Chapter 2

 

     Zoe grabbed her phone before the ringing stopped. “Hey, Rachel.”

     “You can’t stay gone forever.” Her sister was probably right.

     “I know. I know. This escape has cost me way too much already. At the end of the week, I’m coming home, but I’m not looking forward to it.”

     “He’s not worth being upset. You broke up. No big deal.”

     Zoe tempered her anger before responding. “First of all, we were engaged. He’d gotten down on one knee and promised me the moon. Then, he broke up with me via email, and before I’d even gotten a chance to read it, he was proposing to someone else in the town square.” Feeling the heartbreak of Peter’s betrayal and desperate to get out of her small town, she’d left and driven to San Antonio.

     Planning to stay only a couple of weeks, she’d booked a short-term rental. But with four days until she had to be out, going home didn’t appeal at all. Problem was, she still had six months on her lease back home and couldn’t afford to break it, let alone maintain two residences.

     “Why wait? Come home today.” Rachel thought she could tell everyone what to do.

     “No.” Zoe stretched out on the bed. “The idea of moving back and dealing with all the questions makes me feel ill. I’m putting it off as long as possible.”

     “Since you’re in San Antonio, my friend Suzette wants to set you up. Will you go out with her friend?”

     “What’s the point?”

     “It’ll be a nice distraction.”

     “If I do, will y’all leave me be about dating?” Zoe doubted her sister was even capable of leaving that topic alone.

     “Yes.”

     “Then as long as it’s before Friday, I’ll go.”

     “Are you really okay?” Concern tinged her tone. Rachel called and asked the same question every day.

     Zoe grabbed her purse. “I will be. Talk to you later.” She ended the call, not wanting to answer any more questions.

     At the grocery store, she pushed around a small cart, trying to decide what to buy. Frozen dinners reeked of loneliness, but she didn’t care. They were easy.

     People around her walked the aisles, seemingly happy. Could they tell she was lonely? Did she have dumped written on her forehead?

     That thought bothered her the most. The sting of being cast aside hurt worse than losing Peter. Even if he came crawling on his knees, she wouldn’t take him back. Not that there was any sign of him changing his mind.

     Zoe shook her head and wandered down another aisle. Trudging around lost in thought probably made her look crazy.

     A baby wailed, and Zoe noticed a young mom scanning the floor.

     Zoe picked up a teether that had rolled under the edge of a shelf. “Looking for this?”

     “Thank you.” Turning back to the baby, the mommy cooed. “Let me wash it, okay?”

     Zoe wandered off to the frozen section to get her microwave dinners. She skipped the healthy ones and grabbed a couple with tater tots as the side. Potatoes were a veggie, weren’t they?

     A man in a motorized cart with his cane poking out the front of the basket wrestled with a door in the frozen section.

     “Need help?” Zoe smiled, trying to be friendly to someone who didn’t seem all that happy.

     He sighed. “God bless you, yes. I can’t reach that without getting up. And getting up hurts.” Rubbing his hip, he shook his head. “Getting old isn’t for the faint of heart.”

     “What were you trying to reach? I can get it.” She grabbed the meals he wanted and followed him to the next aisle to get a few more items.

     “Thank you. I hope you have the best day ever, young lady.” The man winked and zipped away, his cane making it look like he was ready to joust, his former glum attitude changed.

     Zoe tried to remember what else she needed.

     Fuzz hit her in the arm, and a small child giggled.

     Zoe scooped up the stuffed animal and held it. “This belong to you?”

     Mischief danced in big brown eyes. “Malto can fly.”

     “I can tell.” She handed the boy his flying friend.

     “Bobby, leave that poor woman alone.” A frazzled mother waggled her finger at the child, shifted the baby strapped to her chest, and avoided eye contact with Zoe.

     Either the woman was embarrassed, or Zoe looked worse than she imagined. This wasn’t exactly the best day ever—or the best week, or even month for that matter.

     She pushed her cart up and down the aisles, spending way too much time getting only a few things. When she arrived in the tea aisle, she stopped. Scanning the shelves, she searched for her favorite flavor. There was a gap where the kind she loved should’ve been, so she shifted the purpose of the hunt. She needed to find a replacement, a new flavor to sip while people watching from her balcony or when writing, especially when writing. If she didn’t have her cup of tea, the creative juices might not flow, and words wouldn’t ooze from her fingertips.

     Finding a suitable replacement was the only way to keep the romance from fizzling. She looked and hoped one of the other flavors would grab her. When a box landed next to her foot, she jumped. Since she hadn’t dropped it, Zoe took it as a sign.

     “Oh, dear. I hope that didn’t hurt you.” A woman with dark eyes and grey curls stepped closer.

     Zoe picked up the box, convinced she’d found her replacement as soon as she read the label. “Darjeeling: Broken Orange Pekoe. That sounds good!”

     “I recommend it. It’s delicious. And paired with a slice of pie? Well, you’ll just have to try it.” Grinning from ear to ear, the woman stuck her hand out. “I’m Verbena.”

     “I’m Zoe. I’ve never tried this flavor, but I’m going to get a box.” Zoe handed back the dropped package and grabbed a second one for herself.

     She would skip the pie because eating a whole pie alone screamed pathetic. It wouldn’t do wonders for her figure either, not that anyone was watching it these days.

     “What’s your favorite flavor?” Verbena eyed Zoe.

     “Lemon Chiffon Rooibos. They’re out.” Thankful for the friendly exchange, she tried to think of a way to extend the conversation.

     “Are you free this afternoon?” Verbena flashed a wide smile. “You could come have tea with me. And pie.”

     It was as if the woman had read Zoe’s thoughts. Serendipity was at play. That’s not what Rachel would say. She’d warn that going to a stranger’s house was dangerous, that it could end with me being sold off to sleezy traders. Rachel watched too much news.

     Zoe liked the kind woman, who took the time to have a conversation in the grocery store. Besides, Verbena wasn’t exactly young. Zoe could take her.

     “What kind of pie?” There was no way Zoe would turn down the invitation, even if whoopie pies were on the menu, not that she didn’t like whoopie pies—not at all—but they weren’t truly pies. Whatever the pie, she craved the company.

     “Chocolate. It’s divine with the broken orange pekoe.”

     Chocolate was one of Zoe’s three favorite things in life. “I’d love to have tea and chocolate pie with you.” She needed friends even if they were likely three times her age, and Zoe had the inkling that Verbena would be inspirational for the writing muse because she carried a spark. “Just tell me where and when.”

     Verbena pulled a slip of paper from her purse and jotted down an address and phone number. “Bring your swimsuit.”

     The day kept getting better. Zoe tried to decide if she needed a new suit. “How fun! What time?”

     “Four thirty. Tell me your name, so I can put you on the list.”

     “Zoe Farmington.” The list? Zoe wondered what she’d gotten herself into.

     “Just plan on staying for dinner, too—if that works.”

     “Sounds wonderful. Anything I can bring?”

     “Oh no. You are just perfect.” Verbena waved and walked away before Zoe could think of a reply.

     At home, as Zoe put away her few grocery items, she pondered Verbena’s comment. Perfect for what? She didn’t have time to worry about it. Once the bags were empty, she ran back to the bedroom to evaluate whether she needed a new swimsuit before she went to tea.

     If she hurried, she could get in a few hours of writing before leaving the house. She needed to figure out the ploy that would keep her main characters together.

     Zoe pulled out the black one-piece suit and her bikini, the little yellow bikini, which she only wore when she laid out in the sun. Alone. It wasn’t intended for public display, just to help with vitamin-D synthesis and her tan. She didn’t intend to change that anytime soon.

     Holding up the solid black tank, she waffled on whether to get something new. It was very plain, but wearing it meant more time for writing, so she tossed the suit on the bed and grabbed her laptop.

     Before she’d even cracked it open, the screeches of a dying animal blasted through the wall. When she’d booked the condo, no one had bothered to mention that the neighbor played the violin. Played was too kind a word. Zoe wasn’t happy about it, not just because the man couldn’t play and had no sense of pitch but because it made it impossible to think and write.

     She set the laptop on the table. If she couldn’t write, she might as well shop.

***

     Driving up to the guard shack, Zoe almost turned around. But that would make her look suspicious, so she continued onward. When the lady at the store extended the invitation, Zoe pictured a quiet neighborhood of older, modest homes, not a gated cluster of mansions.

     The guard smiled as Zoe rolled down her window. “License please.”

     She dug through her purse, which was in desperate need of being cleaned out. After tossing receipts onto the passenger seat, she found her ID. “Here.”

     “Where are you headed?”

     After she gave the guard the address, he checked his little tablet, pressed a few buttons, then handed her license back. “Have a nice day.”

     “You too.” She followed the directions on her map app, hoping it would take her to the right place. Knocking on the wrong door here would be beyond embarrassing.

     When she pulled up to the house, she checked the address twice before turning into the empty driveway. The large Spanish revival home had a cobblestone path leading to the front door. After shoving the receipts back in her purse, she grabbed her bag and made her way over the pavers toward the front door. She stopped halfway to admire the house.

     While she was standing there gawking, the front door opened.

     “You made it!” Verbena beckoned Zoe inside.

     “Your house is beautiful.”

     “Not mine, but thank you. I moved in here after my husband died.” Verbena pushed open the door.

     If the house wasn’t hers, who lived here?

     Zoe continued to marvel as she stepped inside. The front door opened into an expansive living room, with a to-die-for kitchen just off to the side. Arched doorways led to a dining room and second living area. Even the hallways were arched.

     The wall of windows overlooking the back patio and pool beckoned her closer.

     “This view is incredible.”

     “Look at the pool.” Verbena opened the door. “You can go on out.”

     Zoe stepped out onto the patio and admired the simple, yet stylish furnishings then wandered past them to the pool. “Even the shape of the pool is amazing.”

     “It is nice. He had all that done before I moved in.”

     Zoe followed Verbena back into the house, wondering who the he was?

     “You don’t mind if we sit in here, do you?” Verbena pointed to a breakfast nook. Brightly colored cushions covered the banquette, which was surrounded by windows. “The dining room is much too formal for pie.”

     “This is wonderful.” Zoe glanced around for signs of who else lived here. “Do you live here alone?”

     “Oh no. This place is much too big for one person.” Verbena carried a tea tray to the table. “Have a seat. I’ll grab the pie.”

     Zoe sensed there was something she wasn’t being told. The thought of running back out to her Jeep crossed her mind, but when the pie appeared, Zoe dropped onto the bench.

     “That looks amazing!”

     “Wait until you taste it. It’s an old family recipe.” Verbena served them each a slice. “How long have you lived in San Antonio?”

     Mouth full of chocolate, Zoe shook her head. She didn’t want to talk about that. “I haven’t been here long.” Her answer wasn’t technically a lie.

     “I’ve been here about a year, give or take. I like it, mostly. Where are you from?”

     “A small town a few hours northwest of here, some place you’ve probably never heard of. What about you?”

     “I grew up near Victoria, but for all of my married life, we lived near Dallas.”

     Zoe sipped the last of her tea and nodded when Verbena pointed at the pie. “I probably shouldn’t, but I’d love another slice.”

     “My dear, you flatter me. I’m so glad you like it.” She poured them each more tea. “After this, you can swim while I get dinner in the oven.”

     “I’m happy to help you in the kitchen.”

     “Oh, no. I insist. You brought a swimsuit?”

     “I did. Bought it just today. I was planning to write, but my neighbor took up a midlife hobby—playing the violin. Needless to say, I am unable to write when he practices. He practices a lot.”

     “How unfortunate.”

     “I’ll only be here another few days.”

     Verbena’s fork landed on her plate with a clink. “You’re moving away?”

     “Yes. I just came here to get away for a couple weeks.”

     “To get away?”

     Zoe nodded and swallowed the lump in her throat. “But it’s almost time for me to go back.”

     Verbena eyed Zoe. “You don’t sound happy about going back.”

     She shrugged. “Not exactly, but it’s home.”

     “You’re a writer?”

     “I am. Romance novels because love makes the world go ’round.” Zoe moaned as the chocolate melted in her mouth. “Is that a hint of orange in the pie?”

     Verbena put a finger to her lips. “Don’t give away my secret.”

     “My silence will cost you pie.” Zoe hadn’t had such an enjoyable day since she’d arrived in San Antonio. She’d spent most of that time alone, listening to the screeches of a violin.

     “Until you leave, why don’t you come here and write? It’s quiet. Too quiet most of the time if you ask me.”

     “I wouldn’t want to impose.”

     “Nonsense. My son is at work all day. I’m the only one here, and I’d love the company.”

     “Your son and his family live here?”

     “Family? Ha! My only daughter-in-law lives in Tulsa with my older son. Austin isn’t married, but I’m working on that.”

     Suddenly the perfect comment made sense, and Zoe wasn’t sure how to respond.

     “I thought I mentioned I lived here with my son. Work, work, work is all he does, so I usually have this whole place to myself.” Verbena set her teacup on its saucer. “I’d like for you to meet him.”

     Zoe decided to at least meet the man before writing him off or running out the door. At twenty-seven, after the recent heartache, she’d decided her time was better spent scoping out heroes for novels instead of searching out eligible bachelors because when she had taken a risk, it failed miserably. But, what could it hurt to meet the man? He might be great fodder for a character. Besides, she was leaving town soon.

     Leaving now would be rude, and she really did like Verbena. “I’ll stay and meet him.”

     “Fabulous. And even if you don’t like him, you can still come here to write.”

     Whether the son was an ogre or a prince, Zoe needed a quiet place to get words down, and the house was amazing. “If you really don’t mind, I’d love to.”

     “Come see the office. I think it’ll be just what you need.” Verbena disappeared down the arched hallway.

     Zoe almost had to run to keep up.

     Verbena stopped at the top of the stairs and pointed at the double doors. “Lots of space in the office. Great view, too.” She gave the doors a push.

     They swung open, revealing an expansive room.

     Stopped in the doorway, Zoe gaped. A massive hand-carved desk sat beneath a wall of monitors. Okay, so maybe it was only three monitors, but they were huge. The set-up was impressive.

     A small sofa and two chairs sat clustered near the back wall of windows. Beyond the sitting area, there were French doors, which probably led to a balcony that appeared to wrap around the back of the house. She took a few tentative steps in. A farm-style table with two chairs filled space on the opposite side of the room.

     “Wow.” When she turned, she noticed the second set of double doors, and the overstuffed chair tucked in the corner beside them.

     Verbena must have noticed her staring. “That’s Austin’s room.” Verbena clapped her hands. “It’s settled. I’m up by seven thirty every morning. Come any time after that.”

     “Thank you. I don’t know what to say.” Zoe thought it best to decide on her schedule after she met the elusive, workaholic son. “Can I help you clear the table?”

     “No.” Verbena glanced at her watch. “Go change. Go swim. I’ll be out to join you soon.”

     Zoe grabbed her bag, wishing she’d brought her black tank. Her new retro bikini was adorable but covered much less. “Which way to the bathroom?”

     “Just through there.” Verbena grinned as she hurried away.

     If her son was even a little bit like his mother, Zoe definitely wanted to meet him.


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Charmed by the Billionaire (Bluebonnets & Billionaires, #2)