Charming the Cowboy’s Heart by Ellie Hall

1

AUBREE

Secrets had a tendency of plugging up the works, kind of like a clog in the plumbing. Aubree Fletcher wasn’t sure what to do with the one she had but couldn’t think about that at the moment, or ever if she could help it.

The problem at hand was Aunt Grace called saying she needed Aubree to come over to the Blueberry Bramble Bed and Breakfast armed with a plunger. STAT.

The problem with her secret was if anyone found out, she was in trouble. Well, she already was, but that was another story—the exact one that brought Aubree to her hometown of Smuggler’s Springs.

Smoothing her silky brown hair that was the envy of her best friend, Hattie, she pulled into Swan’s Family Market.

Hattie inherited the Smuggler Springs local landmark when her parents passed away. It was a local gathering place, featured a delicious display of sweet and savory foods, along with just about every sundry you could think of, hopefully, including a plunger.

After finishing up with a customer, Aubree whispered, “Do you have a plunger?”

Hattie’s eyes widened. “Did you—?”

“No, it’s for Aunt Grace. But better not to let anyone hear the B&B is having plumbing issues in case some out-of-town visitors plan on staying there.”

Smuggler’s Springs was a small town in the Texas Hill Country with a population a shade under three-thousand, but with all the Ritchies getting married and having families, it seemed that number grew by the month—including, Hattie, marrying Duke Ritchie.

They’d recently announced they were expecting a baby and Aubree couldn’t wait to be an auntie—not that they were related. They’d been inseparable since grade school after the gummy worm incident, making them enemies first and turning them into lifelong besties, practically sisters.

The thing was, Aubree was always the auntie, never the mommy. Much in the same way she was always the bridesmaid and never the bride.

But like her secret, that was something she tried hard not to think about.

“You’ll find plungers in the back left corner on the shelf near the stock room door. I call it the home and hardware section,” Hattie said.

“Shh,” Aubree hissed.

She knew the market’s layout well, having helped out there more than once, but rarely paid attention to anything having to do with home and hardware.

Up until recently, she’d sworn off country life in favor of the city with all its glitz and glamour. She appreciated the ability to wear a pair of killer heels instead of cowgirl boots and not having anyone give her a you’re-not-from-around-here look.

Well, she was from around there even though her fashion sense verged more toward the high end of things rather than the down-home. Nothing wrong with a girl who liked a mani, a pedi, and a pair of expensive shoes and a purse to match.

After college, she’d moved to Nashville and struck it big with a Christian dating app called Faith, Love, Date. She earned the big bucks and practically set her paychecks on fire, buying all the clothes, shoes, and jewelry she desired. She lived luxuriously and also set out, traveling the world.

Now, she was back in Smuggler’s Springs in the home and hardware section at Swan’s Family Market. It wasn’t exactly a riches to rags story. More like a riches to moderately priced items—so no one got suspicious—kind of story. She still had plenty of money but decided it was best to live quietly despite her wealth.

Better not to draw attention.

Though, occasionally the money did burn a hole in her pocket. She’d occasionally buy everyone in the coffee shop their order. Leave outrageous tips when able to do so anonymously. Secretly paid bills for friends. She even set up an investment account in Hattie’s name so she’d have a retirement fund—something the small business owner and mom-to-be hadn’t previously done.

But no amount of money would make her secret disappear. Fortunately, she could help Aunt Grace with the plumbing issue. Hopefully.

After limping into town in an old, beat-up Honda, having traded in her Lexus, to be incognito, Aubree recently upgraded to a sensible sedan that at least had air conditioning. She parked the Volvo in the lot behind Blueberry Bramble Bed & Breakfast, doing her best to conceal the plunger. She didn’t want to alarm any of her aunt’s guests.

As she walked up the familiar backstairs, they creaked underfoot. Even though she was in a hurry, she noticed how the paint on the handrail split and splintered and the screen in the door had a hole, the perfect size for a moth or a swarm of mosquitos to sneak through.

To the right of the rear entry was her aunt’s office, an absolute mess with papers, books, folders, and who knew what stacked everywhere. The clutter hardly allowed a human to fit inside. Aubree closed the door so guests wouldn’t see the chaos.

“Aunt Grace,” she called softly. “I’m here and I’m—” She was about to say armed, but that wouldn’t sound right and might scare people.

She continued down the hall to the front rooms of the B&B, with architecture influenced by the classic Queen Anne style with a large wrap-around front porch, intricate detailing with spindles, finials, and jigsaw trim. The second floor also had multiple balconies, complete with an octagonal tower—Aunt Grace’s bedroom with a view of Smuggler’s Spring’s main street.

Downstairs, the front room, or parlor, as Aunt Grace called it, was empty. Dirt crunched underfoot and the area rugs needed vacuuming. Smudges shone against the sun in the front window, and the antique tables and décor would not pass the white glove treatment.

Aunt Grace wasn’t overly fussy, but typically the place was immaculate. Blueberry Bramble was her pride and joy. Aubree frowned and made a note to come by in flats to give it a good scrubbing—although she seemed to remember her aunt had hired a local woman to keep up with the cleaning.

“Aunt Grace,” she repeated.

Still no reply.

She continued through to the small café and bookstore adjacent to the building. Originally, what was now Blueberry Books and Café served as a library for the guests because of Aunt Grace’s love of books and the annual Jane Austen Jubilee that turned into a popular event, drawing visitors from near and far. Eventually, the little shop transformed into another town staple for coffee, tea, treats, and books—as if the public library down the street weren’t enough.

But Aubree had to hand it to Aunt Grace, the woman was enterprising and followed opportunity. In fact, Aubree’s dad said she was a lot like her aunt. The thing was, Aunt Grace was single...and almost seventy. Aubree hoped to get married someday.

“There you are. Where’s the emergency?” Blueberry Books and Café was empty, so Aubree spoke freely about the plumbing problem.

“Did you get it?” Aunt Grace wore a floral dress and smelled like baby powder, as always. Her scent reminded Aubree of someone else...a smell that was lodged deep in her memory. Lilacs, pastries, and powder. It was the same smell as her own mother, who used to comfort her with the kind of hug only mother could give.

Even though Aunt Grace was her father’s sister, she and Aubree’s mom had been good friends. That was another thing she tried hard not to think about.

Aubree took the plunger from behind her back and waved it like a sword. “Your knight in shining armor and plumbing splendor has arrived to save the day.”

When Aunt Grace laughed, her eyes squinted just like Aubree’s did. Though, considering the task ahead, she felt more like cringing.

“Thank you for coming to my aid.”

“Of course, anything for you.” Aubree melted into her aunt’s cushioned embrace.

The great thing about Aunt Grace was Aubree felt like she could always be herself. As she pulled away, she noticed several papers spread out on the counter with the local medical center logo.

“Looks like you have your hands full. After I plunge, what needs doing?”

“Let’s take it one thing at a time.” Aunt Grace’s voice nearly cracked, but she quickly recovered like the proud and capable Texas woman she was. “Come on, I’ll show you the way.”

The few time’s Aubree had visited the B&B since she’d returned to Smuggler’s Springs, she’d been so excited to see her aunt, or preoccupied with adjusting to life back in the small town, she hardly noticed the state of inn.

While Aubree had spent a decent amount of time at the B&B over the years, it was then she noticed something different. Not new. Rather, old. How old Aunt Grace had gotten. She moved slower than Aubree remembered, held onto handrails and furniture to steady her footing.

A lump formed in Aubree’s throat. As a matter of fact, dust-covered several surfaces. Unlike most visits, especially when Aubree was a kid, the space was worn, not exactly tidy, and looked like it needed some TLC.

Maybe Aunt Grace, too.

“So, which guest caused the problem?” Aubree whispered.

Aunt Grace didn’t answer or even indicate that she heard.

Either she didn’t want to embarrass the person or her hearing was failing.

The lump in her throat grew.

They went to the second floor and passed through the Emerald Room, with a small bathroom in the back. The bed was made and no luggage rested in the rack.

“Is anyone staying in here still or did they already check out?” Aubree asked, louder that time.

“Oh, I haven’t had a guest in weeks. Off-season, I suppose.”

Then how did the toilet get clogged? Better not to ask. She also didn’t ask why her aunt didn’t have a plunger. Seeing as there were over ten bathrooms in the building, she’d imagine there’s be at least a couple on hand.

Aunt Grace held the door open and Aubree passed through, surveying the situation. Mercifully, the toilet only held water, but it nearly reached the top of the bowl.

Aubree carefully stuck the plunger inside as water swished over the rim. “I think we’ll need a towel or two. Sorry to get the floor wet.”

She managed to get suction and pumped the plunger up and down. The toilet made a sucking then a burping sound as the water funneled through the opening and disappeared. Whatever plugged it up must’ve given way.

Aubree brushed her hands together. “Mission accomplished. Any other plumbing problems?” She was about to ask if her aunt needed help with what looked like weeks’—months, years?— worth of paperwork when a creaking like a ship in the sea followed by a clanking and then a boom interrupted her.

Aunt Grace’s eyes widened.

“That didn’t sound good.”

The two scurried downstairs. Well, Aubree did, with her aunt moving slowly behind.

Aubree followed the sound of gushing water before discovering the source sounded from the basement...at least she thought so. Not that she’d dare venture down there.

“Where’s the main water shut off?” she hollered because of the gushing noise and so her aunt would hear.

Aunt Grace indicated where to find the valve, and Aubree sloshed through almost an inch of water to the mechanical room and turned it off.

Hours later, and after calling a professional plumber, they ran fans to dry things out and sipped tea. The plumber and his assistant found them seated in Blueberry Books and Café.

“Ma’am, I’m sorry to say, but the plumbing on the bottom floor of this building is shot. You’ll need a repipe.”

“What caused the problem?” Aubree asked.

The man wearing blue coveralls scratched his head. “That’s the strange part. Can’t seem to find the source. Usually, these things start somewhere. We tried to sniff it out, but—” He shrugged. “Old buildings like this, sometimes the pipes go for no rhyme or reason. Just old, I suppose.”

That didn’t sound like a plausible reason. Aubree knew Aunt Grace would get a second or third opinion if need be—she was a professional businesswoman. Instead, she looked around and said, “Well, it was good while it lasted. No, it was great.”

A deep furrow formed between Aubree’s eyebrows. “What—?” Remembering her manners, she turned back to the workers. “Thank you for coming by. Can I get you each an iced tea to take with you?” She filled two cups without waiting for them to answer.

In a low voice, knowing Aunt Grace couldn’t hear, Aubree said, “We’ll be in touch and feel free to leave the bill on the counter there. I, um, need to talk to my aunt.”

After they left, she took the seat at the wooden table opposite Grace, ready to get right to it—her aunt seemed off. “Is there something on your mind that you’d like to talk about?”

Aunt Grace sighed. “The truth is, I have a dozen plungers.”

Aubree balked. “Good to know. I thought it was strange you needed me to plunge the toilet.”

“I didn’t expect this disaster, but I shouldn’t be surprised. Things have changed around here. I’ve changed. I can’t quite keep up anymore. I’ve had to turn down guests.”

Aubree’s jaw slowly lowered.

“Have you talked to Dad?” Paul Hudson was Aubree’s dad and Aunt Grace’s brother. Surely, he’d been checking in on her.

“No. We were so competitive growing up, I wouldn’t want him to know I’ve lagged behind.”

Aubree placed her hand over her aunt’s. “Don’t say that. I’d say you’re keeping up just fine.”

Aunt Grace shook her head. “No, sweetie. I’m not. The B&B has gotten too much for me. I’ve had trouble with rodents digging in the dirt, scampering around at all hours, I think they’re coming from the basement, but I can’t get down those rickety stairs anymore. I think they’re nibbling on the food in the display cases, but I’m as lost as last year’s Easter egg when it comes to figuring out how they’re getting in. The thing is sealed for goodness sakes.”

“Aunt Grace, I’ll help you out. We’ll get things in order.” Aubree’s voice filled with compassion and determination.

“For years, this place kept me busier than a moth in a mitten, but it’s time for me to retire.”

“But you can’t. What about Blueberry Bramble Bed and Breakfast? What about the bookstore and café? What about you? What would you do?”

“The sad news is I’m having some kidney problems and need more time to rest. To get better. I’m reluctant to admit this but things have gotten away from me, including the books, orders for supplies, upkeep, and the paperwork threatens an avalanche in my office.”

The room practically spun. Aubree couldn’t believe what she was hearing. Did she slip and hit her head while she’d waded through the leaking water?

Aunt Grace patted her hand that time. “Not to worry. I have a plan.”

“Yes, me too. I’ll stay here with you. We’ll get the pipes fixed, call an exterminator, and get guests back in the rooms. You don’t have to do a thing. I’ve got this.”

“You’re busy with your career.”

Aubree jiggled her phone. “My career is right here—portable and automated. I can get your books in order—these and the finances.” She gestured to the shelves around them. “Don’t worry, Aunt Grace.”

Her aunt smiled fondly. “I’m not worried at all. As I said, I have a plan and he should be here anytime now.”

Aubree blinked a few times. “He?”

“Yes, my mail-order businessman.”

She squinted but not because she was laughing. “Mail-order what?”

“I reached out to a service that assists people transitioning their businesses. They help get all the affairs in order.”

Aubree got to her feet. “We are not closing this place. It’s your legacy. What would the town do without it?”

“Sweetie,” Aunt Grace said gently.

“We’re Fletchers, Aunt Grace. And just think of what my father might say. Come on, where’s that competitive spirit?”

“Well, you’ll have to sort that out with the businessman.” She slid one of the papers from her stack to Aubree.

She scanned the text, learning that Aunt Grace had left the B&B and all its assets to her in a trust when she passed away. Swallowing hard, she asked, “What?”

“You’re welcome to help out now, of course, but when it’s my time to join Our Father in Heaven, it’ll be up to you what you do with this place.”

Aubree sputtered. “But—”

“Your mail-order business partner should be along anytime,” Aunt Grace said with a smile.

Her list of things she didn’t want to think about was growing longer by the minute.