LizAnn Carson

Because I like happy endings

Calter Creek

Home of three women, with three very different love stories

Amanda: She has it all—or does she?

Amanda smallCalm and competent, Amanda Sinclair has taken her family’s import business to new heights of success, but the rest of her life … well, there isn’t anything else. No play, no time for relaxation. Love? Not a chance. She’s learned that attachments are dangerous.

Since losing his wife two years ago, Jacob McKinnon, the new accountant at Sinclair Imports, has centered his life around his daughter, Norah, now six. He’s wary of risking his heart again, knowing all too well the pain of losing someone you love.

But then Amanda’s eyes drilled right through him.

Their attraction sizzles, for all that she doesn’t want it … except that she obviously does.

Amanda does everything in her power to keep Jacob at arm’s length, but even she can’t deny the electricity whenever they’re together.

It’s a stalemate, until the betrayal. Sinclair Imports could be at risk, and suddenly she needs Jacob’s expertise – and his emotional support. But how can she work with him, lean on him, and still keep their undeniable attraction at bay?

Find an excerpt here: Amanda

 

Pat: totally wrong for her

Pat smallLife is good in Calter Creek, Ohio. Pat Fraser loves her comfortable little house in a peaceful, 1940s neighborhood. So when she learns of plans to build a mall in the vacant lot across the street, she sees red. She hates concrete monstrosities.

She’s not overly fond of the developers, either. Especially Alan Carmichael, who’d been her supervisor two decades ago. He’d made her working life hell back then. He’s a man with his eye on the main chance, and she wants nothing to do with him. Period.

Even though he tempts her as no man has in years.

Unfortunately, to make the mall something she can live with, she’s forced to work with Alan.

Meeting Pat again affects Alan in unexpected ways. No longer an unkempt kid in a hardhat, she’s become sleek and self-confident—and more than a little alluring. What started as an uneasy working relationship becomes, in his mind, a seduction.

But Pat wants more than he’s willing to give. Can she even consider a relationship with a hard man who’s never known love? Can an abandoned kid and a dog show him the way to open his own heart?

Find an excerpt here: Pat

 

Mel: Sunshine personified (with a hint of magic)

Mel smallMel Chesterton lives her life in full color. Ryan, the man of her dreams, is crazy about her. She loves her executive assistant job at Sinclair Imports. She has great pals, including her new best friend, Adrian, a quirky guy who’s renovating the bookstore in downtown Calter Creek.

Despite the positives, things seem a little off kilter …

Ryan meets every one of her criteria for the perfect man, and she adores him. He’s stable and dependable, and shares her dream of home and kids—with a twist. Through him, Mel finds herself in a new world, one that includes the country club and golf. It’s a long way from her usual beer and backyard barbecue scene, but as long as she’s with Ryan she’ll find a way to adapt.

On the other hand, spending time in Adrian’s dilapidated bookstore is like a carnival ride through an enchanted kingdom. Adrian makes the best breakfasts on the planet, and even sorting the dusty, crumbling books is fun.

Inevitably, her two worlds collide, and Mel is faced with a choice: everything she ever wanted or something she never dreamed of.

Find an excerpt here: Mel

 

Amanda Excerpt

Pink.

Amanda Sinclair hated pink.

Hot pink. Dusty pink. Baby pink.

“You’re lovely in pink, with those dark curls of yours,” her mother had assured her, way back when.

Amanda was thirty-nine years old now, not seven, and she’d come to terms with the curls. She’d never been able to overcome her aversion to pink.

Her inner dialogue taunted her as she made her way to the Floor.

You’ve chosen to stock the stuff. It’s good quality, in demand, reasonably priced.

It’s not tasteful.

Ah, but you’re not the mother of a seven-year-old princess.

But she was president of Sinclair Imports. Nothing mattered more to Amanda than keeping her customers happy and her bottom line healthy, so she made a point of checking out new merchandise as soon as it hit the Floor.

Sinclair Imports, or SI, occupied a bright, modern warehouse in an office park on the western outskirts of Calter Creek, Ohio. Offices and meeting rooms lined corridors along the south and west sides. The warehouse, known as the Floor, took up the rest of the building. Merchandise from the Floor shipped to retail outlets throughout the Midwest.

Amanda spotted Charlie, her Floor supervisor, talking to one of the forklift operators. He signaled that he’d get there as soon as he could, so she made herself at home in the Inventory Control Office, propped against a desk. This unscheduled down time was a small bonus in a busy day. She’d always loved the Floor, with its exotic atmosphere of wooden shipping crates, packing materials, and merchandise from faraway lands. She took the opportunity to be a fly on the wall and watch her company at work.

Charlie came into the office a few minutes later. “Sorry to keep you waiting, Amanda. Had to get a misfile sorted out ASAP, or something would have shipped wrong. You’re here to see the new girls’ line?” He removed his hard hat and ran a hand through his short, blondish hair.

She pushed off the desk. “Mel’s ecstatic. Just what she wants to give her nieces for Christmas.” Her mouth quirked when she thought about her executive assistant’s enthusiasm.

The Floor team had set up a display in the little viewing room, adjacent to the Inventory Control Office. She’d expected it, but faced with the reality of the items on the tables when she entered the room, she pinched her eyes closed for a moment. Right in her face were a desk lamp with a bubble gum colored shade, a cell phone pouch in pink paisleys, pale pink bookends with a ballerina frieze, and a pen and pencil set in a dusty rose leather-like sleeve. A peachy-pink clock radio clashed with a mauve-pink wall poster showing a girl in a tiara absorbed in a book.

Charlie shook his head in sympathy. “The idea seems to be that even princesses have to go to school and learn stuff. Here’s the current comparables.” He picked up a sheet of paper with pictures of similar items and handed it to her. She scanned the sheet, noting that most of the items listed were higher priced.

With half her mind Amanda followed Charlie’s discussion of schedules and market demand. With the other half, she studied articles spread out in front of her, trying to get into the thoughts of the girl whose life presumably would be complete if she found these things under the tree on Christmas Day.

“… so the pre-orders are healthy. We’ll be shipping this stuff starting this afternoon—Amanda?”

“Sorry, my mind wandered. All that pink’s hypnotic. It’s scary, frankly.” She turned to the door. “Let’s get the staff in here for a look.”

“Will do.” He escorted her through the office. “Kinda makes me glad I don’t have a daughter.”

Amanda laughed and waved, and headed back to her desk. She started speaking before she was fully through the outer door of the President’s suite. “Mel, have you got those projections ready? I want to go over them this afternoon.”

“Done. I put it in your Sharedrive folder. What did you think?” Her voice betrayed her enthusiasm, as did the elevated color in her freckled face. “Aren’t they adorable?”

Amanda met her excited assistant’s eyes with a small smile. In her early thirties, Mel Chesterton was a dynamo, sassy and confident. A redhead whose mid-length, sometimes frizzy hair tended to look like a halo when backlit, today she wore an emerald green pantsuit and a scarf covered with jungle animals in primary colors.

Amanda herself had dressed in tailored navy and white, and kept her hair strictly controlled by a thin black headband. Essentially, the polar opposite of Mel.

“The overall effect curdles your brain. You’re the one who voted to stock them. I expect there’ll be a staff viewing later today.”

“Sorry, but you share the blame. You wouldn’t have approved them if there wasn’t a market. I’m drooling.” Mel bounced in her chair.

Amanda frowned a little. “Tell me something. Did you want pink stuff when you were a girl?”

“Are you kidding? Princesses, ballerinas, a horse with pink ribbons in her mane …” Mel clutched her hands to her chest and looked rapturously off into the distance before coming back to earth and chuckling. “Right up to the time I discovered real boys.”

Amanda waved a thank you to Mel and disappeared into her office, mildly puzzled. She had never wanted pink. She preferred sensible. Her ideal Christmas present had been a fountain pen, not glitter, even before the time when she was fourteen and resolved that she, not her older brother James, would one day run Sinclair Imports.

Well, she ran it now, and had for eight years. SI had grown to be half again the size it had been when she took over from her father. It paid her parents, her brother, and herself a nice dividend each year. She and Sinclair Imports were doing well.

By mid-afternoon, Amanda’s equanimity was long gone.

Damn headache.

A classic tension headache had wrapped itself around the back of her head like a spiked steel band. The headaches, which assaulted her every week or so, were a new development, one she couldn’t figure out.

She was aware of, and cultivated, her reputation: unflappable, capable, efficient, pleasant, and fair. But at that moment she felt as brittle as cheap china.

Painkillers in hand, she headed to the break room for coffee to wash them down. Mel wasn’t at her desk, which meant there would be a group gathered for afternoon coffee. She’d rather not deal with her staff just then, but she’d cope. She always coped, whatever happened. No rule said she had to be eternally affable.

As she strode along the south corridor, she glanced through the big windows overlooking the Floor. She could see her reflection in the window.

Haggard. You look like a demolition site.

She paused long enough to square her shoulders, then, drawn by the life-restoring properties of ibuprofen, she carried on to the west corridor and the break room.

The three members of the accounting team, Mel, and a man she didn’t know stood chatting in the middle of the room.

“… get you set up with a password ….”

“… staff barbecue lunch next week ….”

“… protocols for when you work at home ….”

A potential new hire, then. The stranger was about her age, a little more than average height, and lanky. Dark blond hair, brownish-green eyes. He had on slacks and a tie, but he looked as if he’d been playing touch football in them. A dirt smear on the shirt, wet stains on the knees of his trousers.

She might have admitted she was in a nasty mood and looking for a target. She didn’t admit anything. Holding herself stiffly upright, she joined the group and fixed her eyes on the stranger.

“Amanda, hey, you’re just in time.” Stan Johnson, the avuncular head of Accounting, turned to pour another cup of coffee. “Jac―”

“I gather you’ve applied to work here?” She addressed the newcomer, riding right over Stan.

Before he had a chance to reply, Mel spoke up. “Amanda, this is Ja―”

Her voice shot ice pellets into the room. “Is it remotely possible you’re unaware that your appearance is inappropriate? Especially for an interview.” His eyes met hers and a look, wary on his part, less than friendly on hers, flew between them. “You will never work here if this is how you choose to present yourself.”

“It’s not,” the man said mildly.

“And that―” Words nearly failed her. A ponytail. The man had hair so long he’d pulled it back into a ponytail. Had Stan lost his mind? She gestured dismissively. “Unacceptable. I hope that’s clear?”

“Perfectly clear.” The still unnamed future employee’s voice was cool and assessing. “However, the hair stays. It’s mostly invisible under a jacket. But it stays.”

“Most unfortunate, Mr.—whoever you are. I’m sure there are other applicants. Good day to you.” She tore her eyes away, took the cup of coffee from Stan’s hand, and turned, giving them an excellent view of her ramrod-straight back as she made for the door. She heard someone mutter, “Whew!” when she’d gone a few steps along the west corridor.

Mel’s presence in the break room meant Amanda had a temporary respite. She needed the time to … to what? Cool off? Regroup? She used the coffee to swallow the painkillers, then put her head down on her desk, cradled in her arms.

[…]

That evening, the man who had brought on the wrath of Amanda Sinclair tiptoed into a darkened bedroom and kissed the cheek of the child sleeping there. They’d already had a story, hugs and kisses, and the quiet time together that made up their post-bath bedtime routine. This was a small ritual of his own, a plea to the universe to keep his daughter safe and teach her how to be happy again.

Norah was now six, but her room held a lingering scent of powder and lavender from her babyhood. For Jacob McKinnon, this translated to protection, blessing pretty much everything that mattered in his world. He pulled her door partly closed, then headed downstairs to his favorite chair near the living room fireplace.

A small fire sent out the occasional spark against the screen. He queued up Internet radio on his tablet. New Age music floated through the room while he sank deeper into the chair, closed his eyes, and sat completely still for the next twenty minutes or so. Meditation had kept him sane over the last couple of years, and despite his pal Dave’s teasing, he wasn’t about to stop now.

Coming out of the meditation, he stretched his arms toward the ceiling. Better. Better than relying on alcohol or drugs to survive the evenings. While he enjoyed a beer as much as the next man, he’d made a resolution not to rely on alcohol as a crutch to get through the bad days.

Not that this had been a particularly bad day. Just one worthy of consideration.

He was starting to come alive again after the numbness following the loss of his wife, two interminable years ago. Norah remembered Debbie, although for her—for them both—those memories were fading. Including memories of the crash that had killed her mother before her eyes.

Norah had regressed after her mother’s death, so much that it had been like having a baby to take care of again. Only recently, and with professional help, had she begun to return to her expected level. She’d been a deeply wounded child, with him the only stability in her short life. Add the need to keep them both fed and housed … yes, nights could be tough. Dave came over regularly to share a beer and some guy talk, but that was the sum total of his social life.

Now he had this new complication to deal with. The scene at Sinclair Imports had rattled him, but not for the reasons the others present probably thought.

The word on the street was that Amanda Sinclair, SI’s president, was an excellent manager and employer. But according to the internal scuttlebutt, in the last few months she’d become more and more irritable.

“It’s a controlled explosion, cutting you down with words. And that look, like you’re a mutant. We can’t figure it out,” Jim Murdoch, one of the bookkeepers, had told him after Stan and Mel left them alone in the break room. “Business is good, but she can’t seem to relax and let it flow.” Jim shook his head. “She’s logical to a fault. She listens, believe it or not, and she’s willing to delegate. So don’t ask me to explain that scene. Shakes you up some when she strikes.”

But the attack on his appearance wasn’t what had shaken him. He didn’t need her approbation for staying in the parking lot with the injured woman, however challenging it had been for him to be anywhere near a car accident. No, it was her eyes. Blue as a deep glacier, framed by dark lashes. Icy, yet flashing fire.

And a pale face, that dark, curly hair. Lips that drew your eyes to her mouth, that made you want to ….

Oh, he’d noticed. And his reaction was one he hadn’t experienced in over two years, and not from a woman other than Deb in more than ten. He wanted his hands in her hair. He wanted their mouths growing closer, wanted to see those ice-blue eyes closing ….

“Oh, boy,” he muttered.

Not that there’s any harm in being attracted to her. You’re forty-two. And single. It’s okay for you to notice women.

But some things hadn’t been a part of his life for so long, it was as if he’d forgotten how.

As had become Jacob’s habit when he was turning something over in his mind, he tugged on the end of his ponytail. The ponytail that reminded Norah of her mother, that she went hysterical over every time he suggested cutting it off. Sometimes he wondered if he should just do it, get rid of the thing. But he wasn’t about to put Norah’s recovery at risk.

The scene earlier. What was he going to do about that? He hadn’t quite said no to the job at Sinclair Imports. He’d told Stan he’d call in a day or two with his decision. But he was more ambivalent about the position than he’d been prior to the interview.

Scene or no scene, the work was straightforward, and the perks were good. He could do a lot from home if he needed to, and the warehouse was only a ten-minute jog from his house. He stayed close to Norah these days. She was easing into first grade, working with the psychologist in the afternoon, but sometimes it boiled up in her, and he had to be there.

He loved his daughter more than life. But life was showing signs of growing complicated.

He heaved himself out of his chair and headed for his home gym tucked in the attached garage. He might be a slender guy, but he’d rather know there was muscle beneath the packaging.

(Return to top)

 

Pat Excerpt

“Pat! Pat Fraser!”

Pat stopped in her tracks, hoping against hope she hadn’t heard what she’d heard. Of all the possible outcomes to the presentation she’d just sat through, it looked like she was about to experience the all-time, absolute worst.

Alan Carmichael, hailing her across the parking lot. Alan Carmichael, who had stood on the stage half an hour ago to tell her and two hundred others how much they were going to love a new mall and office complex in their neighborhood. How thrilled they’d all be to live side-by-side with the monstrosity, morning, noon, and night, for the rest of their lives.

His velvety baritone voice from her past, the voice of her own personal devil, triggered memories she thought she’d left behind forever. As her supervisor on her first and only engineering job, Alan Carmichael had made her life a living hell nineteen years ago.

No way. Not again.

He’d steamrollered back into her consciousness with this proposal to destroy her quiet, 1940s neighborhood, and she’d been on edge for weeks, trying to figure out how to fight him and avoid him at the same time.

Agitation gripped her vital organs and twisted.

Damn.

The mild September evening should have delighted her, but didn’t. She heard his feet on the gravel, coming at her like some kind of heat-seeking, shrapnel-loaded missile. ETA about five seconds.

Egotistical, demeaning, bullying…

The evening hadn’t gone well for those who opposed a new mall in Calter Creek, an Ohio town southwest of Columbus. Facts and figures galore had battered them, demonstrating irrefutably how much they needed it. As orchestrated by the county, and by Carmichael and Caine Developments, the presentation had been slick and oh so predictable, as if their mall was a slam-dunk.

He was instantly recognizable, even after nineteen years. She’d studied him on stage. Lines framed the sides of his mouth now, and fainter ones radiated from the corners of his eyes. Not laugh lines though, not this man. The gray in his near-black hair gave him the distinguished air of a senior politician—damned alluring, but she was better off not going there. He’d stayed in shape, based on the panther-like way he moved. Back then he’d been muscles on a whip-thin frame, and she’d bet he hadn’t gained more than a couple of ounces over the years.

Unlike her, but that was really another story.

Yes, with his sleek air of entitlement, Alan Carmichael was the same as she remembered him—and the one person she’d happily have gone through life never seeing again. But the only route to stopping the mall led straight to Alan Carmichael.

Double damn.

She’d hoped he wouldn’t remember her at all, wouldn’t notice her in the audience. Why should he? She’d been just another recent graduate engineer he’d chosen to give a hard time to.

Because I’m a woman, and engineering is a man’s domain, right?

All the hoping hadn’t done the least bit of good. Obviously, he remembered.

Pat stood statue still, not turning. She consciously relaxed her fists.

Her five seconds of grace were up. With those long legs, he didn’t waste any time. He stepped around her and—the man positively beamed at her.

“Pat. Hello.” He reached for her hand and held it with both of his own.

“Alan.” She kept her voice neutral while she inched her hand free.

He didn’t pick up on her reluctance to engage with him. Instead, he turned on the stage charm, a mix of debonair and enthusiastic. “I’m glad I caught you. I’ve been looking forward to seeing you again since I saw your name on the objection letter you filed.”

Good deeds never go unpunished, right?

“Until then I didn’t have a clue you lived around here. I gather you’re part of the opposition?” He said it lightly, as if opposition was a trivial annoyance. Which, in his world, it probably was.

“Adamantly.” She dodged to the right and made her way toward her car. Naturally, he came along.

Oh, joy.

Cool, Pat. Play it cool.

She tried, but cool had never worked where Alan was concerned. The man was a master at manipulation. She’d seen him in action, and had been on the receiving end. She sped up her pace; the sooner she was free of him, the better.

“Please don’t expect me to be thrilled. Your mall’s going to be the view out my living room window. How would you feel?”

He ignored her question. “It took me a while to spot you in the audience. You’ve changed, you’re more sophisticated. You were sort of a scruffy kid back when we worked together.”

She had forgotten his height. At five feet seven inches, Pat wasn’t short, but his voice came from just above her left ear.

She’d forgotten the effect of that voice, too.

Seductive as trade winds and a Mai Tai on a hot summer day.

Wait a minute. Scruffy?

Time to shut him down. “Good night, Alan. It’s late, and I’d rather not have this discussion right now.”

They’d reached her car. She clicked the unlock button on her fob and pulled the door open.

“Hold on.” He managed to surround her—not touching, thank God—by gripping the top of her car door and stepping into the gap. Far too close for comfort. “That was a compliment. You look good, Pat.”

She stopped lowering herself into the car and pulled upright again. His eyes glittered in the semi-gloom of the parking lot lights. “So do you,” she said sweetly. “Did sell your soul to the devil, by any chance?”

He stepped back as Pat dropped into her seat and yanked the car door closed. She carefully backed out of her parking place—wouldn’t do to flatten the man, however tempting. She could feel those eyes following her car as she tore from the lot.

*

Alan eased his car—a silver BMW Roadster that wasn’t in the least practical, he owned an SUV for that—onto the Interstate for the half hour drive to his home on the outskirts of Columbus, and thought over the parking lot confrontation. What on earth was wrong with Pat Fraser?

Pat had grown up. The sandy hair now swung in a reddish-blonde fall around her shoulders, instead of looking like she hacked at it with fingernail scissors. Her clothes—well, they worked, a balance between casual and businesslike, subtly suggesting enough while revealing next to nothing. She’d never been overly slender and still wasn’t, but it suited her—and suited him. When he’d spotted her in the audience, he’d taken notice. Which was ridiculous, because she hadn’t crossed his mind in years.

Quite a contrast to Danielle, who was skin and bones underneath her fashionable wardrobe. She looked like dynamite when they went out, or for that matter, when they stayed in, but sometimes he suspected an elbow or hipbone might do serious damage if things got uninhibited. Not that they often did.

He wondered if he’d see Danielle tonight. She might have gone to bed, or she might be out somewhere. They didn’t live in each other’s pockets. Lacking any emotional involvement, theirs was more a partnership than a relationship, which suited them both.

Hearing about his encounter with Pat would amuse Danielle, but he had no intention of sharing. Seeing Pat in the audience had rattled him. Mildly, true, but definitely given him pause. Even before, it must be eighteen or twenty years ago now, when she’d been a ragamuffin in her hardhat and shapeless overalls, she’d affected him. He’d chosen not to explore his reaction then, not with his career and his foundering marriage at stake. Now, he couldn’t imagine this polished woman, who obviously wanted nothing to do with him, in a hardhat.

The marriage was ancient history, replaced eventually by his and Danielle’s carefully crafted arrangement. The career flourished, and Alan didn’t doubt his ability, personal and professional, to continue carving a successful path.

Maybe, on reflection, he could imagine Pat in a hardhat. The thought nudged something in him that hadn’t been nudged in a long time. His mind paired the hardhat with bib overalls, with nothing underneath. A cocky attitude, a jutting hip, maybe a power tool in her hand…

He’d pulled off the Interstate and was working his way to his own suburb when a shadow darted across the road in front of his Roadster.

Alan slammed on the brakes. He heard and felt the thump before his mind caught up with what was happening. He hadn’t been speeding, so he had the vehicle stopped and himself out of it in a matter of moments.

In the light from a streetlight down the block, he saw a dog lying on the road, half under his car between the front and rear driver’s side wheels.

Thank God he’d been able to brake.

For a moment he stood there, stunned. Was the animal dead? What did you do with a dead animal? He’d seen animals left on the side of the road, but that didn’t sit right with him. Was there a number to call? No other cars moved on the street, and most houses were dark. No one appreciated a knock on the door at this hour. He was on his own.

He squatted. In the dim light he saw enough to suspect this dog had been homeless for a while. Matted coat and very thin. It wasn’t a big dog, perhaps two feet long, plus tail. Impossible to tell what color it was under the grime.

The dog’s tail thumped. It opened an eye and raised its head.

The animal whimpered at him.

A dead dog was one thing. A live one? Alan got back in his car and paged through his phone until he found a twenty-four-hour veterinary service. Phone call made, he settled in to wait.

Someone would claim the dog, but he didn’t imagine a vet would work for free until that happened. He’d bet he was going to be stuck with the bill for the animal.

Another whimper came from under the car. Alan got out and checked on the dog. It looked more alert, and he had a peculiar feeling that the animal was glad to see him.

What if no one claimed the dog?

He squatted, looking down while the dog looked up. “Don’t get your hopes up,” he said, and then wondered what he was doing, talking to a mongrel.

Twenty minutes later a van pulled up behind him. A young man in a fleece and jeans, not much more than a kid, got out, pulling a clipboard and a medical bag with him. “Sean,” he said, and stuck out his hand. After perfunctory introductions, Sean shoved a flashlight in Alan’s hand and knelt next to the dog. The mutt turned its muzzle into Sean’s hand and whimpered some more. Sean muttered endearments back.

After a minute he stood and brushed off his knees. “Nice dog. His right hind leg’s injured, I can’t tell how severely until we get him to the hospital. But he’s also starving and dehydrated, and probably has worms and who knows what else. No way to tell if he’s been vaccinated. My guess is he’ll pull through, but it’s not going to be cheap. We’ll check him for a microchip, but there’s no collar or tattoo, so I’m not holding my breath. The question, Mister Carmichael, is how much you’re willing to pay for.”

Alan stood beside Sean and looked at the dog. He’d swear the dog looked back at him with hopeful eyes. The animal recognized a meal ticket, and certainly needed one.

He’d had half an hour to think. He had the money, so why not give the beast a chance?

“Fix him up. I’ll pay. But find the owners. I don’t have room in my life for a dog.”

“They can surprise you,” Sean said. “I have forms to fill out, and a credit card slip. One of the forms lets you specify the maximum we can bill to you without further authorization.”

“Give me a clue. How much does it cost to fix a broken leg?”

“It looks bad. Surgery, possibly amputation. With boarding until he’s well enough to go to a shelter and all the medicine he’s going to need, it could be thousands.”

Alan took the clipboard, glanced at and signed the forms, and filled in the amount while Sean went to his van, returning with a credit card machine and a large board.

“Ten thousand. That’s generous of you, Mr. Carmichael.” The young man processed the card and passed the paperwork over to Alan. “Want to give him a name? They like it better at the vet if they have something to call him.”

“Pete,” Alan said without thinking. The name he would have given a dog, if he’d ever had one.

“Pete it is. Could you help me here? He won’t weigh much, but the less disturbance, the better. I’ll lift while you shift the board under him.”

Alan grimaced and once again squatted next to the dog. The animal whimpered nonstop, and once growled, but they got him onto the board.

Sean installed the dog in the back of the van, then turned to Alan. “Call the number on the form tomorrow, and they’ll be able to tell you how he is. Seems to be a sweet little guy. I hope they can save him.”

Alan drove off hoping the same thing. He wondered how much it would cost him. Even if the dog lived, his return on investment was nil.

He considered dumping the whole mess on Astrid, his office manager, who ran his operation with an iron fist. Even he couldn’t bamboozle Astrid. But no, this wasn’t company business. Besides, he preferred to keep his professional and personal lives strictly separate.

He wanted the little guy to make it. Those needy eyes… yeah, he hoped the dog had a chance.

At long last, he pulled into the circular driveway in front of his house, an event that never failed to give his spirits a boost. The portico over the driveway reinforced his sense of his own value, as if, in another era, a butler waited to open the door. Ahead lay elegance and regimented peace. Dark oak in the library, rich burgundy Aubusson rug on patterned parquet flooring. His home stood as a tangible reminder of his success. What was the point of being the best without the trappings?

He found Danielle curled up in one of the buttery brown leather chairs in the living room, reading. Sleek as they come, Danielle, even in a terrycloth robe, probably fresh from the hot tub or sauna. Her damp, dark hair balanced on her head by some miracle of structural integrity, since it seemed to be tousled but stayed put.

Her chair faced the fireplace rather than the door. Alan leaned over her, putting his hands on her shoulders. “Hello there.”

She twisted up and around to smile at him. She held the patent on that cool, frosted smile. “Hello, darling. Did it go well?”

“According to plan. I expect we’ll be breaking ground next spring.”

In all probability Danielle wouldn’t be any more interested in sex tonight than he was. Or to be strictly honest, his interest in sex had received a jump-start, but from somewhat more padded curves than Danielle’s flat abdomen and fashionably thin thighs. But there were expectations between them, a kind of dance weaving through their odd relationship.

He slipped his hands over her shoulders, inside the robe, moving slowly down—as she no doubt expected. As he expected, she caught his hands before they grazed the tops of her diminutive breasts. “Not tonight, darling. It’s late, and I have an early appointment tomorrow.”

It wasn’t all that late, but he readily accepted her words. He dropped a kiss on one shoulder, then smoothed the robe back in place. “You didn’t need to wait up.”

“I wanted to finish a chapter.” She closed the book. “Let’s get our beauty sleep, shall we?”

Alan circled the chair and offered her a hand. She rose gracefully and led the way to the stairs. Another step in the dance, each move expected. The only surprise would be if she accepted his advances. Sex was an occasional perk, not a given.

They were part of an elegant core of successful mid-career professionals, well off and well connected, and they both played the role with practiced ease. They’d declare, if asked, that they adored each other, but he was well aware that Danielle considered him a useful prop, much like the vases and swags and what-have-you she dealt with in her interior design work. They had a deal. He set the stage for her, as she did for him. With striking similarities to a business partnership, their relationship, not quite personal, not quite business, suited them both.

He settled next to her in their bed, toying with the idea that there might be something missing in their arrangement…

No. He’d explored that path already and wasn’t going down it again. His life, including his arms-length relationship with Danielle, ran according to plan.
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Mel Excerpt

It had been one of those weeks.

On a misty Saturday morning in May, walking through downtown Calter Creek, Ohio, Mel Chesterton knew she needed a serious attitude adjustment. Too much these days challenged her predominantly sunny disposition.

Mostly it was minor stuff, but even the minor stuff knocked her off kilter. Take the mustard stain on her white blazer, courtesy of a barbecue fundraiser at Sinclair Imports, where she was executive assistant to the president, Amanda McKinnon. She’d fumed all afternoon.

More serious was the shouting match with Amanda a day or so later. Mel loved her job, and they had a great working relationship, bordering on friendship. But at three months Amanda could be in a bear of a mood, giving the lie to that maternity glow stuff. Mel wasn’t worried about her job or anything like that, and peace had been restored, but the fact of the confrontation had shaken her.

She waited at a stoplight and sighed, shifting the bag of books she’d brought with her from one hand to the other. Day-to-day events weren’t to blame, and she knew it. There’d been a lack in Mel’s life lately, as if her world didn’t have the same bright shine as before. Mundane, that was the word for it. At thirty-five, she’d expected to have the man, house, kids, and dog by now. Instead she had a singular lack of excitement, a one-bedroom apartment with white walls, which she abhorred, and no prospects for the man-and-kids situation to change any time soon.

Not much she could do about the rest of it, but she could use this Saturday morning expedition to renew her generally positive outlook on life. First she’d call in at Morrison’s, Calter Creek’s go-to source of books both new and secondhand, and spend a cheerful half hour picking out a book or two.

Second, and most important, she’d visit the downtown branch of the Dublin and Central Ohio Bank. She needed to know how much mortgage they’d approve, based on their assessment of her salary and savings. It was high time she escaped her neutral rental apartment and bought a place of her own, where she’d paint the walls whatever glorious, glowing colors she chose. She couldn’t stand the thought of living with off-white for the rest of her life.

First things first, though. She needed a book or she’d never survive the weekend.

Calter Creek, situated half an hour southwest of Columbus, sported the quaint architecture and hanging flower baskets typical of a smallish, prosperous town, but none of that caught Mel’s eye this morning. Because while waiting for the light to turn green she had plenty of time to see the brown paper covering the windows of her favorite bookstore.

She stormed across the street before the light had fully changed. A small sign in pencil had been taped haphazardly on the ancient wooden door. Under new ownership. Reopening after a while. The writing was angular and the letters oddly formed, as if taken from a book of arcane magic spells. Someone was moving around inside; she’d seen shifting light in the upstairs windows.

Enough was enough. She ignored the sign and started pounding. Repeatedly, until whoever had the nerve to close the store gave up and opened the door.

“Ah,” said the man in the doorframe. He studied her for a beat or two. “Titian, with a net of diamonds. Luscious.”

Since there was no possible response, Mel simply gaped at him, as if caught in a hypnotic web. Tishun? What was that?

He looked stunned as he reached out and touched her mop of curly red hair, which, thanks to the weather, had attained new heights of frizzy. His hand barely grazed the wild halo before he pulled away. Normally she backed off when someone invaded her personal space, but this time she didn’t move.

She guessed he’d be tall, if he didn’t slouch, and he wasn’t in the least prepossessing. Glasses in old fashioned granny frames perched on his straight nose, though he studied her over the top of them. An otherworldly glint danced in his mild, light blue eyes, as if they didn’t miss much, but might not see what everyone else did. His eyebrows and shaggy hair were the shade of gray her mother visited a salon to duplicate. The gray messed up her sense of his age, but he wasn’t ancient, she figured between thirty and fifty.

He wore a string of mixed jewel-tone glass beads on his left wrist, where ordinary men wore important-looking wristwatches with dials. An oversized sweatshirt that once had been navy swamped his torso, and black slacks that should have hit the trash a decade ago led to equally worn out sneakers.

However decrepit his wardrobe, he himself was immaculate, clean shaven, clean hands. He reminded her of a mildly daft scholar who caught flies to put them outside instead of swatting them.

The word he’d used tickled her mind. Tishun… Was he saying ‘titian’? Wasn’t that a hair color? One that turned up in historical romances? She’d read the word but had never heard it spoken, and suspected it had nothing to do with her own hair, which, as far as she was concerned, was miles from romantic.

They simultaneously snapped out of whatever trance they’d fallen into, and the world got back on its axis. She started breathing again. Whatever tishun meant, it didn’t fit her, she’d bet on it. “No, it’s more carrot.”

“True. And the bane of your existence—the word, but perhaps also the reality? Might as well put a poetic spin on it, don’t you agree? Especially on such a gray day. Please, come in.” He stepped aside and gestured toward the interior of the store.

“That’s not such a good idea.” Mel experienced a flutter of unease. Going into a closed and deserted store with a strange man, even in Calter Creek, which had to be among the safest communities on the planet, wouldn’t rank as one of her cleverer ideas. She hadn’t considered what she’d do if the person upstairs answered her pounding.

But the anger that had driven her to assault his door had been supplanted by curiosity. Mel couldn’t pinpoint where the appeal came from. It wasn’t a sexual-chemistry, girl-places-quivering reaction. More a magician thing? She’d always wanted to meet an honest-to-goodness magician.

He got it, suddenly. “I’m sorry, I get carried away. You’re right to be cautious, but I promise I’m harmless—although I can’t say the same for the piles of books all over the floor. Tripped yesterday and gave myself a whopper of a bruise on my shin.”

A whiff of home baking drifted from somewhere inside.

Mel caught the aroma and abruptly decided to ignore everything she’d read and heard about the dangers of strange men in isolated places. She stepped into the once familiar store, now cast into an orange murkiness by the brown paper on the windows.

He gave her a delighted smile and no time to reconsider. “I’m afraid we have to hurry. Mind your step, the lighting…” He gestured at the room. “It’s approaching ‘Abandon all hope, ye who enter here’.” He rubbed the bruised shin, then hurried toward the wide staircase bisecting the space. “It’s better higher up, but there is a need to rush.”

He left her stranded amid stacks of ancient books that appeared almost threatening in the strange half-light. Mel thought of Gothic novels.

At least she’d gotten into the place, which, as near as she could tell, was unchanged from the last time she’d called in, three weeks ago. Was there a chance she could buy a paperback or two from this peculiar man? She stood still for a moment, assessing the situation, then closed the door, dumped her bag of books, sent a quick text to Julie so someone would know where she was—she wasn’t a total idiot—and followed him. Her radar would alert her if anything felt off, and the vibes weren’t threatening at all.

Besides, whatever was baking smelled like heaven.

The building must be a hundred years old. The wood floor sagged under the weight of the massive, overburdened bookshelves. She’d long admired the elegant flight of stairs, with its worn treads and elaborate banisters, that rose from the middle of the room parallel to the front wall. In the past, a decidedly inelegant do-not-enter sign had always closed it off. With no sign in evidence, she climbed up.

He had disappeared by the time she reached the second floor, which proved to be a gigantic, mostly empty room with a few books and bookshelves strewn around. An area against the back wall to the right of the stairs had been walled in. The natural light from the towering, unpapered windows was a relief. She reckoned the wide-open space spanned not only Morrison Books but also the adjacent stores.

“In here.” His voice came from a door in the wall.

In for a penny.

Besides, whatever he was cooking precluded bad things happening, didn’t it? She poked her head through the doorway.

He stood at the stove in a bright, if dilapidated, country-style kitchen. “Made it in time.” He stirred around the contents of a baking sheet. “Darker than usual, but still tasty. Try.”

He held out the sheet to her. Homemade granola. She nibbled, nodded, and grinned. “Way better than the stuff from the store.” Clearly her radar was working just fine.

“Please, sit,” he said over his shoulder. He pulled a serving dish off a shelf, coming close to spilling the granola out of the pan. He talked as he scraped the cereal into the dish. “You know, some old wisdom is valid. A healthy breakfast—well, never mind. You’re a coffee drinker, I expect? But tea is being served this morning, so I hope you’re flexible.” He abandoned the granola and produced tea from one cabinet, a teapot from another. “One day I’ll be sensible and store these two together, since they’re obviously meant to be mated. Not yet, however.”

Grateful to be anchored on the other side of the table, Mel said, “I’ve never had tea in the morning. Coffee’s sort of an office ritual.”

In the midst of the whirlwind, the man commanding the kitchen had put a kettle on to boil. He removed it from the heat, poured water into the teapot, swirled pot and water around, then poured the water out and measured the tea.

Measured. Loose tea. For Mel, loose tea was a novelty, not a staple. When he’d suggested tea, she’d automatically assumed he meant iced.

“However, in the absence of coffee, I hope you’ll join me.” He saluted her with the teapot, which appeared to be from an old-fashioned line of fine china.

Surely no one trusted this frenetic man with antiques?

“Next time you drop by, I won’t leave you bereft. I have a French press around somewhere.”

“You’re expecting a next time?”

“Oh, yes. Aren’t you?”

Mel shrugged off her jacket and slid onto a rickety chair at the battered wooden table. She took stock. Through a door behind her she glimpsed a living room as shabby as the kitchen. An apartment, then. Based on the boxes and miscellaneous articles lying on most flat surfaces, her host, while at home, hadn’t fully moved in. Or was he the sort who never completely unpacked? She couldn’t decide whether he lacked focus entirely or was able to focus on fifteen things at once.

He elaborated. “When people share a breakfast it’s a fair bet there’ll be a next time. Lunches and dinners mean anything or nothing, but breakfast? Maybe it’s because of the extra effort to get out of bed for it.”

He added boiling water to the teapot, then set a digital timer and sat across from her, placing the granola dish between them. He bounced up again immediately, coming back with his hands full of bowls, cups and saucers—mismatched—and cutlery. “Purists say four minutes for this tea, but I prefer two and a half. A bitter principle begins to develop. Best to nip it in the bud, so to speak.” He looked pleased, as if he’d made a joke, but if so Mel didn’t get it. She drew her brows together, puzzled.

“Tea buds? Best part of the tea plant? Harvested—nipped?” He sighed. “Well, you can’t say I didn’t try.”

“Sorry. I almost never drink hot tea, and then it’s in bags.”

“A sin. They virtually powder the leaves, no subtlety, and the tea goes stale. With practice you’ll recognize the difference.”

Anchored at the table, she studied this strange man who held her weekend reading fate in his hands. He was ageless. Was it the hair? The haircut, or lack thereof? Or the glasses, with their refugee-from-the-seventies frames?

His gray cowlick flopped onto a high forehead. His mobile mouth seemed poised to speak, or maybe eat. Whichever, she didn’t expect that mouth to be still for long.

At first she’d taken him to be slight, but as he moved around the kitchen she realized he was no weakling. Not ripped, but not a wimp, either. He was tall, but not abnormally so, about six feet, which was still a good eight inches taller than Mel.

By now he’d pulled containers from an ancient white refrigerator. “I regret the berries are, as they say, previously frozen. May’s not the best time for fruit. Help yourself. I prefer almond milk, but I can offer yogurt.”

He enthusiastically spooned granola into his bowl. She wondered if he ever decelerated and wished he’d sit back down.

“Thanks. The almond milk is fine.” She accepted the granola dish, which was quality china, although it didn’t match the teapot, and took a spoonful. “But you don’t have to feed me, I mean, I had…”

“A piece of toast and a glass of juice? Pfft.”

Was he peering in her second floor windows?

“How do I classify that? A lucky guess?”

“Intuition? Experience?” He pulled the tab on the new carton of almond milk. “Take more. We have a lot to do this morning.”

“Like what?” She added another spoonful to her bowl before topping it with berries and almond milk, then tasted. Bliss. “I don’t even know what your name is.”

“Umh.” He’d followed her with berries, almond milk, and tasting. He held up a finger, chewed, and swallowed. “Names are symbolic, don’t you agree? A name reflects who you are, or imposes a societal expectation. Now, if I’d been burdened with a name like Clint or Lance or Butch, I’d find it difficult to live up to it. All very masculine, but do real people have that kind of name? Not in my experience. Or maybe in Texas? I might aspire to extreme masculinity—no, I confess I don’t. Book binding and minor home repairs have more appeal than roping and branding and such. I’d need calluses.”

He opened his hands for her inspection, turning them palm up, palm down. Trim nails, businesslike, no calluses. “A pianist’s hands, my mother says.” He stopped and took a breath, which she didn’t believe he’d done up to now.

She seized the moment. “So, do you play piano?”

“Only to the extent that the parents signed my brother and me up for lessons at a tender age. When we showed not a thimbleful of talent, they allowed us to make our own choices. Huff went on to guitar, and I chose Renaissance recorder. But to return to the subject at hand. What would you expect my name to be? Translating your impressions into the symbol that is a name.”

One of the containers he’d shuffled to the table held honey. Before she could reply, he frowned at the jar and murmured, “And another spoon, yes.” He bounded onto his feet again and dove into a drawer, from which, after rummaging, he produced a dented and tarnished silver tablespoon.

Finally, he sat, took a breath, and picked up his spoon, as if he just might stay put.

[…]

The prim woman at the Dublin and Central Ohio Bank’s reception counter sounded a note of apology. “Our usual loan officer left early with a bout of spring flu, so you’ll be meeting with Mr. Pope, the branch manager. I hope that’s all right with you?”

“Sure. I just need some information.”

The woman glanced across the lobby. “Here he is now. Mr. Pope, Ms. Chesterton.” Introductions perfunctorily made, the receptionist returned to her computer.

Mel turned from the information counter to the man before her. A man—

Holy crow.

She belatedly remembered to close her mouth.

This was no man. This was a god.

Blond. Surfer blond. Ripped, she could tell from the way he moved, the way his suit shifted over his—she nearly gulped—his body as he held out a hand to her. His eyes were the blue of summer skies and bluebirds. He wasn’t overly tall, which meant he didn’t tower over her, a plus in Mel’s estimation.

He grasped her hand. “Ms. Chesterton? Welcome to DCO. I understand you’ve come in to inquire about a mortgage?”

Had she? For a moment she forgot why she was standing in the DCO lobby.

But nothing fazed Mel for long, not even the most gorgeous man she’d ever seen in person, so she pulled herself together. “Yes.” She pretended to be calm and businesslike. “I’ve decided it’s time for me to invest in a home of my own. I want to know what I can afford.”

He held out a business card. “Let’s go back to my office, shall we? I’m confident we can offer you something that will work for your circumstances.”

Oh, I’m sure you could offer plenty that would work.

No ring. She checked that detail as he guided her into his office and installed her in a chair.

Mr. Ryan Pope—she learned his first name from the business card—filled the office with pleasant, bank-managerial talk. Even her lust-besotted brain couldn’t confuse his professional courtesy with genuine interest. He asked some questions and pulled some papers from his printer. She trained her eyes on his printouts, followed his points with at least half of her mind, and self-created herself as a mature, intelligent woman.

Rather than a quivering ninny.

She’d find the information from her meeting in the reports the printer spewed out, thank heaven. She’d go over them later, once her brain had anchored firmly back inside her cranium.

Twenty minutes later, clutching an envelope and remembering his incredible eyes as he’d once again grasped her hand in his, Mel found herself on the sidewalk outside the bank. She congratulated herself on pulling off the meeting without hyperventilating. Her next stop was the real estate office across the street, where she intended to corner Julie Peters, supposedly her closest friend. Except Julie had not shared about the DCO bank manager.
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