain men were notoriously loud, Betsy remembered. Loud and handsome. And some other things, too… A flash of Mike’s face flitted across her memory before she could stop it. She quickly shook her head, willing it to be gone.
“Dorothy!” he called again, evidently standing just inside the door he had entered instead of looking for his wife.
Men. Come and wait on me, honey. Come fix my dinner, honey. Put everything else aside because the man of the house has arrived. Honey.
Dorothy was already on her way toward the sound. Betsy braced herself for an awkward reunion and took LizBeth Ann’s hand, leading her that direction too.
“Charles, of all things. Don’t walk in here and start hollering like you don’t have a bit of manners.” Dorothy chastised him gently as they approached him in the entryway. “Sweetheart, we have visitors. Remember?” The couple hugged for long moments, and Charles leaned down and placed a gentle kiss on his wife’s lips.
“Whoops. My bad.” His blue eyes twinkled as he uttered the youthful comment. He winked at Betsy. “Sorry, Betsy. Really glad to see you. Just feeling a little rushed here. Say! Who is this fair princess?”
LizBeth Ann had pulled her hand out of her mother’s grasp and was hiding behind her, plastered to Betsy’s denim backside. Betsy felt the little girl shake her head no, trying to avoid an introduction.
But Charles had closed the space between them and pulled Betsy into a big, warm embrace.
“Honey, it’s good to have you home. We’ve all missed you.” The little girl came around to her mother’s side, and he reached down and gently tousled LizBeth Ann’s hair. “And we’ve missed you too, Princess. Why, you were just a tiny thing last time I saw you. And now look.”
He moved a step away, bent his long legs and knelt in front of her. “You’re half grown up! I can see we’re leaving the place in capable hands.”
LizBeth Ann lifted her hands and looked at them.
“Exactly,” said Charles. “You have good, strong hands, Princess, and I know you’ll take special care of our house while we’re gone.”
She put her hands into the strawberry-shaped patch pockets of her dress. “My name’s LizBeth Ann.” She shifted her weight to one white sandal, leaning slightly against Betsy’s leg. “But if you want, you can call me Princess, I guess.”
Everyone laughed at that, even LizBeth Ann, who had managed to rid the air of any remaining tension and make everyone feel comfortable.
Then there was a flurry of activity as Charles explained that their son Joe, mechanic extraordinaire, had pronounced their car ready for the trip to Knoxville. They would spend the night in the city with their other son, David, and his wife Rebecca. In the morning, Rebecca would drive them to the airport to catch their flight. The three adults grabbed the luggage standing neatly beside the door and hauled it out to the sedan. Charles painstakingly loaded it just so as Dorothy rolled her eyes and looked at her watch.
They’re just the same. Even though I’ve been gone a while, even though my life took a wide detour, these dear people haven’t changed. And they still want me in their family. Thank goodness for that.
All the rest of the family, including daughters Maureen and Janelle, had said their good-byes at last night’s going away dinner. So it was only Betsy and LizBeth Ann who stood in the driveway of the big white colonial and waved good-bye.
“Bye, Uncle Charles! Bye, Aunt Dorothy!” LizBeth Ann spoke softly as she waved, still smiling.
Charles honked the horn repeatedly as they turned out of the drive and headed up the road, away from Legend. And it was suddenly very quiet. Betsy silently cursed the horrendous traffic that had kept them from arriving earlier.
LizBeth Ann squeezed her hand. “They’re nice, huh, Mommy?”
“Yes, honey. They’re about the nicest people I know.”
“Me too. ‘Cept you, Mommy. You’re the very most nicest.”
Betsy looked down and smiled, brushing a stray curl from her daughter’s forehead. “Sorry. No more cookies ‘til
Early the next morning Betsy was jolted awake by a terrible noise. It took a moment to realize where she was. Could someone have broken into the house? She quickly locked the bedroom door, dialed 9-1-1 and reported a possible prowler. Then she dressed in jeans and a tee shirt.
Of all things! She’d been able to keep LizBeth Ann safe in the city, and their second day back in Legend the house was broken into. A cold sweat formed on her forehead, and she looked down at her daughter who was still sound asleep, knotted in her portion of the blanket and clutching her worn brown teddy bear. Innocence. It was heart-wrenching sometimes to see it, and to fear its loss. But—in Legend?
A few minutes later she heard a car approaching. When she looked out the window, a police cruiser pulled to a stop in the drive. A blue-uniformed officer emerged and disappeared under the front porch roof as he ascended the steps. There was also a beat-up maroon pickup truck in the driveway. Where had that come from? Then she heard men laughing downstairs, and she stomped down to investigate.
Inside the entryway were two handsome men. One was wearing a police uniform. The other, in ratty jeans and a brown pocket tee shirt, was none other than Mike McClain, LizBeth Ann’s father and Betsy’s almost ex-husband.
The two seemed to be enjoying their little joke, and didn’t notice Betsy until she stepped to within a foot of them.
“Oh! Mornin’, ma’am…” The officer squinted at her. “Betsy? Huh! I didn’t know you were back in town,” he said with a quirky grin.
She spared him merely a glance. “I’m just visiting, Matt.” She tried to pin his companion with a glare. “Michael.”
“Betsy.” He didn’t make eye contact, but looked at the top of her head.
“What in the world are you doing here?” she asked him.
He rubbed his day-old beard and looked as if he’d rather be anywhere else.
“I’m working here. For Greg Andrews. You might also remember this is my hometown.” Then he frowned and locked eyes with her. “A better question is, what are you doing here?”
Officer Matt Branson held up one hand. “Uh. I’m guessing your intruder call is a wash, huh? Looks like I’m not needed here. That right?”
Betsy shot him another glance, then glared at Mike. “Well. I suppose. But thank you for coming.”
“It’s my job. ‘Bye then. ‘Bye, Mike.”
“Yeah. See you, Matt.”
The officer stole a last look behind him before closing the front door quietly as he left. Was he chuckling?
Great. Back home in Bubbaville. She took several deep breaths to calm her anger before setting the unexpected carpenter straight on just who was in charge here. But before she could form a word, he spoke.
“I guess you’re not an early riser, but that’s not a problem for me since I have a key. Hope you don’t mind the noise of a crowbar pulling nails.” He grinned, and not pleasantly. “It puts some folks’ teeth on edge.” Mike walked to the library, and the screeching started again. He hadn’t seemed to notice—or care about—Betsy’s stunned silence.
She stalked to the library, picked her way over some refuse and stood in front of him, hands on her hips.
“You’re not going to ignore me, Michael McClain.”
He sighed, sat back on his heels and looked up at her. “I’m guessing you won’t let me do that.”
“Exactly. Why didn’t Dorothy tell me you were the carpenter?”
“Hell if I know, Betsy. She sure didn’t tell me you were coming to town. She just said a friend of theirs would be
coming to Legend to house-sit while they’re gone. D’you think I’d be here if I’d known the friend was you?”
“How would I know what you’d do? How would I know anything about you? I never hear from you. LizBeth Ann never hears from you. I have absolutely no idea what’s going on in your mind, Michael. I guess I never did.”
She turned on her heel and left, then spun around in the hall and looked at him again. “I suggest you call your employer and tell him to have someone else do this job. Heaven forbid you would have to spend a moment’s time with your daughter!” She pulled the second walnut pocket door with such force that it slammed into the first one.
“Hey! Easy with those!” she heard him yell as she headed up the stairs.
What was I thinking, agreeing to house-sit? I don’t belong in Legend anymore. I’ve already got Matt Branson out
there smirking about me dialing 9-1-1 to report Mike. That’ll be all over the county in fifteen minutes flat. I need to get to town and find someone else who can take over here, so LizBeth Ann and I can get out.
She was ready for a change, after having given Atlanta a chance. Her things were stored… There was no permanent address for them anymore, anywhere, and no reason to get tied down. Betsy’s parents had died several years earlier, and her siblings were scattered all over the U.S. Betsy had been the last to leave Legend, hanging around because Mike McClain, her high school boyfriend, had asked her to marry him. In her blind devotion she’d said yes. Saying yes to Mike had been easy, for years. Until—
The phone rang, and Betsy grabbed the extension at the top of the stairs. “Hello!”
“Betsy, honey, is that you?” Dorothy’s voice asked. “You don’t sound like yourself.”
“Yes. It’s me,” she said through gritted teeth.
“Honey, I just called to see how everything is. Um… Is the carpenter there yet? I do hope he can get the library done before I return. I want to have an open house for it right away.”
Any excuse for a party. Betsy couldn’t quite stop a smile. She said pointedly, “You failed to mention the name of the carpenter who’s working on this job, Aunt Dorothy.”
A soft sigh. “Betsy, you know I can’t help myself. I’m one of those incurable romantics, I guess. You and Mike—I think you gave up too easily.”
“Easily? You have no idea!”
“No, and I don’t need to. What I believe though, is that you children can work things out.”
“I’m not sure we can even have a civil conversation.” Betsy twirled a finger in one of her long blonde curls.
“That needs to change, honey. It’s not just you I’m thinking about, either. What about LizBeth Ann? Doesn’t she deserve to know her daddy?”
The fault for LizBeth Ann not knowing her daddy lay squarely with Mike, but Betsy wouldn’t go into that. Dorothy was sweet, but naïve. She had no idea what had gone on before Betsy took her daughter and left Legend. Nor what had happened since. Best to just let her be in a state of blissful ignorance, let the matchmaking effort fail, and go on with life as it was.
“And he obviously has a key to the house. You didn’t mention that, either. He scared me to death this morning making all that noise at the crack of dawn. I wish you’d told me.” She leaned her head against the wall. “I just wish you’d told me.”
“And if I had told you?” Dorothy paused. “Right. You wouldn’t have come back to Legend. I need you there, Betsy, and I think you know Legend is where you belong. Where LizBeth Ann belongs. But I also need Mike doing the work he’s doing. You’re both adults. I’m sure you can at least muddle through, even if you don’t get back together. Listen, he’s good at carpentry. Very good. He has a natural aptitude for beautiful woodworking, and he’s learned a lot in the short time he’s been working for Greg. Men like him have practically vanished from the face of the earth, you know. And artists can be so temperamental! Your job is to take good care of him for me. So there you have it.”
So there I have it again! Okay, good carpenters are hard to find, I guess. Therefore I’m supposed to not only house-sit, but baby-sit the carpenter, so the library can have a “coming out” party. Lovely.
Dorothy broke in on her thoughts. “So, you’ll get along with Mike, right?”
“I won’t leave the house unattended. Um—I need to go now, okay? LizBeth Ann just woke up.” A little white lie wouldn’t hurt anything.
After the call ended, Betsy walked slowly into the cheerful bedroom. This was supposed to be a time for them to rest, regroup. A time for Betsy to rethink and make some plans. At least, that’s what she’d expected. She’d known Mike probably still lived in Legend, and that there were lots of the McClain family around, some of whom might be unpleasant to her because she had left Mike. But she didn’t expect to have to deal with him this soon.
LizBeth Ann awoke with a smile when Betsy sat next to her on the bed and sang the little song she’d made up, and which she greeted her daughter with each morning. A while later she had helped her dress in a pair of red shorts and a white tee shirt with a colorful flower embroidered on the chest, and was picking out her silky blonde curls. They were too tight to comb or brush without a lot of pain involved. Betsy knew from her own experience how that was.
Most of her adult life she’d kept her hair short, like LizBeth Ann’s was now. But since leaving Legend she had let it grow. She couldn’t cut it herself without botching it, and hadn’t been able to chisel time out of her schedule that would match her pricey beautician’s quirky hours. So she had let it grow and now it was way past her shoulders. Long blonde ringlets all over, and in summer like now, humid days made it swell up like a big rain cloud. Sometimes she pulled it into a high pony tail when she was cleaning, or did two braids just for fun. When she did that she looked younger, too.
At twenty-three, she didn’t feel young anymore. Being a single parent was hard work. But even when she and Mike were together, Betsy had been forced to function like a single parent. Her husband had been no help at all. Except for eating the food Betsy cooked—which to be honest was no big thrill—and sleeping in the bed with her, he might as well not have existed. Only once had she left him alone with LizBeth Ann, for twenty minutes while she ran to the Piggly Wiggly for a gallon of milk. When she got out of the VW she could hear the screaming, and as she stepped through the front doorway of their little rental house, Mike deposited the child in her arms and left. He was gone overnight, and she worried about him some.
Nothing was wrong with her daughter that she could tell, though there was evidence of an unpleasant diaper change in the bathroom.
Their relationship grew increasingly more strained after that. Betsy continued to work full-time for Martin McClain in his real estate office, and Mike picked up odd jobs whenever he felt like it. He’d never had a job that paid well. The only one with a decent wage had been in the factory that shut down shortly after Mike was hired. Betsy’s salary as a receptionist was enough to keep them going simply because Martin, a first cousin of Mike’s, paid her more than he should have, and they rented the little house from Mike’s parents for a ridiculously small amount. If it hadn’t been for the McClains, the tiny family couldn’t have made it.
The McClains were like that, of course. Fiercely dedicated to each other. So supportive it was almost scary at times. But of course Betsy wasn’t a McClain. Mike was.
And now he seemed to have a decent job, not working for a family member, which was a surprise. Maybe he’d stay with this one. Maybe Greg Whoever could teach him some skills so he didn’t have to slide from one menial job to the next. He should have gone to trade school, but by the time he considered it they were married and needed his income, however sporadic. They’d made some stupid mistakes early on, and were still paying for them. So was LizBeth Ann, and that was the worst of it.
“Mommy, what’s that noise? Is that the man that made Aunt Dorothy’s big mess?”
“Hm. Yes. He does seem to make a big mess.” She kissed the toddler’s nose. “Let’s go get some breakfast!”
“Okay. But first I wanna see that messy man. Can we?”
Of course she had to deal with it. She couldn’t pretend there weren’t horrendous sounds coming from the library. She couldn’t pack her daughter up in the little Bug and head out of Legend, much as she yearned to. Resignation weighing heavily on her, Betsy held out her hand and pasted a smile onto her face. “Okay. First we’ll meet the messy man.”
If Mike screwed this up, she’d… Well, she wasn’t sure on that. But he’d regret it one way or another.
She’d make certain of it.
LizBeth Ann held onto the banister with one hand and her mother with the other, as the two of them descended the front staircase to the entryway. Her short blonde curls bounced with each step. Betsy had washed their faces but skipped her makeup because she didn’t want Mike to think she’d made any effort for him. She wouldn’t make any effort for him. Not anymore. Her low-cut jeans were clean but close to wearing out, and her navy blue tee shirt was nondescript. Her hair lay in a profusion of blonde curls around her shoulders and down her back. She allowed herself the wicked thought that she might look sexy yet disinterested. It wouldn’t hurt to let Mike think about how much he had thrown away.
At the closed library doors, LizBeth Ann put up her little fist and knocked. Of course it couldn’t be heard over the din. But the racket suddenly stopped. She knocked again, and a heavy sigh sounded from inside the library. Something heavy was dropped to the floor, footsteps approached, and one of the doors was pulled back.
The child looked almost straight up at the tall dark-haired man before her. She examined his features, tipping her head to one side in concentration. Her pale brow furrowed.
“Are you the man that made Aunt Dorothy’s big mess?”
The hint of a smile turned up one corner of his beautifully sculpted mouth.
“Oh.” She tipped her head the other direction, and squinted at him. “Cuz… Well, cuz you look like my daddy.”
Mike’s jaw dropped and his eyes flew to Betsy’s. She just stared.
“You wanna help me out here?” he asked.
“No, actually.” She crossed her arms over her chest. I want to watch you squirm.
Bending his tall frame down to get as close to LizBeth Ann’s eye level as he could, he looked at her. The near-smile was gone, but his eyes showed that some strong emotions were at war inside him.
“LizBeth Ann, you’re right about that. I—I am your daddy. But we haven’t seen each other in a long time. How did you recognize me?”
“I have your picture in my room. Um. In my old room I did.” She reached out her little hands and cupped his face. “I didn’t know how you felt, but I could see your face.”
“Oh my God.” His voice came out as a whisper, and Mike’s stricken eyes looked up at Betsy. She wiped at the tears streaming down her face. Would he touch her? Would he give his little girl the first hug she’d had from him?
LizBeth Ann didn’t wait to find out. She moved her hands from his face to around his neck, and stepped between his legs as he balanced on one knee. She leaned against him and patted his shoulder.
“I’m glad you’re here, Daddy.” Her voice was muffled against his shirt. “I’m so glad you’re here.”
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