Atlanta lawyer Rebecca Hobbs, disappointed in her career, returns to her hometown, small central Georgia county seat, to restore her self-esteem. Almost before she unpacks, she is presented with a challenge--how to tame thirteen-year-old twin boys who are headed for juvenile court if they don't mend their ways. Whether Reverend Frank Andrews, minister and handyman, is a help or a hindrance is a matter of opinion, but Rebecca definitely finds him attractive.
A Hard Shell Word Factory Release
Jane Bierce is celebrating twenty-five years of romances, in a career spanning print, audio and and electronic publication. After many years of raising a family, she is semi-retired to rural Tennessee where she quilts, gardens and still writes romance.
"Dearly Beloved is a wonderfully warm and zany fast read that not only makes you laugh, but also pulls at your heart's strings. Warm and wonderful characters live between the covers of Ms. Bierce's third release from Hard Shell Word Factory. I live in a small town much like Blakesley Hills and can easily relate to the characters and their warm, small-town homeyness. Dearly Beloved is a keeper."Romance Communications
"Bierce is an author who manages to cross the genres with the ease of a born storyteller. Dearly Beloved will warm your heart and leave you with a smile."Buzzy's Review News
Rebecca Hobbs's heart sank when she walked down the corridor to her office at Halburton Development and saw the firm's vice president, Jonathan Douglas, lounging against the paneled wall beside her locked door. He was tall and blond and handsome, and he was very much at ease in a light gray suit that was obviously from one of the best clothiers in Atlanta and was definitely not off the rack.
Unfortunately, the second thing she 'd noticed was the long white envelope in this hand, and she suspected it contained her termination notice. She thought she'd accomplished a major feat when she managed to say a cordial greeting to him and unlock the door at the same time. After all, she had to uphold her reputation for being cool under fire, no matter what it cost her.
Jonathan followed her into her office, his manner casual. "We've got to talk," he said, calmly, not even blinking when she glanced at the envelope he still held. She dawdled as she dropped her briefcase on her desk and put her purse in the bottom drawer of her filing cabinet.
"I don't think there's much to talk about," she said, straightening her slender shoulders defensively and taking the envelope from his hand.
"I want to apologize," he said unexpectedly, his tone contrite.
Rebecca looked up at him with surprise in her expressive hazel eyes. "I don't think that's necessary."
"It is necessary," Jonathan insisted. "I tried to save your job for you, but George was adamant about retaining the lawyer who's been with Jacobs Properties. He's got twelve years experience to your two."
His shrug and sigh were sympathetic, Rebecca supposed, but the truth was that he probably had to look out for his own job and couldn't be too protective of her without risking his own future.
She, however, was expendable.
She'd been so proud of her work in putting the merger together, because Claiborne Ballenger, the lawyer for Jacobs Properties, had proved to be a tough negotiator. And all the while Ballenger had acted as though he assumed would be the one lawyer retained as staff counsel!
When George Halburton had begun to respond positively to the other man's comments, Rebecca had suddenly seen how tenuous her position was. She was too numb to be angry, too fair by nature to condemn anyone other than Halburton for her plight.
"It shouldn't be too hard for you to find another job here in Atlanta, Rebecca," Jonathan said, softening his stance to perch on the corner of her desk and place a large, gentle hand on the sleeve of her red blazer. "You're a good lawyer."
"I sent out résumés when Halburton started talking about working with Ballenger," Rebecca said, sinking into her swivel chair. "But it's too soon to get any responses. I start my vacation Wednesday, but I canceled my trip to England to stay in town and look for something --"
"Why wait until Wednesday?" Jonathan interrupted. "You've cleared all your work to take you two weeks of vacation. Do you have anything important to hold you here?"
"No." Rebecca shook her head.
Jonathan's intense expression demanded her attention. "Rebecca, you're an intelligent, determined young woman. George hired you to handle the legal problems of our expansion because he saw great potential in you. I think --if you'll permit me to express opinion --that you've lost touch with yourself somewhere in the past two years. You're smart enough to learn from your experience here. Instead of attacking the problem of finding a new position right now, why not get away for a few days? Can you go home and relax for a while?"
Rebecca sighed. "I'd just go crazy in my apartment."
"I mean home, Rebecca. Hometown. Family."
"Oh!" The image and sensation of the serenity and comfort of her hometown in rural central Georgia flashed into her mind. "Yes. That might be a good idea."
"Wrap up what's on your desk, and I'll clear it with George for you."
"Jonathan --" Her voice sounded more strident than she had expected and she immediately got more control of herself. "Jonathan --"
"Rebecca. You're a good person. Don't let a little misfortune sour you on the rest of the world." He bent down and kissed her on the cheek, like a big brother or a loving uncle. It only made her feel worse.
"You're right." Rebecca sighed, pressed her hands together, somehow deriving a surge of strength and energy from the gesture. "Maybe going home is the best thing to do, before I get started on applications and interviews."
"Has a nice vacation," Jonathan said, one hand on the doorknob? "See you in a few weeks."
Jonathan left the office, and Rebecca sat staring at the letter that had been in the envelope without trying to make any sense of it. With a shrug of finality, she put it back in the envelope and slipped it into her briefcase. Then she swept all the work on her desk into one neat pile and dumped it into her In a basket.
Melba Homes, her secretary, seemed confused when Rebecca locked her office door behind her and dropped the key on her desk. "See you in two weeks," she said. "If anyone needs me, I'll be at my family's home in Blakesley Hills. The number is in my file."
Two hours later she'd changed her skirt for slacks, thrown a few necessities into an overnight case and a carry-on bag, closed up her apartment and was on her way through the rolling countryside of central Georgia. She was glad to get out of the heavy traffic bustling around Atlanta and its sprawling suburbs.
The hour-long drive was giving her too much time to think. But it was all water under the bridge, Rebecca thought, easing her foot onto the accelerator to climb yet another hill.
Maybe Jonathan was right. Maybe distance would give her a better perspective.
As she passed the sign that read Blakesley Hills City Limits, Rebecca took a deep breath and slowed the car slightly. It wouldn't do her morale any good to be hauled in for speeding in her hometown.
The broad lawns, majestic oak trees and rampant flower gardens of one of the oldest neighborhoods in town gave way to the edge of the commercial district, heralded by the Kerry County Junior High School she remembered fondly. With a sense of shock, she noticed that the statue of General Blakesley, for whom the town was named, had been painted a ghastly purple and that graffiti was smeared across the red brick wall of the recent addition to the school.
By now, though, she was driving through the main business blocks, where cars were parked diagonally by parking meters that supported pots of petunias and asparagus ferns. Part of her mother's handiwork, she recalled, as chairman of the Blakesley Hills Beautification Project.
The one traffic light in town stopped her just across from the red brick and marble Kerry County Courthouse. Looking up at the second floor, Rebecca saw that the lights were on in her father's office.
Deciding to stop and surprise him, Rebecca began looking for a parking place. It would delay going home for a few more minutes, and facing her mother, the woman who could read her like a book. She could keep things from Big Ted Hobbs, but not from Margaret.
The hot August sun hit her as soon as she stepped out of the air-conditioned car. She strode across the street and up the traffic-hollowed marble steps to the double doors of the courthouse. An old man coming out held the door for her and tipped his hat when she thanked him. Socially Blakesley Hills was at least fifty years behind Atlanta.
The first-floor corridor of the courthouse had the institutional atmosphere of hushed formality and muffled activity. Rebecca followed the permanent temporary sign that directed her to the elevator. She gripped the brass railing until the car shuddered as it stopped on the second floor.
Once she entered through the open office door which was labeled in gold leaf letters Theodore E. Hobbs, Judge, Rebecca was greeted by Alice Grimm, his receptionist-secretary, whom Rebecca had known all her life.
"Is Daddy in?" Rebecca asked.
"Why, Rebecca! Sure he's in for you," Alice cooed softy, motioning toward the inner office.
Big Ted Hobbs was standing at his bookcase, leafing through a law book when Rebecca slipped behind him and covered his eyes with her slim hands.
"Guess who?" she challenged.
"Rebecca!" he exclaimed, turning around to catch her in his arms, the law book still in his hand. "I thought you were on your way to England."
"No, I decided to come home instead," Rebecca said, accepting a kiss on the cheek.
"Well, let me take a look at you." He held her at arms' length and frowned. "You look like you need a vacation."
"I sure do." She was about to blurt out her dilemma to his understanding ear when the telephone on his desk buzzed.
"Excuse me, honey," he said, lifting the receiver.
Rebecca couldn't help but notice the opened letter on her father's mahogany desk. First of all, it had the United States Justice Department seal on it, and the words Federal Court of Appeals and appointment jumped out at her. She took a deep breath and gripped the side of the desk for support as she dealt with the thrill of knowing that her father's long-held dream of sitting on the federal bench was possibly within his grasp.
"Why, that's fine, Frank," Big Ted Hobbs was drawling into the phone. "If you can't make the appointment this afternoon, I think it would be best if you stopped by the house this evening around seven-thirty. I have my heart set on watching the Braves play the Dodgers on television tonight at eight, so don't keep me waiting," he said, then chuckled.
Rebecca shook her head and clucked her tongue, mocking her father. "Still planning your life around the baseball games on television, Daddy?" she asked when he'd hung up.
"If Frank isn't coming by this afternoon, I can get out of here early for a change!" Big Ted grinned, showing deep dimples in this attractively aging face. "The more time to spend with you."
"Your Honor?" Alice interrupted from the doorway. "You're due in court to hear that action for continuance."
Big Ted reached for his black judicial robe. "You go on home, Rebecca. I'll be along as soon as I can."
Rebecca's smile covered her disappointment at being shifted out of the office and having no recourse but to go home and face her mother. She strolled down the broad slate steps to the lobby, trailing her fingers lightly on the polished oak banister. Then the smile on her face grew more genuine.
She was home. In her car again, she turned at the Community Episcopal Church, slowing down to notice that the grounds were more neatly kept than in years past. She'd heard that Rev. Higgins had been reassigned, so a new minister must be in charge.
A block away, she noticed a man and two half-grown boys shoring up the rose trellis on Mrs. Jenkins's verandah. She didn't recognize them. The man, shirtless in the unrelenting August sun, was tanned a deep brown above his worn blue jeans. Although the boys seemed to be arguing with him, he appeared to be well in charge of the situation, banging away effortlessly with a hammer, the muscles of his broad shoulders and upper arms rippling smoothly with each stroke.
As he turned to say something to one of the boys, she got the full effect of the chiseled profile beneath his thatch of jet black hair. The firm line of his chin, the straight prominence of his nose were beyond attractive.
She raised an eyebrow and drove on. Anyone that handsome had to be spoken for in a town the size of Blakesley Hills. One of the main drawbacks of living in a small town was the scarcity of marriageable me.
Rebecca sighed. In many ways, Blakesley Hills was a long way from Atlanta.
Turning again, she rolled to a stop in front of her family's home, an old red brick, late Victorian pile of a house that sat in the center of a broad, well-groomed lawn. On the verandah stood four matching rocking chairs, their paint this year a bright yellow that echoed the tiny marigolds in terra-cotta pots that accented each wooden step and the sidelights of the broad front door.
Her mother wasn't home, but as soon as she'd wrestled her bags into the front hall and dropped them on the polished oak floor that skimmed around the Oriental rugs she heard a car in the driveway. Her mother, who'd probably noticed her car parked in front of the house, called her name.
"Rebecca, honey! I thought you were going to England!" she called as she got out of Erma Hemple's car.
"Change of plans," Rebecca responded as she bounded down the steps on her way to close the trunk of her car, trying for a cheerful, unconcerned tone in front of her mother's longtime friend. "Hello, Mrs. Hemple."
Margaret Hobbs's brown eyes studied her daughter for an instant, then she turned to Erma. "I'll call you tomorrow about the quilt show progress once I've talked to Mary."
Erma eased her car into reverse and waved as she backed out of the drive.
Margaret put her arm around her daughter's shoulders and started walking toward the house. "Well, now, what's the problem?"
There was no sense in putting it off. "Mama, I lost my job after working out Mr. Halburton's merger. The other company's staff counsel has more experience than I do," Rebecca said, comforted by her mother's arm as it rested on her shoulders.
"Well, it can't be all bad," her mother said in a more cheerful voice, dropping her purse on the table that held the telephone. "Have you had lunch?"
"No, but I'm not hungry."
Margaret looked deceptively preoccupied with searching for something in her personal appointment book. "I could stand some iced tea," she said at last, starting toward the kitchen. "How about you?"
"Yes, I'm parched."
They were sitting at the round table on the back porch, drinking from tall glasses of iced tea, sharing a plate of tuna sandwiches, when Margaret Hobbs surveyed her daughter with a knowing look.
Uncomfortable, Rebecca glanced away from her mother, toward the old two-story carriage house, which was now a garage and storage attic. Life had been so simple when she'd been a child here, playing house in the old carriage house, making ladies' cotillions out of hollyhock and hibiscus blossoms. Back then, it had never entered her mind that ladies needed men to dance with, to escort then to the balls she staged. Boys and men had been a later discovery.
"How long can you stay?" her mother asked.
Rebecca shrugged. "Until I get my head on straight."
Her mother laughed. "Then don't unpack too much, dear. You're one of the most level-headed young ladies I've ever known."
Margaret calmly poured them both more tea from the glass pitcher on the table. "I'm sure losing your job had nothing to do with you as you. Just --Karma."
Rebecca chuckled to herself. Mama was always a surprise. Oriental philosophies were rarely discussed in rural Georgia, but who was to say they weren't in force just the same?
Margaret seemed unconcerned, except for Rebecca's hurt feelings. Even sitting on her own back porch sipping iced tea, Margaret was an elegant woman. Her pale blond hair was swept into deep waves and held high off her neck with a gold comb. Her pink blouse looked as neat as when she'd put it on that morning and her white wrapped skirt was uncreased by whatever she'd been doing.
Unlike other mothers, Margaret wasn't constantly asking her daughter when she was going to get married and settle down to keeping house and raising children. Somehow she conveyed the confidence that Rebecca would accomplish what she wanted to at the right time.
After all, Rebecca wasn't the only child in the Hobbs family. Her younger brother, Don, was off in Washington working as an aide to the congressman from the local district, and he was enough to worry about all by himself. But Margaret always had the unshakable faith that good things happened to those who waited. So she waited.
"I stopped by to see Daddy on my way," Rebecca said. "He thinks he'll be home early this afternoon."
"Oh, good! He's been working so hard lately, trying to get everything cleared away and caught up. There was quite a backlog of cases late this spring for some reason and he's just now getting around to some of them. Well, I'd better make more tea," Margaret said. "Why don't you go put on something cooler? You look so uncomfortable."
As usual, her mother was right. Rebecca went up the back stairs that curled between the kitchen and the back parlor and led her to the upper hall just across from her old bedroom. In the dresser she found an old pair of white shorts and the top of a red bikini that had long since been orphaned.
Her complexion usually tanned without any problem, but for good measure she snatched up a cotton camp shirt to throw on when the sun got too hot.
She glanced into the mirror above the dresser, surprised that she looked better than she felt. Her dark brown hair was cut sort to take advantage of its natural waves; the stylist she went to in Atlanta charged her an outrageous fee, but the results were always worth it. Mascara still accented her thick lashes and a bit of lipstick remained on her full mouth. But the spark was gone.
She'd never had any difficulty with her looks, not until she'd realized that her attractiveness worked against her when she tried to be taken seriously intellectually. At first, when she'd finished law school and passed the Georgia bar exam, she hadn't been able to find a position in a law firm. Then she dressed down and she'd finally settled for the position at Halburton Development, feeling she would be relegated to sitting behind a desk poring over contracts and ledgers. But then she'd met Jonathan Douglas and decided to launch a two-pronged attack --making herself indispensable to the firm and attractive to Jonathan Douglas.
Rebecca shook her head at how far awry her plans had gone. Funny, she'd always thought Jonathan was so handsome. Now as she pictured him in her mind, she remembered only his flaws. A receding hairline, a scar high on one cheek, a nose that had been broken at least once, maybe twice. His cleverness had attracted her, and it was probably that same cleverness what kept him aloof and watching for a woman who could do more for his career than Rebecca herself could. She'd never let it be known that she was the daughter of a circuit judge. Now Daddy had a chance to be a federal judge. Well, she didn't want a man if that made a difference to him.
There was no way to win in this world, despite her mother's quiet confidence to the contrary.
Barefoot, Rebecca slipped down the back stairs again and fetched a beach towel from the lower cabinet in the pantry where her mother always kept the picnic hamper and other gear ready for impromptu excursions. Margaret was a Scorpio with Sagittarius rising, always ready to go at a moment's notice, whether for romance or adventure.
The cool grass in the backyard prickled her feet as she crossed the lawn to a sunny place near the garage and spread out her towel. Sighing, Rebecca lay down on her back and looked up at the clear blue sky above the oak tree she'd climbed as a child.
Maybe Jonathan had known what he was talking about when he'd recommended that she come home and look at things the way she had when she's been younger. It had been a long time since she'd taken the time to look up at the sky and contemplate the universe.
The sun warmed her quickly, and she turned on to her stomach, just as her father drove his sleek sedan onto the brick apron in front of the garage.
"It sure didn't take you long to get into the spirit of vacation!" Big Ted said with a chuckle, pulling his lumpy briefcase from the passenger seat and slamming the door after him. "I really thought you had your heart set on England."
"I'm changing jobs," she told him, deciding that he would learn about her personal catastrophe soon enough anyway. She might as well get it out in the open. "I thought it was best to save my money."
"Changing jobs?" Big Ted asked, stopping in his tracks. "I thought there were important things afoot at Halburton."
"There are, but --well...they merged with another firm that had a more experienced lawyer on staff. I was asked to step aside." Rebecca waited for his reaction, expecting outrage, or at least disappointment.
"Tough break, darling. But I thought that job must be pretty dull for you anyway," Big Ted said with less concern than she'd expected. H loosened his somber dark tie. "You were made for courtrooms and paneled offices."
"Hey, I used to think so!" Rebecca laughed, squirming around to sit with her slender arms circling her knees. She looked toward the house, tilted her head and lowered her voice. "And what are you made for? I saw a very interesting letter on you desk while I was in your office. Does Mama know you are being considered for the federal court?"
"Not yet," Big Ted said, a spark coming into his hazel eyes. "I don't want to get her hopes up. This is the first time it's happened, and I really can't see why I'm being considered, except that I've been active in some of the campaigns lately."
"Oh, Daddy, I know how you hate politics --"
"Sometimes there are candidates that I believe in. And an appointment would be convenient. I don't like having to be elected to a higher bench. Being appointed is neater."
"I thought you were satisfied here."
"I am, but there isn't much going on here I didn't see ten years ago...I want a challenge...before it's too late."
"Daddy! I've never heard you talk like this!"
Big Ted chuckled. "Mostly because I've never even thought the thoughts I've had since I got that letter. I just keep reading it over and over. It's very seductive, you know?"
"Oh, yes, I know. I'd be very proud for you."
Big Ted smiled down at her, almost blushing.
"And proud for Mama, too!" she added.
"Doesn't she deserve it?" Big Ted asked, pure pride in his voice. "She's been beside me each step of the way, listening to my problems, keeping my secrets, putting up with bad moods when I have tough decisions to make."
"If you're offered the position you'll take it, then?"
"Who wouldn't?" Ted asked. Then he shrugged. "But, as I say, it's my first time. It won't happen --"
"Ted?" Margaret called from the house. "I thought I'd heard you drive in..."
"I'll be right there, honey," Big Ted called back, then looked down at Rebecca again. "We'll talk later. Don't get too much sun."
"I think I've had about enough for now, anyway," Rebecca said, but she still sat on the towel, watching the way the breeze ruffled the white petunias and red salvia around the back porch.
While looking in that direction, she caught only the shortest glimpse of the profile of the driver of a battered white pickup truck carrying an assortment of ladders and yard tools in its open bed as it rumbled past the front of the house. It was followed by two boys on bicycles who were weaving back and forth playfully, then racing to keep up with the truck.
They were the same boys she'd seen working on the trellis over at Mrs. Jenkins's house. Towheaded and bare to the waist, they were like so many other youngsters, but she noticed that they were twins.
She couldn't remember any twins in town, but then, she'd been gone -- Lordy, had she been out of touch that long?
Rebecca got to her feet, tugged her camp shirt on and knotted it at her waist, then picked up the towel and gave it a good shake. Throwing it over her arm, she strolled slowly into the house.
In the kitchen, the oven door slammed closed just as Rebecca put the towel on a hook in the laundry room where it would be tomorrow when she got more serious sun.
" 'Becca, we're eating a little early because your daddy has someone coming over to the house this evening and --"
"I know, Mama." Rebecca laughed. "The Braves are on television tonight. I'm just going to unpack and jump into the shower, and I'll be right down." And right hungry! she thought. Funny, she hadn't been hungry in ages.