Front Porch Promises #3
December 15, 2016
Indie Published
Available in: e-Book, Trade Size

A Family to Call Ours

Young widow Tara Madsen has spent the last couple of years dealing with her daughter Hailey’s battle with cancer. Now a new job means the opportunity to give Hailey the best Christmas ever, but the arrival of Caleb Fitzpatrick, her employers’ son, puts that goal in jeopardy.

Caleb returns to his small Massachusetts hometown with one mission—to make sure another charlatan doesn’t take advantage of his parents and their generosity. When he meets Tara, the new office manager at the family business, he is immediately on guard. A pretty blonde fooled him once before, and he will make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Will Tara’s loving and giving nature soften Caleb’s heart and help him learn to trust and love again?

Chapter One

The sideways rain drenched Caleb Fitzpatrick as he slogged down Main Street. He dodged puddles and wielded his umbrella like a shield against the precipitation coming from the dark-gray clouds, but his attempt to stay dry proved unsuccessful. Why had he traded a sunny beach in Florida for the dreary early October weather in Hawthorne, Massachusetts?

Family. The family business. The family legacy. He was the only child who had chosen to walk in his parents’ footsteps. He wanted to protect everything they had built and step into their shoes when they retired. A warm, sunny climate couldn’t lure him away from this all-important obligation.

That was the most important reason. He’d gone to Florida to do a job for his family’s accounting firm. That job was over, and despite the temptation to stay in the warm Florida sun, he had come home. His parents needed his help even if they didn’t think they wanted or required it.

When he reached the tan brick building that housed the office of his family’s accounting firm, he hurried under the awning that stretched across the front. But the green canvas flapping in the wind did little to protect him. Head down, he ducked inside and shook the water off his hair like a dog shaking its coat. Rubbing a hand down his face, he looked up and discovered an unfamiliar female sitting at his mother’s dark-cherry desk—a desk he almost didn’t recognize because it was so neat.

The young woman’s unexpected presence made Caleb realize how silly he must have appeared, shaking the rain from his hair. He quickly finger combed it and hoped he didn’t look like a clown with his hair sticking out every which way. What was she doing here? And what had she done with his mother and her piles of paperwork? A bad feeling hit him in the gut.

The blue-eyed blonde smiled. Her cheery countenance belied the gloomy weather outside. “Good morning. May I help you?”

Caleb eyed the woman, who looked very efficient in her gray tweed jacket, black turtleneck sweater, and perky short hairstyle. “I guess—”

“Caleb, you’re home.” Sheila Fitzpatrick waltzed into the room before he could finish his sentence. “This is a surprise. We weren’t expecting you so soon. Did you have a good flight?”

“I didn’t fly. I drove.”

“Drove? All that way? Why?”

“Because I wrapped up that project, and I plan to stay. I thought it would be a good idea to have my car here.”

Sheila clapped her hands together. “That’s fabulous.”

“I’m sure this is a surprise.” He made a none-too-subtle nod in the direction of the stranger.

His mother sidled up to the young woman and put a hand on her shoulder. “Caleb, I want you to meet Tara Madsen. She’s our new receptionist.”

Receptionist? Since when did they have one of those? Caleb could hardly wait to get his mother alone and find out what was going on. His suspicions made it difficult to smile, but he manufactured one anyway and shook Tara’s hand. “Nice to meet you. I’m Tom and Sheila’s son.”

“Hi.” Tara shook her head. “I’m sorry I didn’t know you were their son. I thought you were a customer. I should’ve recognized you from the pictures in your parents’ house.”

“I don’t look much like my college graduation photo anymore, so no problem.” That would remain to be seen, because he sensed trouble brewing. He turned to his mother. “Where’s Dad?”

“With a client.”

“How long before he’ll be through?” Caleb planned to corner his parents and give them a lecture and a half.

“I’m not sure.” Sheila shrugged and nervously pushed her dark-brown hair away from her face.

Caleb eyed his mother. “When he’s finished, I want to talk with both of you in my office.”

“Your office is a bit of a mess right now.” A little frown knit Sheila’s eyebrows, her caramel-colored eyes not quite meeting his.

Now he knew where his mother’s clutter had gone. He wasn’t sure he wanted to see what had become of his office. “So I guess you’ve been using my desk while I’ve been away.”

“Yes, but I didn’t touch any of your stuff.” His mother’s expression resembled that of a school-aged child who’d been called into the principal’s office.

“Will I be able to have my office back?” He gave her a wry smile.

“Yes, once I get my stuff out of the way.” His mother gestured around the room. “I would’ve had it cleaned out when you got here, but you came home without warning.”

“I didn’t know I had to warn anyone that I was coming home.” He gave his mother a cheesy grin, then glanced in Tara’s direction. “And just where are you going to put your stuff since we now have a receptionist?”

Tara looked back at him, wide eyed. “I can help you move everything right now.”

“Yes.” Sheila motioned toward the hallway. “Tara is such a good organizer and worker. She helped us clean out the storage area, and that’s going to be my new office.”

Caleb stopped, and for the first time since he’d arrived, he took a good look around. The place didn’t look the same. The area was immaculate—much like the desk. A new piece of artwork featuring an autumn landscape hung on the wall behind Tara’s chair. A cherry coffee table, adorned with an orderly stack of magazines and a silk flower arrangement, sat in one corner, along with two new chairs. He glanced in Tara’s direction again. Was she responsible for the changes? While he contemplated the answer to his own question, he really looked at her for the first time. Her eyes were as blue as the cloudless skies he’d left behind in Florida, and her rosy cheeks made her pretty face glow. How had he missed her attractive features? Maybe because he’d been worried about the reason for her presence in this office, not her good looks.

Over the years, Caleb had been used to the people his parents had helped in numerous ways. Everyone from the down-on-their-luck vagabonds, to the troubled teens who continued their wayward ways while living in his parents’ house. This didn’t please Caleb, but he could understand his parents wanting to help them. And he had to admit that many people had benefited from the much-needed support and were eternally grateful for his parents’ assistance.

Now he definitely had to be on guard. He couldn’t let an eye-catching blonde make him forget the reason he’d decided to move back to Hawthorne. He wanted to keep his parents from trusting the wrong people. Had they done it again—succumbed to another sob story? One way or another he was going to find out why Tara Madsen, pretty and efficient or not, was now the receptionist in an office that had never had one.

On the other hand, first impressions were important, and having a pretty receptionist with a clean desk was a plus. A spotless outer office, rather than his mother’s chaotic paper piles, would inspire more confidence in a potential client. Besides, as long as he was here to serve as watchdog, Ms. Madsen wouldn’t be able to harm his parents or their business.

He’d fallen down on the job before. He was supposed to have been their protector, but he’d become as much a victim as they were. Making up for that mistake was his top priority.

Caleb smiled, and this time it was genuine. “Let’s start moving Mom into her new quarters so I can have mine back.”

“Great. Let’s start by putting all the furniture in place in your mom’s new office.” Tara popped up from her chair.

While she walked toward the old storeroom, he tried not to notice her tall, slender figure with curves in all the right places. He didn’t need to be thinking about the young woman at all. He needed to think about getting his workspace back.

He let out a harsh breath as he followed her. He stopped short in the doorway, then turned to his mother. “Did you get new furniture?”

“No.” Sheila waved a hand at Tara, who trailed behind. “This young lady is a miracle worker. Some of this and the table and chairs in the front were in here covered in boxes and old files. Some of it was at home in the basement and in the old storage shed. Tara suggested we refinish several pieces, and others only needed a good dusting.”

Caleb didn’t want to turn around and acknowledge the younger woman’s accomplishments, but he supposed he should. He didn’t understand where she had come from, why she was here, or how she’d managed to turn his mother’s penchant for stashing stuff here and there into something impressive. He glanced in Tara’s direction. “Very nice.”

“Thanks. It was nothing.” She shrugged as a pink tinge colored her smooth, creamy complexion.

She reminded him of one of those models in the soap commercials. He stuffed his hands in his pockets to keep from reaching out and rubbing a finger across her flawless skin. He gave himself a mental shake. What had gotten hold of his brain that he was thinking about touching a woman he didn’t know? He had to put his mind in another gear. “Who moved all of this? I hope Dad didn’t try to help with his bad back.”

“No, no.” Sheila waved a hand at him. “Some of the men from church helped.”

Tara’s expectant gaze darted around the old storeroom. “Mrs. Fitzpatrick, where would you like your desk?”

Sheila sighed. “Tara, how many times do I have to tell you to call me Sheila?”

Shrugging, Tara grimaced. “I’ll remember one of these days. It’s just so hard because my grandmother always insisted that I not call my elders by their first names.” Tara placed a hand over her heart and shook her head. “Oh, but you’re not old or anything like that. It’s just that you’re older than me.”

Sheila chuckled and put an arm around Tara’s shoulders. “You know I’m old enough to be your mother, but try to call me Sheila. It will make me feel younger.”

Caleb took in the exchange and hoped the apparent friendship between his mother and Tara wouldn’t end in disaster. His mother had a fondness for taking in strays who eventually turned and bit her. While he watched the two interact, he wondered why the young woman mentioned her grandmother rather than her mother. He had a lot to learn about Tara Madsen, and the sooner the better.

As Caleb started the process of reclaiming his office, he hoped he could discover how Tara had wound up with this job in his small hometown. He helped his mother and Tara move furniture, files, and paperwork along with the odds and ends from his mother’s desk. Tara focused her attention on the little details that made the new office not only a good place to work but an appealing room. She knew exactly which picture to hang on each wall. She even placed the photos of the grandchildren just so on his mother’s desk.

Tara found a place for everything and made his mother’s office the picture of organization. Caleb speculated about Tara’s talent. “Have you studied interior design?”

Wide-eyed, she shook her head, a hint of sadness in her blue eyes. “My grandmother always said I had a knack for rearranging things. Drove her nuts that I moved my bedroom furniture every other week.”

There was the grandmother again, and he gathered from her statement that Tara must have lived with her grandmother. And what about the melancholy look? Somehow he was going to find out what he wanted to know about this new employee. “Tara, are you from Massachusetts?”

“Well—”

“She’s originally from Montana but has spent the last year here in Hawthorne.” Sheila supplied the answer and left Tara standing there speechless. “You remember Molly and Kurt Jansen who run the bed-and-breakfast?”

Frowning, Caleb shrugged. “Not really. I believe you met them after I went to Florida, but you did mention them to me from time to time. What do they have to do with Tara?”

“Tara’s been living at the women’s shelter and working at the B and B, which are on the same property. Molly contacted me to see whether we needed some help.” Smiling, Sheila turned to Tara and patted her arm. “I’m so glad we were able to hire her. She’s done wonders for this office.”

“It appears so.” More questions about Tara filling Caleb’s mind, he glanced around and nodded. “And I do remember you talking about the women’s shelter.”

At that moment, Tom Fitzpatrick emerged from his office, along with Howard Reed, who owned the local hardware store. Caleb’s dad had been doing Howard’s taxes ever since Caleb could remember. The two men shook hands, then Howard left. Seemingly preoccupied, Tom started to go back into his office.

“Hey, Dad.”

Tom turned toward Caleb, his shaggy gray eyebrows, which matched the color of his hair, raised in surprise. “You’re home. We weren’t—”

“Expecting me so soon.”

“Well, yes.” Tom nodded. “I bet this weather makes you wish you’d stayed in Florida for a few more days.” Tom gestured toward the window. “How were the golf and the beach?”

“I didn’t spend my whole time golfing and sitting at the beach. We were working.” Caleb wondered whether his dad was trying to make small talk rather than mention that they had hired a new receptionist. Caleb wasn’t going to let his parents slide by on this one. “Mom, Dad, I’d like to see you in my office.”

Tom narrowed his gaze. “Right now?”

“Yes, now.” Caleb motioned toward the open door, then waited for his parents to precede him into the room. As he closed the door, he caught a glimpse of Tara settling behind her desk.

As Caleb stood behind his desk, his mother started waving a finger in his face. “I saw the way you were scrutinizing Tara. Don’t you dare say anything unkind to her.”

Holding up both hands, Caleb backed away. “Hey, I just want to know why we suddenly have a receptionist.”

“Your mother’s been doing that job in addition to her other work for too long, and it’s about time she didn’t have to pull double duty.” Tom motioned toward the door. “Tara came along at just the right time.”

Caleb narrowed his gaze and stood eye to eye with his father, both of them towering over his mother, who was nearly a foot shorter. “Yeah, while I was gone and didn’t have a say. How long have you known about this? Is that why you were so eager for me to take on that business in Florida? So you could hire another needy soul?”

Sheila stepped in between the two men. “Now, Caleb, we only decided to hire Tara a couple of weeks ago. This is not like the other times.”

Looking toward the ceiling, Caleb raised his hands. “Have I heard this before? I don’t want a repeat of the Baxter debacle. That’s why you’re pulling double duty.”

“We don’t need to talk about that. It’s history. Besides, you saw what Tara did with the reception area and my office.” Sheila waved a hand toward the door. “Doesn’t that speak for itself?”

Caleb shrugged. “I can’t deny that she’s done some good work, but that doesn’t mean she’ll continue to be reliable. Did you even interview her or get references before you hired her? Or did you just rely on Molly’s recommendation?”

“Molly is a perfectly good reference.” Sheila placed a hand on Caleb’s arm. “Calm down and listen to your father.”

Caleb let out a harsh breath as he glared at his dad. “Okay. I’m listening. What do you have to say for yourselves?”

Tom stared back. “We’re doing charitable work. We’re trying to help people who need it.”

Sheila nodded. “And if anyone needs our help, it’s definitely Tara. She’s been caring for her very sick little girl.”

“I’m all for helping people, but that doesn’t mean you should let them take advantage of you. And that’s what you’ve done—over and over and over again. When will you learn that helping every stranger who comes along isn’t always wise?” Caleb figured it was useless to point out that Amy Baxter had been caring for a supposedly ill father.

“Jesus said, ‘For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’” Tom frowned. “And besides, Tara isn’t a stranger.”

Nodding, Caleb bit back a harsh reply. He knew the Scripture from Matthew backward and forward. His parents had quoted it to him since he’d been a little boy. He was never going to convince his parents that they should be more selective in the people they helped. They weren’t going to listen to him, so he might as well save his breath and get back to work. But he was here now to watch out for them. He’d make sure that no one misappropriated their money or their kindness ever again. He would be there to protect them this time.

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