Natural Born Charmer (Chicago Stars #7)(17)

by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

The former Callaway farm sat in a gentle valley surrounded by rolling hills. It had once been a prosperous horse farm, but now the only animals roaming its seventy-five acres were deer, squirrel, raccoon, and coyote. The property—pasture, paddock, and woods—also held a barn, a dilapidated tenant cottage, and a secluded, spring-fed pond. An old grape arbor, overgrown like everything else, sat at the end of a broken flagstone path. The weathered wooden bench nearby suggested Wilma Callaway, the farm’s last occupant, might have come out here when her work was done. Wilma had died last year at ninety-one. Dean had bought the farm from a distant relative.

April kept tabs on her son through an elaborate network of connections. That’s how she’d learned that he intended to hire someone to supervise rehabbing the house. Right away, she’d known what she had to do. After all these years, she would finally make a home for her son. Leaving her work behind in L.A. had been complicated, but getting the job here had been surprisingly easy. She’d manufactured some references, bought a skirt and sweater at Talbots, found a clip-on headband to pull her long, choppy hair back from her face, and invented a story that explained her presence in East Tennessee. Dean’s real estate agent had hired her ten minutes into the interview.

April had a love-hate relationship with the conservative woman she’d created to keep her identity anonymous. She imagined Susan O’Hara as a widow who was now on her own. Poor, but valiant, Susan had no marketable skills beyond the ones she’d gained raising a family, which included handling household accounts, teaching Sunday school, and helping her beloved, deceased husband rehab houses.

Susan’s conservative taste in clothes, however, had to go. On April’s first day in Garrison, she’d declared the widow a new woman and reverted to her own wardrobe. April loved mixing vintage with cutting-edge fashion, matching designer pieces with thrift shop finds. Last week she’d gone into town wearing a Gaultier bustier with Banana Republic chinos. Today, she’d dressed down in a reconstructed dark brown Janis Joplin T-shirt, ginger-colored cropped pants, and her bijou jeweled sandals.

She took the path that led into the woods. White violets were beginning to bloom, along with Queen Anne’s lace. Before long, she could see the sun-dappled surface of the pond through a ring of mountain laurel and flame azalea. She found her favorite place on the bank and kicked off her sandals. On the other side of the pond, just out of sight, was the ramshackle tenant’s cottage where she’d taken up residence.

She pulled her knees to her chest. Sooner or later, Dean was going to uncover her deception, and that would be the end of it. He wouldn’t scream at her. Screaming wasn’t his way. But his unspoken contempt was more cutting than angry shouts or vicious words. If only she could finish his house before he saw through her charade. Maybe once he moved in he’d feel at least a little of what she wanted to leave behind—her love and regret.

Unfortunately, Dean wasn’t a big believer in redemption. She’d cleaned up her act over ten years ago, but his scars ran too deep to forgive. Scars she’d put there. April Robillard, the queen of the groupies…The girl who knew all about having fun, but nothing about being a mother.

“Stop talking about yourself like that,” her friend Charli said whenever they discussed the bad old days. “You were never, ever a groupie, April. You were their freakin’ muse.”

That’s what they all told themselves. Maybe, for some of them, it had been true. So many fabulous women: Anita Pallenberg, Marianne Faithfull, Angie Bowie, Bebe Buell, Lori Maddox…and April Robillard. Anita and Marianne had been the girlfriends of Keith and Mick; Angie was married for a while to David Bowie; BeBe was involved with Steven Tyler; Lori with Jimmy Page. And for over a year, April had been Jack Patriot’s lover. All the women were smart and beautiful, more than capable of forging their own way in the world. But they’d loved the men too much. The men and the music they made. The women offered counsel and companionship. They stroked egos, smoothed brows, overlooked infidelities, and entertained with sex. Rock on.

“You weren’t a groupie, April. Look at how many you turned down.”

April had been discriminating in her way, refusing the men she didn’t fancy, no matter how high on the charts their albums hit. But she’d dogged those she wanted, willing to shrug off the drugs, the rages, the other women.

“You were their muse…”

Except a muse had power. A muse didn’t lose years of her life to alcohol, pot, Quaaludes, mescaline, and, finally, cocaine. Most of all, a muse wasn’t so afraid of corrupting her little boy that she’d virtually abandoned him.

It was too late to fix what she’d done to her Dean, but at least she could do this. She could make him a home and then once again disappear from his life.

April rested her head on her knees and let the music wash over her.

Do you remember when we were young,

And every dream we had felt like the first one?

Baby, why not smile?

The farm belonged to the valley. Dean and Blue arrived at sunset when low clouds of orange, lemon, and purple draped the surrounding hills like ruffles on a cancan dancer’s skirt. A curving, bumpy drive led from the highway to the house. As Blue caught sight of it, her current disasters slipped from her mind.

The house—big, rambling, and weather-beaten—spoke to her of America’s roots: of planting and harvest, Thanksgiving turkeys and Fourth of July lemonade, of hardworking farm wives snapping beans into chipped white enamel pans, and hardworking men stomping the mud from their boots at the back door. The oldest and largest part of the house was built of stone with a deep front porch and long, double-hung windows. An abbreviated wooden ell, a newer addition, bumped back on the right. The low-pitched roof held a ramble of eaves, chimneys, and gables. This had been no hardscrabble farm but a once prosperous enterprise.

Blue took in the mature trees and overgrown yard, the barn, fields, and pastures. She couldn’t imagine a more unlikely spot for a big-city celebrity like Dean. She watched him head toward the barn with the easy, loping grace of a man at home in his body, and then she returned her attention to the house.

She wished she could have come here under different circumstances so she could enjoy this place, but the farm’s isolation made her situation more difficult. Maybe she could get hired by one of the crews working on the house. Or she’d find something in the nearby town, although it was barely a dot on the map. Still, she only needed a few hundred dollars. Once she had that, she’d set out for Nashville, rent a cheap room, print up new flyers, and start all over again. The trick was getting Dean to let her stay here rent free while she put her life back together.