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Lavender Blue (Blue Hollow Falls #3) by Donna Kauffman (1)

Chapter One
It wasn’t every day Hannah Montgomery got to pick lavender and watch a half-naked man rebuild her bluestone fireplace. Four fireplaces, actually. Be still, my heart. “But I’ll take all of those I can get,” she murmured as she walked from the fields toward what was once known as March House. Now it was the Lavender Blue Farmhouse & Tea Room. Or soon-to-be tearoom, she thought, a happy, satisfied smile curving her lips.
Hannah swore she wouldn’t stare this time. He was up on the roof again today, under a blazing, late May sun, restoring the stone chimneys to those four beautiful fireplaces. Well, they would be beautiful. As would the rest of the place. All in due time, she thought, surprised at how serene she felt about the whole thing, this monstrously enormous task that she and her three closest friends had undertaken.
She had goals now. Clear, direct-line-to-the-finish goals. It felt good and a little terrifying all at the same time. But even the fear of the risk she’d taken by selling her home in Alexandria, along with most of her worldly possessions, to move lock, stock, and paintbrushes to the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia felt good. Taking the risk made her feel alive. And that had been precisely why she’d done it.
He didn’t look up—or down, as the case might be—as she drew near the four sets of French doors that lined the south-facing side of the sprawling farmhouse. Originally built during the Civil War, the house had been renovated, restored, and refurbished many times. There had been several additions built onto it, including the deep veranda. When the four sets of French doors that lined the exterior wall of the enclosed veranda were all opened and latched against the house, it turned the space into a porch, with an unparalleled view of the lavender fields and the mountains beyond. The veranda would be the setting for their tearoom. Eventually.
She did glance up again. One last time . Aside from being aware he was the only stonemason in Blue Hollow Falls, Hannah didn’t know much about Wilson McCall. Well, other than that he did amazing things to a sweat-soaked, white T-shirt. He lifted a large, flat piece of bluestone from the chimney and balanced it carefully on the roof. The motion had her glance turning into a protracted and very appreciative gaze. My, my, my.
Vivi had been the one to hire him and he certainly seemed to have a good work ethic. Unlike most of the folks Hannah had met since moving to the Falls, Will wasn’t the chatty type. Or the talk-at-all type, really.
She climbed the steps to the veranda, then turned to look back out over the fields. She could feel her heart swell inside her chest at the panoramic view of the Blue Ridge Mountains, laid out before her. Their timeworn, ancient tumble, the endless rippling of granite and slate, pine and cedar, never ceased to move her. In the months since she’d moved in, she’d watched in awe as the fields that spread out before her began to regain their color with the advent of spring. That awe deepened further as the proof-of-life green had slowly marched its way up into the hills, higher and higher in elevation as spring moved toward summer. Around boulders, into every fold, through every nook and cranny, color bloomed, bright and bold, cheerful and happy, as new shoots reached for the sun. If that hadn’t been a sign of hope and proof of the resilience of the life she’d come to champion, she didn’t know what was.
She actually laid a hand over her heart, feeling the thumping beat of it. She’d lived in the newly christened Lavender Blue Farmhouse for five months now, and she already knew she’d never, not ever, take that view, that confirmation of life, for granted. “Look at it, Liam,” she whispered. “Look what we’re doing here. Can you believe it?”
“You going to bring those stalks into the house or do I have to wait until you quit mooning over those hills?”
Hannah laughed and turned to find her friend, fellow life warrior, and new business partner, Vivienne Baudin, standing in the doorway that led from the broad veranda into the biggest kitchen Hannah had ever seen in her life. Born in New Orleans, Vivienne had known early on she was destined for the bright lights of Broadway, where she’d happily spent more than forty of her sixty-seven years. A former Broadway showgirl turned costume designer, now lavender farmer, she tackled every part of her life with gusto. One only had to glance at the wild swirl of carefully arranged, lavender-hued, silver curls piled up on top of her head like a showgirl headpiece to know that while the showgirl might have left New York, she would never quite be leaving Vivi. And Hannah wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I tried to pick the ones that were just opening, like Avery’s chart showed,” Hannah said, handing the big basket over to Vivi. “Let me know if I’m not getting the right ones.”
Vivi grinned. “Honey, like I could tell the difference.” She took the basket and leaned down to breathe in their scent. “We’ll do something with you, my pretties,” she said, closing her eyes in momentary appreciation. Then she straightened and let out that marvelous, smoky, infectious laugh of hers as she added, “Even if it’s wrong, we’ll have fun figuring out how to make it right.” And that, Hannah thought, pretty much summed up Vivi’s entire worldview, which was why they’d become such fast, if unlikely friends.
Hannah—thirty years Vivi’s junior—was a painter, a former children’s book illustrator, and now, too, a lavender farmer. As recently as Christmas, neither of them could have told anyone a thing about how to make tea, soap, essential oils, or anything else from stalks of lavender.
But they could now.
Time would tell if the end result was anything worth crowing about. Much less packaging up and selling. But that didn’t matter. Not yet. Now was the time for building and restoring, for repairing and learning. The time for opening their doors, their lavender fields, their tearoom, and welcoming the world into their new home would come soon enough. Hannah didn’t want to rush any of it.
A loud crash on the roof above made both women jump and look up. A moment later a rumbling reverberation came from the dining room that made the black-and-white tiled floor of the kitchen vibrate beneath their feet. “What in the world?” Hannah said, pressing her hand over her racing heart.
“Dear Lord. Sounds like half the roof just came down the chimney into the dining room fireplace,” Vivi said, her hands also clasped against her chest. “I’ll go that way,” she said, motioning toward the door to the dining room. “You go on out there and find out what on earth is happening.”
Hannah nodded, still processing the sudden turn of events. “Be careful,” she told Vivi. She turned and headed straight back through the door to the veranda, to the set of open French doors, where she was immediately grabbed by both arms and tugged sideways, pinned between the open door and a warm, damp, and very hard chest.
“Watch out,” came a deep voice next to her ear, followed a split second later by the sound of heavy debris rolling off the roof and bouncing into the yard just a dozen feet away.
“Oh!” she said, jumping at the loud sound it made, the word muffled against the hard, T-shirt-clad shoulder as he instinctively jerked her closer and turned to shield her from the falling stone, brick, and other debris. Her body reacted instantly—and quite favorably—to the sudden, full-body contact. It took her mind a few seconds longer to catch up. Will McCall, he of her rooftop fantasies, had her pinned to her own French door. So she could be excused for being a little muddled.
“Chimney’s coming down,” he said by way of explanation, not letting her go quite yet.
“Intentionally?” she asked, her voice still a bit high pitched, her body and mind at odds over the clamor happening on the rooftop and the one happening inside her own body. The sudden change to her previously uninhabited personal space was as jarring as the pieces of chimney thumping into the side yard. Likely because it had been a very, very long time since her personal space had been so thoroughly . . . inhabited.
“No,” he said, as succinct as always. “Sorry for the scare. You okay?”
“Startled, but yes, I think so,” she said, knowing she sounded a bit breathless, and perhaps not entirely due to almost being pummeled to death by falling chimney debris. “I might not have been if it wasn’t for your quick reflexes.” She lifted her gaze to his. “Thank you.”
Now that the immediate danger had been averted, she tried not to stare. Again. Of course, she’d been trying and failing to not stare at the man for two weeks running now, and this moment proved to be no different. But now that all of him was right up close and personal with all of her, it was kind of impossible not to. Her first thought was that he was older than she’d realized. Closer to her own age, maybe even a few years older. There were lines at the corners of his eyes, which might have come from working in the sun. Not from smiling, she thought. At least she couldn’t recall seeing him look anything other than serious and focused on his work. Green, she noted, as her gaze got hung up in his, filling in another detail she’d wondered about. Beautiful, dark, almost gemstone-rich, green eyes.
His hair was dark—which she’d already surmised—and average in length, cut close on the sides and back, a little longer on top. But now she could see how thick it was, and just on the side of unruly, maybe because of the heat. Maybe because he raked his hands through it. Her fingers itched to do the same. He was clean shaven, though there was a hint of shadow already coming through on the hard lines of his jaw, and it wasn’t two in the afternoon yet.
She already knew the way his T-shirt clung to every ripple and curve of the muscles in his back, chest, and shoulders. Shoulders she was now getting intimately acquainted with, given her palms were plastered to both of them. Throwing around big chunks of granite and bluestone all day long apparently did a body good. Really, really good. That led her to wonder what he’d look like with that dirty, white T-shirt stripped off and—
“Ma’am?”
She jerked her gaze back to his, feeling a hot flush rise to her cheeks at being caught staring. Only he didn’t look amused. Or insulted, for that matter. Just concerned. Clearly, he wasn’t experiencing the same awakening of the senses she was. The “ma’am” part should have made her feel ancient, only from him it had merely sounded polite. The kind of politeness instilled by generations of southern mamas . . . or maybe by the military, since he had no southern accent that she could discern.
“I’m sorry—I’m fine,” she assured him, quick to smile, while trying not to get lost in those emerald-green eyes of his again. They really were something. “You—this just caught me more off guard than I thought,” she said, having completely forgotten about her close brush with the falling chimney until that moment. “And it’s Hannah, please.”
“Will,” he replied, not quite gruffly, but close. He finally, carefully set her back a step, keeping hold of her elbows, concern still clear on his face. He was taller than she’d expected, too. Though why she’d expected anything one way or the other, she couldn’t have said. He was a good three inches taller than her own five-foot-nine, which was nice. Even if it didn’t matter. At all.
His concerned look didn’t ease, but he did turn his attention toward the side yard.
She glanced past him and gasped at the array of broken stone and brick that littered the side yard she’d traversed less than thirty minutes ago. “What happened?” She automatically started to slide out from her spot between him and the pinned back door, only to have him hold her right where she was.
“Don’t,” he warned. “There’s more to come down yet.” Trying hard to ignore his broad, warm palm wrapped around her bare arm, and the feeling of her chest rubbing up against his chest, and the skitter of sensations that sent through her, she shifted her gaze past his shoulder to the yard again. “We heard a loud crash and a rumbling sound in the dining room, but I had no idea what—” She broke off and her eyes widened as she looked at him again. “Wait, are you okay?” She looked him up and down, or as much as she could given the tight quarters, searching for signs of injury. “You didn’t tumble off—”
“No,” he assured her. “I thought I could contain it, but when I realized the whole chimney was going to go, I climbed down to warn you not to go outside for a bit. Only it followed me down before I could knock on the door.”
“I think it came down inside as well,” she told him, relieved that he hadn’t been hurt. “It sounded like the Thunderdome opened up a location in our dining room.”
The corner of his mouth might have curved the slightest bit for the briefest of moments at her Mad Max reference, but she wasn’t sure because a second later he was shaking his head, his jaw flexing, possibly due to the words he looked ready to mutter, but didn’t, in deference to her presence. “I’ll head in and check that out, but you’ll all need to use the front entrance to the house until I give the all clear.”
Hannah nodded her assent, then grew worried again. “Wait, Vivi went to check the dining room fireplace. Should she not be in there? Is there a chance—”
But Will was already moving her safely inside the enclosed veranda, then letting her go and heading through the door into the kitchen. She followed right behind him. “Stay here,” he told her in a tone that left zero opening for argument, then cut through the spacious kitchen toward the arched doorway that led into the formal dining room. “Ms. Baudin,” he called out as he went. “You shouldn’t be—”
Vivi met him in the arched doorway, bringing him up short. “I’m fine, I’m fine. And I believe I’ve mentioned, it’s Vivienne,” she told him. “Or Vivi. Sounds like you’re calling my mama otherwise. God rest her soul.”
Hannah’s worry immediately lifted. She hid her amusement at the abashed look on Will’s dirt-streaked face. A moment ago he’d looked like a five-star general commanding the troops. Only Vivi could reduce a general to a chastised schoolboy.
“Sorry, ma’am.” At her perfectly arched eyebrow, he said, “Miss Vivienne.”
Vivi accepted the polite, southern form of address with a smile and a regal nod that did her showgirl background proud. She always carried herself as if she was casually balancing a thirty-pound headpiece. In heels. “As I was about to say, it appears half the chimney is now filling the fireplace grate and a good part of the stone hearth. What on earth happened?”
“It collapsed,” Hannah said. “Almost took Will with it.”
Vivi’s eyes traveled from Will to Hannah, paused consideringly, then moved back to Will. “You’re okay, though?”
Will nodded. “The stonework on the front room chimney that I restored first was bluestone veneer on block, redone from the original brick back in the mid-eighties. It was just as stated on the plans I got from the county. Supposedly all four had been redone the same way. Only when I went to repoint the joints on the dining room chimney, I learned—too late—that they had just slapped the stone to the front of the brick, which had been crumbling due to leaks that weakened the structure from the top down. Hence the remodel in the eighties. For some reason, they didn’t replace the brick on that one, just put the stone over it. Only whoever did the job didn’t do anything to shore up the disintegrating brick joints first. Maybe they thought attaching stone to it would do the trick, and, I’ll admit, it’s held up for a long time. But once I started to remove the stone, they all started to go. The brick behind the stone essentially crumbled. There was no way to know until the stone being removed revealed the brick, and by then it was already too late.”
“Well, I don’t see how you could have known otherwise,” Vivi said, seeming calm about this unexpected state of affairs. “I’m just grateful you weren’t injured. Will you be able to rebuild using the bluestone?”
At the same time, Hannah asked, “Are the other two chimneys like that one? Or the first one?”
“Yes,” he told Vivi, “only it will be a more extensive repair. For that one, at least, you’re looking at a full replacement. And I don’t know what that will mean for the fireplace inside, but I imagine it will have to be rebuilt from top to bottom. You wanted the hearth and mantel redone on that one anyway, so it’s not quite as bad as it sounds.” Will turned to Hannah. “I don’t know yet. I’m going to brace them before I go further, so at least if they start to go they won’t fall into the yard. The dining room chimney will have to be dismantled the rest of the way and removed.” He looked back to Vivi. “I’ll do a full assessment and give you a revised estimate; then you can let me know how you want to proceed.”
“Well, we need functioning chimneys,” Vivi told him. “I’m not closing them off. So, do whatever needs doing.”
“You’ll want to look over the cost analysis,” he told her, looking surprised at her casual reaction. “My previous bid wouldn’t cover—”
Vivi merely waved her beringed hands at him, the many gold and silver bangles she wore on her wrists making a jingling sound at the motion that sounded like wind chimes. “As I said, do what needs doing. I trust you’re charging a fair price, despite not having any competition.”
Will frowned at that last part. Hannah knew that Vivi was never quite as casual about things as she let on. Nor was she stupid. Far from. Though the lavender hair and over-the-top accessories might lead one to think otherwise, Vivienne Baudin was shrewd about finances and a keen judge of character. That didn’t mean she didn’t test the waters from time to time, just to make certain.
Thanks to both of those finely tuned traits, along with a very successful career in stage costuming and alimony from two wealthy ex-husbands, money wasn’t an issue for Vivi. Most recently, she had also received a substantial inheritance—part of which had been March House—from the man she’d thought of as her soul mate. That didn’t mean she wasn’t smart about her finances, but her cushion was such that when she decided she wanted something, she found the right person for the job, then rarely let any obstacle come between her and getting the desired end result.
Hannah smiled. Will McCall was about to find that out.
“There are other tradesmen down in Turtle Springs,” Will began, and Hannah could see his jaw was a bit tighter, though his voice was as calm and smooth as it had been all along. “I can recommend two who work with me on bigger projects. I’m sure they’d be happy to come give you a new—” He fell silent when Vivi arched one perfectly penciled brow, causing Hannah to fake a cough to cover the laugh she’d unsuccessfully tried to swallow.
“Must have swallowed a little dust from the debris,” she claimed when the two looked at her. The slight narrowing of Will’s gaze told her he knew it wasn’t dust. As did Vivi’s amused look.
“Are you trying to wiggle out of your contract?” Vivi asked him.
“No, ma’am,” Will said, then immediately added, “Miss Vivienne,” before she could stare him down again. “But if you’d like to get other bids—”
“What I’d like is for you to stand by your word and deliver me the four new fireplaces we agreed upon. I trust you’ll put together a bid that is fair to both of us. Particularly as there are the walkways, the stone well down by the paddocks, the stables—though we’ll have to talk to Chey about them a bit more before we embark on that adventure—and Lord knows what other items I haven’t discovered yet. This place is nothing if not a scavenger hunt of what needs restoring next.” She waved her hands again. “My point being that in a place this old, which has been sitting empty for as long as it has, there are bound to be a few surprises and more than a few hurdles. I hope you won’t let that discourage you. I had really hoped you’d be up to the job.”
“No, ma—” Will stopped mid “ma’am,” and for the first time ever, Hannah spied the barest hint of a curve at the corners of his no-nonsense mouth.
She felt some internal part of her all but lean in his direction, urging that smile to continue to emerge. Even the promise of one had done amazing things to those oh-so-serious eyes of his. What would they be like, sparkling with laughter? she wondered, instantly entranced by the idea of finding out.
“I mean, yes, I can handle the job,” he finished, the serious expression returning to match his tone. “I’ll rework the schedule once I’ve gone over the extent of the deterioration and give you a new bid.”
“Excellent,” Vivi said, beaming once again. “Do what is needed, keep me apprised, and bill me when you need to. I trust you can get someone in here to clear out the debris from the dining room? Is it safe to go in there? The wall and roof aren’t going to come down, are they? I had that architectural firm do a complete analysis when we drew up the renovation plans, so they’ll be getting a call from me regarding those chimneys.”
“Don’t be too hard on them,” Will said. “I don’t see how they could have known, either. I have copies of all the plans filed with Rockfish County for this place, and according to them, all four chimneys were renovated the same way.”
“Sounds like someone might have been cutting corners,” Hannah offered.
“Most likely,” Will replied, and looked her way again.
She thought he’d glance back at Vivi, only his gaze stayed on hers, as if he expected her to continue the conversation. She should be well past the shock of the brick shower by now, but darn if her pulse rate wasn’t still thump-thump-thumping right along. The temperature felt like it was climbing by the minute. Sure, blame it on the broken chunks of brick. Made her wish she had one of those hand-painted, Japanese silk fans that Vivi favored.
When she didn’t add anything further, Will looked back to Vivi and Hannah let out the breath she hadn’t been aware she’d been holding.
Yes, I’ll get the dining room cleaned out, but it would be best if you all steered clear of that room until the work on that chimney and fireplace is done. We may have to do the same for the remaining two. I’ll let you know.”
One of the remaining fireplaces was in the library, just off the foyer, on the opposite side of the house from the kitchen and dining room. That room was still empty, save for a few moving boxes that the four of them had stored in there, so staying out of the library wouldn’t be an issue. However, Hannah knew that the final fireplace was in Vivi’s master suite upstairs, but decided not to bring that up. The two of them could negotiate that situation when the time came.
The entire second floor of the house was Vivienne’s private lodgings, so it wasn’t as if she’d have nowhere to go. But Hannah knew the other rooms were still empty or filled with moving boxes and a few dust-cloth-draped pieces of furniture, until Vivi decided how she wanted to renovate and decorate them.
Even though Vivi had inherited the house and all the property it sat on, including the acreage already planted with lavender, the deal the other three of them had struck when deciding to take on this new life venture was that they would each invest in the farm. That meant they had each bought a quarter of the farm property, and their own private quarters.
Avery’s residence was the one-story addition that had originally been added off the back of the house at the turn of the twentieth century. Its original function had been to accommodate live-in help, but somewhere in the mid-fifties or sixties when live-in help was no longer required by the owner at that time, the wing had been refurbished into what was called a mother-in-law suite. It was a fairly big apartment, with its own small kitchen, two full baths, two bedrooms, a decent-sized living area, and a small study.
Avery had turned the latter into her own little chemistry lab, where she’d been figuring out how to make the various items they planned to produce and sell from their lavender crop.
Cheyenne, the fourth member of their fearsome foursome—as she’d tagged them back when they’d all befriended one another—had claimed the stables and the small attached stone cottage that had been built for the stable manager some decades back. As she’d come with three horses, that had made perfect sense.
Hannah’s investment had netted her the converted loft space over the garage. It was more spacious than it sounded, given the garage had been built to hold several horse-drawn buggies, along with a variety of the first models of automobiles. They all used it for their vehicles and had room for a tractor besides. When they bought one. The loft had its own galley-style kitchen and a lovely full bath with an old claw-foot tub. The main area was an open floor plan that included her living space and bedroom. What had sealed the deal for her was the huge floor-to-ceiling windows that made up the rear-facing wall of the oversized room, facing the fields and the mountains. Two additional skylights set in the high-peaked, open-beam ceiling overhead filled the space with the perfect natural light. Hannah had set up her easels and unboxed all of her paints and brushes before she’d even unpacked her clothes.
“If your deadline for the chimney and fireplace restoration isn’t flexible due to other work you’re having done, we can bring in more help,” Will went on, drawing Hannah from her thoughts. “But that would increase the price.”
His voice was deep, the cadence steady, almost soothing. He was the epitome of unruffled, calm, and confident. The kind of man who engendered trust just by his bearing. Her mind darted to that moment he’d pulled her to safety, right up against the hard length of his body, then instinctively sheltered her when more debris had rained down from the roof. He’d taken charge as naturally as if he’d been been born to it. Or trained for it. She wondered again if he was former military.
“Use the front door only for now,” he said, then nodded toward the mudroom that jutted off the opposite side of the kitchen from the veranda. “Steer clear of the doors exiting either side of the house. Until I can get the rest of the chimney torn down, I can’t guarantee which way the debris will roll.”
Hannah turned to Vivi. “Avery should be back shortly and she’ll be coming around to the mudroom side. I’ll wait for her on the front porch, get her to park up there.”
“How long do you think that will be?” Vivi asked Will. “Not using these doors, I mean.”
“I have to get back up there to determine that,” Will replied. “I’ll need to check on the other two chimneys as well. Might be just a few hours or could be a day or two, depending. That much I’ll know today.”
“We’ll be here,” Vivi told him. “Just let yourself in when you’re ready.”
He nodded.
“I’m going to head out front,” Hannah said.
“I’ll follow you out,” Will added, surprising her.
She walked down the hall leading to the front foyer, assuming he wanted a word with her, and wondering what for. Maybe he was worried that Vivi didn’t truly appreciate how the crumbled chimney was going to change the bottom line and he wanted to tell her separately, get her to talk to Vivi.
She opened the heavy oak door with the beautiful, floral pattern inset in leaded glass that formed an oval-shaped pane. The door itself was badly weathered and the lead around several of the glass panes needed to be resoldered as well, but it was stunning craftsmanship and deserved a full restoration. So many items left on the to-do list, she thought, trying not to let the magnitude of everything they had yet to do discourage her.
Just because they each had the financial wherewithal to finance the work didn’t lift the burden of needing to get it all done. And that was in addition to learning to run the farm and educating themselves on how to turn it into their joint business venture. And now the chimneys were going to be a bigger deal than they’d thought. But what else is new? There were times she thought they’d never get it all done.
She stepped back out into the spring sunshine and let the warmth and beauty smooth the edges off her worries. She turned, expecting Will to pause and say whatever he’d followed her out to say. She braced herself for the impact of being pinned under that gaze again, feeling a little foolish for her reaction. Only to feel even more ridiculous when he merely nodded and walked right on past her and down the steps. She laughed at herself, realizing he’d followed her out because he couldn’t safely exit through any other door.
That didn’t stop her from watching his long-legged stride as he headed back around to where his ladder was propped against the roof. Or the way he filled out the back of those canvas work pants he favored.
“You waiting on Avery or simply admiring the scenery,” came Vivi’s amused voice behind her. “Not that I can blame you,” she added, a knowing twinkle in her bright blue eyes. “I hired him because he seemed to know what he was about, and he came highly recommended.” She sighed and fanned her face with her hand, setting her bangles to jingling. “But I readily admit the view certainly was a point in his favor.”
Hannah nodded, not embarrassed at being caught ogling. Not by Vivi, at any rate. Vivi, Avery, Chey, and Hannah knew one another right down to the core and marrow. They were closer than family, their understanding of one another running as deep as was humanly possible. So, there was no point in pretending or trying to hide anything from one another. Nor did she want to.
To other people, the idea that the four of them—who’d only met one another six years ago—would each up and leave their lives behind to start on this crazy joint venture had seemed just that: crazy. Most people couldn’t understand the level of trust or the unique sisterhood that came with the particular bond the four of them shared, and Hannah, for one, was grateful they couldn’t.
Because that meant they hadn’t been where she and the three women nearest and dearest to her heart had been. That meant they had never experienced the depths of grief so deep and all-consuming that they hadn’t known how to climb back toward the light, much less the land of the living.
Hannah slid her arm around Vivi’s waist and Vivi draped her arm over Hannah’s shoulder. They watched Will disappear around the side of the house, then looked at each other. Vivi wiggled her perfect brows, making Hannah snicker; then they both full-out laughed.
Yeah, maybe they were a bit crazy, the four of them. But Hannah would take their kind of crazy, and the joy they’d figured out how to reclaim for themselves, every single day. No regrets and no looking back. Except to the ones they’d loved so deeply and lost.
They’d learned that, for them, the way to manage their grief, and their survivor’s guilt, was to bring the ones they’d lost forward with them. To tackle new goals, take new risks, jump into life, full on, and experience everything it had to offer.
As Chey had said the day the four of them had walked out of the Friday Morning Grief Group they’d each joined and instantly hated, they were not going to be wallowers. They were going to be warriors. Life warriors.
They would pay tribute to their loved ones rather than mourn them, by being the bringers of light, of positive thinking, the spreaders of joy. The better they did, the better they were doing by the loved ones they brought along with them on the journey, in each of their hearts. Showgirl Vivi and her lifelong benefactor and soul mate, Harold. Brilliant child prodigy Avery and her college professor mother, Lisbeth, and poet laureate father, Bernard. Barrel-racer Chey and her bull-riding brother, Cody. Painter and illustrator Hannah and her seven-year-old son and only child, Liam.
It hadn’t been an easy climb. They had been with one another at their lowest, their rawest, their weakest, and most vulnerable. They had cried together, raged together, feared together, and, ultimately, grown together. Warriors didn’t simply appear fully formed; they were forged.
Hannah looked out at the fields of lavender, row upon row riffled by the warm afternoon breeze, and took in a deep breath as Vivi squeezed her shoulder, likely reading her thoughts. Battle-tested, Hannah thought, but not bulletproof.
She had no idea what new tests awaited them, awaited her, only that she knew there would be more of them. That was the scariest part. Exciting, too. But still scary. Understandably, none of them wanted to be hurt again. In any way. But that’s not how things worked. Not how life worked. Not if you planned to live it fully. She owed a full life to Liam, promised him that every morning when she woke up—promised herself, too.
Hannah and Vivi both jumped as more stone and brick rolled and banged down the roof and off the side of the house, then shook their heads and winked at each other.
A new adventure, and the new tests that would come with it. The farm, their big plans for it, their ongoing plans for themselves as well. Hannah’s mind went to Will. Was he going to be one of those life tests, too? Was she even ready to find out?
Some big, bad warrior you are, Hannah thought wryly. Yeah, but even warriors carried shields.

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