Where Love Lives (EBOOK)

Eliza Ester Sweet Romance Where Love Lives (EBOOK)

Where Love Lives (EBOOK)

Waterstead Love Story Trilogy Book 2
Regular price $5.99
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❤️ A Later in Life Sweet Romance❤️

In the coastal town of Waterstead, Fern, a talented artist, is seeking refuge from a troubled past. Running from haunting memories, she finds solace in her artwork and teaching at V Studios. But when Elliot, a charming contractor, arrives in town, their paths intertwine in unexpected ways. Elliot, working on a project for the enigmatic Thatcher, discovers more than just a new home along the picturesque shoreline; he finds a kindred spirit in Fern.

As Fern's artwork begins to blossom with new inspiration, so does the bond between her and Elliot. Yet, the shadows of her past loom, challenging the newfound love they share. Can Fern overcome her fears and let love in? And will Elliot be the anchor she's been searching for?

Join Fern and Elliot as they navigate love, past traumas, and the vibrant art community of Waterstead. A heartwarming story about second chances, healing, and the power of love to illuminate even the darkest corners.

Chapter One

Fern tugged at her loose cotton blouse and fanned herself against the heat. It was barely nine in the morning, and the little town of Waterstead was already an oven. But that was Texas weather at its finest. Fern had grown up with it, and she wouldn’t trade the blazing heat for snow or wind or anything else. 

She loved it here. 

While she waited in front of V Studios, she glanced around as the sleepy town came to life. Until she’d answered the ad for an artist’s assistant in Waterstead, she’d never heard of the place. And no surprise—the town was just a sliver. It was sandwiched between Carlos Bay and Saint Charles Bay on a slim finger of land and shared a border with the Arkansas National Wildlife Rescue. 

Despite being across the water from places like Holiday Beach, Rockport, and the greater Arkansas Bay, Waterstead was out of the way, quiet, and almost forgotten. It was a nice change of pace from the oversized, overcrowded, over-everything Houston. 

Fern scowled when she thought about her hometown. She’d always loved the city. There was so much to do, so much to see, so many opportunities to take. But with so much space for good, there was also that much space for bad, and it was the bad that Fern had fled from. 

The ad on her phone had been a godsend. 

An old car pulled up, and the driver turned the ignition off. A woman with dark hair stepped out of the car. 

“I’m sorry I’m late,” she breathed. “We had an…incident at home. I’m Veronica Tellez.” She walked to Fern with her hand extended. Fern glanced down at Veronica’s black shirt, riddled with dog hair. 

“Nothing too serious, I hope?” she asked, glancing into Veronica’s dark eyes. “Fern Cantu.” She shook Veronica’s hand warmly.

“Oh no.” Veronica laughed. “We have a dog on the property—Buster—and he can be adamant not to let me leave when the mood for cuddles hits him.”

Fern grinned. “Let me guess. That mood for cuddles happens…all the time.”

“You better believe it.” Veronica laughed. “Do you have dogs?”

Fern shook her head, a shadow of bitterness creeping in. She pushed it aside. She wasn’t going to think about anything that would put her in a bad mood. She was here for an interview, and first impressions mattered. 

If this was how it started off—relaxed and full of laughter, with Veronica looking like she’d brought half a farm with her—then Fern was sure she could relax a little, too. The tension was already starting to bleed from her shoulders, and Veronica’s warmth coaxed a smile out of her. 

“Let me show you what you’ll be working with,” Veronica said, unlocking the door to the studio. 

The wooden building looked like it was stuck somewhere in the sands of time. It needed a bit of work and attention, maybe a lick of paint, but it was an old building. Nostalgia clung to its walls as they walked in. 

“Oh, what a wonderful space!” Fern cried out as she took in the large display room they stood in. 

Art pieces hung on the wall, some displayed on pedestals in the center of the room, and large windows let in tons of natural light. The sun cast its morning light into the windows, setting the paintings on fire with splashes of gold. 

“Oh, yes,” Fern gushed. “There’s magic in here.”

Veronica smiled. “Magic?”

Fern glanced at her. “Some places just allow for creativity. I don’t know what it is, but when it happens—like in this room—it’s so much easier to make art. To let the colors choose themselves and the painting come to life.”

Veronica continued to smile at Fern, and Fern blushed. “I know it sounds a little crazy,” she said quickly. “But art can really be a live thing, you know?”

“I know!” Veronica agreed. “I feel the same way. And since I bought this place, I’ve been painting like crazy. I was out of it for a long time…but the moment I picked up a brush, it just broke that damn wall, and it’s been flowing ever since.”

Fern smiled. “That’s exactly what I mean.” She was glad someone understood. 

Art was Fern’s savior. When the world had felt dark and dreary, she’d always been able to mix the right colors to bring light back into it. Painting was an escape whenever the weight of the world got too heavy.

And when the world became ugly, she could paint her way back to the beautiful things that mattered. 

“I’m so glad you feel that way about painting,” Veronica said. “I want the person who works here to feel the same passion for art as I do. It looks like you have it, and it’s just what I need. And your students will draw inspiration from that kind of passion, too.”

Fern smiled, but her stomach twisted a little. “You keep talking as if the job is already mine.” 

Veronica frowned. “Don’t you want it?”

“Oh, of course I do. I just…this is an interview, right? To find out if you like me enough to work here?”

“Right,” Veronica said. “I suppose I should ask you some questions.” She leaned against a tall counter in the corner where a few books and files were stacked. If this was the total of their administration department—Fern giggled inwardly at that wording—there was a bit of work to be done. 

But first, the interview. 

Veronica tapped a finger to her chin, glancing toward the ceiling as she thought. She seemed a little ditzy, as if her mind was somewhere else and jumping around all the time. Fern had been around erratic people often; in fact, they were the definition of her life, with her mom’s illness and Hank…

Fern shoved the thoughts into a box and locked it up tight. She refused to let her situation at home, the way she grew up, drag her down so much that she missed a great opportunity. 

And Veronica was nothing like them. Her scattered behavior was endearing. Fern didn’t know what it was about the dark-haired woman, but she liked her. 

“You’re from Houston, right?” Veronica asked. “It’s a big move to come all the way out here.”

Fern nodded. “Sometimes we have nothing left but to make a big change, you know?”

“Oh, I know all about that,” Veronica said softly. She gazed toward a window, her eyes changing as if she was looking at something far away. Or as if she was looking into the past, at something long gone. 

“What kind of experience do you have, other than what you listed for me in your resume?” Veronica suddenly asked, her attention snapping back to the present. For a moment, her eyes appeared to shimmer with unshed tears, but when she blinked, they were gone. 

“Well, that’s a tough question to answer,” Fern said. “Aside from my years of painting and a few online courses here and there, I’m mostly self-taught. I know it means I don’t have all the qualifications.” She swallowed hard. Her lack of qualifications was what made this job application such a risk. Dragging her whole life here for a job she might not get had drained most of her savings. “But that only means I have what it takes to be a trailblazer. Everything I know, I taught myself and practiced and tried until I found what worked. The other upside is that I don’t have the strict rules that come with professional teaching. I only paint what I feel, not what I know. And that counts for something. It’s so important to let art come to life and be what it wants to be, right?”

Veronica smiled. While Fern spoke, it had been hard to read the older woman. She had a solid poker face, and that made Fern nervous. She preferred being around people she could easily read so she knew when to get away from them to protect herself—and save herself. 

You’re far from Houston and the hell you call home. Not everything is a fight for survival out here.

Veronica’s eyes softened, her expressionless mask cracking and giving way to a beaming smile. “You sound perfect for the job.”

Fern laughed. “You’re sure?”

“Yes! Sometimes fate sends the right people on your path, and questioning it only makes life harder for yourself. I know this from experience by now.” She smirked before she shrugged. “I’ve learned to roll with the punches. When can you start?”

“Right away,” Fern said. “What will my duties be?”

Veronica frowned, a map of lines appearing on her brow. 

“Oh…I don’t know.”

Fern frowned. “You don’t know?”

Veronica giggled nervously. “You’re my very first employee. I knew I needed help with the studio, so I put out the ad, but as for duties…” She swallowed hard. 

Fern smiled. This was the perfect time to show Veronica what she had in mind. There was nothing like making a great first impression. 

“What do you need help with?” she asked. “Let’s start there.”

“Well, I need someone to man the shop when I’m away. And I need someone to teach classes. There are a few things that need to be done around here, so someone who’s hands-on and always available is a must.”

Fern nodded, confident in herself and her abilities now that the tension had been broken and she knew she’d gotten the job. She reeled inside, the excitement bubbling through her veins. Just like that, she’d been hired! But she kept her professional mask in place. 

After Veronica left, she would do a little dance of excitement and squeal with delight. 

“I’ve got this,” Fern said, nodding. “I’m great with people, and I’m an excellent teacher because I taught myself. There’s no education like making all the mistakes yourself and learning from them.”

She was blowing her own horn now, but it felt so good to be in this creative space, to be understood by someone, even if it was just one part of her life. And the more time Fern spent with Veronica, the more she liked her.  

“I’m so glad you’re on board,” Veronica said, beaming again. “Let me get that down.” She grabbed a sheet of paper and a charcoal pencil—the only writing tool lying around. The pencil was so fitting in an art studio, Fern couldn’t help but smile. 

While Veronica wrote, Fern studied her. She was a little older than Fern’s thirty-eight years, and she looked like she’d been through a lot in her life. But she’d gotten through it, and that inner light of hers still shone. As long as that little light still burned, Fern believed there was still hope—for anyone. 

It was when that light went out that things became terrible. 

She’d seen it happen, and she didn’t wish that kind of pain and suffering that snuffed out that light on anyone she knew. 

Not even Hank, one of the reasons her life had been so tough growing up. 

Don’t think about them, think about the goodness that lies ahead. There’s no use looking back. You can’t change the past. Keep looking forward. The future can still be golden.

“Right,” Veronica said, looking at her scribbles. They were barely legible, scrawled as they were in the thick charcoal pencil, but they were good enough. She cleared her throat. “Day-to-day operations and teaching classes. That about sums it up as far as your duties go, don’t you think?”

Fern nodded. “And the first Artist-in-Residence.”

Veronica blinked at her, confused. “What?”

Fern’s cheeks reddened, and she squirmed inwardly. This was when she was sure Veronica would throw her out, but she had to take the chance. Waterstead had very few places available to live long-term, and if Fern didn’t find a home here, she didn’t know what she would do. 

She felt like a ship lost at sea, and a life in Waterstead was the anchor she desperately needed. 

“Well, I did my research about the town after I heard about it the first time…” she offered a bashful smile. 

“Yeah, this place is very out of the way, huh?” Veronica said. “So close to the real world, and still it’s removed and stuck in a fairytale land of its own.”

Fern chuckled. That was the perfect way to put it. “I’ve done my research, and I happen to know the apartment above the studio is empty. So, I figured if you let me, I can live in it.”

Veronica hesitated. “That’s not what I’m hiring for.”

Fern had to talk fast, feeling the opportunity slip through her fingers. 

“I moved all the way from Houston for this job. I know it sounds crazy, but I threw everything I own into my car, rented an Airbnb for a week, driving to this forgotten town to start over. I can’t…” Her tongue suddenly felt thick, and more emotion overcame her than she was ready to show. She fought to keep it together. “I can’t let it end in nothing.” 

It was a weak finish. She’d wanted to communicate so much more. 

Veronica’s face softened. “I know all about starting over when you feel like it’s all too much. Trust me, it’s the hardest thing you’ll ever do. But it can also be the best thing.” She nodded to herself, as if she’d come to a conclusion. “And you’re right—the studio apartment upstairs is empty. It will help me if someone’s here to open the shop in the morning and lock up in the evening. I think it’s a great idea.”

“You do?” Fern asked, trying to hide her surprise. 

“You bet,” Veronica said with a wide grin. “I like the initiative, Fern. That’s what I’m looking for around here.”

A rush of warmth traveled through Fern. 

“Come on, let’s go look at the apartment,” Veronica said. “It’s a mess up there. Since getting this place, I’ve been trying to figure it all out, but it’s come together so fast.”

“Really?”

“The sale and transfer only happened a few months ago, and I’m still finding my feet in this small town. It’s more of a home than I’ve felt in a long time, but it’s still an adventure.”

Veronica and Fern walked through the door to the shop and around the side of the wooden building. Stairs led to the first floor, and Veronica unlocked a rickety door that creaked wildly when she swung it open. 

“I’ve only been up here once,” Veronica said apologetically. “I live down by the waterside, so I haven’t had a reason—or the time—to rummage through the junk up here.”

“I can help with cleaning,” Fern offered as she stepped through the front door to the studio apartment. 

They stood in a small foyer, and Veronica unlocked a second door. Fern liked the idea of having two doors and an added layer of security. If someone came up unexpectedly, she’d hear them before they were on her. 

“Oh no,” Veronica said, rattling the doorknob. The door remained shut. “I think it’s stuck.”

“Let me try,” Fern suggested, and she rattled the door in the same way. Nothing happened.

“We might have to ram it open,” Veronica said thoughtfully. 

“What?”

“You and me,” Veronica said, determined. “We’ll shoulder it together. We’re not very big, and you’re a slight thing…” Her eyes wandered down Fern’s body and back up again. “But we can do it together. Girl power, right?” She laughed.

“Right,” Fern said. “Let’s do it.”

They positioned themselves against the door, facing each other. Veronica had her hand on the doorknob. 

“Ready?” she asked. 

Fern nodded, and they both shouldered the door at the same time. 

“Ow!” Veronica cried out, rubbing her shoulder.

Fern winced and did the same. The door was stuck, and ramming against it had hurt

“I think I felt it budge,” Fern said. 

“Did you?”

Fern nodded. “Maybe one more time.”

“It better open,” Veronica grumbled. “Thatcher will wonder why I’m purple and blue.”

“Thatcher?” Fern asked. 

Veronica smiled, her face lighting up like a Christmas tree. “He’s my boyfriend.”

“Ah,” Fern said. “Well, better make it worth our while then. One, two, three!” 

They shouldered the door another time. When it wouldn’t work, they did it again, working together without discussing it. 

The door suddenly crashed open, and the two women tumbled into the room with nothing to stop their momentum as the door banged against the wall. 

Veronica yelped, and Fern cried out as they fell to the floor with a thud. They lay on the wooden slats panting. When Veronica looked at Fern with eyes wide, they burst out laughing. 

“Well, that’s one way to do it,” Veronica said, pulling herself up. She offered Fern a hand, and together, the two women hoisted themselves to their feet. Fern dusted off her clothes, and Veronica ran a hand through her hair, looking around. 

“Oh,” Veronica said, her smile fading. “This is a bigger mess than I remember.”

Fern followed her gaze. Boxes were stacked all around the room. Veronica and Fern proceeded to open some of the boxes, looking at the contents. They were filled with photographs, letters, journals…the evidence of a life well-lived. 

“Oh, wow,” Fern breathed, running her fingers over the old stuff. Nostalgia clung to it.

“This is a lot to work through,” Veronica said. She dragged a finger along a flat surface, and it came away thick with dust. “And a lot of cleaning to do.”

“I don’t mind the work,” Fern said quickly. “I’ll take care of it. I still have my time at the Airbnb. You won’t have to do a thing. I’ve got it covered.” She bit her lower lip. This was what she wanted—to live here, to work here, to learn how to breathe again here. If she had to work to make it happen, she would do it. Whatever it took.

“I’m not taking the job away from you,” Veronica said with a smile. “I meant what I said about fate. I think you’re meant to be here, just like I am, and we’ll figure this out. But your offer to clean up is great.” She walked to Fern and squeezed her hand with a big smile on her face. “Welcome to Waterstead!”

“Oh!” Fern cried out, suddenly emotional. Everything was falling into place. “Thank you!”

Veronica grabbed Fern into a hug, and the woman allowed the affection. It had been a while since she’d felt like she belonged somewhere, accepted without question. 

Leaving Houston had been scary. But it had been the right thing to do. 

This was the start of something beautiful.

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