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Book Jacket

0764229362
Trade Paperback
304 pages
Mar 2006
Bethany House Publishers

A Hilltop in Tuscany

by Stephanie Grace Whitson

Review  |   Author Bio  |  Read an Excerpt

Excerpt:

Chapter One

He'd been dead for over two years, but Samuel Davis's absence still seemed to spill out of his office door every time Liz walked by. She was supposed to be across the foyer in the library helping Irene set up for a meeting with the wedding planner. Jeff would be here any minute. But here she was again, standing in Daddy's office doorway, fighting back tears. How she wished it still smelled of Old Spice. How she wished she could turn back time ... engineer a cure for cancer ... bring Daddy back. She stepped through the door. She didn't need to switch on the light to know the interior of this room. Dark paneling, deep wine-colored carpeting, heavy damask drapes ... and at the exact center of the wall of windows opposite the door, a massive carved desk.

Crossing the room in the dark, Liz paused to lay a hand along the back of one of the two chairs opposite her father's. The gray leather was cool against her palm, and she smiled as she remembered Daddy's explanation when she brought up the obvious--that two sleek, and somewhat uncomfortable, gray leather chairs just didn't fit the rest of the room's opulent décor.

"Don't go out of your way to make people comfortable," Daddy had said. "At least not at first. You can always have a seating area where your better clients and friends lounge. For the others ... Well"--he had winked at her--"it never hurts to remind them who's the boss."

As Liz moved toward Daddy's cushy leather desk chair, she realized that his advice had served her well. There was a sitting area in her office downtown just like the one clustered around the fireplace on the opposite wall in this office. And, while Liz's office didn't have a fireplace, she had created warmth with a reproduction print of a beautiful garden, sofas upholstered in butter-soft leather, a perpetually well-stocked bar, a coffee urn, and chocolate truffles. People who were invited to sit in Liz's "circle of power" knew they were special.

She paused at Daddy's chair, inhaling again. No Old Spice. But there was still a faint aroma of old cigar smoke--comforting and sad at the same time. Pulling her father's chair out, Liz sat down in the still-dark room. It had remained untouched since the day Daddy died. Even when he was alive, Daddy's desktop never varied. Samuel Frederick Davis preached the gospel of organization, and he walked his talk. In addition to the clean desktop, Sam's office boasted organized files and no mixing of paper clips and rubber bands in the center desk drawer. The end of each workday saw only two things left atop his desk's polished surface--a spotless light-gray ink blotter and his favorite Waterman fountain pen cradled in an Italian marble tray Liz had ordered for Father's Day the year after she joined the company.

This evening, as she sat at his desk with her eyes closed, contemplating the planning of the wedding he wouldn't be able to attend ... her lonely walk down the aisle, her grief rose up and clutched at her heart stronger than ever before. Maybe, Liz thought, maybe it hurt even more now that she knew the truth. Getting up with a sigh, she crossed the dark office to the heavy damask drapes and drew them aside. As evening light spilled through the leaded windows and onto the wine-red carpet, Liz peered outside at the barren landscape and once again tried to come to terms with the revelations of this past Christmas.

It hadn't been all bad, of course. When she thought about it, Liz had to admit that, had she met Jean-Marc David a different way--at a cocktail party, for example--she would have been fascinated by the handsome owner of a famous yacht called the Sea Cloud. She would have been drawn in by his smiling Nordic blue eyes, and grateful for the new interest in life her mother seemed to have when they were together. She would have liked him. She did like him.

What she didn't like was the way they'd met--Liz intending to surprise her mother by following her to Paris and arriving just in time to see her in Jean-Marc's arms. What she didn't like was the way her personal universe had been shifted off-center by her subsequent realization--and Mother's admission--that Liz hadn't inherited her blue eyes from Daddy. Both her eyes and her propensity to hiccup when she laughed came from Jean-Marc David. What she didn't like was the undeniable fact that her mother still had feelings for Mr. David. And, Liz thought, crossing back to her father's desk and slumping into his chair again, in spite of the fact that she was trying to support her mother's new life in Paris, she really didn't like the idea that Mimi was half a world away while her daughter tried to keep an impossible number of plates spinning.

No, Liz decided, if she were honest, she'd have to say that Christmas in Paris had been ... Was there even a word for it? Maybe not. But sitting here in Daddy's chair, she could think of a few titles for the movie version. Christmas in the Twilight Zone. The Worst Christmas Ever. The Christmas from ... No, Liz thought. Not that. It hadn't been that bad. But for her, it had been worse than the one right after Daddy died. Maybe, Liz reasoned, that was because Christmas in Paris had birthed a new sense of loss ... and new questions about the truth that had always been just beneath the surface of her mother's ever-present sadness. Try as she would, Liz could not get her mind around the idea that Mimi had loved someone else besides Daddy, had pretended that part of her life didn't exist for all of Liz's life--and then decided to go back to it ... and perhaps, back to Jean-Marc David. Closing her eyes, Liz leaned her head back against Daddy's chair, wondering.

* * *

She must have dozed off. When the cell phone tucked in her suit pocket vibrated, Liz yelped with surprise, instantly upset with whomever it was. If the wedding planner cancelled one more meeting, he was fired. And if Jeff didn't show up--

"What's the matter?" her mother asked. "And don't tell me nothing's the matter because I can hear the stress in the way you just answered the phone."

Liz cleared her throat. "Oh, Mimi, I thought you were Jeff or the wedding planner, calling to cancel our meeting tonight." She looked around at the office. "I'm just a little overwhelmed, that's all. There's so much to do.... Wait--what are you doing calling at this hour? It's 6 p.m. here. It must be the middle of the night in Paris."

"Just think of it as a well-timed call," Mimi said. "I couldn't sleep, so I've been thinking about what needs to be done before your wedding. I wanted you to know that I've hired some help for Cecil."

"You've ... what?" Liz leaned forward.

"I've hired some help. We both know Cecil's getting too old to handle the estate grounds. And the fact that your wedding is going to be in the garden is the perfect excuse to get some help without hurting his feelings. George Kincaid's niece Allison is majoring in horticulture at the university. She'll be going out on Monday after class to talk to Cecil about helping with the spring cleanup as soon as the snow melts."

George Kincaid? Liz rolled her eyes. Her mother's propensity for hiring friends and the relatives of friends had always irritated her. And Mimi was doing it again.

"I hear that silence," Mimi said. "And I know what you're thinking. Just because I was right about giving George a chance to prove he's permanently sober and can handle designing Daddy's memorial wing at the hospital doesn't mean a thing when it comes to his niece's landscaping skills."

"I was not thinking that," Liz protested.

"Of course you were," Mimi insisted.

What was the point in disagreeing? Liz thought. They were supposed to be getting along better these days. Taking a deep breath, she said, "It's an established estate, not a project garden for a student. I want to walk down a lush, green aisle in a garden spilling over with blooming flowers and healthy shade trees. Would you really be thinking of hiring a student if it weren't that you know George Kincaid and you're trying to handle things from half a world away?"

"Allison isn't just any student," Mimi said. "And I'm in Paris, Lizzie, not on the moon. I have a phone and a computer, and I can communicate with florists and gardeners and caterers nearly as well as I could if I were living in Omaha. And certainly as much as I would be allowed to anyway."

Liz glowered. "What does that mean?"

Mimi chuckled. "Calm down, sweetheart. It's not an attack on your character. But it's the truth. You're a detail person, and you always have doubted my abilities when it comes to the details of social productions. And your wedding is turning into quite a production." Mimi paused. "And I don't mind, so don't get mad. A girl only gets married once, and you have the right to have whatever you want. I'm just doing what I can to lighten the load, honey. Allison is proof. By the way, I've talked to her. Checked her out. She's at the top of her class. Very knowledgeable. And she's worked at Mulholland's every summer since she was in high school. She reports to work there the day after graduation as one of their landscape architects."

"So what's hiring George's niece going to cost us?" Liz asked. The quiet on the phone was loud.

When Mimi finally spoke up, she was off the topic of the wedding. "Is there something you're not telling me about Davis Enterprises? Are we having financial problems? Because if we are, I can call Luca Santo, and he'll help me put this Left Bank apartment back on the market--"

"No," Liz interrupted. Why did Mimi always shift into martyr mode? "It's not that. Not that at all. Everything's fine. I want you to have the apartment. Enjoy it. I'm just--" She sighed. "It's hard to keep all the plates spinning right now, that's all. The hospital wing, foundation meetings, wedding plans ... and just the everyday stuff of business."

"Being overwhelmed is pretty normal for a bride-to-be," Mimi said. "And you aren't just any bride-to-be when it comes to responsibilities." She paused. "Aren't there some things you could delegate to your intern?"

Liz closed her eyes. "I haven't met with him yet."

"Really?"

She was talking in that tone of voice now. The one she called "quiet encouragement." The one Liz always thought of as "barely masked disapproval."

"I predict Ryan will be a great help," Mimi said. "Try to get him involved as soon as possible."

Oh, yeah, Liz thought. It'll be just great to have one of the foundation board member's sons shadowing my every move during one of the most stressful times in my life. Ryan Miller. Liz hadn't seen him since he was in junior high. All she knew about him was he was a Creighton University basketball star. The kid probably didn't know a balance sheet from a blueprint. He was probably majoring in cheerleaders. He probably had a business IQ of about 70.

"I've got another idea for you," Mimi said.

"Really?" Was it her imagination, Liz wondered, or had she just sounded exactly like her own mother?

"Why don't you move back home to the estate so you can oversee things yourself?"

"What?"

"You heard me. Move home. Didn't you tell me you and Jeff were going to sell your condo before the wedding, anyway? Do it now." Her voice gained momentum and enthusiasm as she spoke. "Think about it, Lizzie. It's the perfect solution. No more cooking and cleaning. And Irene and Cecil will love it. Irene's been grumbling about her and Cecil rattling around in the empty house." Mimi paused. "In fact," she added, "you and Jeff might want to give serious thought to the idea of making the place yours. Permanently."

Liz had to hand it to her mother. After a lifetime of predictability, the woman was morphing into someone who announced one surprise after another.

Mimi's voice gentled. "Ask Jeff what he thinks. I personally love the idea of coming to visit my grandchildren in the home where their mother grew up. The place could use the laughter of children. It's little more than a mausoleum at the moment."

"But ... but ... aren't you ... ever ... coming back ... to ..."

"I don't think so," Mimi said, anticipating the question. "I love it here. I really do." Her voice warmed with enthusiasm as she continued. "Make the house yours. Redo Daddy's office for yourself."

As Mimi rattled on, Liz looked around her at her father's office, her heart pounding. Of course Mimi didn't know she was sitting at his desk right now.

"Consider it my wedding gift," she was saying. "With one condition: you have to give me 'Granny digs' so I can visit. Maybe those rooms at the east end. Have Mona call me. I'll get some ideas, and she can oversee the project while you and Jeff are on your wedding trip. You won't have to do a thing."

"You mean those tiny rooms where Cecil and Irene used to live before you built the apartment over the garage for them?" Liz said.

"Yes. Exactly." Mimi must have taken Liz's comment as acquiescence. She was picking up steam as she talked. "Your father would love the idea that you'd taken over his office, sweetheart. And ... Jeff could have the library. Mr. and Mrs. offices--I love the sound of that--one on either side of the foyer. Do you think Jeff would go for it? It makes so much sense!"

"But Daddy's--"

Mary interrupted her. "There's no reason to maintain that house as a shrine, Lizzie. Start with the old office. Let Mona help. She'll have some fabulous ideas." Mary's voice gentled. "I know this is a lot to think about, honey. But at least think about it. And talk to Jeff. And as far as the wedding goes, do what you want. If you don't like Allison, get someone else."

Liz drew in a deep breath. If Allison Whoever was getting hired by Mulholland's, then she knew her stuff. And if Mimi really wasn't moving back ... She looked at the west wall of the office where a framed watercolor of the Davis estate had hung for the last few years. The idea of living here ... with Jeff ... was ... too good to be true. And if anyone could work decorating magic on a tight schedule, it was Mona Whitcomb.

"Be happy, Lizzie-bear," Mimi said. "The oncology wing is a wonderful thing. It's the perfect way to honor your father's memory. And the way you've taken up the mantle and run the company is something to be proud of. But in the end ... it's you and Jeff that really matters. Love him, Lizzie. Fill that empty house with children, and above all, love that man."

After they said good-bye, Liz laid her cell phone atop Daddy's desk, leaned her head back, and closed her eyes. Mimi had made perfect sense. Every idea she had was a good one. Except that now Liz had several more things to add to her hopelessly long to-do list. Sell condo. Move home. Redo office. Office for Jeff. New master suite. And, Liz thought with another sigh ... convince Jeff that it was the right thing to do.

* * *

"Here you are."

Liz looked up to see Jeff's form silhouetted in the office doorway. "Is it time?" she said, and jumped up without waiting for an answer. "I guess I must have been daydreaming." She snatched her cell phone up, slid it back in her suit-coat pocket, and headed for the door.

"We have to talk," Jeff said, taking her hand and leading her across the foyer and into the library. Irene had already brought in the coffee and, Liz noted with pleasure, made some miniature versions of her cinnamon rolls for the meeting. She reached for the silver coffeepot and began to pour them each a cup.

"I don't want any coffee," Jeff said.

For the first time, Liz really looked at him. "What is it?" she asked, and set the coffeepot down. "What's happened?" She reached for his hand, and together they sat down on an upholstered bench in front of one of the room's bay windows.

"I got a call from Danny on my way out here...." Jeff began.

* * *

"You have to take the jet. You have to go out there," Liz said. "Can you leave now? Tonight?"

"I love you, Bitsy." Jeff's voice was warm with emotion. He kissed her, then continued. "You read my mind. I was hoping you'd understand--even if it does mean I can't help you with ..." He nodded toward the library table where their wedding guest lists and various other notes and charts lay waiting for the arrival of the wedding planner.

"Understand? What's to understand?" Liz said. "They need you. You should go. Don't take offense, sweetheart, but I'm pretty sure I can handle all that." She gestured toward the table even as she reached for her phone. "I can't remember what Dave said his weekend plans were, but if there's a problem with him flying you, we'll get someone else. In the meantime"--she stood up--"go pack your bags."

Jeff stood beside her while she waited for her pilot to answer. Once arrangements were made, they walked toward the back of the house together.

At the door, he paused long enough to ask, "Would you mind--could you call Valentino's and get some cheeseburger pizzas ordered for whatever time makes sense for me to pick them up?"

Liz frowned. "Sure, but--"

"The kids love it. Remember?"

"Oh, right--sure. Taken care of." How did he do it? Remember little details like that? She could remember the phone numbers to a dozen different suppliers, but she never remembered personal details about people. It was one of the things she loved about Jeff. He noticed those things.

"Thanks, hon." He nodded toward the library. "I'm really sorry about--"

"Don't be," Liz said. "Mimi just called a little while ago. She reminded me that I need to simplify things as much as possible ... and delegate. And she had some other ideas."

"Really?"

"Which," Liz said, "we will talk about later. After you've had a chance to be Sarah's knight in shining armor. Again."

"I love you, Bitsy," Jeff said, and smothered her with a last set of kisses.

After Jeff was gone, Liz called Valentino's for pizza and Vivace to cancel their reservations for a late dinner. Taking a deep breath, she made her way back to the library, feeling both irritated and relieved that the wedding planner was now half an hour late for their meeting. Once in the foyer, she glanced toward Daddy's office. How lucky she was to have had such a man to raise her ... and to have Jeff in her life now. Sarah Henderson would be better off without her worthless husband. Liz was glad for her. Glad for those kids, too. And, she realized with a glimmer of guilt, she was also glad that for once in her life Sarah had run west to Danny for help ... instead of coming east to Jeff. And all Liz Davis had to do was order pizza. And meet with the wedding planner. And manage the company, and the memorial project at the hospital, and the sale of her condo. And the move home. And redo Daddy's office. By herself.


Excerpted from:
A Hilltop in Tuscany by Stephanie Grace Whitson
Copyright © 2006; ISBN 0764229362
Published by Bethany House Publishers
Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.