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Maggie Arnold felt uneasy about being alone in the old house on Shady Oak Lane, and it wasn't just because her father died here. The rambling old building was full of sheet-draped furniture which hunkered in the shadows.
But it was now or never. She had to push her fears aside and get the project started if she ever wanted to leave this house behind her. She pulled out her phone.
In her haste, Maggie had the call ringing through before she realized she hadn't asked for the name of the handyman whose number her Realtor had given her.
A deep voice answered her call. "Hello?" He sounded strong. Capable. Could she tell that much from one word?
"I'm calling for the handyman," Maggie started, embarrassed that she didn't know his name. "Susan Isakson gave me this number."
"I'll be sure to thank her for the referral. What's the project?" So he was cordial, too.
Maggie's heart gave a little flip, which she told herself was silly. There was no reason for her to get too excited at the sound of a strong man's voice. She just hoped this guy would be able to help her with the house she'd inherited when her father had died a little over two weeks ago.
Otherwise she didn't know where else to turn. "Do you know the old Victorian on Shady Oak Lane?"
The man let out an almost silent groan.
Maggie couldn't stand the idea that she'd lose him so easily. She rushed on. "I know it's a big project, but I'm willing to do a lot of the work myself. If you'd at least come take a look at it, even if you could just do part of it"
"I can stop by this afternoon."
"You can?" Maggie nearly screeched in her relief. None of the other contractors she'd called had even offered to take a look at the house, and she had to have helpsoon.
"Say around four o'clock?"
That was in less than a half hour. "That would be perfect."
"And, let's see " the deep voice paused " you're Maggie Arnold, right?"
"Okay, see you at four, then."
"See you then." Maggie hung up the phone with a breathless goodbye and leaned her elbows back on the staircase where she sat, looking up the wide-open stairwell at the dizzying pattern of exposed stud walls above her, wondering how the handyman knew her name when she didn't even know his.
Oh, he'd probably heard all about her already. After living in Kansas City since she'd graduated from high school, Maggie wasn't used to Holyoake, Iowa, anymore, where the scant five thousand townspeople knew everything about everybody and who was up to what. No doubt rumors were already flying about her return to town and what would become of the house on Shady Oak Lane.
Most people probably figured she wasn't up to the task of fixing it up. She figured they were probably right.
And this handyman guywhatever his name wasfrom his reaction, she could assume he already knew how much trouble the house would be. It was entirely possible he was only stopping by to be nice, and had no real intention of taking on the project. But she had to have his help. Though she'd meant it when she'd said she could help with the work, she didn't know much about constructionjust enough to know she wasn't up to tackling the project alone.
And she'd already been turned down by every other contractor in town. Their excuses echoed through her mind. Too busy. No longer in business. Only new construction. No major renovations. And perhaps the most ominous of all: I wouldn't go near that house for anything.
"Neither would I," Maggie whispered to herself, "if it were only up to me." But she didn't have much choice in the matter. The house needed so much work. She looked around her at the aging plaster and woodwork coated with decades of paint. Her eyes fell on a couple of dead bats in the corner of the foyer. At least, she hoped they were dead.
Closing her eyes to the sight, she pictured instead the faces of children who'd been patients in the pediatric ward at the hospital where she worked in Kansas City. The new children's wing addition would be such a blessing to so many. Once she got the house fixed up enough to sell, she could make a large donation to the project and have one of the rooms named after her father. She'd already listed the other rental houses she'd inherited, but her dad had gutted most of the second floor of the old Victorian, and the Realtor had assured her the only way she'd get any profit from the house would be if she returned it to habitable condition first.
"Dear Lord," Maggie prayed, closing her eyes tight against the sight of the overwhelming amount of work that needed to be done, "help me. Please soften this man's heart so he'll be willing to take on this project." She felt a stab of fear as she wondered why this nameless handyman was able to stop by on such short notice. Why wasn't he busy at four in the afternoon?"And please let him be a good man. I don't need any more problems."
Former Sheriff Gideon Bromley slid the phone back into his pocket and made a face, stomping his foot to let out some of the frustration he felt. Why? Why had he just agreed to take a look at Maggie Arnold's project? He knew better, didn't he? But the lawman inside him just couldn't let a case go unsolvedeven if he no longer had his badge.
Ever since that morning two weeks before when he'd found Glen Arnold lying facedown on the cellar floor of that old Victorian house, things in his own life had quickly careened out of control. Labor Day weekend had been a busy one. While he'd been busy on the job trying to sort out what had happened at the house on Shady Oak Lane, his own brother had been using him to gain access to information on a meth production investigation that had broken wide-open.
Worst of all, his brother, Bruce, had been the person producing the drugs. While Gideon was distracted investigating Glen Arnold's death, Bruce had covered his tracks by framing innocent people for his own illegal activities. And when the DEA swept in, Bruce had tried to pass the guilt onto Gideon.
Gideon had stepped down from his job as sheriff pending a full inquiry into his involvement with his brother's crimes. At this point, he didn't even know what the status was on Glen Arnold's murder investigation. If he was smart, he'd stay away from anything having to do with the case or the crime scene, including staying as far as possible from the house on Shady Oak Lane.
But Maggie Arnold sounded desperate, and his heart went out to her. Besides, he didn't know what else to do with his time while he waited for the verdict to be handed down. He'd come up with the idea of doing handyman work the week before. Even after hanging up posters and running an ad in the local paper, he hadn't found a single person who wanted the suspended sheriff working on their house.
Though their rejection stung, Gideon understood. They felt betrayed at the thought that the official they'd elected had been running illegal drugs right under their noses. Except that he hadn't been running drugs. That was just Bruce's story.
But of course, everyone believed Bruce. Gideon's much older brother had long been one of the most respected men in town, mostly because he owned a transportation company that was one of the biggest employers in the county. Ironically, it seemed the transportation company had been just one more cog in the wheel in Bruce's meth production and distribution ring. And much of Bruce's well-respected wealth had come from drug money. Though Bruce was now behind bars, his influence remained.
Worst of all, Bruce had used his little brother's position as sheriff as an inside means of gathering information so he could stay one step ahead of any investigation that might have uncovered his illegal activities. While Gideon had been at the house on Shady Oak Lane, Bruce had been at the sheriff's station, supposedly waiting to see him, but actually monitoring the progress of the drug investigation.
The old Victorian on Shady Oak Lane had been the wrong place for him to be that weekend. Unfortunately, there was no way he could go back in time and do things differently. All he could do was press on.
As he pulled on his work boots and made sure he had whatever tools he might need, Gideon decided it didn't matter, really, what had happened at that old house, or how his life had been changed by it. Work was work. And he needed something to fill his time before he drove himself crazy with all his regrets.
At the sound of knocking Maggie looked up from the long list she'd been making of things the house needed done. Through the beveled glass door inset she could clearly see a man's broad-shouldered silhouette. He was early. Was that a good sign?
She didn't know, but scrambled to open the door for him. Giving the age-warped door a couple of hard tugs, she finally popped it open, and extended her hand toward the figure on the other side.
Long fingers closed around her proffered hand. "Hi. You called for a handyman?"
The strong voice sounded the same as it had over the phone, but Maggie couldn't see anything of the man's face against the backdrop of bright sunlight as the autumn afternoon sun blazed low in the sky behind him. She fought the urge to immediately pull back from him. It was a simple handshake. Maggie had shaken hands with hundreds of people since she'd been back, between her father's funeral and all the meetings dealing with his estate. So why did this handshake feel so different? His touch sent her heartbeat racing.
Telling herself she was just nervous about his assessment of the overwhelming remodeling project, she pulled her hand away and practically leaped back into the foyer to make room for him to step inside. "Thanks for stopping by. Come on in. Have you ever been in this house before?"
"Uh, yes," the deep voice rumbled. "Yes, actually. Just a couple of weeks ago."
As she closed the door behind him, Maggie blinked back the glaring red that had imprinted on her retinas. She looked up at the man who seemed to fill the large foyer, wishing her vision would clear so she could see his face. Her heart was still hammering inside her, and the way his wide shoulders loomed over her didn't help. Though part of his height could be attributed to his thick-heeled work boots, the man was still close to six feet tallmuch taller than her squat five foot two. And kind of scary since they were alone on the outskirts of town, in the house where her father had died.
Chastising herself for letting her fear get the better of her, she startled as the face above her came into focus. The square chin had a deep cleft in the middle that was mirrored by the ridge between his arched black brows. He had a fierce, hard face. Dark eyes glinted down at her as Maggie recognized the man. A jolt of panic sped through her.
No! She wished she could push him back out of her house, but the door was already closed behind her. Did he still hate her after all these years? Did he still blame her father for what had happened two decades before?
"Gideon." The name dropped from her lips in a lifeless whisper. What was he doing here, anyway? "I thought you were the sheriff." Her eyes narrowed as her fear-frozen brain started working again. But no, she'd heard people talking
"I was. Two weeks ago when I called you with the news about your father, I was the sheriff. I've stepped down pending an investigation into my involvement in a meth production ring that was operating out of Holyoake County."
That was what she'd heard about him. Everyone had been talking about it at the funeral. "Did you do it?" The question escaped before her stunned consciousness could hold it back.
While she watched, Gideon's full lips bent upward in an amused expression, chasing the hardness from his face until he smiled right up to his eyes. A chuckle burst from him, surprising her. "You know, I think you're the first person who's ever actually asked me that. Everyone else just assumed I'm guilty."
Maggie tittered nervously along. The man didn't look quite so intimidating when he smiled, though she could see how he'd make a great lawman. Probably scared the daylights out of the bad guys.
Gideon's laughter faded quickly, and he explained, "Actually, I didn't do any of the things they're accusing me of. I knew there were drugs coming out of this county, but I had no idea my brother was the person behind their production. And to my shame, I was oblivious that he was using me to get the information he needed to make sure his operation went undetected." The smile disappeared, replaced by a much more frightening jaded expression. "Not that my innocence will make one bit of difference against the evidence he's stacked up against me."
"So, you don't think you'll get your job back?" Maggie tried to keep the uneasy shiver out of her voice. She almost succeeded.
"Doubt it. I'll probably go to prison instead." He stepped back and looked around him, obviously done discussing the subject. "Where do you want to start?"
Maggie followed his lead and looked around, feeling lost in the midst of the multitude of projects the house would need to have finished before it could be sold. New plumbing, new walls, new.everything. She gulped.
Gideon spun back around from his survey of the foyer and faced her. "Unless you don't want an accused man working on your house. You can tell me to get lost. I'd understand."
He'd somehow ended up closer to her, and Maggie could see the pain behind his brown-black eyes. Up until she'd recognized him, she'd been praying with all her might the handyman would be willing to work on the house. Now she wasn't sure what she wanted. "You're not just offering that because you don't want the headache of taking on this project, are you?" she asked him directly. "I wouldn't blame you if you didn't want to have anything to do with this place."