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Clasping the strap of her purse so tightly pain zipped up her arm, Kim Walters zeroed in on Zane Davidson, the man she had avoided for the past three years since he had returned to Hope, the man who had broken her heart. The man she wished she never had to talk to again. But he was her last hope to get her house repaired at a price she could afford.
Before she lost her nerve, she crossed the parking lot of the hurricane-damaged school building where she was a third-grade teacher. I can do this. But her step faltered the closer she came to Zane. The fingernails on her hand around her purse strap dug into her palm.
This is crazy. Maggie is wrong. My cousin is an eternal optimist. Surely there's another solution to getting our home restored. Kim halted, chewing on her bottom lip.
I can't do this.
Before he saw her, she started to turn to leave. But she was too late. His dark blue gazethat used to draw her in and hold her captivesnagged hers from across the parking lot. He said something to one of the workers next to him, then strode toward her.
She froze, wanting to leave, knowing she couldn't now. She wouldn't show any emotions to him. She didn't want him to realize his leaving Hope fifteen years ago had crushed her. Shifting, about to face him head-on, she squared her shoulders and lifted her chin, hoping to give the illusion she was taller than her five feet four inches.
"It's nice to see you, Kim." He stopped a yard away from her, a neutral expression on his face.
"It is?" she asked before she could censor her words. Open hostility was no way to get him to agree to what she wantedespecially since she'd visited all the contractors in Hope she trusted and they couldn't do her repairs for months.
"I've been back three years, and this is the first time you and I have talked."
"We move in different circles." As a teenager, she remembered her father kept telling her that she and Zane were from different social classes and a relationship would never work between them. They were too mismatched.
The hard line of his jaw attested to the effect the reminder of the gulf between them had on Zane. He drew in a deep breath that released the rigid set to his shoulders. "How's your dad?"
Surprised for a few seconds at his question, she averted her gaze, trying to formulate an answer. Zane and her father had never gotten along. Fifteen years ago, she'd been ready to defy her father for Zane. But then he'd left her without an explanation, taking the decision out of her hands. "Since you've been in Hope for a while, I'm sure you've heard about his illness."
"Yes. I knew a guy with Parkinson's disease in New Orleans. It's tough. How's he coping?"
"He's hanging in there." She didn't want to talk about her father and needed to steer the conversation quickly to what she wanted to discussher family home, Bienville, restored. Memories of Hurricane Naomi hitting Hope almost three months ago flashed into her mind, battering at her composure like the storm had her home. "I need you to give me an estimate on repairing Bienville. The hurricane flooded the first floor of the house and did extensive wind damage to the roof. We have done what we can, but there's still a lot that needs to be done by a professional."
"I thought you had someone working on your home."
"Henderson Roofing and Construction left town."
"When are they coming back?"
"Never." She gritted her teeth to keep from explaining further. It was bad enough her father and family had been taken by a crook, but she didn't want to admit it to this man.
Zane's eyes narrowed. "I hadn't heard that. Is there a problem?"
"It just happened yesterday. The problem is our gaping roof."
"Most of the town needs repair."
The wind off the water not far from Jefferson Elementary School chilled Kim, reminding her of the cold, damp rooms in her family home. "I realize that, but Henderson Roofing removed part of the old roof to replace it, making the problem worse since they skipped town. I need that repaired immediately before it rains again. My father isn't doing well and" she swallowed hard, fighting the tears swelling into her throat "I know you probably have more work than you need, but. .but we're only living in a few rooms right now."
"My crews are stretched as thin as possible. I just don't see"
"I understand. Thank you." Whirling around, she marched toward her eight-year-old sedan. She couldn't stay another second or she would cry in front of Zane Davidson, and she'd promised herself she would never let him be the reason she shed a tear again.
Somehow she made it to her car and slipped inside. Tears flooded her eyes as she started the engine. When she spied him coming toward her, she gunned the Lexus and sped away from the school. Heat flamed her cheeks at the same time wet tracks streaked down her face.
Zane stared at Kim's car as it sped away. He'd seen the sheen of tears in her eyes and wanted to dismiss their effect on him.
He hadn't been prepared to talk to Kim again. He wasn't sure he ever would be, and since returning to Hope, he had purposefully stayed away from any event she might be attending. When he'd been approached about repairing the hurricane-damaged school he'd attended as a child, he'd almost turned it down because Kim was a teacher there now. Hope, Mississippi, was a small town of twenty thousand, and he shouldn't have come back home, but he had something to prove to the town.
Fifteen years ago he hadn't been good enough for Kim Walters. Now the same people who had taken pleasure in pointing that out to him were the very ones who wanted to do business with him. But he'd never wanted to prove his worth at the expense of a hurricane destroying much of the town. Even though Hope had managed to get back on its feet, parts of it still looked as if the storm had struck only yesterday. In the three years since he'd returned, he had come to care for the people as he hadn't when he'd lived here as an angry teenager. However, seeing and dealing with Kim on a daily basis was a whole different story.
Shaking the memories from his thoughts, he strolled toward his mobile office at the school site. He didn't allow himself to think about the past often. All it would do was stir his anger, and since he'd found the Lord, he knew there was a better way. But now he wondered if God was testing him when He put Kim in his path.
"Boss, the rest of the floodlights have arrived. This should help us make our three-week deadline," his secretary said.
"Thanks, Susan. I don't know what I would have done if it weren't for you. Everyone wants everything done yesterday."
"Yeah. There aren't enough hours in the day to do what you need to do, but then work is about all there is to do here."
He sat in his desk chair and looked across the trailer at his right-hand woman. "It's been three years. I thought you would be settled in by now. Do you regret following me to Hope?"
Susan Fayard twisted her mouth into a thoughtful expression and tapped the side of her chin. "Well, there are days like this one I long for the quieter pace of New Orleans."
"New Orleans quieter? That's the first time I've heard that."
"I thought you were only going to build the hotel and pier in Gulfport. That was three years and several major projects ago. Are you ever going back to New Orleans?"
"Maybe, but Hope is halfway between our New Orleans and Mobile offices. Good location to manage both. Do you want me to transfer you back to New Orleans?"
"No, boss. I'm fine for the time being. It's just for the past three months we have been working nonstop."
"There's a lot to rebuild and not enough hours to do it all." The picture of Kim as she'd stood before him earlier materialized in his mind, her chin tilted up, her posture so straight and proper he'd wondered when she would snap. But then he'd looked into her soft blue eyes and glimpsed the sorrow of the past few monthsthe toll the hurricane had taken on her and so many others in town. "Maybe after the school is finished you can take a little time off."
"I've gone back to New Orleans for a couple of weekends since the hurricane. That's enough for now. I'll let you know when I've had enough and yearn for more than Hope has to offer."
Zane chuckled. "Look out, New Orleans, when that happens."
The opening door halted his secretary's reply. When she saw the visitor was Gideon O'Brien, a good friend of his, her smile of welcome grew. "You've come to rescue me from my tyrant boss."
"It's almost five. I thought I would stop by here on the way to Broussard Park and pick you up," Gideon said to Zane. "If I didn't, you'd probably forget."
"You know me well. I had forgotten. I was just about to return some calls, but they can wait. Nothing beats a good game of basketball to relieve stress."
Gideon's eyebrow rose. "Stress? From all I've seen, you're Mr. Cool. Nothing much rattles you."
Talking to Kim Walters earlier had stressed him. Her appearance had taken him by surprise. He hadn't been prepared to see her. She had been the one reason he had hesitated coming back to Hope when he'd gotten the opportunity to work on some construction projects along the Gulf Coast where he'd grown up.
"How about more work than I can handle?"
"That's a good thing. That shouldn't stress you. You say no to who you have to. If you can't do it, you can't."
Zane pushed to his feet. He could remember Kim's look when he had turned down her offer to restore her home. It had gripped his heart and squeezed it. "Yeah, that's all I can do. There are only twenty-four hours in a day." But what did he do with the guilt from saying no?
"And for the next hour you're gonna forget about work."
"Where are Jared and Kip?" Being with Gideon and his friend's soon-to-be stepsons gave him a sense of what it would be like to have a family. That was all he needed to fulfill any yearning he might have to be a father. It was right for Gideon but not him.
"Out in the car, so we'd better book it."
"I'll be back at six," Zane said to Susan as he headed for the door right behind Gideon.
"I'll be gone by then, boss. Helping to plan the reopening of this elementary school. It's gonna be a big celebration."
He paused in the doorway. "A celebration?" That was the first he'd heard of it.
"Friday night before Fat Tuesday. Think Mardi Gras, treasure hunts, food. All kinds of fun. So I guess this place better be ready by then."
"No pressure there," Zane mumbled to himself as he closed the trailer door. If the weather cooperated and the supplies he needed arrived on schedule, he would barely make that deadline.
Jared and Kip sat in his friend's Jeep, a frown on their faces. Zane liked children as long as they belonged to someone else. He didn't see himself ever being a father. His hadn't been the best example. If he had lived a hundred years ago, his dad would have been referred to as the town drunk.
When he climbed into the front passenger seat, he shifted around and greeted Gideon's fiancée's sons. "Which one of you drew the short straw?"
Kip raised his hand. "Me."
"Oh, sorry, you've gotta partner with me."
Kip shot his brother a narrow-eyed look. "That's okay. I don't care if we lose except Jared cheated. He peeked when he shouldn't have."
"Yes, you did."
Gideon started his Jeep. "We can always go back to your grandmother's."
Jared snapped his mouth closed and turned his head to stare out the window. Kip glared at him for a few more seconds then did likewise.
"Ah, silence," Zane said with a chuckle.
"Savor it. It won't last." Gideon pulled out of his parking space near the trailer. "That's why we're playing basketball. Kathleen, her mother and Miss Alice are planning the wedding and were having a hard time."
"Jared started it," Kip piped in.
Zane listened to the two boys banter back and forth before Gideon said, "That's it. No more warnings. We'll go straight home after the park. No stopping for hamburgers."
Again Jared and Kip clammed up, and the second Gideon came to a halt in the parking lot, they jumped out of the backseat and raced for the basketball court. Kip took a shot. When he rebounded the ball, Jared tried to wrestle it away from him.
"Shouldn't you go referee or something?" Zane asked, watching the boys playing tug-of-war with the ball.
"Nope. Let them tire themselves out. Sometimes they just have to use up the extra energy they have, especially after school. It takes all their best behavior to sit still during class. Kip does pretty well. Jared is a work in progress."
"How do you do it? They aren't your children."
Gideon peered at Zane. "They will be. I'm adopting them right after Kathleen and I get married."
"Not only are you abandoning bachelorhood but you're going to be a parent. What's come over you?" Zane asked with a laugh.
"Love. I love Kathleen. And I love those two boys. You wait. It could happen to you."
The vision of Kim teased his thoughts. He pushed it away. "No. Not me. I like being a bachelor. Just look at my busy schedule. When would I have time to fall in love?"
"When it's important, you'll make time."