Carissa Hopper's always been strong and self-sufficient. So when the single mom of three finds herself in need, accepting help from the rugged and adventurous Phillip Chatam isn't easy. She knows he's the kind of man she should stay far away from. Still, when his aunts offer her lodging at Chatam House, where Phillip also resides, Carissa can't refuse. Always on the move, Phillip has no interest in settling down. But as he gets to know Carissa's adorable childrenand falls for their motherhe realizes that his biggest adventure will be convincing Carissa to let him be a part of her future.
Chatam House: Where three matchmaking aunts bring faith and love to life.
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The wrought iron gate stood ajar, so Phillip Chatam slipped into the leafy courtyard of the Downtown Bible Church of Buffalo Creek, Texas. Here, landscape lighting held back the gathering gloom of this first Thursday evening of June. Behind him rose the sanctuary in all its stylized Spanish glory. Ahead of him, a walkway wound through the trees and flower beds. It was a peaceful place, but had he not promised his auntsthe renowned seventy-five-year-old triplets of Chatam Housethat he would attend tonight's grief support meeting, he would not be here.
When his aunts had politely but firmly insisted that he attend this meeting, he could have told them that they were mistaken in their assumption that grief and fear had driven him away from his occupation of the past several years and into this state of ennui, where he had languished for the past five weeks. Of course, he grieved the deaths of his friends and coworkers in a fall from the mountain in Washington State where he had worked for some time. He had functioned in a daze for at least six weeks after the accident.
The company he'd worked for had brought in professional counselors, and Phillip, like the other guides and outfitters, had attended his obligatory three sessions. Like the others, he had experienced moments of fear and discomfort on his next climb, and truth be told, he had secretly welcomed such emotions. Guiding tourists on mountain climbs had become old hat. Fear had at least added an element of excitement to the process. The apprehension had rapidly dissipated, however, and he had known then that it was time to move on. But to what?
For eight months he had gone through the motions. The whole time, he'd been looking for the next challenge, the next adventure. In the past, something had always cropped up. This time, though, he hadn't been able to wait on it. This time, he'd started to worry that his lack of enthusiasm for the work was going to get someone else hurt. He'd walked away in the middle of the season, just packed up his stuff and left Seattle for Texas. He'd spent the past five weeks at Chatam House, the antebellum mansion where his aunties had lived their entire lives and the lodestone of the large, far-flung Chatam family.
During that time, his parents had harassed him almost daily about finding a "real" job, and his aunts had worried that he was ignoring his grief. The least he could do, given that the aunties had opened their home to him, was assuage their concern by schlepping downtown to a meeting of the DBC Grief Support Group.
He followed the signs along a hallway and down a flight of stairs to the meeting room in the basement. Soft instrumental music and muted light greeted him as he passed through the open doorway. A pair of older women smiled at him from the counter laden with cookies, coffee and water. His gaze swept the softly lit room, taking in the other occupants. Most were older than him. A boy and girl in their late teens or early twenties appeared to be siblings. Hub, Phillip's elderly uncle and a retired minister, swooped in with arms spread wide in welcome.
"Phillip! So good to see you." Reaching up to slide an arm across Phillip's shoulders, Hub turned to address the milling group. "My nephew Phillip Chatam is joining us tonight. He's come home to Texas from Seattle."
Most people nodded and offered taut smiles, but the two women at the refreshment table beamed as they carried over napkin-wrapped cookies and a disposable cup of coffee strong enough to anchor a grappling hook. Phillip accepted both with self-conscious nods before dropping down onto the nearest folding chair. About a dozen of them had been arranged in a horseshoe shape. The other attendees quietly took up seats, leaving several empty, including the one on the end to Phillip's left.
"Let us begin with silent prayer," said Hub.
Everyone hushed. Several moments ticked by while Phillip tried to think of a prayer, finally coming up with, God, be with the families of those who died.
It was the same prayer he'd prayed on the day of the accident. He didn't figure it would do much good. It seemed to Phillip that God was too busy to pay attention to him, but it couldn't hurt to send up a prayer now and again.
Someone slipped into the empty chair on Phillip's left, derailing his train of thought and sharpening his senses. Before he could stop himself, he turned his head, just enough so that he could see a portion of a feminine form from the corner of his eye.
A pair of worn but clean white canvas sneakers came into view, followed by the frayed hems of slender faded jeans. A pair of delicate, feminine hands rested in casual but prayerful repose atop one jeaned knee, but that was as much as Phillip could see.
Several long minutes later, Hub said, "Amen."
"We have another newcomer," Hub announced, engaging the latest arrival with a welcoming nod. He reached out a gnarled hand for a gentle shake. "I'm Pastor Hub." He went around the room, naming everyone in order. "This is Phillip, Mr. Edgar, the Lallys, Margaret, Sandra, Miss Clara and Bernice."
Turning to the woman at his side, Phillip smiled and tried not to stare. She was beautiful, in a wide-eyed, elegant way that belied the casual twist of her golden-brown hair and slightly shabby clothing. Without a speck of cosmetics, she took his breath away.
Phillip suddenly wished he had shaved. His brown hair was so dark it was almost black, and the hair on his face gave him a constant five-o'clock shadow, always appearing between shaves. In fact, within three weeks' time, he could have a beard heavy enough to obliterate the cleft chin that marked every adult Chatam and the dimples that his mother so adored.
He unconsciously fingered the deep cleft in his chin now as he took in the generous smattering of freckles across his new neighbor's tiny nose and high cheekbones. Wide, naturally rosy lips revealed neat, white teeth without quite smiling, and tawny hair wisped about an oval face with a delicately pointed chin. She had unusual eyes of a deep velvet blue, thickly fringed in dark gold lashes. She looked young, early to mid-twenties, but wore a maturity that made her seem older. He couldn't take his eyes off her.
She introduced herself to the group in a husky, whis-pery voice. "I'm Carissa Hopper."
Phillip shifted in his chair. Feeling like a teen boy with an unexpected crush, he concentrated on his hands. Rough and hard, they were no longer the slender-fingered hands that his mother had once declared those of a pianist or surgeon. He concentrated on a tiny jagged scar on the side of one knuckle where a crampon had sliced his glove as the climber above him had struggled to find his footing.
Shaking himself, he sat up straighter and listened as Hub instructed everyone to tell why they were there. When Phillip's turn came, he cleared his throat and muttered, "Two of my friends and a client were in a rock-climbing accident over eight months ago. They fell when a cliff face suddenly gave way."
The woman beside him displayed no such hesitancy to speak, declaring forthrightly, "My husband was killed almost four years ago when a truck he was working beneath fell on him. I'm here now, frankly, just to please certain family members." She went on to explain, "Times are tough right now. They're worried about me."
Phillip spoke out of the corner of his mouth. "Same deal with me. Here to please family."
If Carissa Hopper thought that this gave them more in common than the others present, she gave no sign of it.
Hub began to speak about how tough times could affect grief by exaggerating or covering over it. Those who were regulars to the group offered up personal stories illustrating the point in one way or another. Phillip barely heard them. He was too busy planning how to get to know Carissa Hopper better.
Hub closed the meeting with a few well-chosen words on overcoming grief. "Don't wait for others to minister to you. Do something for someone else," he said.
That made sense to Phillip, but it didn't apply to him. He wasn't sad, just uncertain what to do next. Surely he'd come up with something before his money ran out. A decent accountant, he knew how to make his bucks last, which was why he was currently enjoying the haven of Chatam House. And attending grief support meetings to appease his aunties.
As the session broke up, he rose to follow the lovely Carissa from the room, rehearsing conversational icebreakers in his head.
Before he could catch up to her, however, his uncle laid claim to him. "Phillip, can you help with these chairs?"
Glancing at the folding chairs being loaded onto a long, rolling rack, Phillip frowned inwardly. "In a minute, Uncle Hub. Be right back."
He dashed from the room, only to find the hall empty. Racing up the stairs, he tore through the building, sure he would catch her before she reached the courtyard, but she must have gone another way, for when he pushed through the door, he found himself alone on the softly lit path.
Disappointed, he heaved a sigh. Well, maybe next week.
Lord, he thought, if You're listening, if it matters, I'd like to see that woman again. Please.
In fact, he'd attend more grief support meetings on the chance that he'd see her again.
"But I don't want to stay here," nine-year-old Nathan grumbled, glaring at his mother through his wire-rimmed glasses. They were too small for his face, reminding Carissa that he needed to have his eyes reexamined. All the more reason for this visit. She just had to have some uninterrupted work time. Otherwise, she was going to lose her job.
Selling technical service over the phone from home wasn't the perfect job. For one thing, it didn't pay particularly well. For another, when home was a two-bedroom apartment shared by two adults and three children, chaos was the norm, and that made it difficult for her to meet her monthly quota. On the other hand, working from home meant that she didn't have to pay for child care. Still, no quota, no jobwhich was why she had finally accepted her aunt's offer to babysit. She just hoped that her mother didn't get wind of it. The last thing she needed was for Alexandra to show up, offering her limited, strings-attached services.
Carissa looked at the stately building. Chatam House, where her uncle Chester and aunt Hilda lived and worked, was a mansion. Old and elegant, it was fronted by a deep, cool porch supported by majestic white columns, with redbrick walkways and steps. Well, she had no time to moon over tall windows, many rooms and dark, loamy beds bursting with flowers.
"I have to work today, Nathan, and Grandpa's doctor says he needs some peace and quiet so he can rest. You'll have fun with Uncle Chester and Aunt Hilda today."
Holding each of the younger children, Tucker and Grace, by the hand, Carissa led the way around the house. She'd been told to park in front to keep from blocking the carport, or porte cochere, as Chester called it. They stepped off the walkway and into gravel, trudging along beside the mansion and past a bronze Subaru Outback to the side door. While she knocked on the bright yellow door with the old-fashioned fan-shaped window above it, the kids crowded onto the porch behind her, bumping against big terra-cotta pots spilling over with flowers.
"Hang on!" called a muffled voice after a moment. "I'm coming."
Carissa backed up as far as she could and folded her arms to hide the empty hole in her simple white blouse where the button was missing. The door opened, and a tall man stepped up to the threshold. Make that a very tall man.
A smile in place, she spoke as she tilted her head back. "Hello. I'm"
"Carissa Hopper," he supplied, grinning.
At the same time, she exclaimed, "Phillip?"
They both followed with "What are you doing here?"
He chuckled. "I live here." While she blinked at that, he thrust his hand forward. "It's Phillip Chatam, by the way."
She shook hands with him, remembering only at the last instant to leave one arm folded across her middle. "II didn't realize."
He held her hand in his big, hard one. "You came in late to the meeting last night. I guess Hub didn't say my last name when he introduced us." Pulling free, she grasped her elbows, hiding the empty hole in her blouse and separating herself from Phillip's warmth. "What can I do for you?" he asked, rocking back on his heels.
"My aunt offered to watch my kids today."
"Hilda Worth. Chester Worth is my father's brother."
Phillip Chatam's eyebrows jumped halfway up his forehead. "Chester and Hilda are your family? So, they're the ones who sent you to the"
"Yes," she interrupted. She didn't want the kids to know where she'd been. Grief was a word they'd heard too often in their young lives.
"I see. Knowing them, I'm sure they've cleared this with my aunts."
"Yes, um, assuming your aunts are the Chatam sisters."
"Yup. And Pastor Hub is my uncle."
"Well, that explains a lot."
He flashed a stunning smile. "I'm sure it does." Dropping his gaze, he asked, "And who do we have here?"
Stepping back, she pushed the children forward. "This is Nathan," she said, dragging him in front of her. "He's nine." He shrugged and wiggled out of her grasp. She then placed both hands atop his brother's slender shoulders. "Tucker. He's seven. And last but not least.. " Reaching down with one hand, she cupped her daughter's cheek as the girl's head pressed against her leg. "This is Grace, who's four."
Phillip gave the children a smile and lifted his gaze to Carissa once more. Typical, she thought sourly. No man had any interest in another man's children, as she had learned the hard way.
"Well, come in. Hilda's in the kitchen."
Cautiously, Carissa followed him, sweeping the children along in front of her so that they formed a buffer between her and this too-attractive Chatam. She'd long ago decided to keep her distance from such men. Several times since her husband Tom's death, she'd let herself be drawn to men with the same rough masculine appeal as her late husband, only to find herself unceremoniously dumped as soon as they realized that she wasn't going to settle for anything short of marriage. She'd finally learned her lesson when the last guy had informed her that a man might marry a woman with one kid or even two, but never three. That very day, she had resigned herself to the realities of widowhood and resolved to keep temptation at a safe distance.