The Abundance Series Book 5
When a big-city single dad relocates to his small hometown to help his troubled daughter, will he find his own happily-ever-after with the girl next door?
Greenhouse owner Meredith Lawson is eager to buy her uncle’s land, including the old family farmhouse. It’s the perfect location for the farm-to-table restaurant she and her sister hope to open.
Widowed entrepreneur Zach Gilcroft, desperate to help his unhappy thirteen-year-old daughter, jumps at a chance to relocate to his Missouri hometown. When he finds a lovely historic home with acreage for the solar farm he envisions, he quickly seals the deal. If the move will land him right next door to a girl he almost kissed in high school, it only makes the property more appealing.
When Meredith learns that her uncle has already sold his farm, she tries to regroup, but Zach unwittingly thwarts her at every turn. When he offers to help her brainstorm new options for the restaurant, the two spend more time together, and she discovers that his emotional wounds mirror her own. Attraction begins to grow.
But when she accidentally endangers Zach’s daughter, triggering all his past pain, their romance shatters, and Meredith is swamped with guilt. Can Zach and Meredith open their hearts to God’s grace, learn the power of forgiveness, and in the process find true love?
Read an Excerpt: Chapter One
Meredith Lawson stepped onto her front porch and gazed up into the late afternoon sky.
Snowflakes poured down, as big and fluffy as popcorn. In less than an hour, her drab yard, leafless trees, and even the muddy field across the road had been transformed into a world of sparkling white.
She buttoned her old brown work coat, dug gloves out of the pockets, and tugged on her navy knit cap.
Duke, her German shepherd, raced off the porch and stuck his face in the snow, then lifted his head, black nose now frosted white. He let out a woof and bounded across the yard.
The vet might say Duke was a mature dog of nine, but he was still a puppy when it snowed.
Meredith pulled her phone out of the back pocket of her jeans, snapped a photo of Duke, and texted it to her sister, Ava, with the message “Happy New Year!”
Within seconds, her phone rang.
“Happy New Year to you as well!” Ava said. “Those flakes look enormous.”
“I’m so jealous.” Ava let out a soft, pouty groan. “Here in Atlanta, it’s rainy and gray. I wish I was still with you in Missouri.”
“I wish you were too.” Somehow, ever since Ava drove back to Georgia two days ago, things that Meredith hadn’t noticed before stood out like lonely lighthouses in her life. The silence of the house at night. The meals alone in front of the TV. The fact that she ran her dishwasher half empty simply so bits of food wouldn’t get dried onto the plates and silverware. Even sitting with her aunt and uncle at church this morning, she’d felt alone.
Still, she didn’t want to discourage Ava from pursuing her dream at culinary school. Dreams were important. And speaking of dreams… “Even though you’re missing the snow, I’ve got news that will brighten your day. If I can get a loan from the bank, I think I can make the plan for the restaurant work.”
Ava squealed. “Really? You can buy Uncle Harris and Aunt Ruby’s place?”
“I think so.”
“Oh, sis, that would be amazing.” Ava’s words echoed with longing.
Meredith’s heart warmed. It would be so wonderful to be able to do this for Ava. So fun for them to work as a team, with her growing organic produce in the greenhouse and Ava cooking it in her restaurant.
Of course, buying Ruby and Harris’s place would mean the loan would need to be sizable. And she wouldn’t have much money left over each month after the payments. Certainly not enough for any exotic vacations. Not that she got away for vacations, with the greenhouse demanding all her time. But she and Ava had looked at rental space, and there was nothing at all suitable locally. Plus, buying her aunt and uncle’s farmhouse next door wasn’t just a good idea. It was the least she could do for Ava.
Plus, rejoining the properties made sense.
After all, the five acres she and Ava owned, along with the land where her aunt and uncle’s house sat, had once been part of the same parcel, right outside the little town of Abundance. The property had only been divided after Grandma and Grandpa Carlton died when Meredith was five. They left Uncle Harris twenty acres, including the house, and left Mom twenty acres, plus their savings. Mom and Dad sold all but five acres and used the proceeds and the savings to build their own home and start the greenhouse business. Uncle Harris and Aunt Ruby stuck with traditional farming and, over the past three decades, had added six hundred acres to their land.
Meredith might find Uncle Harris difficult to be around, but she had to admit he was a good businessman.
Now that he and Aunt Ruby were retiring and moving south, if she could buy part of their land, the three acres with the house and yard, it would make a fabulous restaurant. Unlike the more modern, one-story ranch-style house her parents had built, the old Carlton family farmhouse had real historic charm. It was two and a half stories, built in the Queen Anne style, with a roomy wraparound porch and—best of all—a turret. Just the look of the place would attract customers from the city.
“Buying their house for the restaurant would be perfect.” Ava sighed. “You could continue with the greenhouse, and once I finish culinary school, we could run the two businesses together. Farm to table, the ultimate in locally sourced food.”
Meredith studied the big house next door. The more she played with the idea, the more she liked it. “I’ve been crunching the numbers all afternoon, and I think it will work. I just came outside to take a break because the snow is so pretty.”
“If I was there, we could celebrate by building a snowman, like we always used to for the first real snow.”
“We could. This snow is perfect. Wet enough to stick really well.”
“You’ll have to build it without me,” Ava said. “Send me a picture.”
Meredith pushed some snow back and forth with one foot. Building a snowman wouldn’t be the same without her sister, but… “Okay. It’s quite nice out here. Too nice to go right back inside.” Besides, the beauty of the snow was exactly the kind of blessing she tried to take time to appreciate.
“I’ll be waiting for the picture. And envisioning the menu for the restaurant. Thank you so much for trying this. I love you, sis.”
“I love you too.” Meredith hung up, tucked her phone back in her pocket, and scooped up a handful of snow. “C’mon, Duke, we’ve got a snowman to build.”
Fifteen minutes later, the snowman was coming along well. Duke hadn’t been nearly as much help as Ava, especially when it came to lifting the middle ball of snow on top of the bottom one. Still, Meredith had gotten the three snowballs stacked right in the middle of the yard where she and Ava had built their snowmen for years, ever since they were little, before Mom and Dad died.
Even during the four years that Ava had worked in a restaurant in Kansas City, she’d come home for her days off, for holidays, and for the first big snow. And next year, after Ava finished culinary school and moved back home, she and Meredith could continue their snowman-building tradition together.
Meredith brushed some snow away from the flowerbed by the front porch, gathered up a few pieces of mulch, and used them to create eyes and a cheerful smile.
Now she just needed Grandpa Carlton’s fedora and a carrot for a nose.
“I’ll be right back,” she told Duke as she went inside.
Zach Gilcroft neared a curve on the narrow blacktop. He eyed the road, tightened his grip on the steering wheel of the rented Toyota, and carefully applied the brakes.
The car slid, its tires no match for the snow that had quickly piled to four inches.
He pressed more firmly on the brakes and, after a second, the anti-lock feature kicked in, putting him back in control of the vehicle.
Whew. He let out a silent breath, then glanced over at his thirteen-year-old daughter, Hailey, in the passenger seat.
Seatbelt on, long blond hair pushed back over her shoulders, she was smiling at her phone, oblivious to the road conditions. Probably thumbing through the photos she’d taken of that horse.
Kayla, the girl Hailey had met at church this morning, had been so nice to invite her over to see her horse. That one kind action had made such a difference. Most of the time they’d been here in Abundance visiting family for Christmas, Hailey had been just as unhappy as she had been back in Phoenix. Until she’d met Kayla.
Getting Hailey cheered up even for an afternoon was a big deal. So big that Zach had been reluctant to pull her away and had stayed, visiting with Kayla’s parents, after he arrived to pick Hailey up. They probably should have left sooner.
Cautiously, he rounded the curve to where the road straightened.
Good thing he knew this stretch of County Road 1400 so well. He’d been out here in the snow many times as a teenager, driving Dad’s pickup with a load of firewood in the back to make it easier to steer, when he visited a friend who’d lived a mile past Kayla’s house. These days, though, at thirty-five, he was old enough to know to head home when the snow started to come down heavy.
Yet he’d lingered, foolishly hoping that one fun afternoon might somehow make up for the fact that Hailey was facing the evils of middle school without her mom to offer guidance.
Hailey set her phone on her lap. “Dad, do you think there’s any way I could have a horse in Phoenix?” She looked over at him as if she didn’t already know the answer was no.
A no that was hard for Zach to get out every time they had this conversation. He loved his girl so much. Every day she reminded him more of her mom, with her big blue eyes and golden hair. If only Jillian were still alive to see their daughter growing up.
And to help him handle the murky waters of parenting a thirteen-year-old girl, a girl who had—after she seemed to recover from her mother’s death—been so full of life. Until last year when she started middle school. Now, except for discussions about horses, Hailey was sullen and withdrawn.
“Buying a horse would be hard, princess.” Zach caught her eye and shook his head. “With where we live, we’d have to board it, and I’m not sure how often you’d be able to get out to see it.” He tried to keep his nights and weekends clear, but running his own energy business didn’t allow nearly the amount of free time Hailey would want to spend with a horse.
“I bet we can find a stable close to town, and I can take the bus there after school to go riding.”
Ride without him or another adult there to keep an eye on her?
That wasn’t happening.
But somehow he had to find a way to get her past seventh grade. Truly, he was desperate enough to let the horse live in their garage and tell her she could ride it around their quarter-acre backyard in the suburbs and—
The car hit a slick spot and veered toward the right shoulder of the road.
Zach’s pulse kicked up a notch, and Hailey sucked in an audible breath.
He steered into the skid, then eased the vehicle back toward the center of his lane.
“How far”—Hailey’s voice wobbled—“are we from Grandpa’s place?”
“About three miles.” He tried to sound confident. He’d like to give her a reassuring look as well, but after that skid, he didn’t dare take his eyes off the road. “We just have these two big curves.”
Curves that, even now, seventeen years after he’d graduated high school, still weren’t banked right. He crept along, staying in the tracks from other cars as best he could.
Finally, he got back to another flat, straight part of the road. “We’re in the home stretch now, Hailey. We have that little hill up ahead and after that we’ll be on a road that’s plowed.”
“Good.” She went back to her phone. “Although I’d rather be stuck in a ditch here than go back to Phoenix.”
Her voice had that hopeless note again, the one that cut right into his heart. So much for cheering her up with a visit to a horse.
She let out a long sigh. “I can’t believe I have to deal with Desert View Middle School again in only two more days.”
Zach winced, gave the car a tiny bit of gas, and—
It fishtailed and spun out.
A thud sounded outside Meredith’s house.
She put her gloves back on, grabbed the carrot and fedora, and opened the front door.
For a second she stood motionless, mouth open. The fedora and carrot fell from her hand, silently plunging into the snow on her porch.
There, in the middle of her front yard where her snowman had stood, was a light-blue sedan. The lower sections of her snowman were shattered. The snowman’s head, fully intact, sat on the hood of the car with its smile still in place. And a tall, dark-haired man in a black jacket was climbing out of the car with his head angled to one side as if he couldn’t quite take in what had happened.
Duke raced over, barking at top volume.
“Hush,” she told the dog. “He’s all bark,” she called to the driver. “Really, a big love.” She shut the front door and dashed over. “Are you hurt?”
“We’re okay. I’d slowed almost to a crawl, but I couldn’t stop before…” He gestured to the snowman’s head on the hood of his car. “I’m afraid your friend sustained pretty serious injuries.”
A young teenager climbed out of the car, hands covering her mouth, turquoise gloves the exact shade as her puffy coat. “Dad, you decapitated it!” A note of wrought-up emotion rang in her words, a note that tugged at something inside Meredith, reminding her of when Ava got upset when she was younger.
“Don’t worry. I can fix it.” Meredith lifted the snowman’s head off the hood of the car and set it on the ground beside her. “I’m simply glad you’re both okay. I’ll build a new base for Mr. Snowman and do…well, a…a head transplant.”
For a half-second the girl seemed unsure of how to react, then she gave a small smile.
Meredith grinned at her. Good, just like with Ava, a little humor helped.
The man walked closer and his scarf slipped down, revealing a face with a strong jaw and familiar blue-gray eyes.
Eyes that sent a tingle through Meredith’s chest.
“Thank you,” he said. “For being understanding.” His gaze held hers, as if adding unspoken thanks for how she’d lightened the mood.
But there was no glimmer of recognition in his eyes.
Maybe that was too much to expect.
“I’m sorry I ended up in your yard.” He gestured to the muddy ruts behind the wheels of his car. “I’ll be happy to pay to have new sod put down.”
She brushed his offer aside. “Really, there’s no need. I’ll throw out some grass seed when it warms up.”
“Are you sure? I feel like I should—” His eyes narrowed. “Wait a minute. I remember you. We went to school together. You’re…Megan, isn’t it?”
She pressed her lips together and mustered up a polite smile. “Meredith, Meredith Lawson. And you’re Zach Gilcroft.”
“Yeah.” He tipped a head toward the girl. “This is Hailey, my daughter.”
She’d heard he was married, living in some city out west, and was a pretty big deal. From the looks of things, it was true. She didn’t know much about men’s clothing, but those boots the girl was wearing cost $300.
So Zach was rich, married, and probably living a lifestyle she could only imagine. No wonder he barely remembered her. She was just plain old Meredith Lawson. Five foot four, fifteen pounds overweight, with brown hair and brown eyes. Whether it was when she’d had a crush on him at eighteen or today at age thirty-four, she was nothing memorable.
He opened his car door. “At least let me move my car and help with the, uh, head transplant.”
“What? Oh, you don’t need to—”
“I insist. The snow seems to have stopped, so the roads aren’t getting any worse.”
A minute later he’d backed the car into her driveway and begun rolling a snowball in the yard.
His daughter waited by the car, petting Duke.
Zach pointed to the place where the original snowman had stood. “Should we put him here?”
“Sure.” She rolled her own snowball toward the spot. Zach’s snowball was already larger. Clearly, it would be the base.
He angled his head toward the house. “I see those two big greenhouses out back. What do you grow?”
“Organic microgreens and a few bedding plants, especially flowers. What do you do?”
“I’m co-owner of a business in Phoenix in the energy sector, funded by venture capital.”
That certainly sounded more impressive than growing baby radish and cabbage plants.
“We’ve been home for more than a week visiting family, but we fly back tomorrow.” He smoothed the side of his snowball, flattening out a lump. “School starts in two days, and I need to get back in the office. It’s pretty busy, being an entrepreneur and a single parent.”
Meredith stopped rolling her snowball. “Single parent?”
“My wife died when Hailey was seven.”
Oh. Poor Zach. Poor Hailey. Meredith glanced over at the girl, who was deep in conversation with Duke. It didn’t matter how old she was, a girl needed her mom. “I’m so sorry.”
“It’s okay,” he said gently. “Here, let me.” He took the second snowball from her, easily lifted it into place, and added the head. “Does that look good to you?”
“Even better than before. Thank you.” She added branches for arms, then dashed to the porch, dug out the carrot and hat, brought them over, and positioned the carrot nose so that it pointed slightly up.
Zach took Grandpa’s fedora and set it atop the snowman’s head at a jaunty angle. Then he patted the snowman’s shoulder. “Sorry about the incident, old fellow, but now you’re as good as new.” He turned to Meredith. “I guess we should get back on the road. If you’re sure about the sod?”
“Seriously, do you know anyone in Abundance who puts down sod?”
“Besides, I’m a farmer. If I can’t get a little grass to grow, I need a different career.”
He tipped his head in acknowledgment. “Then I guess we’ll head back to my dad’s place.” He looked toward the car. “We should take off, Hailey.”
The girl hugged Duke, waved, and got in.
Zach hesitated, then turned back to Meredith. “It’s been nice seeing you.” He caught hold of her hand, dwarfing her small navy glove with his big black one. “I miss people like you, living out in Phoenix.”
A zing of warmth shot through her chest. “Have a good trip home.” She stood there, waving, as he pulled onto the county road and drove away. The warmth in her chest fizzled out at the thought of how far away Arizona was.
There was no use getting excited over a chance encounter with Zach Gilcroft. He was out of her league. His time in Abundance was limited. He had big deals to put together in the energy sector.
And she had a loan to secure.