Read an Excerpt
A Risk Worth Taking
By Victoria James, Karen Grove, Wendy Chen
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2013 Victoria James
All rights reserved.
"Daniel, this is my first day off work, remember? My high-maintenance clients are now yours. Enjoy," Holly teased, her eyes focused on the country road ahead. "I know it'll be boring over there without me for two months, but I'll be back," she promised, her smile wavering as the "Welcome to Red River" sign came into view. The blue, wooden billboard was a little weathered, a little beaten, but it was achingly familiar.
"I'm sure I'll manage. But first, you need to give me your opinion on that color," Daniel whined.
Holly didn't answer him. The jolt of sentimentality that clogged her throat as she approached her hometown rendered her incapable of giving a damn which shade of taupe paint should be used in the Thorntons' front foyer. "I'm sorry to cut you off, but I'm going to have to call you back," Holly whispered, not waiting for her colleague's response. She threw her hands-free earpiece onto the empty passenger seat beside her.
Holly eased her foot off the gas, allowing her life in the city to fade away as she entered the town she hadn't called home for ten years. A barrage of memories she didn't even know she possessed pummeled through her tired mind and hijacked her senses as she drove down the hill she and Jennifer had once bicycled on daily as children. She wondered if it still smelled of fresh-cut grass and dewy fall leaves. The old lift-bridge looked the same, but the view was different from her SUV.
Holly almost missed the turn onto the road that led to her grandparents' vacant house. Her sweating hands gripped the leather steering wheel and her stomach turned at a nauseating pace as the faded yellow-brick Victorian home came into view. It was no longer the same majestic, proud structure it had been when her grandparents were alive. Instead, it was a sorry shell of the house that once was.
The grass that her grandfather had meticulously cut every week was now knee high and unkempt. Her grandmother's spotless veranda looked more brown than white. And it didn't look nearly as welcoming without the overflowing flower baskets that her grandmother had hung at every post on the porch. The bright yellow watering can she so clearly remembered from her youth wasn't on the ledge, and the white wicker furniture was in storage. Holly frowned as she stared at the sight before her. The property was achingly deserted. If a house could have shed tears, this one surely would have. Neither she nor Jen had the heart to sell their childhood home after their grandparents had died, especially since Jen had always made it clear that when she had a family, she'd move back to Red River. It should have been the four of them driving here today, ready to embark on the renovation. It was Jen's dream to return the old house to its former glory, and to have Ella's laughter filling the rooms, just as Jen's and Holly's had done so long ago. Except things hadn't gone according to plan. Jen had never even seen Holly's plans for the home. Now Jen and Rick were gone ...
Ella's gentle snore from the backseat forced Holly to get a grip on her emotions. She clutched the steering wheel tightly, her knuckles turning white. She needed to remember why she was here — renovate, decorate, and sell the house. Then all her ties to this town would be permanently severed. She wouldn't be forced to remember all the people she'd lost. She wouldn't have to fight the images of them when they'd all been alive and living here together. Eight weeks. She had to survive eight weeks in Red River, and then she could get back to her regularly scheduled life in Toronto.
Holly turned onto the long, gravel-filled driveway lined with evergreens and parked in front of the detached garage. She glanced over her shoulder at Ella, who was still sleeping peacefully, her lips hugging the pacifier. Holly pulled her keys out of the ignition and eyed the distance from the front porch to her SUV. She decided she could safely leave Ella in the car while she opened up the house. Ella had only fallen asleep twenty minutes ago, and she had no intention of waking her, especially since the baby wouldn't be able to nap until Holly figured out how to assemble the crib. Ella's nanny, Mary, had emphasized repeatedly the importance of Ella having a daily nap. Holly wished that Mary could have made the trip with them, but it was against agency policy. So now Holly was about to have a crash-course in dealing with her little niece — and it terrified her. Back in Toronto, Mary had done all the day-to-day caregiving, while Holly maintained her grueling work schedule. Now it was all up to Holly. She glanced over at Ella one more time, made sure the back window was open slightly, then quietly stepped from the driver's seat, locking the car after she'd shut the door.
Her running shoes crunched softly against the gravel as she walked up the uneven path to the porch. Images flashed before her eyes: her grandfather mowing the lawn, her grandmother standing with the door ajar, calling them in for dinner, while she and Jennifer chattered about the latest school gossip on the front porch. If she could just have one more minute with them, one moment to tell them how much she loved them and to feel the warmth of their hugs ... She refused to let the tears that were incessantly filling her eyes fall. But oh, she wanted a good, long cry. She wanted to weep for the couple that had given her courage and love and strength, and cry for the sister that she missed every single day. She cleared her throat and shook her head. Get a hold of yourself, Holly. She buttoned her chunky sweater coat with a slight shiver, the damp fall air adding to the chills that were already weaving through her body as she made her way to the front porch. There were boards covering the windows and front door. She knew she was early, but she had hoped that Quinn would have gotten around to opening up the house for her. She'd obviously thought wrong.
The smooth, low rumble of a car engine approaching ripped through the silence of her thoughts. A black Range Rover crunched against gravel and rolled to a smooth stop behind her SUV. Her heart picked up pace because she already knew who was in that vehicle.
Holly had contacted Quinn Manning months ago, letting him know that she was coming back to Red River and needed his company to handle the restoration and renovation of her grandparents' house. She had no choice but to contact Manning & Son Construction: they were the best renovation and building company around. And despite the many passing years, her stomach still did a few traitorous somersaults and her heart skipped when Quinn's deep voice had greeted hers on the other end of the line. And then her mind had gone to her last night in Red River — when she'd humiliated herself in front of the man. Of course, she knew Quinn would never bring it up. He had probably dismissed it as just a silly teenage crush. Better he thought that.
Holly wiped her clammy hands on the front of her jeans as Quinn approached. This would be the first time she'd seen him in years ... Maybe he'd lost his appeal. Maybe age had turned him into someone that didn't resemble the young man she had fantasized about in high school. As Quinn rounded the corner, her question was answered: unfortunately for her, Quinn had only gotten better looking with age. A jolt of energy stronger than a grande non-fat cappuccino coursed through her veins. Quinn's face had become more rugged, his chiseled features more striking — almost as striking as the blue eyes that were staring at her intently. The navy crewneck he wore hugged broad, sculpted shoulders and a flat, narrow waist. His dark blue, faded jeans outlined his long, powerful legs. With each step he took in her direction, it was as though he erased each year that had passed. His walk was casual, but so sexy, so confident, so ... Quinn. He had the walk of a man who knew himself and didn't give a damn what the world thought of him.
Holly waved, and then, feeling awkward, quickly put her hand back down.
"Welcome back, Holly," Quinn said as he reached the front porch. His voice held a note of tenderness, and it ignited a flame in her heart. He perched his right work boot on the first step, his large, tanned hand leaning against his denim-clad leg, and she found herself reacting to the very masculine pose.
"Thanks, it's nice to see you," she answered, trying not to cringe at the awkwardness she heard in her voice.
"You, too," he said, his eyes flickering over her. Holly clutched the corners of her sweater together tightly. He's not checking you out, he's just, well, looking at a person he hasn't seen in a long time. Holly wondered what he saw when he looked at her. Gone was the girl from his past, that much was obvious. She wasn't as skinny as she had been at eighteen. She felt old, like she'd aged twenty years in the last four months.
And then there was the matter of her weekend "uniform," which consisted of jeans and T-shirts and, if she were lucky, a sweater. Today, she was lucky. And if she grasped the curled edges of said sweater together tightly enough, she might even be able to hide the remainder of Ella's lunch she was sure was crusted on the shirt beneath it. She had no idea how Ella's nanny always seemed so neat and tidy. After only a few minutes with Ella, Holly was always covered in either juice or food.
"I'm so sorry about Jennifer," he said, frowning, his voice gruff with emotion. It was the softness in his deep voice, the empathy she saw in his eyes, that made her breath catch and her heart ache. But she couldn't talk about it. She didn't want to talk about it. Because if she did, she would break down. And she couldn't do that.
"Thank you," she managed to say finally, breaking from his stare to look down at her muddy running shoes, wanting to look anywhere but at the blue depths of his eyes.
"You think you can help me get into this place?" she interrupted, nudging her chin toward the house. He stared at her a second longer, then gave a quick nod, the sympathy in his expression intensifying, like he knew that she was trying to change the subject.
"Of course I can. I just got back into town yesterday, or I would have already been over to open this place up." He joined her on the porch and studied the plywood boards blocking the front door. Holly exhaled quietly with relief as he focused his attention on the house.
"You're here early, aren't you?" Quinn asked, his back to her as he tried one of the planks.
"Yeah, I thought I'd get a head start."
"You always were an overachiever," he mumbled, as he tore off one of the boards.
Holly was too distracted to even respond. She was disgusted with herself when an involuntary shiver of awareness teased her as she watched Quinn almost effortlessly place one of the boards beside the door. What was it about this town that brought out all the primal instincts in her? She was a strong, capable, independent woman. Why did the sight of Quinn, in his low-slung, well-worn jeans, prying off a piece of wood, suddenly make her feel feverish? Next thing you knew, she'd be making him dinner and doing his laundry.
Quinn wiped his hands on his jeans and turned around. Holly lifted her eyes in a hurry. She hoped to God he hadn't seen her checking out his butt. His very nice butt. And she wasn't even going to analyze what it meant, that this was the first time in months that she'd noticed a man. She had spent the last four months in a daze, trying to juggle work, Ella, and her grief. But a few seconds back in Quinn's presence, and all her senses were ignited again.
"Thanks, Quinn," she said, clearing her voice.
A faint cry tore Holly from her thoughts. Ella. Holly ran down the walkway to her SUV, pressing the unlock button on her keys right before whipping open Ella's door. Ella's green eyes locked onto hers, and then seconds later she broke into a toothy, slobbery smile. Her round face was pink from her crying, and her brown hair was standing on end, but the sight of Holly calmed her almost instantly. It was a humbling and terrifying feeling, knowing that she could do that, that little Ella had that much faith in her.
Ella and the current state of her SUV was a reflection of her new lifestyle. Once, the black leather seats were gleaming and pristine. Now, the interior was filled with empty coffee cups and stuffed animals, a car seat, a diaper bag, and a crib in a box that she was going to have to assemble before bedtime. There was not one indication that the woman who drove this car had her act together.
Quinn stood beside her without saying a word. She felt the heat emanating off him. He smelled enticing, comforting, sort of like man and nature and ... something else that you just couldn't get from a bottle. After all these years, he still had the ability to make her knees weak just by his very proximity. She turned to look up at him, trying to decipher the expression behind the shadows in his eyes.
"This is Ella," she said, looking from the baby to him. Ella was transfixed on Quinn, her bright eyes doing a thorough once-over. She even leaned forward in her car seat and peered down at his feet.
"Jennifer's daughter?" Quinn asked, his voice thick, strained.
Holly nodded, jamming her hands into the back pockets of her jeans.
"She's beautiful," he said hoarsely, and then surprised her by breaking out in a wide smile for Ella. Ella, it seemed, was enchanted by Quinn, and she let out an exuberant squeal of delight that included arms and legs flailing. It was so contagious, they all laughed.
"That's a pretty name," he said, still smiling.
"I think so," Holly replied softly as she unbuckled Ella, picking her up and perching her on her hip.
"So, want to go inside?" he asked, cocking his head toward the house.
"That would be great," she said truthfully. "I'd really like to get started on the reno as soon as possible." She threw her purse over one shoulder and was about to grab the diaper bag when Quinn interceded, effortlessly taking a piece of luggage from the backseat as well as the diaper bag. Don't be impressed by that, Holly, he just has manners.
She followed him up the walkway, holding Ella a little closer, remembering how far they had come. Ella had been miraculously untouched in the accident, remaining in the hospital only one night for observation and testing. The night Holly had brought her home from the hospital had been one of the most surreal, frightening nights in her life. She hadn't turned on any lights when they arrived at her one-bedroom loft, instead letting the Toronto skyline cast its reassuring glow through the windows. She had carefully unbuckled Ella from her carrier and brought her into bed with her. Fear and grief had paralyzed Holly — fear that she wouldn't be good enough for Ella, that she wouldn't be able to cope, to care. Fear that she would never be enough, that she would never be good enough of a parent to replace the ones the little baby had lost. How could she? Jen had always wanted a child, had always wanted to be a mother — and Ella had been their world. The guilt Holly felt for being alive and raising their beloved daughter had threatened to consume her that night. Holly sat on top of the white duvet, her legs crossed, and her bloodshot eyes staring at Ella, flashes of her past playing across the baby's tranquil face. She remembered her mother, her grandparents, her sister, Rick ...
How could all the people she'd ever loved be gone?
But somehow she and Ella had made it. They were here. And they'd go on, just the two of them.
"Do you have keys?" Quinn asked when they'd reached the front door. Ella was quiet, looking at the new surroundings, and then staring at Quinn, who was studying the rusting lock.
"Yeah, hold on," Holly murmured, hoping they were in her purse. She shifted Ella to her other hip and tried looking for them in her once-pristine Coach handbag. The designer purse she had purchased for an important lunch meeting with a potential client was now stained, filled with baby wipes, tissues, and an ancient brown banana that she kept forgetting to throw out.
"They're in here somewhere," she mumbled, very aware of Quinn's eyes on her. But that darn banana kept getting in the way. She glanced up and her stomach clenched at the sight of Quinn smiling at Ella.
Excerpted from A Risk Worth Taking by Victoria James, Karen Grove, Wendy Chen. Copyright © 2013 Victoria James. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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