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Leslie Stern


Chapter One

Dr. Emma Weiss sat nervously in her navy Donna Karan suit, signing page after page of papers at the Law Offices of DeLesseps and Carney. It was an unusually chilly day in December of 2005, even in the usually tepid southern city of Savannah, Georgia. Emma was surrounded by strangers in a strange city at a large oak table. At twenty-eight years old she tried to look confident, but inwardly she was shaking. The closing attorney, Hank Carney, sat at the head of the table. His reading glasses were perched on the end of his nose as he babbled something about each paper he handed Emma to sign as the buyer of her first house. The seller of the house Emma was about to own sat directly across from her. His wife sat next to him. They were an elderly couple who were from Savannah, and it was whispered that they owned half of the city. Emma’s realtor sat next to her, supposedly for moral support. She didn’t offer any, but Emma assumed this was just the way closings worked. Odd, Emma thought. I moved to Savannah, Georgia, for the small-town charm and hospitality, and I get a brash, New York Jewish realtor. What are the odds?
The strangers around the table looked at Emma with curiosity. They assumed she was just a rich, vapid, Yankee heiress by looking at her. They didn’t know she had her PhD in Psychology and was a member of Mensa. They just saw a beautiful young woman with a cashier’s check made out for the entire amount of the house. The voices around Emma just became a distant hum, and before she knew it, the keys to her new house were passed across the table to her with a vague explanation of which key fit which lock. Everyone stood, shook hands, and left the room. Emma walked down the Victorian staircase, to the cobblestoned street, and into her Lexus SUV knowing her life was about to change. She just didn’t realize it would change forever.

Emma had been born in Chicago, and her parents divorced when she graduated high school at sixteen. With her grades, she could choose any college she wished. Her mother and her new stepfather wanted to move to Phoenix where his family lived and her father chose sunny Fort Lauderdale where he could enjoy his passion for sailing all year long. Emma chose to remain in Chicago to attend Northwestern and finished her dissertation in Psychology at twenty-three (the youngest PhD the university had ever bestowed). Emma then moved out of the cold winters to Fort Lauderdale, where her father lived. She sailed with her father on weekends and worked as public relations director for a major advertising agency in Fort Lauderdale all week. She had a wonderful job and a nice apartment. She had a loving golden retriever named Tasha. Her life was happy and productive. She was lonely due to the lack of eligible, intelligent, attractive single men in Fort Lauderdale, but she was spoiled and overprotected by her father. It was not an exciting life, yet Emma was content, despite the lack of sex.
When her father, David, suddenly died right in front of her of an abdominal aortic aneurism, Emma was stunned. She was bringing their fifty-six-foot sailboat from the boatyard back to the dock behind her father’s house with a mutual friend of theirs, John, and she threw the mooring line to her father on the dock. When they arrived at the dock behind David’s house, he pulled the mooring line of the sixty-five thousand pound boat to cleat it off, and David dropped to the wooden planks of the dock. Literally. He died right there, on the dock of his house. By the time the paramedics arrived, it was too late.
Although they were Jewish, Emma’s father wasn’t a formally religious man and wanted his ashes thrown into the ocean he loved. She held a small reform Jewish service at her apartment, and she and John took her father’s ashes and gave him to the sea.
With her father’s death came both responsibility and freedom. Emma had to settle his affairs, which was a big responsibility. But she could finally live where she chose, and she could be the full-time literary writer she always dreamed of becoming. In her spare time, she had nearly completed her first novel, but it had taken her five years to write it. With her father’s sudden death, she was rich and would never have to work again. Everything her father owned was already in trust in Emma’s name, so she immediately had access to all his holdings. Emma splurged and replaced her eight-year-old Buick with a fabulous two-year-old Lexus GX 470 SUV that was under Lexus warranty. It would take six months to settle her father’s affairs, and even after her own shopping, Emma still inherited over a million dollars in cash.

The first time she had visited Savannah had been on her way to Fort Lauderdale from Chicago when she was twenty-three. Emma had immediately fallen in love. The moss-laden streets, the historic antebellum homes, and the Southern charm had enraptured her from the start. She had gone back on her birthday every year after that.
So Savannah it would be. While Emma was busily settling her father’s finances, she drove up to Savannah every two weeks to research and house hunt. She met with the local Mensa group, checked the prices of insurance, and visited the Jewish Community Center. The consensus was positive about Savannah being a great place to live, except for one minor problem. There were few single men in Savannah—especially Jewish men. Emma rationalized that the larger city of Charleston was close, or once she settled, surely someone would introduce her to an eligible bachelor. She was wrong.
During Emma’s research trips and house hunting, she found a cleaning woman who would work for her once she moved. Emma had hired Miss Ellie from the motel at which Emma always stayed when she was traveling back and forth from Florida. Miss Ellie was the only one of the staff there who would clean Emma’s room with her dog in it. She was an older woman and loved Tasha, Emma’s golden retriever. So Emma cornered Miss Ellie one day and asked if she would clean her house for her when she moved to Savannah.
“Oh, Miss Emma, I’d be pleased to do that. You just let me know when, and I’ll be there on my Wednesdays off,” she replied.
“Thank you so much. I’ll let you know when I’m here permanently, and you can start every week.” And that was the beginning of a close relationship between Emma and Miss Ellie.
Emma was obsessed about owning her own house and making it a sanctuary—a house where everyone wanted to hang out and no one wanted to leave because it was so much fun there. Emma had always rented apartments, so home ownership had been her dream. After looking at every available house in her price range, Emma finally found one with a great deal of potential in the perfect location. It was a corner lot and bigger than she needed, but by God, it was exactly what she wanted. The house she found had four bedrooms, two baths, a formal living room, and an enormous great room, a pool and huge private patio, priced right, and it was in Ardsley Park! Five minutes from historic downtown Savannah and five minutes from Southside’s modern shopping. She was elated. It would need some work to make it her dream house, but it was still a great deal.

After six months of driving back and forth to get the new house perfected to her standards and settling her father’s estate, Emma was ready to become a permanent resident of Savannah. She joined the Mensa group in Savannah and made some good friends. She went to a Passover Seder at her realtor’s house and met Kathy Stein, who would become her best friend. Emma learned that her friend John, in Fort Lauderdale, had a sister in Savannah. John had told her, “Oh, you’ll love Joey!” and he was right. They became quick friends. Jo introduced Emma to her friends, and they all got together. Her neighbors, Mark and Sheila Turner, were wonderful people and welcomed her with open arms. Emma also quickly learned that gossip spread as swiftly as kudzu in Savannah. Once she moved in, all the southern busybodies in her neighborhood had to see what she had done with the house.
Of course, it didn’t hurt Emma’s social life that she was not only brilliant but beautiful. She had thick, natural blonde hair the color of a wheat field that flowed nearly to her waist and had large, expressive cornflower blue eyes. She had full lips that were usually glossed. Her skin was flawless, so she never needed foundation. At only five-foot-four inches tall, she was still all legs and ample cleavage. But Emma’s kindness—which would be her downfall—kept any potential jealousy at bay.
For the first time in her life, Emma joined a writing group. Whether it was short stories Emma had already written about her family or chapter after chapter of the novel she’d been working on for the past five years, the group was always supportive. Emma also became close friends with one of the other writers. She was a fun woman of Emma’s age named Dana Rosenberg. They got together to talk about their writing, men, and anything else that might cross their minds.
During her frequent trips to Savannah, Emma had found a quiet, local restaurant called Jaycee’s Café near her house. She quickly befriended the manager there. Ray was an affable, funny fellow, and he and Emma hit it off immediately. Emma was still renovating her house after she moved in, and she was having problems with the master bathroom. She was using the guest bathroom because the master bathroom was already gutted and no one seemed to be able to finish it. She had gone through five contractors and was becoming annoyed. One day at lunch, she asked Ray if he knew of any good contractors.
“Yeah, I do,” he laughed. “And she’s sitting right over there. She also happens to be my wife.” He introduced Emma to Samantha, who quickly began the work on her bathroom. Within two months, Sam transformed the gutted bathroom into a soothing oasis. Ray worked on his days off from the restaurant with his wife as a painter, so he was at Emma’s house frequently at the end of the job. Ray and his wife, Sam, attended all of Emma’s parties, and Ray was always the joker. Sam was solemn most of the time, until she got some booze in her; then she became downright vivacious.
Only months after Emma moved permanently to Savannah, she had a fabulous Fourth of July party with her new friends and their kids. She had become good friends with the manager of her bank, Jenny, so she came and brought her husband, Mac, and their little boy. Emma’s closest friend, Kathy Stein, brought her two small children. Ray and Sam brought their little girl. The kids splashed around in her pool while Emma grilled burgers and hot dogs on her gas grill and served white wine sangria to the adults.
By December of 2006, she had a huge Christmas party, and for the first time since she was a child, she actually had a Christmas tree. Screw the Jewish neighbors who whispered behind her back, “and it was right in the front window where everyone could see it!” It was her life, and she was going to live it as she saw fit.
And Emma was right about her house. No one wanted to leave. She had purchased a pool table for the great room and had a full-length wet bar built in. Okay, so Emma didn’t really drink much but she loved to entertain. She and her friends played pool or sat by the fireplace listening to music in the winter, or sat outside on the large patio where they could smoke and hear the music from the wireless speakers Emma had strategically placed everywhere. They watched the fountain pour into the pool and were treated to the fairy lights Emma had wound around the columns and trees outside in the back. On the side street, she had turned an area that had been just dirt into a lovely courtyard. She had thick grass planted to cover all the dirt, and she installed a black stone fountain of Bacchus in the center. She bought black stone pavers with dragonflies leading to the fountain and a bench to sit and look at the fountain. She had planted a beautiful flower bed that bloomed with pink and white impatiens and black wrought iron window boxes for more flowers. The ugly and somewhat cockeyed brick wall that surrounded the courtyard had been hand-built by the original owner in 1950. Emma wouldn’t dare tear it down, so she planted Confederate jasmine that would cover the brick once it matured, which was quickly. It smelled heavenly in the springtime and especially at night. The outdoor areas were the perfect sanctuary Emma imagined.

Emma was also quickly learning the ways of Savannah. When she had Confederate jasmine planted, she tried to joke with the landscaper.
“I know! Why don’t we plant Confederate jasmine on one side and Yankee jasmine on the other side and see who wins this time,” she teased. Not even a smile. Clearly, Emma realized, they have no sense of humor about the War of Northern Aggression, as it was referred to in the South.
When she had been in the process of moving, Emma had strolled into an antique shop in the historic district downtown and saw a dining room sideboard she wanted. She walked up to the owner and asked the price. The man barely looked up from his paperwork.
“Oh, I think it’s sold,” he drawled without even acknowledging her.
“Well, is it or isn’t it?” Emma pushed for an answer. She really wanted that sideboard.
“I think it’s sold,” he repeated.
“Can I ask how much?” she gently pried.
“Thirteen hundred dollars,” he muttered.
“Okay. Here’s my card. If they change their mind, please call me,” she placed her personal business card in his hand.
“Yeah, sure,” he dismissed her.
Emma happened to have dinner with Jo and Jo’s friends the next night, so she relayed the story to them.
“That’s the Savannah way, Emma,” Jo’s friend, Ken, had told her. “That was Ben you talked to. You just tell him I sent you,” Ken winked at her. First thing Monday morning, Emma was at Ben’s store and told him that Ken Carlton had sent her.
“Oh,” Ben instantly brightened. “You know Ken Carlton? Well, darlin’, of course it’s for sale. It’s thirteen hundred dollars. And I’d be happy to deliver it for you,” he smiled. “I know just where you live.” This incident woke Emma up to the ways of Savannah. You had to know someone or be kin to someone to accomplish anything.
Emma adjusted. After all, she was intelligent and logical. Okay, so she was a little naive. She knew she had been overprotected by her father and her life had been easy for her. Emma Weiss had everything going for her. She was rich, brilliant, beautiful, had friends, and was settled. She only lacked a love life. Her research had been right about that. But life was good—for the first year. Then she made what turned into life-altering, fatal mistake. She bought a new mattress.
It seemed an innocuous purchase. Emma had owned the same mattress for—ever. Knowing little about mattresses, she had just automatically moved hers along with her other belongings. But she began to notice that when she awoke, she felt a pain in her hip from the old springs poking her. Her closest friend, Kathy Stein, recommended a local mattress shop called The Mattress Depot owned by Joe Sherman. Joe was usually referred to as Big Joe, and when Emma walked into the door, she knew why. He was huge; jolly, kindhearted man who couldn’t do enough to help her. Together they walked the showroom, and Joe asked all the pertinent questions.
“Well, beautiful, are you a back sleeper or a side sleeper?” he drawled.
“A side sleeper, sir.”
“Oh, honey, don’t you ‘sir’ me. I’m just Joe,” he said with such southern charm, Emma couldn’t resist him.
After he made Emma lie down on each one to get the feel of them, they picked out the mattress that would best suit her. He said he would have it delivered the next day and the deliveryman would take her old mattress with him.
This simple act of buying a mattress would change Emma’s life. In late March of 2007, just a year after moving to Savannah, he walked into her house. Mattress on his back, sweat running down his massive, manly chest, a gorgeous man delivered the bed.
“Good afternoon, ma’am,” he drawled and then smiled, showing straight white teeth and dimples in his cheeks.
“Hello. Come on in,” Emma invited. Wow! Where did you come from, was all Emma could think. He had to be six-foot two and what an ass! As Mr. Gorgeous hauled the mattress inside, her fingers ached to run them through his thick, dark hair. His sparkling bottle green eyes had a smile in them and were surrounded by thick dark lashes. Okay, Emma thought as she ushered him into her boudoir, I can deal with this. She couldn’t help but watch his broad shoulders as he took the old mattress off and gently set it aside like it weighed nothing.
“My name’s Jake,” Mr. Gorgeous smiled. “Jake Stanton.”