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Hailey Wright hadn't stepped foot on the McKenna Ridge property since she'd been a teenager. She and Grania McKenna had been inseparable until the family had moved to Chicago and rented out the place for nearly a decade. Too bad her old friend wouldn't be here tonight—Hailey would have loved to have seen her again, but apparently Grania had a prior engagement back in Chicago. Even though Hailey recognized a lot of the people who were present because they were residents of three of the Wisconsin Geneva Lake towns— Lake Geneva, Williams Bay and Fontana—and some of them were past clients, she didn't travel in their social circles.
Hailey was here only because Bryce McKenna had a potential client for her.
"Hailey," a lovely older woman with spiked silver hair and wearing bloodred ruby earrings that set off her red-and-silver designer dress said, "it's so good to see you again. I keep telling everyone I meet if they want the best real estate agent in the area, they should see you.
"Thank you, Mattie."
Mattie Sorenson had once been her boss.
"Nothing to thank me for. You are magic—the best employee I ever had." The woman's expression turned concerned and she lowered her voice. "The McKennas aren't thinking of selling, are they?"
"Not as far as I know."
The potential new client was her main reason for accepting the invitation, but she would work the crowd, see who else she might be able to interest. With the bad economy adding to her worries about and loans to her always-in-trouble brother Danny, not to mention her recent breakup with her faithless boyfriend, Stuart, Hailey had been struggling to stay afloat.
The "magic," as Mattie liked to call it, had abandoned her.
She couldn't give up. She wouldn't. As she walked through the crowd, she plastered a smile to her lips and was grateful to be here. She didn't know Bryce McKenna well enough to call him a friend, but she was thankful he'd thought of her when an acquaintance had needed a real estate agent.
Looking around for Bryce, Hailey took a deep breath. He was nowhere in sight, but of course he was here somewhere.
McKenna Ridge sat on a high bluff overlooking Geneva Lake. It was quite a distance down to the water and the landscaper had cleverly incorporated a walkway that snaked back and forth, with sitting areas at each curve, ending at the dock where two speedboats were moored. The small patios were bursting with people
and with waitstaff passing out appetizers and wine. Bordering the house, a large flagstone patio around a wave pool was filled with tables covered with white cloths and decorated with lit candles and flowers. At the far end of the property, the caterers were attending to a buffet, adding platters of meat that came from the adjoining grills.
Because Bryce was nowhere in sight, Hailey was trying to decide whom to approach first when her cell phone rang. She slipped the unit from her pocket and saw that the call came from her brother Danny. A knot immediately formed in her stomach as she rushed toward an isolated patio at the side of the house, the entry protected by a couple of big evergreens and an eight-foot limelight hydrangea.
Once she was certain no one could overhear, she connected. "Danny, I'm at a party—"
"Yeah, sorry to interrupt your good time but this is really, really important."
Closing her eyes, she bit back what she wanted to say, that this party might be the most important event of her professional life. "What is it?"
"I hate to ask you again, but…I need money."
Of course he did. Lately that's all he seemed to need from her.
The sounds of the party—of laughter—receded, leaving her far from the festivities in what felt like a fog of memory. Her father abandoning them when they were kids and their mom remarrying and leaving town with her new husband. Hailey had been barely fifteen and a sophomore in high school. Danny had been nineteen.
Mom had made it very clear that her husband would prefer not to have her grown children move with them. A hurt and angry Danny had said he would take care of his sister, and he'd done his level best back then. But the last couple of years, she'd been trying to return the favor.
Her giving Danny money simply wasn't enough, but Hailey was at a loss as to what more she could do for her brother.
"Danny, you need help."
"Why do you think I'm calling you?"
"I mean professional help. A counselor. Gamblers Anonymous."
"C'mon, Hailey, I'm not an addict. And Lady Luck used to be with me. I've just had a hard time trying to get a job lately, so I tried to make money a different way. The economy sucks."
"Lately" for Danny had begun far before the market crash, before businesses started closing or laying off employees. Truthfully her brother had never had a job that he'd held for more than a year. Hailey knew he'd started gambling when she was still in high school, when money had been tight, when he hadn't been able to pay their bills, hadn't been able to afford to buy her a new dress for her prom. Lady Luck had been with him for a while then. He'd gotten cocky, had expected to win, but she'd deserted him long ago. Lately he'd taken his losses to a new level.
"Are you going to help me or not?" he asked. "I'm not going to gamble any more, I promise."
She couldn't stand the note of fear in his voice. Couldn't stand to let him down. Still.
"Danny, that's what you said the last time."
"But this time I mean it. Honest, Hailey, I've learned my lesson. Please…"
She couldn't stand hearing him beg. "How much do you need?"
"It's a lot, Hailey. I'm really, really sorry."
The last time it had been twenty-six thousand. Seventeen the time before that. Those "loans" had not only drained her savings but capital from her business. She might be able to get her hands on a few thousand, but that was it.
Her chest tightened. "How much, Danny?"
Silence. Then he said, "A hundred."
"Dollars?" she asked hopefully.
Stunned, Hailey sank down onto a retaining wall of a nearby flower bed. "Danny, I don't have that kind of money."
"But you can get it, right? I don't know what else to do, sis. I already went to a loan shark. It's him I have to pay back. I don't have anyone else to go to. You have to be able to get it."
"What about a business loan?"
She'd already taken a loan and had given him most of the money. "Not possible."
It didn't take him long to counter, "Well…you could put a second mortgage on your house."
She couldn't believe what he was asking her to do.
Not that she had a hundred grand in equity on the house anyway. It was still worth less than when she'd bought it when real estate prices were at their peak.
"Danny, I think you'd better come home so we can talk this thing out."
"There's nothing to talk about. Either I get my hands on that money within the week.or."
"I'm a dead man."
Strolling up the walkway, stopping every so often to introduce James Croft to other guests, Bryce McKenna couldn't forget exactly how important the man was to him, the reason he'd given this shindig. McKenna Development needed an influx of money for its next big project—a building conversion in a popular area on the north side of Chicago. Croft had wanted introductions to the movers and shakers in the Lake Geneva area, so Bryce had thrown this party to impress him.
"What do you think?" Bryce asked Croft. "Is Lake Geneva everything you imagined it would be?"
The Chicago elite had been making this area, a comfortable driving distance from the big city, their second home for more than a century. Properties on Geneva Lake itself were rarely simple homes. Far more were mansions, and some were grand estates.
"So far I'm mesmerized," Croft said. His dark eyes deep set in a narrow, angled face, sparkled. "I can see having a second family home here—a place for the kids to have great summer memories. Glad you took me up on my suggestion that you bring me up here for
the weekend. So where is that real estate agent you promised me? I'm eager to start looking at properties, tomorrow, if possible."
"What about Leora?" Bryce had invited Croft's wife, but Croft said the kids had too many planned activities this weekend and Leora had to drive them everywhere.
"Leora leaves the big decisions to me."
A statement that didn't surprise Bryce considering how conservative the man was proving to be. Apparently he was also controlling, or he could have found someone else to see to the kids for a couple of days.
Bryce swept his gaze along the upper level near the wave pool where guests were already gathering at the buffet. "I don't see Hailey, but I'm sure she's here somewhere."
"Why don't you see if you can find her?" Croft suggested, swiping a glass of champagne off a waiter's tray and turning to stare straight across the lake at the estates on the other side. "I can amuse myself for a while."
A breeze ruffled his dark hair, cut by a single silver streak at the temple that made him look older than Bryce, although Croft was actually a couple of years younger.
"Fine," Bryce said, clapping Croft's shoulder. "And maybe we can talk business in the morning."
The man was already intent on something in the distance and didn't seem to register what Bryce was saying. But Croft's mind was working. Bryce had the dubious McKenna ability of being able to "hear" what people were thinking when they were off guard. Croft already had consumed several glasses of champagne.
Maybe McKenna Development is in trouble because of Bryce's reckless lifestyle. Swinging bachelors don't have the same sense of responsibility that married men do—look at what he spent on this party just to impress me. Now if he had a wife and family, it would be a different matter. He 'd have to be responsible and I wouldn't hesitate to sign on the dotted line.
Someone stopped to talk to Croft and his thoughts faded away. But Bryce got the message loud and clear. Croft didn't trust him because he wasn't a family man. Croft had no idea of how much family meant to Bryce. And he had no idea of why Bryce had never married— Sheelin O'Keefe's prophecy had come true far too many times, including with Bryce's own mother.
Off in search of Hailey, Bryce couldn't help but think that the family company was at risk because of an employee's bad decisions. But this deal could give them the new start they needed to survive. His plan was to combine two Chicago manufacturing buildings in the Lakeview area into a huge condominium complex. Despite the economy, the neighborhood continued to be hot and properties continued to sell. The problem was that, at the moment, McKenna Development couldn't get the kind of loan necessary to implement his plan. Becoming partners on this project with the uber-wealthy, ultraconservative James Croft could keep his company from bankruptcy, Bryce thought.
But how to get past Croft's objection that he needed a wife?
Not at all a welcome thought to a man under a curse. He would never put a woman he loved in jeopardy.
Spotting Mattie Sorenson helping herself to an appetizer from a waiter's tray, he joined her. "Mattie, don't you look gorgeous. Every time I see you, you're more beautiful than before."
The good-humored Mattie laughed. "And you keep getting more charming." She gave him an amused if suspicious expression. "What is it you need, Bryce
"I'm looking for Hailey Wright. I thought you might have seen her."
"She said you had a potential new client for her."
He nodded and turned to indicate Croft who still stood on a lower level, alone once more, staring off into the distance. "My guest and hopefully new business partner, James Croft."
"Well, I hope it works out for her. She's an angel in need of a backer right now."
Something else he and Hailey had in common. They'd both grown up in this area and had a loyalty to it that came from sheer love of the place.
"I hope it works out for both our sakes," Bryce said.
"The last I saw of her, she went in that direction," Mattie said, waving toward the wave pool.
"Thanks. I'll find her."
He took off again. Hailey had been best friends with his younger sister Grania, so growing up, she'd spent a lot of time in this house. One of the places the girls had loved to hide out was in the little patio off the den. There was a passageway directly next to the pool. Bryce made straight for it.
But when he got to the entrance, he hesitated. He
heard a ragged sob and was certain it was Hailey. Now what? She sniffed and hiccupped and sounded as if she was trying to get herself under control. And then she started crying again.
Realizing it must be serious, Bryce couldn't stand to let a childhood friend suffer without trying to help. He crossed into Hailey's sanctuary and saw her sitting on a retaining wall, huddled and looking utterly devastated.
"Hey, what can I do to help?"
Hailey jerked and looked up at him, a strand of her long pale blond hair falling over wide blue eyes, the whites red from crying. Her small nose was red, too, and her full lips were trembling. Bryce pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and held it out as he took a seat next to her on the wall, careful not to sit on the skirt of her dress, an elegant pale blue number that molded her curves and flared out from her hips. Seeming reluctant, she nevertheless took the handkerchief from him and dabbed at her eyes and her nose.
"S-sorry," she said. "I—I'll be all right in a minute."
"Why do I doubt that?"
"No, really. I just got some bad news is all."
Reaching out, he turned her face toward his and looked into her worried eyes and pinched expression that told him that whatever it was, it was serious. "Anything I can do?"
For a moment, her expression softened into hopeful. Then she blinked and shook her head. "No, not your problem. I'll work it out somehow."
"No, really, I should meet your guest."