Home In My Heart
Maggie Guirdano leaves a high-paying job in Pittsburgh to start a winery in the Virginia countryside. She almost fails, but for the elderly owner of Lake Hollow Farm who steps in to help her. Four years later her winery is thriving, but Carl Snyder’s health is failing. Before he passes, Carl gives Maggie a private document to ensure the future of the vineyard he helped her start on leased land at Lake Hollow Farm. She loses the document and puts her vineyard in jeopardy.
Complicating matters is Jerrold Snyder, Carl’s great-nephew, and heir to Lake Hollow Farm. To acquire his inheritance, he must spend two months there per instructions in his great-uncle’s will. Jerrold moved three thousand miles away to forget his past and has no intention of complying with Carl’s request.
As Maggie struggles to save her vineyard and Jerrold battles old demons, can they fight their attraction for each other?
Release Date: July 21, 2020
Genre: Contemporary Romance
~ A WHITE SATIN ROMANCE ~
Maggie sat next to the bed quietly holding Carl’s hand, the man who became her unlikely lifeline when she bought the winery four years ago, and later when she started the vineyard. Slow, labored breaths lifted and ebbed against his navy pajama top that was partially covered by a light bedspread. His aged face lay still and pale against the pillow, a few gray whiskers stood out along his strong jawline the nurse had missed while shaving him. His eyelids lifted, but his eyes remained closed. Maggie slid her hand from his wrinkled fingers. He caught it suddenly in a surprisingly strong grip and his eyes fluttered open. “Don’t go yet,” he said in a hoarse whisper.
He managed one of his rare grins. “I’m not ready to leave this world, but I’m plum gave out and ain’t got no more fight left. I’ve had a long run at life with plenty of triumphs and letdowns, and while I’m not a religious man, I’ve made peace with myself and my maker. I don’t believe strong friendships ever end, so I won’t say good-bye, only until we meet again.” He gestured to the nightstand. “Open the top drawer.”
She leaned over and pulled out the drawer.
“Take the envelope you see there but don’t open it till you’re at my lawyer’s office. I meant to meet with Mr. Vance before now. He’ll be giving you a call. I thought I had more time… When I contacted him, he was overseas visiting relatives. He won’t be back for several days yet. He knew I was on borrowed time, so he sent his legal assistant, and others, to witness my signature verifying the contents of the envelope. I didn’t trust his legal assistant to hang onto something that important, so I want you to take it.”
Maggie put the legal-looking envelope with the lawyer’s logo in her skirt pocket and held Carl’s hand. There was so much she wanted to say, but words could not describe how she felt. “I’ll always carry you in my heart,” she whispered.
He squeezed her hand, then pointed to the nightstand. “You see that old shoebox sitting there?”
Her eyes slid sideways. “Yes.”
“Take it with you when you leave. In it are letters from over sixty years ago. There may come a time when you’ll read them. If not, shred or burn them.”
She looked at the sadly worn box held together with discolored twine, then turned back to Carl.
He closed his eyes. “Jerrold is on his way here. We were close once…”
His hand loosened, and she tucked it tighter in hers, not ready to let go. She continued to sit at his bedside until she was sure he had fallen asleep. Getting up quietly she leaned over, kissed his forehead, picked up the box, and left the bedroom.
The TV volume was turned down low when she stepped just inside the living room door where the nurse sat on the sofa glued to some show. Maggie’s breath caught when she looked over at the worn brown armchair where Carl always sat. “I’m leaving, Anne,” she said when the nurse turned her head.
The nurse stood up and walked Maggie to the front door. “He’s failing fast,” she said. “I hope he hangs on until his great-nephew arrives. He’s taking the red-eye from California.”
“It will give Carl peace of mind to say good-bye,” Maggie said. “Good night.”
It had been daylight when she walked over to the two-story red brick farmhouse, but the sky had turned to nighttime while she was there. She was grateful for the rising moon that lit her way back to the winery. The light from her kitchen window guided her around the small lake like a comforting beacon steering a ship to shore. Moonbeams skittered across the water, frogs croaked noisily, and ducks made soft rustling splashes along the shore. A few cows left from the large herd chewed on tufts of grass as she walked past. On the opposite side of the lake, grapevines linked together in rows like shadowy hands. She stopped to look at them and grief tightened its grip on her stomach. Just two weeks ago she and Carl had walked these rows together. “You’re going to have a bumper crop,” he said, testing the leaves and admiring budding fruit. Your patience and hard work have paid off. Sorry, I ain’t going to be around for the harvest.”
“Don’t say that,” Maggie said. “It’s only a couple of months away. The tanks are primed, and a crew is lined up and ready to work.”
“I don’t have any say in the matter”
“It won’t be the same...” She forced back tears.
“None of that crying business, hear?” He folded her into a hug. “Promise me there’ll be no tears when the time comes.”
“Okay.” But she knew it was a promise she would break.
She stumbled over a root on the uneven rough road and pitched forward, tightening her grip on the box under her right arm. She caught herself before she hit the ground. Picking her way more carefully toward the winery, she crossed the blacktop road and climbed the knoll to the place she called home; the kitchen light shone brighter now.
After a restless night, she stood on her wraparound porch and welcomed the sun as mist rose off the lake. Across the way, cars began to come and go at the farmhouse. She recognized Reverend Paschell’s black sedan, the day nurse’s Ford Focus, Dr. Wilcox’s Mazda, and Mrs. Urnsey’s, the housekeeper, battered Honda Civic. A red SUV pulled in and she wondered if it belonged to Jerrold Snyder, Carl’s great-nephew.
More than anything she wanted to be the one holding Carl’s hand as he parted this world, but she knew how important it was that he spend these last days or hours with his only family. At least that’s how he intended it to be. Call it vanity, or pride, or protection, he wanted to spare her from seeing him at his most vulnerable, wanting her to remember only his strength and wisdom that had given her confidence in those early days of her struggling business. She had been inclined to argue against staying with him, but in the end, she respected his wishes.
Her phone rang startling the silence. She answered it with a sigh. “Hi, Sis,” her brother said cheerfully. “Giulia and I are all set to drive down on Friday.”
“Good,” she said.
“You don’t sound happy. It’s still okay for Giulia to stay with you at the winery like we agreed?”
“Yes, sure, I could use the company.”
“Something’s wrong. I can hear it in your voice.”
“Mr. Snyder, who helped you get the winery up and running and the vineyard started? Is he still in a bad way?”
“It’s worse than that.”
“I’m sorry, Sis. How can I help?”
“There’s nothing anyone can do. It’ll be good to see you and have Giulia around for a bit.”
“She’s become a handful ever since Kate and I separated. I’m hoping a few weeks in the country will do her good. I don’t like the kids she’s been hanging out with lately.”
“She can’t get into much trouble here.”
“How long before Mr. Snyder...?”
“Hours, a day, maybe two.”
“You’re sure you’re okay?”
“I don’t have a choice.”
“Hang in there. I’ll call you before we leave Pittsburgh.”
“See you soon.”
Maggie watched Stephanie drive her beat-up Ford truck into the driveway and park it behind the tasting room. She poured herself another cup of coffee before walking over to the building to greet her assistant. On her way, she stopped at the outdoor tables in the courtyard beside the café and opened the umbrellas. Red, orange, blue, and yellow stood out against green, giving a false sense of cheerfulness.
“Are you listening?” Stephanie asked, waving a hand in front of Maggie’s face.
“Sorry, my mind was elsewhere,” Maggie said, bringing Stephanie’s face into focus.
Maggie had heard Stephanie’s voice, but lost track of her words as her mind slipped back to Carl and what was happening at the farmhouse. Giving her head a small shake, she turned to Stephanie who was six years her junior, but Maggie sometimes felt her employee and friend was older by a mile. She already had a degree in horticulture and was finishing a master’s degree in plant biology. Maggie had been drawn to the younger woman’s practical outlook on life and wondered if it came from her schoolteacher mother and car dealership father, or just from her ability to bend with life’s lifts and ebbs.
Stephanie returned home to her Culpeper family during summer breaks from college and had worked at the winery for the four years it was open. Her skin had an outdoorsy glow and she had one of kindest smiles Maggie had ever seen; it worked well on customers too. Stephanie genuinely liked people and they felt her sincerity. During her brief interactions with customers, she often managed to develop friendships that went beyond the usual customer-vendor relationship.
She smiled sadly at Maggie. “It’s Carl, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” Maggie said.
“It won’t be the same.”
“He’s the glue that held us together. It’ll take a long time to fill that void.”
Stephanie hugged Maggie and they held each other for a long moment. “What events do we have today?” Maggie finally asked with a sigh. “If we do normal things, perhaps we’ll feel normal.”
Stephanie studied her clipboard. “There are two bus tours stopping by, one this morning and one this afternoon. And Mrs. Bradford said last night that her B&B is filling up. Temperatures are predicted to soar this weekend and people are making reservations at the lodge and area motels for this weekend’s bike race. The race always attracts visitors. Looks like we’ll be busy.”
A little later Betty Zirkle arrived, her boisterous form taking over the small gift shop as her daughter Faye entered the café to get everything up and running before visitors arrived. The rest of the day Maggie felt like she was living in two separate universes—one where life had stopped and was stuck in a bubble warp, the other where she ran her business, talking to customers about growing grapes and wine-making, and explaining the different varieties of wines. She greeted healthy smiling people who chatted and discussed highlights of their tour up north. On the surface, she appeared friendly and animated, but behind the façade, her mind was listlessly submerged in her last moments with Carl.
She treated herself to a solitary dinner but hardly tasted it. Night began to fall, and she left the porch to walk among the vines, testing the leaves and admiring the gradual growth of grape buds. She reminded herself in eight to ten weeks the fruit would be ripe and ready to pick. Mist began to fall like a soft cover cuddling a sleeping child. She could taste it in the air. Damp earth breathed beneath her feet and nurtured the natural evolution of plants, drawing anxiety from her body. She luxuriated in the comforting energy until tentative footsteps behind her accompanied by the musky scent of male cologne interrupted.
* * *
Had it been only a day ago that he told Kyle to pack for Virginia? Jerrold’s request had been met with the usual dissonance from his son. “What’s in Virginia? Why do we have to go there? School’s out and you know I’m going surfing with my friends this weekend. Go another time, or go by yourself, I’ll stay with Walt. His parents won’t mind.”
“It’s a family matter,” Jerrold explained. “It won’t be a short trip. My great-uncle Carl is in a bad way, and he’s requested to see me. He’s a good man. We used to be close before I moved out here. I never went back to Virginia—too many bad memories. I don’t want to go to the farm any more than you do, but it’s not about me. The least I can do is grant the old man’s wish.” He looked directly at Kyle. “You’re underage, so no arguments. You’re coming with me.”
“I get the family duty, Dad. I could stay with Mom. Just this one time?”
Jerrold exhaled an exasperated breath. This wasn’t going to be easy. “You know that won’t happen. Your mom travels around reporting on news for KLGS.”
“She still has to come home sometime, right?”
“Yes. But if she’s on an important story, she could be away overnight.”
“I’m not a baby, Dad. I’m sixteen, but you treat me like I’m six. I can manage alone if she’s not here all the time.”
Ever since Kyle was a baby, he assumed his mother’s neglect was because of her career. In reality, Linda was never cut out to be a mother and deep down Kyle knew this. From the time their son was little she had missed most weekends that he was supposed to spend with her, and when she did take him, she ignored him and let him do as he pleased. He hated staying with her, but he was desperately trying to get out of going to Virginia. Jerrold tried another tactic.
“You remember Great-Uncle Carl, don’t you?”
“Sort of. There’s no ocean or surfing in Virginia.”
“You’ve no idea what Virginia’s like.”
“I know there’s no ocean where you’re going. It’ll be boring as hell without my friends. I really want to go surfing this weekend. Why’re you trying to ruin that? What about work anyway? You can’t go away and forget about that.”
Jerrold’s jaw tightened; he forced his expression to relax. “I just finished a major project and what I’m doing now can wait, or I can work remotely. Your great-uncle Carl used to come here, mostly when you were little. I know you remember him.”
“I said I only sort of remember him. Why don’t you believe me?”
Jerrold waved a hand in frustration. “He’s the only family I have left and I’m all he’s got. I have to go to the farm. End of story.”
Silence stirred the air raw and tense. Jerrold held his breath wondering if he had gotten through to his son. “All right,” Kyle said. “I’ll make you a deal. I’ll go to the boonies but promise me I can get my driver’s license when we come home. You’ve been dodging letting me drive ever since I got my learner’s permit.”
Jerrold had been a stickler about Kyle getting his learner’s permit. He stormed ahead and got it anyway. Since then he kept pestering Jerrold to let him get his driver’s license. Kyle wasn’t mature enough for that kind of responsibility, but he had Jerrold over a barrel and Kyle knew it. “All right. Deal. Now go get packed.”
But when they arrived at the farm Jerrold could see Kyle was already regretting giving in so easily. He looked around with distaste pasted on his face. The green fields, the farmhouse, the small lake, turned his frown into a scowl. It didn’t get any better when they went inside the farmhouse and the housekeeper showed him his room. It was large and airy with long windows and light curtains fluttering in the early morning breeze. Heavy furniture was arranged around the room and a handmade quilt covered the oak bed. The only time Kyle’s face brightened was when the housekeeper announced they had Internet service and led him to the dining room where she put a big country breakfast in front of him.
Jerrold skipped breakfast and went straight to see his great-uncle. He could tell by the sad expression on the nurse’s face that the end was close. Jerrold pulled a chair to the bedside and took Carl’s frail hand in his. His great-uncle gave him a relieved grin.
“You look like hell,” Jerrold teased, trying to ignore the heavy feeling in his chest. He was shocked to see this man who could shoulder the burden of an ox, turned into the frail figure tucked beneath the bedcovers.
Carl squeezed Jerrold’s hand. “This is what the end of the road looks like, son. Not very dignified.”
Jerrold swallowed hard and tightened his hold on Carl’s hand, attempting to fuse strength back into his frail body. “I’m sorry…”
“Nothing to be sorry about,” Carl said. “There was a time I hoped you’d stay here and take over the farm, but I understand. You left for the same reason I needed to stay. We both dealt with the tragedy in our own way. I’ve never faulted you for that. My only regret is that we drifted so far apart.”
“You have to quit saying that. There’s little time left and a lot of matters to discuss. Life is messy and even when we know we’re dying, there’s still loose ends to tie up.”
Throughout the day, Jerrold spent time on and off with his great-uncle, pad in hand, writing down Carl’s postmortem wishes, mostly things his great-uncle said were not specifically stated in his will. Jerrold groaned inwardly at the list. His great-uncle’s affairs would not be cleared up in a couple of days like he hoped. Time spent sorting all this out would not sit well with Kyle, who had passed the day between napping and watching videos from the big brown armchair in the living room. Once he got over jet lag, he’d be itching to get back to California and his friends.
As the evening drew down, Carl’s face appeared paler and more shrunken as he made another heartbreaking request. “I want Maggie to be the first one to know I’ve passed. You’ll be sure to tell her, Jerrold?”
“I will,” Jerrold said, surprised at tears shaking his voice. They tasted salty in his mouth as he swallowed his emotions. In these last hours together, Jerrold’s feelings for the old man had usurped old memories he fought to avoid. Old wounds had cracked open and he found himself drowning in them. Time, and living nearly three thousand miles away, had pushed his reasons for leaving Lake Hollow to the back of his mind as he concentrated on building a career and dealt with the daily business of living. Now that he was back here, there was no escaping the past that was unraveling everything he meant to forget. His great-uncle’s grasp slipped from his hand and he quietly went downstairs where the housekeeper was preparing something delicious, if the odor coming from the kitchen was anything to go by. But he had lost his appetite. He passed the living room where Kyle was deeply engrossed in a video game and stepped outside onto the front porch. He sat on the steps seeing the farm again for the first time in eighteen years.
It still looked the same, yet different. Fields that spread out behind the farmhouse were ripe with hay, and rows of corn covered the landscape as far as the eye could see. These had been leased to a neighbor farmer after Carl decided he could no longer bale hay or grow corn. Fields in front of the house told a different story. The barn was still standing, but Carl had said most of the herds had been sold off. Jerrold thought back to when these fields were filled with roaming cattle, horses, and sheep. All that seemed left was a goat chomping on grass in the field closest to the barn that still housed some cows and horses. As if by silent agreement cows meandered closer to water shimmering in the lake that had been a playground for Jerrold and his friends in summertime. In the latter part of his adolescent years, they spent more time at the dam where they planned teenage parties away from parents’ prying eyes. Most of the fields on the far side of the lake looked bleak and neglected except for acreage turned green by vibrant rows of grapevines.
Jerrold’s gaze wandered toward the winery a slight distance off on the right just across the state road. The owner, a woman, had evidently thawed his great-uncle’s heart after years spent alone. His voice had softened with affection when he spoke of her. Carl had said she gave his life purpose during the four years she had taken over the winery. Knowing Carl, Jerrold was convinced there was more to it than that. There was no age-limit for infatuation and just as a teenager could have a crush on an older woman, so could an elderly man have a crush on a younger woman. Jerrold smiled at this sentimental gibberish and wondered if his great-uncle’s fondness had developed into a crush, or if it was like Carl said and the woman had given the old man purpose in his waning years. Jerrold decided his great-uncle’s looming death was muddling his thoughts.
“Dad,” Kyle said. “Dinner’s ready.”
Jerrold stood, put an arm around his son’s shoulders, and walked indoors. Kyle looked at him in an inquiring way but said nothing.
The nurse came into the kitchen as Jerrold and Kyle were loading the dishwasher. They could have left this for the housekeeper to do tomorrow morning, but it had been part of their routine for years and it felt good to do something familiar.
“Your great-great-uncle would like to have a word with you,” the nurse told Kyle.
Kyle’s gaze turned to his father for permission, or to save him from seeing Carl’s diminished state. Jerrold couldn’t be sure. Before he could say anything, Kyle straightened his shoulders and followed the nurse upstairs. He was gone a good hour. When he returned to the living room, he didn’t speak, just stood with a kind of dazed pale look on his face.
The nurse whispered to Jerrold, “It’s almost time.”
The sun had dipped below the horizon when Jerrold stepped back out on the porch. He looked across the lake at the grapevines and Carl’s nebulous promise to his mysterious neighbor, then let his gaze wander across the state road to the winery sitting on a knoll. He left the porch and began walking, drawing much-needed air into his lungs. The farther he walked sobs bubbled up inside his throat. He gulped them back until he was forced to step off the rough-hewn farm road and hang onto a worn field post to steady himself. He drew in painful breaths to release the rush of feeling that tore at his chest.
At last his thudding heart subsided into the rhythm of nighttime sounds—crickets chirping low and slow, a fox’s high-pitched distant bark, a chipmunk scratching a tree trunk. Able to walk again, he continued toward the winery. An outside porch light had come on and lit the way through twilight darkness. He knocked on the front door but got no answer, then went around back and tried the back door. Silence. He returned to the front and looked across the road at the lake and grapevines. A shadowy figure seemed to float between the trellises. Drawn to it, he crossed the road back onto his great-uncle’s farm and walked among the grapevines. A honeyed floral scent guided him toward the back of a woman, not too tall, slim, with long auburn hair, jeans hugging her hips and legs, and a white lightweight blouse swaying about her waist in the breeze.
She turned around.