At forty, Felicity Patterson knew how to take a licking and keep on ticking. Life had kicked her in the gut, the teeth, the kneecaps . . . oh, just about anywhere it was possible to get kicked and survive . . . and, against all odds, she’d managed to stay perky, plucky, and optimistic.
Her resilient ability to rebound, no matter what, was why most everyone in Serendipity loved her. In fact, she was so bouncy, people said her middle name should have been Super Ball.
Until the day Aunt Molly spilled the beans.
When it happened, Felicity and her aunt were standing amidst the metal folding chairs sectioned into rows and aisles underneath the newly installed pergola in the middle of the Bluebird Inn’s backyard garden. On the morning Felicity’s long-held dream of turning her struggling bed-and-breakfast into a wedding venue was about to come true.
It was late March, and spring flowers bloomed in wild profusion—yellow daffodils, grape hyacinth, pink petunias. The air smelled of honey, hope, and happiness. It was seven-thirty in the morning, barely light, but Felicity had already been up for three hours, prepping for the eleven a.m. society wedding. Her first at the Bluebird. The breeze was cool at sixty-four degrees, and the forecast promised clear skies and a high of seventy-five. Perfect weather for an outdoor wedding.
The only things missing from the garden were the bluebirds that had once been so plentiful on the grounds. Several years ago urban sprawl, and the common house sparrows that came with it, had driven the migrating birds from their natural nesting grounds.
A dozen contract workers buzzed around, setting up the altar, arranging flowers, putting the finishing touches on the reception tables in the ivy-draped pavilion.
It had taken Felicity months to convince the wealthiest family in town to hold their only daughter’s wedding at the Bluebird Inn. But now that she’d persuaded the Lovings (yes, they were descendants of the famed cattle baron Oliver Loving) that she was up for the task, the Bluebird was booked solid with weddings every weekend all the way through September.
What a blessing!
With more bookings and deposits coming in every day, for the first time since she and her husband, Steve, had opened the Bluebird Inn, it was running in the black. Steve would have been so proud.
At the thought of her late husband, Felicity’s eyes misted. Steve had been gone two years, and, for the most part, she’d come to terms with losing him far too young, but there were times like this when grief still ambushed her.
She bit down on the inside of her cheek to stay the tears.
By all rights, Steve should have been here with her. The dream of running a B&B had initially been his. He was the extrovert who thrived on being around people. And while Felicity enjoyed people too, she was an empathetic introvert who needed to go off by herself from time to time in order to recharge her batteries. But she did love running the grand old Victorian and creating a hospitable environment for her guests.
“Sweetheart,” Aunt Molly said, peering at her from behind gray, round-framed Oakleys that softened the rectangular shape of her face. “Please, don’t expect too much to come of this wedding.”
“What?” Felicity glanced up from where she was tweaking a large bow anchoring the aqua slipcover to a cushioned folding chair.
“I don’t mean to be a downer.” Her aunt’s face was kind. “I just don’t want to see you get hurt.”
“Why would I get hurt?” Felicity cocked her head, confused. “Things have never been better. My business is booming. I’ve got more bookings than I can handle. Friends and family I love. I’m healthy as a horse. Life is pretty darn good.”
Well, except there was no man in her world, but she wasn’t sure she was ready to date anyway. Maybe she never would be, and Felicity was okay with that. She’d had her one great love. She wasn’t greedy.
“Which is precisely why I’m worried.” A frown knitted Aunt Molly’s brow, and one side of her mouth kicked up in uncertainty. “Every time things are going good for you, bam! That old midwife’s curse comes true.”
“What midwife? What curse?”
“Oh.” Aunt Molly exhaled sharply, shook her head, and the silver feather earrings nestled in her lobes trembled with movement. “Never mind.”
Huh? Felicity straightened, squinted against the sun, scratched her head. “What are you talking about?”
“It’s nothing.” Aunt Molly pushed a hand through her coifed pageboy. “Do you need me to check on the caterers?”
“The wedding planner takes care of that.” Felicity touched her aunt’s elbow. “What did you mean by the midwife’s curse?”
Aunt Molly shifted uncomfortably. “I’m being a silly old woman. Don’t pay me any mind.”
“You’re only sixty. Far from old. What curse?”
“It’s not a curse.” Aunt Molly fidgeted, tugging at the collar of her blouse. “Not really. More like a prophecy.”
Something niggled at the back of Felicity’s mind. A memory of a disturbing encounter between her mother and an older woman who’d shown up at Felicity’s high school graduation with a gift.
“You’ll not poison the well, crone,” Mom had hissed at the woman. Her mother was never rude, and her behavior had alarmed Felicity. “Your jinx didn’t work. She’s happy as a bluebird. Stay away from my daughter.”
Then Mom had tossed the gift in the trash.
“Who was that?” Felicity had asked, looking longingly over her shoulder at the brightly wrapped package in the garbage can.
“A superstitious old fool,” Mom had said. “Never mind her. Let’s go celebrate your diploma.”
Three weeks later her mother had been killed when the tractor she was riding on turned over in the pasture.
A light breeze stirred the hairs on Felicity’s arms, and she shivered and met her aunt’s Plymouth-blue eyes, a shade lighter than her own. “Just tell me.”
“Your mother made me promise never to tell you. It was a slip of the tongue. It means nothing.”
“If it doesn’t mean anything, then why not tell me? All this mystery is making me itchy.”
“Well, you are forty,” Aunt Molly said. “Halfway through a tough life. I don’t see any reason to keep it a secret any longer.”
Felicity folded her arms over her chest, suddenly chilled to the bone. She wanted to go get a thicker sweater, but her aunt had perched on the edge of one of the folding chairs, blocking her way. She took a seat beside her aunt and waited.
Aunt Molly rubbed her thumb across her chin and related the tale about the superstitious midwife and the circumstances of Felicity’s birth. “Your mother didn’t tell you because she didn’t want you to believe you were jinxed and doomed to be unhappy. She didn’t believe in the curse. Not for a second.”
Felicity absorbed the information, felt it hit her like the bumping updraft of air turbulence. Dozens of images tumbled through her head, starting from the day she’d heard her mother was dead.
Mom’s funeral. Discovering the dark secret that her biological father was serving a life sentence for murder. The visit to the prison, finding out her father was on dialysis and needed a kidney. Donating one of her kidneys. Only to have him die on the operating table.
More events piling up, one after the other.
Complications from donating the kidney. An infection that damaged her ovaries. Her first real boyfriend joining the military right after September 11, 2001, and dying in combat training from friendly fire. A year of therapy to help her deal with all that loss. Meeting Steve, the love of her life. Things finally looking hopeful. Trying to have babies. Several rounds of IVF until they were wiped out financially. Getting pregnant during that last ditch effort, only to lose the baby in her second trimester. Steve’s parents killed in a car crash and leaving him the Victorian on Bluebird Way. Struggling to make a go of turning the house into a B&B. Feeling disheartened when the bluebirds disappeared. Steve contracting cancer. Watching him fade away . . .
All this by the time she was thirty-eight. One of her favorite sayings was, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. She’d picked up the pieces and carried on as best she could. Titanium had nothing on her.
People kept telling her she should write a book about her life because she’d been through so much, and she hadn’t let it dampen her fighting spirit.
That was only because her mother had instilled in her faith, hope, and love. But now, to find out she’d been jinxed from birth? If she let herself look for a pattern, it was certainly there.
It was a silly old wives’ tale. Logically, she knew that, but a part of her couldn’t help thinking that now there was an explanation for all the crappy stuff that had happened to her.
She shook herself, slapped her palms to her knees. She didn’t have time to indulge in self-pity. Her future was riding on the success of this wedding.
“Thank you for telling me. I appreciate your honesty.” Felicity brushed her hands together, put on her best get-’er-done smile. “Duty calls.”
“Oh good.” Aunt Molly exhaled. “I was afraid you’d believe you really were jinxed.”
“My mother didn’t believe it. Why should I?”
“You’ve had so much tragedy in your life.” Aunt Molly lowered her voice, touched Felicity’s shoulder. “Far more than your share.”
“Maybe that’s true,” Felicity said, putting an efficient tone in her voice. “But not because a bluebird broke its neck against the window at the moment I was born. Now . . .” She firmed up her chin. “Let’s get back to work.”
* * *
From the moment newly retired Army Major Tom Loving laid eyes on the sexy blond innkeeper, he was smitten.
She had a bright sparkle in her eyes and a winsome bounce to her step that immediately drew his attention and his interest.
And that voice!
She stood behind a reception desk in the small front room of the Victorian house turned B&B, rearranging a lush bouquet of white lilies and singing “All of Me” in an angelic voice that could have drawn tears of joy from John Legend himself.
Tom’s forty-two-year-old heart skipped a beat, and he forgot to exhale.
When she looked up and spied him standing in the doorway, clutching his backpack in one hand, her full lips melted into the most genuine smile he’d ever seen. A wide tent of a smile, big and sheltering.
One look and she made him feel like he was the only person on the face of the earth. It was compelling, and more than a little intoxicating. Strangely, Tom felt as if he’d finally come home after an interminable journey.
Truth was, he wasn’t from anywhere in particular. As the son of the black sheep, Carl Loving, Tom had been raised a military brat, and he’d easily followed in his father’s wandering footsteps. His older half-brother, Joe, had gone in the opposite direction, making peace with their dad’s family, taking up the Loving mantel, fitting right in with kith and kin.
Tom held no grudges. The feud between his father and his uncles had never been his battle. He preferred staying clear of emotional shrapnel. He and Joe had not ever been close. They were five years apart in age, had different mothers and vastly different personalities. Joe had a shoot-from-the-hip-take-no-prisoners style, whereas Tom was a strategic team player, who listened more than he spoke. In all honesty, he’d been pretty surprised to receive an invitation to his niece’s wedding.
He’d almost not come, but in the end sentimentality won out. Maybe it was time to start building bridges, reconnecting with family after a lifetime of being on the move.
The Army had taught him how to pack up, pick up, never look back, and just keep on going forward. But it had not taught him how to linger or develop deeper relationships. The ability to skim the surface was the reason he’d shaken off his divorce without too much drama. Of course, Heidi claimed that detachment was the reason for the divorce. As if sleeping with his best friend hadn’t had anything to do with it.
Heidi was right about one thing. Staying in one place was hard for Tom, and two weeks into retirement, he was already at loose ends. Even though his Loving ancestral roots were sunk deep in Texas soil, and he’d been born in Wichita Falls, just south of the Oklahoma border, he’d never considered the Lone Star State home.
Serendipity, he thought as he peered in the gorgeous blonde’s big blue eyes, and laughed. It was crazy really, but he couldn’t help what he felt.
“Hello,” she said in her soft Texas drawl, and he could hear her heritage in the way she drew out the long O. “And who might you be?”
“Running late,” he said.
“Now that’s an odd name, Mr. Late,” she teased. “Welcome to the Bluebird Inn. Are you with the wedding party?”
He deposited his backpack on the ground, grinned like a fool at her corny joke, and strode forward, hand outstretched. “Tom Loving. I should have been here last night, but my flight out of LaGuardia got canceled. I’m sorry to have missed the rehearsal dinner. But, hey, I’m just the uncle. Hopefully, my absence was easily overlooked.”
“I seriously doubt you’ve ever been overlooked, Mr. Loving,” she said, and shook his hand with a firm, yet delicate grip.
“Flattery will get you everywhere, Miss . . .”
“Mrs. Patterson,” she said. “Felicity.”
Fantasies that he didn’t even know he was having dropped and shattered against the hardwood floor. She wasn’t wearing a wedding ring, and he’d just assumed she was single.
“Your husband,” he blurted, “is a very lucky man.”
“I’m a widow,” she said, and for a fraction of a second her dazzling smile slipped, but she quickly hoisted it up again.
Widow. A sad word, especially for a woman so young and full of life. Was it wrong that his dreams hopped right off that floor and jumped back into his chest?
“Do you have a car that needs to be valeted?”
“Oh,” she said in a tone that he couldn’t decipher. Did she disapprove? Or was she impressed?
Another tone that told him nothing. She was good at hiding her opinions. Cagey, this one. “I parked under the carport next to a green Prius. Yours?”
“Ahh,” he said, serving cagey right back to her.
She smiled, a slight, but definitely amused smile. “The other members of the wedding party are already here. Some of them are in the meditation room. Others are walking the gardens. Your niece, her mother, and the bridesmaids are upstairs in the bridal suite getting ready.”
“And my brother?”
“I’m not sure where Joe is at the moment. Let me show you to your room, Mr. Loving, so you can get settled before things kick into high gear. It’s already nine-thirty,” she said in an efficient voice, and reached for his backpack.
“No, ma’am. I’m not letting a lady carry my baggage.” He grabbed for the backpack at the same time she did.
Their fingers touched.
Electricity arced between them. The old AC/DC song “Thunderstruck” bulleted through his head with the power of raw lightning, hot and powerful and stark. His heart pounded; his knees quivered; he broke out in a cold sweat.
Her eyes widened, and she jerked her hand back, tucked it into her armpit as if she’d received a jolting shock and didn’t know how to shake it off. “Yes, well, okay,” she mumbled, and backed up. Stuck her hands in the pockets of her blue dress with its wide, swingy skirt. “This way.”
Like a cowboy taking one last deep breath before pulling up his bandana as he moved a high-plains herd, Tom inhaled from the base of his belly all the way up to his throat and followed those lovely, swaying hips.
Cowboy metaphors? Lord help him, he had been back in Texas for all of two hours, and already he was falling into the old family ways.
And for the life of him, Tom couldn’t figure out if he was happy about that or not.
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