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"Taking a break, Mr. Harris?" Annie asked. She was sitting in one of the old Adirondacks that had been in this yard for as long as he could remember, steam rising from her teacup into the cool morning air.
"That's one of the best things about working at home. I can take a break whenever I want." The best part, though, was being his own boss instead of one of his father's employees.
"Daddy! I playing with Hawshey!"
"I am playing with Hershey," he said.
"Sam-I-am/" His son shouted the name from his favorite book, then stopped running and flung himself on the grass, laughing and shrieking when the puppy pounced on him.
"William! Don't let that creature lick your face."
Annie's reprimand was firm but gentle. "You've seen what else he licks. For goodness' sake, think of the germs!"
AJ sat in the chair next to hers and set his cup on the arm. The boy and his dog were up and running again and the sound of Will's laughter lightened AJ's mood in a way nothing else could.
"I appreciate you bringing them out here to play," he said. "I would have taken them to the park like I usually do, but the real estate people will be here any minute."
"A little fresh air never hurt an old lady like me, either, and it's a nice day for late November." Annie sipped her tea. "I'll miss this old place."
So would he. His earliest and certainly happiest memories were of times spent here. He hated having to sell the house, but it was the best option. Hell, it was his only option. Grandmother Harris was gone, his only other family ties in Seattle were his parents, and they hadn't spoken to him since the day he'd brought his son home from the hospital. And for the past three years he'd felt as though he was holding his breath and hoping his past didn't catch up to him.
He was looking forward to a fresh start, and for that he needed the money from this inheritance. He and his son would build a new life in Idaho, in a community where being "a Harris" meant nothing. Where there was no possibility of running into his family, and no possibility of a chance encounter with the woman who had selfishly abandoned their son.
His main reason for leaving the city, though, was William. The little boy had recently taken an interest in mothers from a story they'd read. In a few years he would start asking about his mother, maybe even wanting to see her. Best to leave now, before Will was old enough to wonder about the woman who had brought him into the world, before his early childhood in Seattle became fixed in his memory. When he finally did ask, AJ had no idea what he would tell him, but that day was a long way off. At least he hoped it was. He swore it would be the only time he would ever lie to his son, but he would have to. No child needed to know that his own mother hadn't wanted him.
He and Will would miss Annie Dobson, too, but she had no desire to move to a cabin on the outskirts of a small town in Idaho, and who could blame her? Besides, it was probably time she thought about retirement.
The doorbell's four chimes, one slightly off-key, pulled his attention back to the present.
"I'll keep young William and the puppy out here so they're not underfoot," Annie said.
"Thanks. I appreciate that. When this meeting is over, I'll take them off your hands for a while."
This real estate company had been referred to him by a magazine editor who'd bought a couple of freelance articles from him last month. He'd met with a Ms. DeAngelo earlier in the week, had been impressed with her businesslike efficiency and had signed the contract and hired her on the spot. This morning she was bringing her "team of professionals" from Ready Set Sold to inspect the house. His grandmother's century-old craftsman home was situated in Seattle's fashionable Queen Anne neighborhood overlooking Lake Union, but after years of neglect that's all it had going for it. Ms. DeAngelo—he couldn't remember her first name—had assured him her company would make the necessary upgrades and repairs, and "stage the house for today's market." They would even help him figure out what to do with his grandmother's personal belongings.
Inside the kitchen, he closed the creaky French doors and walked through the dining room and living room, past many decades' worth of furniture and bric-a-brac—some antique and some not so antique—and into the foyer. He opened the door and slammed headlong into his past.
Samantha Elliott, Will's mother, the one woman whose betrayal he would never forget, or forgive, stood on the veranda. A multitude of emotions tore through him. Resentment, distrust, disgust, but in the end fear won out. The deadweight of it actually squeezed the air out of his lungs. For the past three years he'd lived under a dark cloud, determined to keep his secret. Why, when he was so close to escaping Seattle and his past, did some Machiavellian twist of fate have to deliver up the one person who had the power to take it all away?
"AJ?" The surprise in her voice matched his. She stepped back, checked the numbers above the door and consulted the clipboard she was carrying.
Was it possible she was at the wrong house? That perhaps the Fates were merely playing a devious practical joke?
"Sam." He immediately regretted saying her name out loud. It made her being there a reality when he desperately wanted it to be a trick of his imagination. "What do you want?" He hated to ask but had to know.
She handed him a business card.
Selling your home?
Looking to get top dollar in today's competitive real estate market?
Call Samantha Elliott at READY SET SOLD M
The card was identical to the one Ms. DeAngelo had given him, except for where it said Call Samantha Elliott.
"I'm one of the owners of Ready Set Sold. We've been hired to get this house ready to sell. Is this…?" Her voice trailed off the way it often had, leaving her thoughts unspoken.
His fear downgraded to anxiety. She didn't know his secret. That's not why she was here. "It's my grandmother's house. It was. She left it to me."
"Oh. I'm sorry. About your grandmother, I mean. Not the house." She glanced back at the street, then at her watch. "Um…I'm meeting my business partners here. I guess I'm early. I can wait…" A car door slammed and Sam looked relieved. "Oh, good. Here's Claire."
Right. Claire. The woman he'd met earlier in the week walked briskly up the front sidewalk and climbed the stairs, confident in spite of her high heels. Sam, he noticed, was wearing work boots. Toes reinforced with steel, no doubt. Just like her heart.
Claire extended her hand. "Mr. Harris. Hello. Nice to see you again. I see you've already met our carpenter, Samantha Elliott. Kristi Callahan, our interior decorator, should be here any minute."
He accepted her handshake. "Please, call me AJ. Mr. Harris is my father."
Sam's blue eyes went icy at the mention of the old man. He couldn't fault her for that.
An old white minivan in desperate need of a muffler pulled up and sputtered to a stop behind the dark blue truck and the silver-gray sedan already parked in front of the house. All three vehicles had the Ready Set Sold logo on their doors.
The third woman joined them, and Claire introduced her. "AJ Harris, this is Kristi Callahan, decorator extraordinaire."
AJ was suddenly overwhelmed with a feeling of being…overwhelmed. This was a bad idea. A very bad one. Not in a million years would he have hired this company if he'd known Sam was one of the owners. He should have done his homework, checked out their website, something. Instead he had been swayed by Claire DeAngelo's no-nonsense approach and businesslike demeanor. Her company would take care of everything and he would walk away with enough cash for him and his son to start a new life, well away from the woman who had just barged into his old one.
"We'll do a walk-through this morning," Claire said. "After we've done the inspection, we'll prepare a list of the repairs and upgrades needed and come up with a design plan for staging the house."
It all sounded so easy, except he knew now those repairs would be done by Sam.
"Should we get started?" Claire asked.
He looked at Sam again and felt himself drawn into her soft, doe-eyed gaze. She was beautiful and he hated her for it. He wanted to say no, he'd changed his mind and would come up with another plan for selling the house, yet his latent curiosity wanted to keep her here. Find out if maybe she had changed. It was foolhardy and dangerous, but he hadn't felt this alive since the last time he'd been with her.
He stepped aside, allowing the three women into his home and Samantha Elliott back into his life.
Samantha reluctantly followed her two business partners inside. She really needed to pay more attention to the business end of the company. If she had, she would have known they'd been hired by Andrew James Harris of the Seattle Harris family, and she could have put a stop to it before he signed the contract. The last time she'd worked for him had not ended well, and this new undertaking had disaster written all over it.
Still, she assured herself, the past was the past and there was no way AJ could discover the secret she'd buried with it. The only other person who knew the truth was her mother, and anyone acquainted with Tildy Elliott would never believe the story. They would assume it was simply one of the many delusions that governed Tildy's life.
You'll be okay, Sam told herself. Besides, Claire and Kristi always had her back. If the situation got out of hand, she'd convince them to hire another carpenter for this job. That meant she'd have to tell them about her ill-fated affair with AJ Harris, but she wouldn't have to tell them everything.
Now, with AJ within arm's reach and as unattainable as ever, she was still struggling to overcome the shock of having him open the door. Three years ago she had been desperately in love with him, thought they were perfect together. Her sorry excuse for a life had made it easy to relate to his tall, dark and tortured disposition. What little they had shared about their pasts had forged a deep, emotional connection between them…or so she'd thought at the time. But he was A J Harris of the Seattle Harrises and she was Samantha Nobody. A reality his father had zeroed in on in the cruelest way possible and one that AJ had agreed with, leaving her to cope with the aftermath of their affair…alone.
"Let's start right here in the foyer," Claire said. "The millwork is in unbelievably good condition and it's never been painted. The whole house is like this, right?"
"What do you think, Kristi? I know the current trend is to paint the trim, but the natural wood suits this old craftsman architecture."
Kristi, camera in hand, was already taking photographs. "I agree. Once the wallpaper's been stripped and we give the walls a fresh coat of paint—I'm seeing ivory or off-white—this room will feel brighter and more spacious. I love this old oak hall tree, too. It should stay but we'll get rid of a lot of the clutter and replace all these scatter mats with a runner." She lowered her camera for a moment. "I love this banister. With the holidays coming, I'll stage the house for Christmas." She looped the camera strap around her neck and made a wide, sweeping gesture at the staircase. "Faux greenery, big red velvet bows—it'll be stunning."
"Great idea. What are your thoughts, Sam?"
Sam thought she should make a run for it. Clearly not what Claire had in mind. And as for Christmas…bah humbug. "Taking down the wallpaper will be easy, and I can install a new light fixture, too. This one isn't original and really doesn't suit the house."
AJ, who stood with both hands shoved in the pockets of his black jeans, looked up at the ceiling and studied the out-of-place pendant as though seeing it for the first time. Then he looked at Sam. Their gazes locked and held, and a rush of long-dormant lust uncoiled in her belly.
This was not good.