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Cade slouched in a rocking chair on the porch of his brother's log cabin as the sun crawled its way below the horizon. Beside him, Diego's old dog, Lobo, shifted and groaned.
"I don't know which of us is more pathetic, fella. You at least have old age to blame." Cade's head sank back against the rocker, and he pushed it into motion with an impatient shove of his heel. A rocking chair, he thought in disgust, fingers drumming. I'm thirty-nine years old, and I've been in this spot for two hours. He wanted to run, but he could barely walk. Wanted to race halfway across the world but had no reason to leave and nowhere to go.
Even if anyone in his family would let him move an inch without hovering.
"Cade, honey?" called his mother from inside. "Do you need something?" Grace MacAllister appeared at the screen door.
Cade glanced up at the woman who never seemed to age. At sixty-six, Grace's hair was still more blond than silver, her back straight, her figure slender. At six foot four, he towered over heras did all her four sons and her husbandbut pure steel ran through her spine.
He adored her. They all did. She was their queen, gracious and every inch the lady, strong and loving and cherished.
But if she didn't stop treating him like an invalid His hand clenched on the rocker's arm. "I'm fine, Mom."
She meant well, he reminded himself. He hadn't come home often as an adult, not because he didn't miss and love his familyhe did. But he'd needed solitude since he was small, and he was accustomed to that life now. He'd spent the past twenty years as an adventure photographer, roaming the globe with a camera in his hand, never settling, never resting. He'd been a wanderer since he'd first learned to walk, to the dismay of his parents. He'd always needed to see what was over there. Whatever there meant at the time.
But nearly dying in the Andes had a way of changing things.
And watching his friend and guide die
He still hadn't figured out how to handle that.
So when his mother placed a hand on his forehead, testing him for fever as she had when he was little, Cade forced himself not to tense. Instead, he clasped her hand and squeezed it in his. "Thanks, Mom. You've taken good care of me."
Grace was no fool, however, and her smile was wry when she responded. "You're restless." Not a question; she knew him well. "Itchy for a camera in your hands?"
God, no. He couldn't even look at his cameras, hadn't been able to touch one without seeing his friend's broken body. He couldn't speak to anyone of the panic that kept him awake at night, how his fingers shook when he simply picked up a camera, knowing that his obsession with the perfect shot, the one that required risk and nerves to obtain, had cost a good man his life. He'd lain there on the mountain after he'd crawled toward Jaime, waiting for death to take him, too, and somewhere during that endless night he'd lost his eye for the story behind the frame, the gift of making an image tell far more than a thousand words.
Even if he recovered fully from the injuries he'd suffered in the fall, the one thing that had made his life matter was gone. He'd lost the thirst that had driven his life.
Besides, what did his career matter in the face of three children left fatherless?
But he couldn't tell his mother any of that. "Soon," he said instead, mustering a smile for her even as he saw worry shimmer in her eyes.
She, in turn, stroked his hair as if he were still small, then bent and pressed a kiss to his forehead. "It'll get better," she murmured. "Just be patient. You'll be back on the road before you know it."
He wished he still had that small boy's faith in his mother's reassurance. He'd like to believe that he'd have another spread in National Geographic or Smithsonian soon.
But something essential inside him remained broken after his bones had healed, and he didn't know what to do or where to go. Solitude had always been his refuge, yet right now he couldn't stand being with himself. He was dodging his agent's calls because he had no idea how he was supposed to organize the photo collection his publisher had paid him a sizable advance on.
It'll get better. He hoped with all his heart his mother was right.
He could never settle for taking average photos, and if he wasn't able to spend his life wandering the planet and documenting nature's beauty and heartache for those not free to roam, what on earth would he do? He was nothing without a camera in his hands and frame after frame blooming in his mind.
Cade shoved to his feet and started down the steps. He'd taken to sneaking out at night and walking to build up the strength his family didn't want him to tax yet. Sitting still only made him crazier.
"Hal," called his mother to Cade's dad. "Come walk with Cade."
"No." Cade turned. "I'm going alone, Mom."
"Honey, I only.. " She pressed her lips together and nodded just as his father came through the door. She placed a hand on his dad's arm to restrain him. "All right, just.be careful, sweetheart."
Cade looked from one concerned parent to the other. They'd never understood his need to be alone, but they'd been supportive all these years, despite the many important family occasions he'd missed.
He owed them better than this.
But he was going out of his freaking mind. "I won't go far, I promise," he said, trying not to feel he was five.
"You go ahead, son," boomed the man who'd first put a camera in his hand and given him a way to relate to the world. "We'll be here when you return."
They would be, he knew. They always had been. Emotion crowded his throat when he nodded back. "Thank you."
He wasn't good with words, only with photographs. He'd spent years attempting to show his parents what they meant to him by giving them the gift of places they'd never travel to because they were so rooted in home. And now.
Cade made his way slowly down the slope to the cabin he'd moved to last week, one Diego kept for family and friends to use on visits.
And with every step he tried not to think about how something inside of him had gone still and cold after that fall, and how empty his life would be if his gift never came back.
Sophie Carlisle collapsed on the widow's walk of the house where she'd just spent fourteen hours refinishing the wood floors. She was so tired she wasn't even hungry, yet morningand still another long daywould come all too soon and she needed her strength.
Despite four months of backbreaking work, the remodeling to make the wreckage of an old mansion into Hotel Serenity was behind schedule; she was out of money and the bank was withholding funds.
And she had guests booked to arrive in only four weeks.
But she'd picked herself up and beaten the odds before, hadn't she?
With this unique jewel of a hotel, she'd found the courage to dream again, to try again to start over for the third time in her life. She'd lost much in her thirty-six yearsparents, husband, child, then the career and reputation she'd spent fifteen years building.
She was not going to lose this dream. Hotel Serenity would open on time, and it would sparkle. Those who believed her washed-up after the scandal would be put on notice: Sophie Carlisle would not be defeated. Not by loneliness, not by her unscrupulous rival Kurt Barn-stone, not by disgrace staining a spotless career. Not by anything.
Besides wantingneedingto prove herself, she also owed a debt. Maura Halloran had spotted promise in her when Sophie was first starting out as a night clerk at the hotel Maura managed. Maura had brought Sophie along with her as she rose in the corporate structure, grooming Sophie to one day succeed her.
More importantly, Maura had been, at times, the closest thing to a mother Sophie had.
When Sophie's career had been cut short by the scandal, one of the worst parts had been Maura's disappointment in her for resigning instead of fighting the charges. But Maura didn't know everythingand Sophie couldn't tell her without breaking her heart.
Despite Maura's dismay, when Sophie had bought this place, the older woman had insisted on investing a huge chunk of her life savings in the venture. Savings that Sophie would flush down the toilet if she failed.
Sophie owed Maura more than she'd ever be able to repayon so many levels. She had to do this one thing right for the woman who meant so much to her. She had to open, and on time.
"You missed yoga," said a familiar voice from behind her. "And I need to ask you a favor Whoa!" Her dear friend Jenna MacAllister appeared through the attic window. "You look terrible."
"No, I mean worse than usual. You can't keep this up, Soph. This place is going to kill you." Earnest blue eyes shone from a gamine face surrounded by strawberry blond hair. "I'm going to call my brother Jesse and brother-in-law Vince to help. Both of them have done lots of renovation work on their own homes, and they could bring some of their cop buddies."
"No!" She was horrified. "I mean, that's a lovely offer, but this is my problem, and I'll handle it."
"Look, I get that you're a private person and very independent. I understand that the hotel is your baby, but don't be silly. I can round up some help, and face ityou need it."
"I'll be fine." Sophie had had to depend on herself for a long time. Jenna, with her warm and loving family and fairy-tale childhood, couldn't possibly understand. Sophie had been orphaned at fifteen and been a runaway from foster care. Then she'd lost her second chance at family. But she'd adapted. on her own.
"But that's just it," Jenna protested. "You don't have to. You have me, and I'm going to help you. That's what friends do."
"Jen, no. I really appreciate the offer, but I'm the one who decided to gamble on being ready for September and advertised to all those Texas Longhorns season ticket holders and Austin City Limits Festival goers. I could have opened slowly and let the clientele build." But she so badly wanted to prove herself, to show those who'd written her offjust what she was worth. To make Maura proud of her again.
She noted the stubborn set of Jenna's chin, and she knew enough about Jenna to understand that her friend wouldn't rest until she could do something. "Okay, how about this? Do you have anyone working on your affordable housing project who wants extra work? I can't pay a lot, but."
Jenna headed a local East Austin nonprofit focusing on inner-city issues, and she had a network anyone would envy. "Actually, I know several people who need work."
"Great. Send them to me, and I'll be forever gratefulbut leave your family alone. Promise me? I'm not comfortable taking charity."
"It's not charity, it's friendship," Jenna insisted. "But okay. I get it, even if I don't like it. I promise you I will have someone here to help with the work tomorrow, but there's a condition. Take the night off, you hear me? You're exhausted, and you can't open this hotel if you're in the hospital."
If she didn't open on time, the hotel's reputationand herswould never recover. Her dream would die stillborn. "I'll be fine." She rose and hugged her friend. "Thanks, Jenna, truly."