Last Chance

Comfrey has been planning her homestead farm for three years, and she’s finally ready to break ground on her perfect permaculture paradise. She has big plans, and the goats and sheep she already has grazing are just the first step. Until the city throws a wrench in the works. Oh, and then there’s the sudden appearance of Nick. The man she nearly married.

Nick was not thrilled when Comfrey’s father (his boss) assigns him to go convince his wayward daughter that she’s had her fun and it’s time for her to rejoin the family business–a company that doesn’t fit into her new natural lifestyle, even if her father would ever accept her as. Forget the fact that he is still nursing a broken heart from the day she broke off their engagement and disappeared. Being around her was supposed to convince her that she made a mistake and wants to return to her old life–not convince him that she is still the only woman for him. Time is running out before he has to return to Boston, but can they bridge the gap between them?

One

NICK BELMONT HAD DITCHED the Chinese take-out he had planned to order and stood instead on his boss’s front porch on a Friday night. Bryant Huxley, of Huxley cosmetics, never worried about presuming on his position as CEO, and the fact that he was the father of the woman Nick had almost married four years earlier, didn’t help.

Despite the fact that Channing had run off, ending their engagement nearly four years earlier, and devastating Nick in the process, he had been in the Huxley home several times for social occasions—one of the questionable perks of working for her father. Usually it was for a large dinner party—which Clarissa Huxley was famous for—but tonight it would only be the three of them, which was a little worrisome. Why would they need a private meal with Nick?

The house’s Doric columns lining the front of the white two-story structure looked as imposing and pretentious as their owners, especially since the front walk was flanked with two white lion statues—Nick could image how they would freak out trick-or-treaters at Halloween if they hadn’t been familiar with the house before. He pressed the doorbell and heard a loud gonging inside, announcing his arrival. The Huxleys didn’t do anything in a small way.

It was kind of strange that with all of the other household staff and formality at the Huxleys’ house that Clarissa hadn’t insisted on a maid or butler to open her doors instead of deigning to answer it herself. But there she was greeting him in her slinky white dress.

“Nicholas! It’s been far too long since we had you over. I hope you’re doing well? Bryant has mentioned how happy he is with the work you’ve been doing.” Clarissa had never lacked for conversation and may even have preferred to be the one providing nearly all of it. In that, and several other ways, she and Nick’s mother were cut from the same cloth.

Nick crossed with her through the spacious foyer and into the parlor where Bryant was already shaking a drink in the stainless-steel container.

“Nick, my boy, how are things going for you with the latest contract?”

“Very nicely, thanks. I have a little fine tuning to do on the one for Walmart, but it should go back to them on Monday. How are you, sir?”

“Wonderful, I knew you were the man for the job.” He poured the clear drink into a glass and added an olive.

“He always has been,” Clarissa came in behind him and looped her arm around his, her flowery perfume wafting up to surround them both. “Would you like an aperitif?”

“Thanks, but just club soda for me. I’ll be returning to that contract when I get home.” Nick had learned long before that he didn’t handle alcohol well and intended being on his best behavior in his boss’ home.

“Take a seat.” Bryant settled on the buttery brown leather sofa across from the wingback chair that Nick chose and took a sip of his martini. “Now tell me about this contract.”

Clarissa put up with the shop talk for nearly ten minutes before shifting the discussion to how Nick’s family was doing. She’d never had much patience for business discussion.

“Mom is well. She’s busy, you know, with the fundraiser for the Boston Center for the Arts.” It had always been her favorite of the several committees she was involved with.

“Yes, she said it was taking up all of her time—she’s such an asset to them. And you, what have you been up to? Dating anyone right now?”

And they were back to that topic. Clarissa liked to keep an eye on Nick, to know what was going on with his social life, as if she expected the daughter who rejected him would suddenly realize her mistake and come hurrying back to beg his forgiveness—as though it happened only last week. She never said anything negative to him if he happened to be seeing someone when she asked, but when he took any young woman to social events, Clarissa always slighted her, treating her like dirt, as if his date had ruined things for Channing and Nick.

Channing hadn’t needed another woman as an excuse to cut him out of her life.

“I haven’t had time to date lately. Work is keeping me very busy right now. Maybe after the rush to finish contracts for the Christmas season is over I’ll have more time for a social life.”

“Of course. It must be very lonely in your apartment, all by yourself every night.” Her expression was sad, even sympathetic, but the light in her eyes said otherwise.

“It can be quiet, but it’s easier to be productive without distractions.” Not that he wouldn’t welcome a distraction of the female kind—heaven knew it had been too long since he’d met anyone he really connected with.

“Of course.”

The cook came to the doorway and silently signaled to Clarissa.

“It looks like dinner is ready.” Clarissa stood smoothly, gliding ahead of the men into the dining room and came to a stop beside her chair at one end of the long dining table, waiting for her husband to help her with it.

Once the Cobb salad was set in front of them, Clarissa picked up the subject again. “I’m glad to hear that you’re not involved with someone, as that could make your next assignment rather complicated.”

Nick paused before lifting the fork to his mouth, suddenly wary. “Why?”

“What she means,” Bryant elaborated, “is that we would like your help with a special project, which will require you to be away for a little while.”

“But if anyone can get it done, it’s you, Nicholas. We know you’re up for anything, right?”

Nick didn’t like the direction this was going. “What do you need?”

Clarissa sighed heavily. “It’s Channing.”

He stopped any pretense of eating; really not liking the vibe he was receiving. “What about her?”

“She’s settling in, building a house, planting trees, planning to get goats, believe it or not, though I had to ask my source to make sure that hadn’t been a typo. And she’s started seeing someone who is almost suitable for a change. Not the best family, but a good one, respectable job, even if it is several rungs below what she deserves. I’m afraid she’s going to stay in Kansas instead of coming home.”

Nick felt his heart squeeze in pain at the thought of Channing finding another man to make a life with. Why was it that even after four years he hadn’t been able to stop caring about her? He was pleased that his voice sounded unaffected when he spoke again. “What do you expect me to do about it? She’s apparently happy.” Without him.

“She’ll listen to you. She’s had four years to get this rebellious phase out of her system, and it’s time she came home and did her duty. Time she married you.” Clarissa touched his arm as though she were offering comfort, instead of causing pain.

Like he would trust her after the agony she had put him through. “Look, Mrs. Huxley—”

“Now, Nicholas, I know the past is the past,” Bryant interrupted, “but we all know she really ran away from her responsibilities in the company, not from you. Clarissa and I have tried to convince her to come home, but what she really needs is someone her age, someone with powers of persuasion to show her that what she needs is here, not in that backwater town, and we know she loved you—if you had just gone after her when she first ran, she would have come right home to marry you as planned. We’ll provide you with travel expenses, and you can continue your work in Crystal Creek. You just need to remind her of all of the good things she’s missing by living there.”

“We wanted to get that out of the way so we could enjoy dinner. We can talk about it more afterward, while we have our dessert.” Clarissa shot him a smile that said she expected him to capitulate.

It wasn’t as if Nick hadn’t tried to find Chance in those first few months, but she had gone off grid—literally. By the time she had resurfaced again, he had moved on. He did want to see his Chance again. Except that she wasn’t his anymore, and hadn’t been for far too long.

It was a ridiculous idea, him chasing after her, trying to convince her to come back. He knew it wouldn’t work—she was as headstrong as anyone. Besides, she had left him with nothing but a note to explain when she broke off their engagement. She hadn’t even had the decency to tell him to his face.

He wouldn’t do it. He could tell them no—it wasn’t as if his job as a corporate attorney included retrieving rebellious grown women.

Unfortunately, bringing up their plans before dinner meant that Nick was a terrible conversationalist—having to force his attention back to the discussion over and over when it slid to Channing again. Or as she now called herself—Comfrey. Goats and farming. When she remade herself, she went all out.

Fortunately for him, Clarissa had always been capable of carrying a conversation single-handedly and tonight was no exception, so he needed to do little more than nod or make noises of agreement.

By the time dinner was over, he realized they weren’t going to give him a choice—Bryant was his boss and he was more or less ordering him to Kansas City—he hadn’t put it in so many words, yet, but he would if forced to. That was how Bryant operated.

Nick could fight it and lose, or he could negotiate and they would all win—theoretically. The question was where to start the negotiations—he wasn’t an attorney for nothing.

When the three of them took their dessert and coffee in the parlor after dinner, Nick was ready for Clarissa to pounce again. She didn’t make him wait long.

“About that little project we need you to take care of.”

“I’ve been thinking about it. There are a few things you need to consider. First is that Channing may decide she isn’t interested in coming back under any circumstances. You said she’s digging in and making a life for herself. Maybe this guy is the one for her.” He managed to keep from rubbing a hand over the growing knot in his gut.

“Don’t be ridiculous. You’re the one for her; you just have to make her see it.” Clarissa dismissed the possibility as easily as she might toss a pair of Jimmy Choos that had an uncorrectable scuff.

“And that brings up the second issue—I’m not even sure if I want to be the one for her anymore. It’s been a long time, and we may not be a good fit now. Either one of us may decide after spending a little time together that our dreams no longer mesh the way they once seemed to.”

“That’s silly. We could all see how perfect you were for each other from the first date.”

Nick had thought so too. He would have made any concession she needed to make the marriage work—until she had left him without a qualm. “Thirdly, nothing here has really changed, you want her to step right back into life the way she left it, but if the things that made her leave in the first place are exactly the same now, there’s no reason for her to return.”

“What do you mean?” Clarissa looked genuinely confused.

The woman could be dense when it suited her. “I’m just saying that getting her back may require some changes on your side as well as hers. But even if you’re willing to make them, there’s no reason to believe that she’d be happy to leave the life she’s been building for herself.”

“Just bring her home, Nicholas.” Clarissa had never used the shortened version of his name—not once in the years they had known each other. She was going to be just as stubborn about what she wanted this time as well, he could tell.

“We understand that you might not be the miracle worker we need,” Bryant said. “But then, I may decide you aren’t the attorney I need on staff, either.”

How Nick hated being backed into a corner like this. “I’ll do what I can.”

Famous last words.

 

Two

COMFREY DUG HER HANDS INTO the thick soil and filtered it through her fingers. They were picking potatoes in the community garden and she had volunteered to dig through the soft, raised bed.

This was her happy place, with the hot July breeze blowing on her face and the sound of children laughing on the playground equipment at the school across the street—even though school had been out for over a month.

Meena and Dierdre, two of the women she had been teaching gardening classes to at the women’s shelter, were weeding their own beds and chatting across from each other while their kids played close by. Comfrey loved working with the women and was thrilled with how close they had become—these two and three others regularly met together to help each other out with projects and to swap babysitting. Not that she had anything to do with that, she just felt blessed to be included as one of their friends.

“How’s it coming over here?” Red-headed Piper asked as she stopped by to see the progress. “Could you use a hand?”

“I’m nearly done here.” Comfrey used the hand trowel to turn over one last bit of dirt. “It’s a pretty nice haul. I think there are plenty to share around for our dinners tonight, and the rest can go to the food pantry.”

“Perfect. The boys are nearly finished pulling the beans.”

Comfrey looked over at Reece, Piper’s fiancé who was working with his best friend Tony. Tony glanced up and caught her gaze, winking her direction. She winked back. Things had definitely been getting interesting between them since she had bought him at the bachelor auction a couple of weeks earlier and she couldn’t wait for their date the next night.

Tony stood and rubbed his hands together to remove the dirt, moving in her direction. She loved the way the smudges of dirt on his face made him look more manly, and she enjoyed the fit of the snug orange t-shirt over his abs—usually he was all starched and pressed in his office attire, which she liked as well, but this ruffled version of him was ever-more enticing. “You look like you’ve gotten some sun.” He tapped her nose, which she’d noticed earlier had turned pink.

“A casualty of fencing my property.” For the past few weeks she had been working during her free hours to put a perimeter fence on her future permaculture paradise.

“Do you need another set of hands?”

It wasn’t the first time he’d offered, and it probably wouldn’t be the last time she would turn him down. “Thanks, but I’ve got it.”

He leaned down a few inches so their eyes would be on the same level. “There’s nothing wrong with allowing other people to help sometimes.”

“I know.” But she didn’t want to share the work with anyone right now. This was her dream, and she had thought it out from the tiniest detail starting years before she even found the property she was going to build and settle on. Strangely, she wanted to do as much of it herself as possible, to make it hers and hers alone.

She had broken from the bonds of the life her parents had wanted for her four years earlier, but this was something she was building that wasn’t about them, or rebellion, or in any way connected to her former life—it was just her, creating the life she wanted to live, and for this part at least, she wanted to have it all to herself. She wasn’t ready to let someone she was dating help her with it.

Somewhere in her mind she had the fear that if she let someone new help with something this basic, it would no longer be truly hers, and though she enjoyed spending time with Tony, she wasn’t sure she was ready for that.

Okay, she had control issues, but she would be able to start building in a few weeks—she just needed to get a few people in the county to sign off on everything so she could break ground.

“I have to take off. Mom’s having a barbecue.” He tucked his hands in the back pockets of his jeans.

“On a Monday night?”

“There’s no such thing as a bad time for a party, though she’d probably prefer that I shower and change first.”

Comfrey scanned him from his short, spiky brown hair, brown eyes, and all the way down to the beat up tennis shoes he wore when he was working in the garden and pumped her eyebrows. “I wouldn’t. You look pretty great just the way you are.”

He chuckled and twined their fingers together. “We still on for dinner tomorrow?”

“You bet. I promise to be ready for you, wearing a little less dirt, at six.”

He leaned over and brushed a quick kiss over her lips. It was pleasant and friendly, but with tingly undertones—the perfect metaphor for their relationship.

Tony called to Piper that he was going and waved to a few people who looked up, then sauntered over to his Audi and slid inside.

“Seriously, you can’t take your eyes off him. I thought you two were just friends.” Adelyn joined the others in the garden, though she was still wearing a perfectly pressed designer linen suit in power red—it suited her down to the ground. Comfrey had to applaud Adelyn’s flawless taste, which she recognized, though she no longer wore outfits like them anymore.

And she didn’t miss it.

She didn’t.

“Tony’s great. We are friends. But that doesn’t mean we can’t be more. Maybe.” She made herself stay focused on Adelyn, but it wasn’t easy.

Go, Comfrey.”

They grinned at each other. “You finished up at work already? It’s not even seven o’clock.”

“I don’t always work two hours past the close of the city offices. I just have extra work once in a while.” Adelyn fluffed her bangs, which had started to stick to her glistening forehead. The day was hot and muggy as usual but she still looked perfect. It was a little disgusting.

“You practically always have extra work.”

Adelyn shrugged. “I like my job. Anyway, I have to meet Jason to go over some preparation for the weddings. How about you, anything interesting going on tonight?”

“Just heading back out to put up more fence, and I need to clear some weeds around the tree seedlings.”

“Fun for you. This, and the garden at Jason’s place, is all the dirt I want to deal with.” Adelyn gestured toward the garden beds, which she had spent many hours helping them create, plant, and weed already that summer.

“It takes all kinds,” Comfrey teased.

“No doubt. Have a good night.”

“You too!” Comfrey said in a sing-song voice. “Tell Jason ‘hi’ for me.” She waggled her brows at Adelyn, who chose to ignore her.

Comfrey returned to her garden bed, smoothing back the dirt she had just overturned. She picked up the basket brimming over with potatoes. It looked like things were winding down. Time to get back out to her own place.

***

Two days later Comfrey was sitting with the girls in a booth at Dequan’s Chinese restaurant. She had spent the morning working on the farm, but the heat and humidity had driven her inside for a shower two hours earlier. The temperatures had soared to nearly a hundred degrees, which was brutal in thick humidity. Piper pulled the wrapper off her straw and slid the straw into the Diet Coke in front of her while Comfrey sipped on her water.

“Did you get out to the farm yesterday?” Maddie asked. “Felicia has been asking me to take her out sometime.”

“There’s not much to see yet, but I think I’ll finish with the main fence tomorrow, and then I’ll be able to bring in some goats, and maybe sheep.” The people she was buying the goats from had a pair of sheep for sale, and Comfrey had been seriously tempted, even though sheep hadn’t been in her original plans. Not yet, anyway.

“I thought you were going to use electric net,” Piper said.

“Yeah, but goats, well, I understand they don’t really like rules, so having a backup fence to at least keep them on the property in case they get out is important.”

Her phone beeped and she glanced at the screen—there was a text message from her mother. Channing, I have a surprise coming your way. If it doesn’t convince you, nothing will.

That was ominous. Her mother’s surprises were rarely the kind Comfrey wanted to receive—and Clarissa had been trying to convince her daughter to return to the “right” kind of society since she had left Boston four years earlier.

“Who’s Channing?” Piper asked, looking over her shoulder.

Comfrey put the phone back in her pocket. “That would be me.”

“Nu-uh! I thought for sure your real name must be horrible, the way you keep it a big secret.” Maddie eyed her dubiously.

“Ask Adelyn.”

“She’s right. Channing Sophronia Huxley.” Adelyn had processed her business license, so she had known the truth all along, though she had respected Comfrey’s right to stick to her chosen nick name instead.

“What?” The surprised laughter in Maddie’s voice said it all.

Comfrey winced—did Adelyn really have to mention the middle name too? “That’s why I go by Comfrey.”

“I don’t know, Channing is really pretty. Sophronia is pretty too, even if it is a little…” Piper trailed off.

“Blue blooded? Stuffy? Old fashioned?” Comfrey filled in.

Piper, always the peacemaker, looked uncomfortable as she admitted, “Yeah, I suppose.”

“It is a family name. Right?” Adelyn asked.

“Yes, my mother’s grandmother, who was named after her grandmother, or great-grandmother, or great-great? Or maybe both, I can’t keep track.”

“Still, it’s pretty, you shouldn’t be embarrassed,” Piper insisted.

“It’s not so much embarrassment,” Comfrey said, “As a name that fit who I used to be, but I’m not that girl anymore. Comfrey fits me better.”

“No reason why you can’t be who you are and still keep the reminder of how you got here. Sometimes we can’t really figure out who we are if we turn our backs on our past.” Piper waggled her eyebrows. “Sometimes going back in time a little can be very interesting.”

“Says the happy bride-to-be. But you and Reece are perfect for each other—you just got a little lost along the way. I say the past is the past, and good riddance.” Not that there hadn’t been a few things she missed about her A-list life, but she had made a clear decision on her own to get to where she was now.

“It looks like your mom has something planned. Any thoughts?” Piper asked.

“It could be almost anything. She’s been trying to convince me to move back to Boston for years. You should have seen her reaction when she dropped by last year and got a load of my living room sofa. She asked if I had run through my trust fund and had to live like a peasant. Or maybe that was only implied.” Her mom was exceptionally skilled at subtext.

“Sounds like you won’t have to wait very long to find out what she’s going to do next. It could be interesting,” Piper said.

“There’s nothing she can possibly do that will surprise me anymore.”

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