The House That Love Built
Second Chances, Book 4
Once she had it all: a home with a man who adored her, three children they cherished, a life filled with passion and promise.
Until one troubled child cost them everything.
After a childhood of constant upheaval, all Cleo Formby wanted was to put down roots, to fill a house with family and love. When Malcolm Channing swept into her life, she had it all: the home, the children, the love of a good man who adored her—
Until their firstborn daughter tore their family apart, and even the love between Cleo and Malcolm wasn’t strong enough to survive the devastation.
Five years later, that daughter returns, destitute—and with a child in tow. Cleo and Malcolm are thrown together again…and realize that their love has never died.
But both have ties to others now, and their daughter is no less troubled than before. Being in constant proximity but unable to be together is a constant heartache, but the welfare of this little grandson has to take first place.
When Malcolm’s new life is shattered by treachery, can he and Cleo overcome the past and find their way back to the magic that once filled the house that love built?
(A companion story to The Road Back Home, Ria’s side of the story and beyond)
Click here to read an excerpt
Gypsy Rose Lee danced in the backyard, performing a slow bump-and-grind for an old, half-blind dog. Tom Jones wailed the melody to a steady backbeat and more brass than the law should allow.
Cleo Channing could swear the squirrel sitting on a limb nearby was smiling.
Today Gypsy. Tomorrow Rita Hayworth, maybe a little Ava Gardner thrown in for good measure. As Cleo’s seventy-four-year-old mother, Lola, danced, her brilliant purple-and-lime-green caftan flashed through pools of golden sunlight.
Cleo sighed. Snuggled into plump pillows on her private sunporch in the crisp autumn morning, she stared at the skyline of downtown Austin through the steam rising from her teacup. Tom Jones and Lola were playing havoc with her much-cherished indulgence, this tranquil time to gather herself before the day. She rose early to watch dawn kiss away the dew as cats prowled beneath the forsythia and birds greeted the sun. The steady hum of traffic from Lamar Boulevard below was background music, the pulse beat of a city coming to life.
She loved mornings, but she had missed a lot of them. Malcolm had always enjoyed sleeping until the last possible moment and had wanted her tucked in beside him.
But Malcolm had been gone for five years; he slept in a condo now, beside his younger woman. Who was welcome to him. Cleo had crawled her way to wholeness alone. She had her own life, and she liked it fine.
Or she’d been content with it before Lola and Aunt Cammie had shown up three months ago. Cammie was a sweetheart, but Lola had shattered the careful structure of Cleo’s world. Once again, Cleo was forced to assume her childhood role as the adult in Lola’s life; Aunt Cammie couldn’t be expected to keep a lid on her sister’s excesses. It boggled the mind to think that B-movie goddess Lola could have been born to the same parents as dainty, demure Camille.
But nothing could bother Cleo today. Not this day. And ironic as it was, Lola would probably approve of her plans.
Tonight, Cleo might very well take her first lover since the divorce.
She was more than nervous, yet a delicious shiver raced through her, and a part of her melted like dark chocolate under summer sun. She had fought the lure, telling herself she was too old and Colin too young, donning her iciest reserve…all for naught.
Fifty-one years old she was, and she should have no trouble thinking of Colin Spencer as a son. He was twelve years younger than she, for heaven’s sake.
But he sang the praises of older women, teased her, calling her a Puritan. Pursued her and refused to let her good sense discourage him.
Until she’d finally agreed to have dinner with him tonight—and not at the coffee shop he owned next door to her high-end gift store.
At his apartment. Where they both knew what might happen.
She had to be insane.
But, oh, she was tempted.
Where is your dignity, Cleo? It’s not seemly, not seemly at all. The voices crowded in, as they did every day. In the past, she had succeeded in listening.
Now the former Mrs. Malcolm Channing, mother, grandmother and respected business owner, was staring into the treetops—
And getting hot and bothered.
Her bedroom door opened a crack. Aunt Cammie peered around the edge, her expression apologetic. “I’m sorry. I knocked, but you didn’t hear me.”
Cleo blinked away her fantasies. “Difficult to hear anything over Tom Jones. What did you need?” Cammie moved through the house on silent cat feet, barely stirring the air, seldom speaking. She wouldn’t have interrupted if it wasn’t important.
Her distress registered on Cleo. “What’s wrong?”
“I—” She glanced toward the door. “Would you please come downstairs?”
Cleo wanted to ask if it could wait until she’d soaked up her morning’s peace. Or nestled in one more absurd fantasy of tonight.
Tom Jones wailed, and Cleo gave up. Serenity and Lola Fontaine lived in alternate universes. Only a faulty memory would allow Cleo to hope otherwise. She set down her cup, trailing one finger across its tiny painted violets, and rose, brushing aside the afghan as she slid her feet into satin slippers.
Aunt Cammie was already halfway down the stairs. Cleo barely noticed the smooth walnut beneath her hand as her mind jumped to possibilities. Her aunt was a former nurse who could handle a wide range of emergencies; she was gentle but always forthright. So what was going on?
Nearing the bottom of the stairs, Cleo noted the emotions leaping across Cammie’s features. Unease. Compassion.
Even before Cleo turned in the same direction, something was already telling her that everything had changed.
“Hey,” said the daughter Cleo hadn’t seen in six years. The girl who’d made the ten years before that a living nightmare. Cleo couldn’t quite register that Victoria was here, in the flesh. That she looked like hell.
But it was the sight of the little boy with her that sucked all the air out of the room.
“My God in heaven, he’s the spitting image of David.” Lola rushed past Cleo, caftan swirling around her tall figure.
Cleo hadn’t even heard her mother come inside. She stood there frozen, hoping the pain couldn’t pierce the calluses that bone-deep grief had built around her heart.
David. Her son, who’d been lost to them for six years. No one ever said his name anymore, as though he’d never existed. But he had. He did. Within Cleo’s heart, the child who’d been an unexpected gift still lived. Still breathed.
Hadn’t died at the hands of the wraith in her doorway.
Cleo tried to move her feet. Use her voice. Something to dance away from the boulder of longing rolling her way. Anything to keep from screaming at her firstborn.
“Mother—” Victoria’s eyes, so empty and dark and hot, scraped at Cleo’s heart…pleading for comfort and hope.
Cleo’s conscience had almost pushed the message from brain to feet to propel her forward.
But not soon enough.
Gaunt and strained, Cleo’s lost daughter shivered, a survivor close enough to safety to give up the struggle. The feverish glint left her eyes. With one shaking hand, she stroked the boy’s hair.
Then, like a rag doll, Victoria crumpled to the floor.
…Excerpt from THE HOUSE THAT LOVE BUILT by Jean Brashear © 2019