Please enjoy Chapter One of Love & Order in my Holidays in Hallbrook series as my way of saying “Thanks” for checking me out.
Each story in the Hallbrook series is heartwarming, fun, sweet, and happily-ever-after romance. They are a great way to enjoy romance celebrating holidays all year long. Remember, the greatest compliment and you can give an author if you love their writing, is to take the time to post a review on Amazon/Bookbub.
C H A P T E R O N E
Garrett clicked the buckle of his harness into place and pulled tightly on the ends of the straps. “Ready for takeoff.” He gave the helicopter pilot a thumbs-up in case he couldn’t hear him over the low hum of the spinning blades and the motor propelling them. Normally, he would just take his own plane for such a short flight, but he wasn’t in the right frame of mind to be piloting anything, making this chartered flight an easy decision.
The pilot went through a series of checks with the control tower, and it wasn’t long before the whirring sound increased and the helicopter began to vibrate with the increased power, blocking out any chance of regular conversation. The huge metal bird lifted off from a private section of the airfield. The ground below faded away until New York City became an aerial view of rooftops and skyscrapers all blended together. Garrett let out a deep breath.
The flight from La Guardia to Glen Haven, New Hampshire, the closest private airport with a helipad to Hallbrook, was ninety minutes by helicopter and then a fifteen-minute drive north to the town where he’d spent most of his childhood. It was a trip he would always regret not making more often. The news of his mother’s death had come as a shock, and now, days later, the ache he felt had deepened, spurred on by guilt. He hadn’t even known she was having heart troubles, but then according to Charlie, her friend and solicitor, she hadn’t either. Her heart attack had taken everyone by surprise. It was hard to believe she was gone.
He tamped down on the emotions trying to emerge, finding it easier to focus on what needed to be done. Once he settled his mother’s estate, there would be no reason to return to his hometown, a place he’d left long ago and only manage to visit once or twice a year, much to his mother’s consternation. Work had been his priority for as long as he could remember, and the corporate law offices of Bradley & West were proof of the success he and his best friend and partner, Jim, had achieved as a result of their dedication.
But being rated as the top law firm in Manhattan and in the top twenty nationwide didn’t do a thing to ease the pain of knowing his mother was gone forever, especially since he’d disappointed her by canceling his visit this past summer. The Baden-Hamilton merger had derailed, and the multimillion-dollar deal was his baby, and therefore his responsibility to save. And then one thing after another had popped up, and before he knew it, September was fast rolling in. But for his mother, there would be no September.
Angelica, his sister, had been notified of their mother’s passing through official Naval communication, but as a U.S. Naval officer on a submarine somewhere in the Pacific, there was no telling when she’d be home. Charlie was taking care of their mother’s arrangements per her wishes, and a woman by the name of April St. James was taking care of the house. Charlie had insisted Garrett arrive as soon as possible to deal with some legal issues. Garrett had cleared his schedule, making sure he could be at the celebration of life to honor his mother on Saturday and could stick around for the reading of her will on Monday.
Luckily, his partner would be able to help Garrett with his caseload while he was out of town. Garrett wasn’t sure where to begin with his mother’s estate. Until he talked to the solicitor and his sister, his hands were tied. He’d have to close up the house until he could sell it. Neither he nor his sister were in a position to live in or manage a country estate. Finding a buyer would be the easy part, selling it… not so much.
The place was filled with mixed memories for him and his sister, mostly because it had been the start of their new life without their father after a bitter divorce. His mother had poured her heart into the place after purchasing it, her love of the land filling her with the determination to make a success of the place. Garrett’s love, however, was for the city. His sister’s love of the sea drove her career in the Navy. They’d been three completely different people on different courses in life.
In no time at all, the pilot landed the chopper in Glen Haven, the closest town to Hallbrook that had a private airstrip. Garrett removed his seatbelt, pushed open the heavy door, and waved his thanks to the pilot. He crouched low as he jogged out from under the air current of the blades and made his way to the waiting limousine.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Bradley. Sorry to hear about your mother. Sarah was a fine lady.” George Bowman owned the limousine service, and he still operated some of the bookings for select customers. He was used to Garrett coming and going, although the visits had been few and far between the past few years.
“Thank you. It came as quite a shock.” His mother had been an integral part of putting Hallbrook on the map. She’d not only managed to raise him and Angelica on her own, but she’d found the time to create a niche for the small town by attracting tourists to the area in search of artisan crafts made by the locals. She’d given up everything for him and his sister, including her marriage and home. And in return, he’d been a horrible son, making business more important than visiting her more often.
“If you’ll drop me at the house, that would be great. It sounds as though I’ve got a lot to do.” Garrett’s guilt factor ramped up another notch.
“Ain’t that the truth.” The man shook his head, putting the car in drive and raising the privacy window. But not before Garrett caught the odd expression peering back at him through the rearview mirror.
Garrett made a mental note of their progress as they got closer to the house.
They passed by several farms, including the largest dairy farm in the state. Old man Peterson’s place. His mother used to treat him to the delicious hand-made ice cream for excellent grades as a reward. His reward, of course, had been getting into Yale and eventually out of Hallbrook.
It wasn’t that he hadn’t appreciated the town, but he’d loved the action of the city. It was the land of opportunity, a place where you could make your mark, other than by winning first prize for the fattest cow at the 4-H fair.
He spotted his old high school, Turlington High. The place where he’d gotten into his first fight with a bully, protecting a girl. They’d dated on and off the first couple of years of high school, but then her interest had turned more toward the high school quarterback and less on the geeky guy who’d preferred to study.
George turned right onto East Main Street as he made his way through town. The closer they got to the center of Hallbrook, the bigger the houses got. Many of the stately Victorian and Colonial homes had been restored to their former glory by the families who’d inherited them. The place hadn’t changed much in the twenty-five years since they’d first moved there, other than the slow growth and addition of businesses and a few more homes. He spotted Sally’s Diner and smiled, remembering the place fondly. For Garrett, the diner was where he had his first date, his first kiss, and the best peach pie in the county.
When they’d moved here, he’d been bored out of his eight-year-old mind and hated the hard-labor and dirty chores that had come with living in the country and his mother owning farmland. He’d dreamed of escaping back to the city. It had driven him to study harder to make that happen. His success as an attorney was proof of the determination, but each time he returned to Hallbrook, he felt a tug in the region of the heart.
They reached the outskirts of town, passing Angie’s corner grocery and gas that had long since closed the gas pumps, the place now a convenience store for many of the locals. Fresh fruits and vegetables were readily available from farms nearby, but the store was filled with a hodgepodge of other endless items crammed into the place.
George slowed, turning right at his mother’s driveway, passing under the stone archway and through the wrought iron gates. The dirt road had been recently recoated with a fresh load of gravel. He spotted the two-story white house seconds before he noticed an unfamiliar dark-blue sedan parked out front. It was an older car that had seen better days, and one Garrett assumed belonged to the woman staying here and taking care of things until he arrived.
George slid the dividing window down. “Here you are, sir. Hope things go well for you.”
“Thanks. Don’t bother to get out. I can handle everything.” He grabbed his travel bag off the seat in front of him, looped his briefcase over his shoulder, and slid out of the car. He stopped to glance around and took a deep breath, inhaling the fresh country air and the scent of blossoming roses. There was no shortage of rose bushes strategically placed all around the house, another of his mother’s passions.
The sun would be setting soon, and the front porch looked inviting as a viewing place for a glorious sunset. His mother had loved the orange-red colors that illuminated the sky with the setting sun, and she’d tried to capture the elusive perfect picture on her favorite camera so many times he’d lost count. Tonight, in honor of his mother, he’d do the same. Sunsets like this didn’t happen in New York City, at least not with rolling farmland as far as the eye could see. His sunsets came complete with skyscrapers, and he’d be back to those in four days. Four short days to take care of business. It was all the time he could afford to be away from the office.
Garrett approached the house, climbing the three wooden steps that led to the front door. He wasn’t sure whether to knock to announce his presence or to simply use his house key. The last thing he wanted to do was scare the poor girl watching over the place. Maybe a combination of both was in order.
Knock. Knock. Knock.
He tried the door handle and discovered it unlocked. Garrett started to push the door open, but it slammed shut, a loud bark coming from inside. He took a step back, unsure of what to do. He wasn’t a fan of dogs, not by any means. The dog’s bark was deep. Big-dog deep. Garrett swallowed hard, his hand automatically going to the scars on his arm, a reminder of a run-in with a not-so-nice canine.
He heard voices on the other side of the door but couldn’t make out what the words over the barking dog. The decision was made for him when the door started to open, and he came face-to-face with three young kids. The boy, who appeared to be the oldest of the three, had a hold on the dog’s collar, keeping the huge brown and white Saint Bernard barely in check as danced, trying to break free from the restraint, slobber dripping to the ground.
“Hi, I’m Garrett Bradley. This is my mother’s house. Are you all here with April St. James?” He addressed the boy, thinking he was the best option for reasonable answers.
“Yup. She’s cooking dinner. Do you need to talk to her?” The young boy stood straight and tall, answering his question as if he were in charge.
“Yes, that would be perfect.” It would be a whole lot better than trying to talk to three kids, something he had zero experience doing as an adult. He was quite surprised Ms. St. James had brought her children and an oversized beast of a dog with her while she watched the house. It was a little unorthodox.
“Melanie, go get her. I’ve got to hold the dog ’cause you’re too puny to handle him.” The boy spoke to the oldest of the two girls who couldn’t be much more than seven or eight.
“Am not. You get her.” Garrett couldn’t believe this. He shook his head, trying to figure out what to do.
“Hey there, kids. Why are you hanging half in and half out the front door? This isn’t a barn. Shut the door and come back inside.” A feminine voice called out from somewhere behind the children.
“There’s a man here to see you.” The older girl spoke up.
“A man? Oh, good heavens, let him in. It must be Mr. Bradley.” The woman’s voice was soft and yet persuasive.
“That’s what he said. But the dog won’t budge,” the boy spoke up, trying to pull the dog back.
“Come on, Rufus.” The brunette came to his rescue, all barely-over-five feet of her. She wasn’t much of match for the hairy beast, but she did manage to wrestle him back from the door enough for Garrett to step into the foyer.
“Sorry about that.” She beamed at him, her eyes a striking shade of sapphire. She kept hold of the dog, much to his relief.
He nodded. “Thanks. I’m Garrett—”
“Bradley. Yes, we’ve been expecting you. I’m so sorry about your mother.” She glanced at the kids and winced. “Kids, why don’t you head into the kitchen, and I’ll be right in. I need to talk to Mr. Bradley alone for a second.”
The older boy shrugged and left; the others close on his heels. Apparently, they didn’t care who Garrett was.
“Sorry, I don’t like to talk about your mother in front of them. They loved her like a grandmother, and it’s been so upsetting to them. I’m sure you understand.”
“I do. It’s been a shock for everyone, I imagine. I appreciate you stepping in to help keep the house in order and taking care of her horses.” April shot him an odd look, one that disappeared just as quickly as it happened. It was the same look he’d seen on George’s face.
She extended her hand, “April St. James. It’s nice to meet you, although the circumstances could have been better.”
He shook hands with her, holding on a tiny bit longer than necessary. The strength of her grip took him by surprise. So did the warmth. “Garrett Bradley.”
“I know you just got here, and I hate to do this, but I’ve gotten behind at work and need to head to the office. I need to run.”
“I’ll be fine. I’ll make arrangements for everything before I leave so you won’t need to worry about a thing.” Garrett hoped it would be as easy as he made it sound.
April shrugged as she bit her lower lip, her head tilted to one side. “I hope you enjoy spaghetti because I made a huge pot of it. I thought it would be easier than you needing to find something to cook soon as you got here tonight.”
She pulled the dog toward the front room. “Stay, boy.” April closed the door behind her, locking him in the room. “If he isn’t put up, he thinks he’s one of the family and should be able to eat at the table accordingly.” She laughed. “I don’t usually him let back out until after dinner.”
“Sounds like a handful. Looks like a handful. Must be a handful.” Garrett forced a smile. April was insane to add a giant dog to her already chaotic mix of responsibility. He followed her down the hall and into the kitchen, the aroma of tomatoes and garlic greeting him. His stomach rumbled. He hadn’t had a thing to eat since this morning on his way to the office.
“You have no idea.” She grinned. “But you’ll get a chance to find out.” Her soft laughter was like music.
Garrett frowned, unsure of what she meant. He was almost afraid to ask, but he sure hoped his mother hadn’t taken in a dog—especially not one the size of Godzilla. He wouldn’t have a clue what to do with it, especially considering his dislike of dogs. He may not have visited his mother often, but they talked at least once every two weeks, and not once had she mentioned getting a dog.
“Let me introduce you to the kids properly. This is Bryan, and he’s nine.” She tapped the top of his head and then moved on down the row of children, almost like a game of duck-duck-goose. “This is Melanie, and she’s seven. And this is Sandy, and she’s three. Sandy doesn’t talk much, but the doctors say she’ll be fine in no time. They’ve all had a lot to deal with over the past few months, and her way of dealing with the emotions has been silence.”
“I’ll take your word for it.” It sounded as though the kids had gone through more trauma than a child should have to deal with, and it made him wonder about their story. When he was Bryan’s age, the trauma of his parents splitting up had been monumental, especially given the divorce was his fault.
April lifted the lid off the first pot. “Just stir this occasionally until you’re ready to eat. The noodles get dropped in the sauce, stir them frequently, and they’ll be ready in ten minutes if you prefer them al dente, otherwise, let them cook a minute or two longer. Easy enough, right?” April looked at him with confidence in her eyes, a confidence he didn’t deserve.
“Smells awesome. Looks as though you made enough to feed an army.”
“That’ll last you a day, tops, but I’m sure your mother’s friends will be stopping by with lots of food to help out. Here’s my card if you need anything. You can call, and I’ll help any way I can. I know this is going to be a tough transition for you —” she reached out to touch his arm, “—but you’ll be fine. I’m sure of it.”
“Thanks. I appreciate that. And don’t worry, I’ll be okay. I’ve handled this sort of thing before.”
“If you say so.” April crossed the kitchen to where a wheeled suitcase was parked in the corner. She pulled up the handle and started toward the front door. Garrett and the kids followed, Melanie stopping to let the dog out.
“Here, let me get this for you.” He picked it up and hauled it to her car. He would have expected a much bigger suitcase considering the kids.
“Thanks. Don’t forget, call me if you need me.” She leaned down and hugged each of the kids. “I’ll see you three soon, I promise. Be good for Mr. Bradley.”
April wasn’t making any sense. And why weren’t the kids getting in the car with her? And for that matter, why wasn’t she getting the dog? Something was seriously wrong with this picture.
She slid in the driver’s seat and started the car before manually rolling down her window. “Take care.” April waved, put the car in reverse and started to back up.
The motion of the vehicle snapped him out of his trance. “Wait. Where are you going? You can’t leave your kids here.” Normally calm under fire, Garrett couldn’t keep the panic out of his voice.
She stopped the car and leaned toward the window. “They’re not my kids, they’re yours.” April seemed confused. Which was far better than stupefied, and exactly how he felt. She had this all wrong.
“I don’t have any kids.” The children looked as though they were about to cry, and he felt awful, but he couldn’t let April drive off without them and the dog.
“Should have known he wouldn’t want us.” The boy grumbled in a low voice, grabbing his younger sister’s hand and taking off for the house. Melanie glanced at April and then glared at him before running to catch up with her brother and sister.
“What’s the meaning of this?” Garrett demanded an answer, his patience running out. He could handle a lot of things, but this wasn’t in his wheelhouse.
April got back out of the car and faced off with him. “Your mother adopted these children three months ago. Haven’t you talked to her solicitor yet? I would have thought—”
Garrett wince. Adopted. As in legally hers. Why would his mother adopt kids at this stage of her life? She hadn’t even consulted him about such an important issue. And she’d had three months to tell him.
You haven’t been home in over six months. “You thought wrong. What am I supposed to do with them? I don’t know the first thing about children. I have a job. An apartment in the city. What am I supposed to do?”
“Step up.” Her answer was short and to the point, the thin set of her lips driving the point home. She was serious. He swallowed hard and turned back to the house where three kids and the dog were waiting and watching.
“I’m sure Charlie will explain everything.” The compassion in her voice was genuine, making him feel slightly better.
“Our meeting isn’t until Monday, and the celebration of life is tomorrow. Don’t you think you could provide me with a few more details? You seem to know a thing or two about the situation.” He was desperate, and he couldn’t let her leave without a better understanding.
“The children lost their parents three months ago, and your mother didn’t want them to end up in the foster care system, so she adopted them with a promise to always do what was best for them. Their mother was a friend of hers from church. I was the assistant caseworker assigned to them, which is why I volunteered to stay with them until you arrived. They know me. They are sweet kids, and it’s been hard for them to lose their parents and now their grams.”
“Grams?” There was so much he needed to ask her, the meaning of Grams the least of them, but that’s what came out.
“It’s the name they called your mother, short for grandma.” April got back in her car. “I’m a sucker for these kids and will do anything I can to help, but right now, I’ve got to make sure I can keep my job. I’ve missed a lot of work and need to catch up on my caseload.”
“Fine. I’ll figure a way through this situation for the next few days until my sister can get leave and decide what she wants to do. Clearly, she’s the better option to handle this unexpected situation.” He didn’t feel as confident as he tried to sound. There were two problems. He didn’t know when his sister would be home, and he didn’t know a thing about taking care of kids, not even temporarily.
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