Read an Excerpt
Just go in. It's just an office. A building.
Renee stood just outside the door of Arlan Truscott, Barrister and Solicitor, surprised that the pounding of her heart wasn't echoing in the entrance.
The last time she'd been here, she'd sat in Arlan's office and signed papers that haunted her still.
That was ten years ago. Mom has been your priority since then.
With a decisive nod of her head, she pushed the door open and entered the office.
The woman sitting behind the wooden desk dominating the reception area looked up, a headset nested in her teased blond hair, and smiled. "Hey, Renee, you're early."
"Is that okay?" Renee asked, her eyes flicking over the interior of the office. Now the walls were painted a soft, colonial blue instead of the puce-green imprinted on her memory. She clutched the handle of her shoulder bag and prayed away the dark thoughts, turning back to Debbie. "Is Mr. Truscott ready to see me?"
"There's been a change in plans. Mr. Truscott was called away, but his son, Zach, will take over your file."
That was puzzling, but she was secretly relieved. Though Hartley Creek wasn't large, and she ran into Mr. Truscott from time to time, seeing him was a reminder of that fateful day. Only sheer necessity had forced her to set up an appointment with him today.
"Have you met Zach?" Debbie asked.
"No. Not yet," Renee said. "Though I have heard about him."
Then the door of the other office opened, and Renee got to her feet to meet Zach Truscott herself.
He looked to be in his mid-thirties, tall, slender, thick blond hair waving away from a strong-featured face. His blue eyes flicked from the file he held to her, and when he smiled, she couldn't stop an answering lift of her heart.
Classically handsome, she thought, yet with eyes that seemed to hold a shadow of sadness. Through her friend Evangeline, Renee had heard that Zach Truscott was a widower, that he had a young daughter and that he'd moved to Hartley Creek from Toronto two weeks ago to help his father with his growing legal business. Evangeline knew all this because Zach boarded his horses at her father's ranch.
"Good morning, Ms. Albertson," Zach said, holding his hand out to take hers. "I'm Zach Truscott. I'm sorry my father couldn't see you this morning. He had some unexpected business to take care of."
Renee took his hand, his firm grip creating the faintest tingle in her palm.
She shook her feelings aside, attributing them as a normal reaction to an attractive male. She was still single, after all, as her mother frequently pointed out to her.
As if she had any time for men. She had a disabled mother to take care of and a business to sell. And it was the latter that brought her here today.
"My father gave me your file this morning," Zach said, standing aside to let her precede him into his office. He walked around the desk and dropped into the chair across from her. "He said you're in the process of selling your business?"
Renee nodded, settling into the straight-backed wooden chair across from him. As she did, she darted a quick glance around the room, stifling the chills that chased each other down her spine. This was a different time. Different lawyer. Different office.
The walls in here were painted a cheerful yellow. A large bookcase covered one wall with the usual assortment of legal books. To one side, however, she saw a small red table and chair covered with papers and crayons and paints. A pink electronic device sat on one corner of the table emitting glowing green light. On the wall above that table was an assortment of framed pictures. One of them was of a stunningly beautiful woman. She held the hand of a little girl with tousled blond hair and a gap-toothed smile. They were backlit by a large window that overlooked the city of Toronto.
Taken from the CN Tower, Renee assumed, her heart turning over at the sight of the little girl.
"That's my daughter," Zach said, catching the direction of Renee's curious gaze. "Tricia. She's eight."
"She's adorable," Renee said past the sudden thickness in her throat. Why did this happen to her every time she saw a girl of that age?
Please, Lord, help me concentrate. Help me let go. It's over.
Her prayer eased her heartbeat back to normal, then she looked back at Zach. "How does she like living in Hartley Creek?" she asked, determined to have an ordinary conversation. "I imagine it's quite a change from Toronto."
"She loves it. Especially because we have a place to keep our horses that's closer than where we boarded them in Ontario."
"So you and your daughter ride?"
"Not as often as we'd like, but I'm hoping that will change once we're settled in. Tricia and I are still trying to find a rhythm here, and I'm trying not to worry about her all the time. Hard to break old habits," he said.
She caught an edge of tension in his voice and wondered once again about his situation. Rumor had it that his wife had died almost a year ago. That was why he'd moved back to Hartley Creek.
"But enough about that." Zach flipped open the manila folder and pulled out a piece of paper, obviously getting back to business.
She couldn't help a niggling regret. Zach seemed easy to talk to, and she had enjoyed the ordinary conversation they had shared, even for a moment. It had been a while since she'd had a normal interaction with a man. Any guy she had dated since the accident had had to deal with the reality that Renee's mother was her priority.
"So you want to sell your business?" Zach was saying, his voice anchoring her back to the present.
Renee nodded. "Yes, the buyer, Cathy, is eager to get the final paperwork done and so am I. I'm assuming that's why your father called me here?"
Zach sat back in his chair. He wore a white button-down shirt with a tie, but the tie was loosened, and the cuffs of the sleeves were rolled up. He looked casually disheveled yet had an air of command, which felt oddly reassuring.
"Unfortunately, we can't sign off on the sale just yet."
Renee felt cold bloom in her chest. "Why not?" Things had to get moving. Her mother's appointments to see the therapist were scheduled. They needed the money from this sale before the treatment began, and she didn't want Ned and Cathy to change their minds.
"There's been a builder's lien filed against the property about three days ago."
"What? By whom? The renovations on the store were finished two months ago." Fixing up the back rooms of the store had cost her more than she had budgeted for, but it had been a condition of the sale, which had been delayed a couple of times already. "I paid Benny Alpern in full for his work."
"Benny was the general contractor?" Zach asked, glancing down at the file again.
"That's correct," Renee said, trying not to let panic overwhelm her as she leaned forward. She'd had a hard enough time just coming to this officenow things wouldn't be finalized today? And, worse, the sale would be put off? What would happen to her mother? The clock was ticking, and she was running out of time.
Renee drew in a long, slow breath, forcing herself to remain calm.
"The lien was put on by an electrician named Freddy Peckham. He claims the general contractor, Benny Alpern, owed him some money, and Benny claims he doesn't. Neither seems to want to budge."
Renee dropped back in her chair, frustrated. "So I can't sell this property until they figure it out."
"Sorry. Afraid not." His gave her a crooked smile, which didn't help her fragile equilibrium.
"But I have to sell the property soon," she said. "I need the money for my mother's" She stopped herself there. Zach Truscott was a virtual stranger. He didn't need to know the complicated issues of her life.
She folded her arms, her thoughts chasing each other around her tired head. There was too much to think about and not enough emotional reserve to deal with it.
She thought of her mother, confined to a wheelchair, and the therapy program they'd heard about that could potentially allow her to walk again.
The therapist was in Vancouver, well over a thousand miles away from Hartley Creek. The program would take a year, and to pay for it, Renee was selling her scrapbook store.
"How much money does Freddy need?" Renee said, trying to find a solution.
"According to the lien he filed, about ten thousand dollars."
"What?" Renee shot up in her chair. "Is he kidding? I can't believe he did that much work on the store reno."
Zach glanced down at the file again, the light casting his face in shadows. "He's claiming he wasn't reimbursed for work or materials."
"Well, he's wrong." Renee shook her head. "I'll have to talk to him about that." She didn't look forward to that. Freddy was a strange duck. She hadn't wanted him doing the renovations on the store, but Benny had said he was good. And cheap. Obviously not so cheap after all.
She kneaded the bridge of her nose, trying to settle her ragged emotions, wishing time would stop its steady wheeling.
The past few months had been a marathon. Attending doctor's and therapist's appointments for her mother, making the hard decisions to sell a business she had poured her heart and soul into since its humble beginnings.
Now she had Freddy to deal with, plus Ned and Cathy Meckle, the already-skittish future owners of the store, to placate.
"Are you okay, Ms. Albertson? Can I get you something to drink?" Zach's worried voice yanked her out of her fog of anxious thoughts.
She looked up, surprised at the concern on his features. "I'm sorry. Just trying to figure out when I'll have time to talk to Cathy Meckle."
"I can deal with Freddy and Benny. As for Mrs. Meckle, don't worry about her. She's calling this afternoon. I can let her know what the problem is," he said, a careful smile lifting one corner of his mouth. "We'll take care of you."
Renee held his steady gaze. The confidence and assurance in his voice eased her concern. "Thanks. That would be helpful," she said, thankful for his thoughtfulness.
He's getting paid to do this, a cynical voice reminded her.
But in spite of that, as she looked into his deep blue eyes, she felt a curious connection. A feeling that she would be, as he said, taken care of.
Then her cell phone vibrated, and with an apologetic look toward Zach, she pulled it out of her purse and glanced at it.
"Sorry. I have to take this," she said. "It's my mother."
Zach held up his hand. "No problem. We'll be in touch."
She nodded, then touched the screen to answer the call as she exited Zach's office.
"Hey, Mom. Are you okay?" Renee couldn't stop the flicker of concern that always accompanied a phone call from her mother. Her pain had increased of late, and though she would never tell her, Renee knew. Could see it on her mother's pinched mouth and her forced cheerfulness on the mornings when she'd had an especially restless night.
"Everything is all right," her mother assured her. "I just wanted to know how your visit with Zach, I mean, Mr. Truscott, went."
"Oh. Fine," Renee said, waving a distracted hand toward Debbie, who waved back. "We'll talk about it later." She wasn't sure how she would break the news about the possible postponement of the sale.
"Are you coming back to the store?"
"After I get some groceries," she said, navigating the narrow stairs leading down to the street. "Is everything okay? I can come now if you want."
"No. I'm fine. Everything is just fine, honey." Her mother's voice held a cheerful note that, in spite of all the work and decisions piling up in Renee's life the past few months, made the stress of selling the store and moving worthwhile. Ever since they started talking about the therapy program in Vancouver and the possibility that her mother would be able to walk again, she had been smiling more. Seemed happier.
"So I'll see you later?" her mother asked.
"Hopefully in half an hour," Renee said. She said goodbye and ended the call.
But as she stepped out into the street, a curious thought occurred to her.
How did her mother know she was meeting with Zach when she didn't know herself until she got to the office?
Relax. Just relax. This is small-town British Columbia. Tricia is only ten minutes late. She is probably looking at something in a store window.
In spite of his thoughts, however, Zach's fingers trembled as he punched in the numbers of his daughter's cell phone, scanning the streets downtown for any sign of his eight-year-old daughter.
Finally she answered. "Hey, Daddy," she chirped. "I can see you."
Zach stopped, forcing his pounding heart to slow down. This wasn't downtown Toronto. This was Hartley Creek, population seven thousand. She's okay.
Of course, he didn't know how okay she would be once he met up with her. She was supposed to have been in his office fifteen minutes ago.
"I can see you but you can't see me," Tricia taunted as he shot his gaze up and down the main street of the town, his eyes grazing over the brick buildings with their crenellated roofs and fancy brickwork looking for his daughter. In the distance he heard the rumble of the train approaching, then the warning wail of its horn. In a few seconds he wouldn't be able to hear Tricia over the roar of the train. "Where are you?"
"I'm at Scrap Happy. It's a fun, fun place, Daddy."
Scrap Happy? That was Renee Albertson's store.
He relaxed as the fear and worry that had turned his heart to a block of ice melted away. "So where is that?" he asked.
"Turn around, Dad."
He turned, then saw his daughter waggling her fingers at him from behind a colorful window display of scrapbooks, cards, umbrellas and seashells, her blond hair catching the light from the display. Then he heard a woman's voice call her and Tricia disappeared.
He shoved the door of the store open, the bell above the door tinkling out an erratic welcome.
He knew he was overreacting to her lateness, but ever since his wife, Molly, had been killed by a car only a block from their home, Zach had felt vulnerable and overprotective.
Especially because Tricia was supposed to have been with Molly that day.
His eyes adjusted from the bright sunlight outside, and as they did, his gaze slipped past the carousels of stickers, rows of papers and shelves holding bottles of glitter, shiny paint and a rainbow assortment of ribbons and buttons.
Tricia, however, was nowhere in sight. Nor was Blythe, her babysitter.
He navigated his way through the shelves of scrap-booking supplies and finally found Tricia at the back of the store standing beside an older woman in a wheelchair. She looked to be about fifty, her graying hair pulled back in a loose ponytail, and when she turned to them, he caught a faint resemblance to Renee Albertson in her heart-shaped face and the upward tilt of her eyebrows. He guessed this was Renee's mother. His father had mentioned that Mrs. Albertson had been in a car accident that had left her paralyzed.
Tricia's grin almost split her face as she ran toward him, her hair streaming behind her. She grabbed his hand and pulled with a strength surprising for an eight-year-old.
"Come and see, Dad. This is the coolest thing," she announced, dragging him toward Mrs. Albertson, who was looking over at him now with an expression of interest.