“Good morning.” Lydia held out a mug of hot coffee. She’d heard Aaron come downstairs. For once, he wasn’t running late. The man had trouble getting moving in the morning and her day had started long before he opened his eyes. It always had. When they were younger, Aaron never knew what his hours would be, often working late into the night. She’d been the one to make sure their five kids had breakfast, were dressed and off to school. She’d learned to love her mornings alone once the kids were out on their own. And her favorite place to spend her mornings was her kitchen. There was something about this room that brought out the joy in everyone. It could have been the scents coming from the oven, the possibility of snacks in the refrigerator, or wrestling matches around the kitchen sink, or memories of her family crowding around while she worked. It could be anything, but she loved her kitchen. The cupboard doors were worn and the countertop had an untold number of stains, but she knew where every single one of them had come from.
Aaron took the coffee, smiled, gave her a kiss on the forehead, and sat at the kitchen table. He picked up a book she was reading. “Ready Player One? What is this?”
“Andy said I should try it. It’s forcing me to think, but I spent enough time watching the kids play video games while they were growing up, the premise makes sense.”
“I’m not sure what to think about you reading sci fi books.”
She waggled her eyebrows at him and laughed. “Don’t ever expect me to be boring.”
“No. That is not something I would call you. Ever.”
“I had fun. Checking that book out at the library made the sweet librarian do a double-take,” Lydia said. “I haven’t read books like that in years. Andy is good for me.”
“You’re good for her, too. I’d say you girls are all good for each other. Have you talked to Beryl since she came back from Boston?”
“No. She had a couple of commissions to take care of and was stressed about getting started. I told her that I’d leave her alone for a few days.” Lydia shot him an ornery grin. “Not too long, but a few days. I wouldn’t want her to think I didn’t love her. Sometimes I worry about that lady. She spends too much time alone.”
“Just because you are a people person doesn’t mean everyone likes to cavort amongst the populace.”
“What just came out of your mouth?”
“I read too,” he said. “Beryl isn’t like you. She needs to be alone so she can be creative. You’ve told me this over and over.”
“I’m not talking about that. All the traveling that she does wears her out. She has no one to help her or make sure that she’s safe. I worry every time she gets on that plane. Beryl is easily distracted and you know her. She can get lost in Bellingwood.”
“Maybe someday she’ll find a traveling companion. You could go along for now to make sure she stays safe.”
Lydia snorted out a laugh. “Me? Travel with Beryl? We would never speak to each other again after a trip together. I’m hoping that she’ll find a way to sell her paintings without traveling across the country.”
“You like having all your chicks in a nearby nest.”
“Leave me alone.” Lydia tossed the hand towel she’d tucked into her waist at him.
He snagged it out of the air and draped it across the back of a chair. “I stopped in the grocery store yesterday to pick up coffee for the office. Sylvie looks good. She told me her boys are doing well.”
“She is good,” Lydia said. “And those two boys are great kids. Jason is going to take care of his mother. He has that personality. He watches out for people.”
“Learned that at the feet of his father,” Aaron said with disgust. “I’m glad Jason chose to take care of people because of his father’s behavior. It could have gone the other way.”
“He couldn’t protect his mother when he was little,” Lydia said. “He’ll take care of everyone he can as he gets bigger. And I think he’s going to be a big, strapping boy. His daddy isn’t much of a person, but he’s a good-lookin’ man. Jason has all of that going on. Did you want juice this morning?”
“Coffee is enough. Thank you.” Aaron took another drink from his mug and sighed in contentment.
She set a plate in front of him and another across the table. “I tried a new recipe this morning and it should be out of the oven in three minutes. You came downstairs early today.”
“It smells wonderful.” He grinned. “I slept like a rock last night and when I woke up, there was no more lying around. I wish I had more of those nights.”
“Things are quiet at work.”
“Quiet isn’t exactly the word, but we’re slogging through the cases one by one and making things better in the county. It won’t likely stay this way, but a man can hope.”
“No big murder cases or anything,” Lydia mused. The timer on her oven rang and she opened the door, then stepped back as heat rushed out.
“No big murder cases,” he agreed. “I like it that way. I don’t know if I told you. I have a couple of interviews today and tomorrow.”
“Oh?” Lydia took out the casserole, set it on the counter and turned off the oven. A couple of minutes for it to settle and she’d cut it into pieces. She took the coffee pot to the table and set it on a hot pad.
“A couple of young women. One sounds like a hotshot tech person. We could really use her if she’s as good as it sounds.”
“What are you planning to do if she upgrades your system?”
“Thank her. I might ask you to make cinnamon rolls or even a cake for her.” Aaron grinned. “I don’t want to get too excited. She’s from out east somewhere and who knows if she really understands what living in a small town in Iowa means.”
“Everyone should be so lucky. I heard that the gal who bought the old school building is also from the east coast. Boston, maybe?”
“She used to live in Iowa,” Aaron said.
Lydia turned on him. “What have you heard?”
“Nothing much. I heard that and thought I’d mess with you.”
“What about the other interview?”
“A young deputy whose family is up in northwest Iowa. Tab Hunter, maybe?”
Lydia shook her head. “That can’t be right. Tab Hunter is that gorgeous blond swimmer and actor.”
“Right. Tab Hudson. Tabitha. She’s young, but after meeting her, I think she has potential. I want one more interview, though.”
“Sandy might be coming down next weekend. What day is good for a family dinner?”
“Saturday night will work,” Aaron said. He glanced at the casserole dish.
Lydia smiled and turned back to cut it. “I thought I’d call Andy and Beryl to see if they’d like to join me in greeting our new citizen. Sylvie Donovan, too, if she’s not working.”
“New citizen?” Aaron asked.
“The gal who bought the school building. Aren’t you curious about what’s going on in there?”
“I hear things.”
She glared at him as she set the casserole dish on another hot pad, then took a seat. “What do you mean, you hear things? You haven’t told me any of it.” When he reached to lift out a piece, she placed her fork into it and pulled the dish away from him. “Nope. You’ve been holding out and don’t deserve this.”
“Only things about the building. They’re renovating the stage and auditorium. I’m surprised you haven’t heard more. Isn’t the boy who is dating Andy’s daughter working for Henry Sturtz this summer?”
“I don’t think Andy sees much of him. If he isn’t working, he’s in Ames. She hasn’t said anything. What else?” Lydia pushed the dish back his way.
“It sounds like they’re keeping most of the original structure. The old offices are now the new offices. Classrooms on the lower level are still going to be classrooms. I’m not sure what she’s planning there. They’ve completely renovated the kitchen. Heard there’s some pretty nice equipment going in.”
“Where did she get all that money?” Lydia mused. “And why in the world would she choose to renovate an old school in Bellingwood. I love it here, but that’s because it’s my home. Most people drive in, see how decrepit the buildings are and how empty the downtown is and drive right back out. I wonder what she’s thinking?”
He smiled. “I’m sure you’ll find out as soon as you meet her. When are you planning to do that?”
“I need to ask the girls.”
“I wonder what will happen once you fall in love with her.”
Lydia shrugged. “Who says we’ll fall in love with her?”
“I know you. She will welcome you with open arms, happy to finally meet friendly faces. In a split second, each one of you will decide that this girl is about to become your new best friend. It will be downhill from there.”
“I’ll never see you again. You won’t cook for me, you won’t make sure I wake up in the morning, and you won’t be home when I want to talk.”
“Maybe we’ll have to find something for you to do at the school building.”
“I don’t know. Maybe there’s an old cold case that will pop out of the ceiling and we’ll call you in to solve it. Or maybe she’ll uncover a hidden hidey-hole where students stowed their illicit drugs and you’ll need to come take them away so no one is poisoned.”
“It is an old, old building,” Aaron said. “No telling what went on in there when the place was bustling with students and teachers.”
“Or in all those years it was abandoned.”
He nodded. “It wouldn’t have taken much for someone with some knowhow to get into the building. I’m surprised we didn’t see more of that over the years.”
“Let’s keep as much crime talk out of Bellingwood as we can,” Lydia said. “Don’t want to spoil things for our new resident. Calm and peaceful is the name of the game. Welcome her to town, let her get to know us a little before we spring any of the Bellingwood-crazy on her.”
“She’s meeting Beryl,” Aaron said. “There’s a whole lot of crazy in one woman.”
“Do you think she’ll like us?”
Aaron pushed his plate away and sat back. He wiped his mouth with a napkin before shaking his head. “Lydia Merritt, when did you become concerned about whether or not people like you? You are one of the most loving and caring people I’ve ever known in my life. That much is obvious the moment you walk into a room. People are drawn to you. Beryl is a hoot. A little crazy, but she loves life. Andy is as sweet as they come. I don’t know Sylvie all that well, but she is someone you all care for, so that means she’s a pretty terrific person. Explain to me why this woman wouldn’t like you.”
“You’re a good man to have as a husband,” Lydia said. She stood and walked over to him, wrapped her arms around his neck and felt her body relax as he hugged her back. That was the way it always was when she was with him. After all these years, he made her feel strong, safe, and loved.
“I love you, too,” Aaron said.