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It wasn't fair.
Blake Sullivan stared at the letter from Seth Mitchell. How could Jo do this to him? Okay, so maybe she'd never actually promised to leave the entire business to him, but she had certainly implied as much. After all, they'd been friends for twenty-one years. And he'd walked away from a successful career in investment banking three years ago to rescue Turning Leaves, when Jo's waning energy began to affect the business and her ongoing generosity had finally depleted her financial cushion. He'd enjoyed it so much that he'd stayed to turn the sleepy, neighborhood bookshop into a thriving enterprise. Without him, the business would have been bankrupt by now.
And what was his reward for three years of diligent labor on her behalf? She'd left half the business to her flighty, do-gooder great-niece who probably didn't know the difference between a balance sheet and a balance beam.
Blake felt his blood pressure edge up and forced himself to take a slow, deep breath. Getting worked up about the situation wasn't going to change it, he reminded himself. Maybe if he and Jo had had more time to discuss it, things would have turned out differently. But the fast-acting cancer that had struck so suddenly and taken her so quickly had left them little time for business discussions. By the time she'd told anyone about her illness, it was far too late to discuss any succession plans.
Blake fingered the letter from her attorney, a hollow feeling in the pit of his stomach. He could just walk away, of course. Let the business disintegrate in the hands of Jo's inexperienced and probably disinterested heir. But he'd poured too much of himself into the bookshop, cared too much aboutit to let it die.
Which left him only one option.
And that did not make him happy.
Blake watched the caller ID disappear as the line went dead. Jo's niece again. He couldn't avoid her forever, but he needed more time to think things through. Especially since he'd received Jo's brief, enigmatic letter, which had arrived a couple of days after Seth Mitchell's.
He lifted it from the kitchen counter as he waited for the microwave to reheat the cannelloni from his favorite restaurant on The Hill—a splurge that would wreak havoc with his well-disciplined diet, especially with the Thanksgiving Day triathlon looming on the horizon. But he'd needed a pick-me-up after the news from Seth.
Blake scanned the single sheet of paper once more.
Dear Blake, I know you will be disappointed by my bequest. Please understand that I fully appreciate all you have done these past three years to make Turning Leaves successful, and that my gratitude goes deeper than I can say. I have valued our friendship and our partnership, and one of my great joys has been to watch you grow into a fine man.
At the same time, I feel a special obligation to my nieces. AJ. needs an anchor in her life, and I am hopeful that Turning Leaves will provide that for her. She has been drifting these past few years, for reasons that even she may not fully comprehend, but which you may eventually come to understand. I would consider it a final favor for an old friend if you would help her learn the business we both love. With great affection, Jo.
The beeper went off on the microwave, and Blake retrieved the cannelloni. He didn't understand some of Jo's comments, but he did understand the part about the final favor. And as rational thought had prevailed over the past couple of days, he'd come to acknowledge that as much as he'd done for Jo these past three years, it was he who was deeply in her debt.
As he poured a soft drink, he thought back to the summer when he was thirteen. It was a couple of years after Jo's husband died, and she had just opened her shop. Pure chance brought them together. Or fate. Or maybe Providence, if one were religiously inclined. But whatever it was, it had changed his life.
Blake's parents had decided to spend the summer in St. Louis, for reasons Blake couldn't recall. They were always going somewhere on a whim, for a rally or to hang out with friends or simply for a change of scene. Jo had hired his father to do some carpentry and odd jobs at the shop. Blake hadn't known anyone in St. Louis, and after thirteen years he'd learned that it didn't pay to try to make friends in a new town, because in a few weeks or a few months his vagabond parents would be on the road again. So he'd simply tagged along with his father to Jo's. And those had been some of his happiest days.
Jo had taken him under her wing, giving him odd jobs to do and regaling him with stories of her world travels and the exotic places she and her husband had visited. She'd discussed politics with him, and philosophy, as if he were an adult, which did wonders for his shaky thirteen-year-old self-esteem. He owed his love of learning and books to Jo. And so much more. Something about him must have made an impact on her as well, because she'd stayed in touch with him when his family moved on at the end of the summer. He still had her letters tucked in a shoe box in his closet. During his teenage years, she was the one stable person in his unsettled, unpredictable world, and he clung to her voraciously, sharing with her his fears and his hopes. She'd always encouraged him, and when it came time for college, she'd come through for him again, providing a significant amount of the funding for his education.
So even though he'd rescued Turning Leaves, his efforts were small repayment for all she'd been to him. Friend. Confidante. Supporter. Benefactor. And now she had one last request. Help her great-niece learn the business. How could he say no?
"Blake, A. J. Williams is on the phone for you."
Blake frowned and transferred his gaze from the computer screen to the flickering phone light.
"Bad time? Should I get a number?"
Slowly, Blake shook his head and looked over at his assistant manager. There was no sense avoiding the inevitable. "No. I'll take it, Nancy. Thanks."
She hesitated at the doorway. "Is everything okay?"
Blake heard the trepidation in her voice, and nodded. "I'm sure everything will be fine."
As a divorced mother with two part-time jobs, Nancy worked hard to provide for herself and her ten-year-old daughter. She'd been unsettled ever since Jo's death, clearly unsure about the future of Turning Leaves. Blake had tried to be reassuring, but he couldn't offer much encouragement since he felt the same way.
Blake looked back at the flashing light. Too bad he hadn't hung around long enough after Jo's memorial service to meet her nieces—and get a few insights about his new partner. He took a deep breath, picked up the receiver and punched the flashing button.
"Mr. Sullivan, this is A. J. Williams, Jo Warren's great-niece. I believe you've heard from Seth Mitchell about my aunt's bequest of Turning Leaves?"
The voice was a bit breathless, but bright and friendly. His was cautious and curt. "Yes."
There was a hesitation, as if she expected him to say more. When he didn't, she continued. "Well, I'm getting ready to make travel plans to St. Louis and wanted to talk with you about the timing of my arrival."
Deep inside Blake had harbored a dim hope that A.J. would pass on her inheritance. From the little he'd heard about her through the years, a bookshop didn't seem like the kind of thing she'd be interested in. Now that hope flickered and died. "There's no rush from my end."
His less-than-friendly reply was met with a moment of silence. Okay, maybe his comment wasn't exactly warm and fuzzy. But it was the truth.
"Well, according to Seth Mitchell, the clock starts ticking on December 1. But I see no reason to wait until then. I can wrap things up here pretty quickly."
Now it was his turn to hesitate. But only briefly, because he wanted an answer to his next question. "May I ask you something, Ms. Williams?"
"Yes." Her reply was immediate, but cautious.
"How much interest do you have in Turning Leaves?"
"What do you mean?"
"Is this a lark for you, or do you have a serious interest in the business?"
There was a moment of silence. "Maybe a little of both," she finally said. "I'm ready for a change, and the business sounds interesting. I don't really have any long-term plans."
"Then let me make you a proposition. I happen to care about Turning Leaves. And I do have long-term plans, which revolve around this business. So my proposal is this—I'll work with you for six months so you can claim your inheritance. At that point, you give me the option to buy your half of the business at a mutually agreeable price. That lets us keep Jo's legacy alive, and frees you to pursue your next lark."
On the other end of the line, AJ. felt the stirrings of her Irish temper. This man was treating her like some irresponsible airhead who flitted from one distraction to another. She hardly considered her years in Afghanistan, nor the past two working in Good Samaritan, Inc. headquarters, a "lark." Nor the rigorous years of training that went into earning her M.B.A. She didn't like his inference one bit. In fact, she didn't think she liked Blake Sullivan. But she didn't have to, she reminded herself. She just had to work with him for six months. And she'd had plenty of experience working under difficult conditions with difficult people. Maybe Mr. Sullivan would even discover that she wasn't quite as capricious and flighty as he seemed to think. Starting right now. Because she wasn't about to make any promises for anything six months down the road. That was a lifetime. And a lot of things could happen between now and then.
When she spoke again, her voice was brisk and businesslike. "I'll tell you what, Mr. Sullivan. I'll agree to consider your proposal when the time comes. But I can't make any promises. I might decide to stay on at Turning Leaves. However, if I do decide to sell, I would certainly give you first consideration."
Blake frowned at the unexpected response. Her tone had cooled considerably, and he couldn't blame her. He hadn't exactly been friendly. And he couldn't argue with her counterproposal. He would have offered the same thing. So it appeared he was stuck with Jo's niece for the next six months. Unless he just walked away. But he couldn't do that. Not after pouring himself into the business for the past three years. Yet could he stand by and watch it potentially falter in the hands of an inexperienced and seemingly strong-willed partner? For once in his life he wished he was a praying man, because he sure could use some guidance.
While Blake considered her counteroffer, AJ. did pray. Because she needed the bookshop. And she needed Blake, with his years of experience, to help her run it. Though she loved her work at Good Samaritan, the spartan pay in a high cost of living city like Chicago made it more and more difficult for her to keep up with daily expenses. She had known for several months that she'd have to make a change. The options were simple: Stay in Chicago and find a better-paying job, or move on to something—and someplace—entirely new. After praying, she'd been leaning toward the latter option. So when Jo's legacy had fallen in her lap, she had seen it almost as divine intervention, a reaffirmation of her decision to pack up and move on. And even if she decided to sell after six months, the legacy would give her a financial cushion to fund whatever direction her life took.
"All right, Ms. Williams. I'll accept your terms. If you could put them in a letter to me, I'd appreciate it."
"You have my word."
"In the business world, it's better to have things in writing."
He could hear anger nipping at the edges of her voice when she spoke. "Fine. I'll put something in the mail today. Would you like it notarized as well?"
He ignored the touch of sarcasm in her tone. "That won't be necessary. When are you planning to come down?"
"I have to close up my apartment and give notice at my job. In a couple of weeks, probably. I'll call ahead to let you know my plans. And feel free to call me in the interim if you need anything."
"I think we'll be just fine."
The words were unspoken. But the implication came through loud and clear.
A.J. was three hours late.
Blake glanced at his watch for the umpteenth time and shook his head in exasperation.
"I'm sure she'll be here soon," Nancy said as she passed by with a stack of books to restock a display. "It's such a nasty day out maybe the weather delayed her."
As if to reinforce her comment, a crash of thunder shook the building.
Blake wasn't buying it. "For three hours? Hardly likely. She probably forgot what time she said she was going to arrive."
Nancy looked at him curiously as she arranged the books. "Boy, you sure formed a strong impression of her from a couple of phone conversations. It's not like you to make snap judgments."
He shrugged stiffly. "Well, let's hope I'm wrong. Look, why don't you head home? I doubt we'll have many customers on a night like this, and I can close up. Besides, didn't you say Eileen wasn't feeling well? I'm sure you'd rather be home with her than holed up here with a grouchy bookseller."
Nancy smiled. "Well, if you're sure, I'll take you up on your offer. She just has a scratchy throat, but after that bout with strep last year I'm extra cautious. Mrs. Cook takes good care of her when I'm gone, but I'd feel better if I could check on her myself."
"Go. And be careful. It's a downpour."
Forty-five minutes later, as he worked on payroll in the back office, he heard the front door open. He glanced at his watch. Quarter to eight. It was either a last-minute customer or his tardy new partner. And he had a feeling he knew which it was. His lips settled into a grim line as he quickly logged off the computer and headed out front.
Blake had no idea what to expect when he stepped into the main room, but the dripping mess that greeted him wasn't it.