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Talk about an oxymoron. Nothing about Meredith Brennan put a person in mind of still waters in any way, shape or form. Cam Calhoun ran a hand across the back of his head, wondering why his first love's name popped up in his business email box after all this time.
The elementary school doors swung wide before he could open the message. Children spilled out in an array of colors, overused outerwear showing the stress of a long winter. Kind of like him these days, more haggard than he'd like.
Need an estimate on building repair for potential new business. Phone 555-AGUA.
Cam frowned, scowled, then sighed out loud.
She couldn't just key in 2-4-8-2 like a normal person? But then this was Meredith they were talking about, not exactly low-key. Subtle. Quiet.
He set the phone aside as his two girls raced for the backseat door, Sophie edging Rachel by a hair. "I win!"
"Enough." Cam swiveled in his seat, firm. "Sisters take care of each other. Not everything's a race."
Nine-year-old Sophie sent him a doubtful look while Rachel reached forward to soothe the line between his eyes. "It kind of is, Daddy. To us."
Cam got that. What he had trouble navigating was what to do about the constant competition between two smart, athletic girls, always one-upping each other. Was this normal? How would he know? He'd already consulted half-a-dozen parenting books and the answers were more confusing than the question.
"Yes." Sophie immediately pulled out a book, ready to immerse herself in the wonders of imagination.
"Me, too," piped Rachel. "And when can I stop using this stupid booster seat?"
"Gotta grow, kid." He winked at her through the rearview mirror as he wound the car out of the school lot. "Soph, did you have time to brush your teeth after lunch?"
Her guilty look said she might have had time but hadn't bothered. Would the Wellsville, New York, orthodontist care? Cam glanced at the dashboard clock, weighed his time frame, frowned and figured now was as good a time as any to call Meredith back. A ten-second phone call wasn't that big a deal, right?
"Meredith Brennan, Stillwaters, may I help you?"
His heart did a fifteen-year-old wrench that inspired memories of blue eyes, not sky-blue, but that shadowed federal blue he'd used on the Kinsler living room. Long lashes, without mascara. And soft brown hair, not dark, not light, like the shell of a walnut, new-penny polished.
"It's Cam Calhoun, Meredith. You sent me a message."
One word. One single, tentative, maybe breathless word and his head spun back to where his heart would never be allowed to go. Ten seconds in and he realized returning her call was a mistake.
"I'm glad you called. My brother Matt recommended you and I "
Her voice trailed, uncertain.
Make that two of them, then. "You've got something Matt can't handle?" Her half brother Matt Cavanaugh was a respected housing contractor now, neck deep in building a new subdivision.
"Too busy. Can you come by and look it over? See what you think? Matt says you're the best in town."
He was the best in the county, but Cam let that slide. He didn't do great work out of pride, but necessity. Less than perfect, less than beautiful, less than right.
Those options didn't exist in his world. "Where is this place?"
"The old Senator's Mansion on Route 19."
Cam's heart gripped. He loved that Victorian home, the beauty and sanctity of the town treasure that had been empty for too long. "You need a house that big?" Instantly he envisioned a passel of kids running around, restoring life to the home.
"For a wellness spa and beauty salon."
Cam's vision disappeared in a puff of reality.
Meredith with a house full of kids leaving dripping soccer jerseys scattered? Meredith, of the perfect hair and nails, cleaning soccer cleats? What on earth had he been thinking? "We don't need a spa in Wellsville."
To her credit she laughed. "Spoken like a man on behalf of women everywhere, no doubt. But I disagree and I need someone to help this dream become a reality."
Cam glanced back at the clock, saw he had over thirty minutes and made a quick decision. "I'm free right now if you're there. I'm about two minutes from you."
"Now?" Her voice hitched, but when she spoke again she sounded normal. Cam chalked it up to his own overactive imagination and refused to wonder what she looked like. He'd know soon enough, right?
"Now's fine," she continued. "I'm inside and the side door's unlocked."
"Perfect." He tapped the hands-free device to disconnect the call as mayhem broke loose behind him.
"The red one's mine."
"It's not. You lost yours, Sophie. I kept mine right here in the pocket of the door."
Ignoring the squabble, he pulled into the curving drive that led to the mansion's side door, envisioning prospective changes because he was determined not to think about what Meredith might be like fourteen years after she took off with her hairdressing license clutched in hand.
She stepped out the side door, a sweater coat wrapped around her. Was that cosmopolitan? Metro? Cam had no idea, but he knew one thing. She was still beautiful. Stylish. Her look fit the grandiose house and Cam had to haul in a deep breath, a breath big enough to push aside old hurts and wrongs.
They'd been kids. High school sweethearts that went their separate ways, quite normal.
Except when he stepped out of the car and released the girls from the backseat, he didn't feel normal. He felt
Damp-palm crazy nervous.
But that was ridiculous so he ignored the upswing in pulse and respiration and herded the girls toward her. "Meredith, my daughters, Sophie" he palmed Sophie's head, her dark brown hair a gift from her deceased mother "and Rachel."
True to form, seven-year-old Rachel reached out to shake hands.
Sophie hung back.
Meredith took the offered hand as Rachel beamed.
"I love your house! You must have a really big family to live in such a huge place! Do you have little girls like us?"
Meredith's laugh tunneled Cam back again, but he refused to be mentally transported any further than the house standing before him.
She bent low, meeting the girls at their own level, giving him a bird's-eye view of soft, highlighted hair, a perfect blend of sun-kissed gold-to-brown, pink cheeks that seemed unfettered by makeup and lashes that brought back too many memories to be good for either of them.
"I don't have kids," she told the girls. She reached out and took each one by the hand, drawing them forward. They went along willingly, as if she were some kind of designer-clothes-clad pied piper. Which she wasn't.
He followed them in, paused to shut the bulky door and turned in time to see her over-the-shoulder expression. Talk about awkward.
He'd give her ten minutes and an out-of-the-park price that would push her business elsewhere. No harm, no foul, because the last thing he needed with outdoor soccer season approaching was to be tied to a huge job for a fastidious woman while juggling soccer games, 4-H functions, and his full-time job as a wood-shop teacher at the high school.
Ten minutes he had.
More time when it came to his high school sweetheart who was even more beautiful now? Wasn't about to happen. He pulled a small notebook from his pocket and a pencil from behind his ear, keeping his gaze averted. Limiting eye contact was better for his heart and probably his soul. Although there wasn't enough of the latter left to worry about.
She remembered Cam's baby blues like it was yesterday.
But it wasn't, and he was married with children so Meredith put a firm grip on the emotional punch she felt when their eyes met as he stepped out of the SUV.
The smaller girl clung to her hand as if they were new best friends. The older girl remained withdrawn, her gaze cautious, assessing her surroundings. She didn't look like Cam, but she acted like him, the hinted wariness offering another gut stab.
When they were young, Meredith had longed to embrace everything. Live free. Experience life. Escape the town that knew too much about her and her whacked-out family demographics, the cheating father, the drug deals gone sour that nearly toppled the family business. The illegitimate half brother who had the rug pulled out from under him. The workaholic brother trying to fix everything he could from a young age.
It had all been too much. Too dark. Too heart-wrenching to witness your family fall apart like that. Sometimes a girl needed a chance to start anew. Begin fresh. So she did.
Cam loved staying put, a hometown boy all the way.
Well, the joke was on her, because here she was, back in Allegany County. Who said God didn't have a sense of humor? "Girls, would you like to explore the rest of the house while your dad and I talk?"
"Yes." Rachel swung toward the stately mahogany staircase, expectant.
"Umm " Sophie looked like she wanted to follow, but paused, uncertain.
"There's nothing they can get into?" Cam asked.
Meredith turned, met those blue eyes dead on and stumbled for words. "I.don't think so." He frowned.
"I mean no. The house is empty. There's nothing here."
He directed his attention to the girls. "And you know not to touch anything, right?"
Two heads bobbed in unison, one dark, one fair, quite different but obviously united in adventure. Meredith couldn't help but grin.
"Okay. But if there's a problem, just yell. I'll be.. " Cam shot a look from room to cavernous room " somewhere. This place is absolutely amazing."
"Isn't it?" Mahogany-trimmed rectangular arches lay to the left and right of the center entry hall, while the broad, turned staircase to the second floor lay before them. Meredith moved to the expansive living room on the left and swept a hand across an antique glass window. "Aren't they stunning?"
Cam stepped closer and made a face. "But not caulked properly. And half of them are facing west. Big drafts in winter and spring. And they won't be up to code."
"Fire code. Building code. They're sealed so they don't offer an escape route."
"And bad hair can be a life-threatening experience."
She offered the retort lightly, but Cam turned a serious stare her way. "Are you planning a pedicure tub, like the one Heather's mother had?"
Heather had been Meredith's best friend throughout high school. Her mother had run a two-stool shop in her home and did mani-pedi's alongside. Sandy Madigan's gentle example had offered Meredith her first shot at her current career. She nodded. "Yes. Four."
She was starting to see his point. "Umm yes."
"Chemical propellants?" She frowned. "Hair spray."
"Oh." She grinned. "Of course."
"So multiple sources of heat and flammable liquids. Brett Stanton and Bud Schmidt do the fire code inspections for the town. They'll check thoroughly to ensure everyone's safety. Code is important."
"I'm beginning to see that."
"Cam, I was kidding." She sent him a more solemn look. "Of course fire codes and building codes are important. I just saw my brother go through all this with his new subdivision. I get it. Really."
"Matt's doing new build." Cam's voice took on a teaching air. "We're upgrading old. That presents a host of different problems."
"All of which drive costs up."
His shrug said that was a given.
"So these windows." Meredith ran her fingers along the wide, dark trim surrounding the old glass. "Can we modify them or do we have to replace them? I want to do what's right for the house while keeping in mind my budget."
The figure she named thinned his mouth. "You either need a bigger budget or go step by step."
"That pricey, huh? Even with my help?"
"Your what?" Cam faced her, surprised.
She hoped he didn't mean to be as offensive as he sounded, but the look he swept her outfit said he meant it all right. "You're kidding, right?"
Don't go all knee-jerk, Mere. Remember, he only knows the girl you were. Not the woman you are. "I redid my entire place in Maryland. Not the skilled stuff like trim and moldings and cupboards. But the patching, painting, papering. New light fixtures. All me. I'm not afraid to get dirty, Cam, if that's what you're thinking."
His guilty look confirmed her assertion and reaffirmed her first instincts. No way in the world should she and Cam be working together. She decided then and there to let him bow out gracefully. "Listen, it was nice of Matt to suggest you and all, but it's probably better if I find someone else, don't you think? Considering our history "
"Ancient news and there is no one else, at least no one who's approved by the Landmark Society. That approval saves a whole lot of time because they trust me to do the job right," Cam told her as he squatted to examine the floor. He frowned, scribbled a note, then rose in a fluid move that said he stayed in shape, a fact she'd noticed first thing. The dark brown bomber jacket fit broad shoulders before tapering to his trim waist. Classic blue jeans ended at camel-colored work boots. His hair was clipped short, browner than she remembered, but the North didn't get a whole lot of winter sun. His skin had a healthy look that made the furrow of worry seem out of place, but his eyes.
His eyes were the same soft shade of sky that melted her heart back in the day. Gorgeous eyes, she thought before clamping a lid on memory lane. His gaze proved harder than she remembered. Sadder.
Life could do a number on people. She knew that. Even when you thought you were chasing the right dream.
She put away that train of thought promptly. She'd learned a lot by being cheated out of the life she thought she'd have and the job she knew she'd earned. But falling in love with a married man.
With political connections.