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"I don't want to talk to her." Luke moved his cell phone to his other ear as he stopped his truck in front of the derelict house. "Just transfer the money into her account like you always do."
Through the open window of his truck, he heard the sounds of saws screaming from inside the house, his most recent investment, hammers pounding and money being made.
"She really wants to see you." Uncle Chuck, his account manager, could be persistent when he thought Luke should do what he wanted. But Luke had lived around Uncle Chuck and his foster father, Al, long enough to pick up some of their quirks.
"You know, Uncle Chuck, when you see a dog and each time you try to pet it, it bites you, how quick are you going to be to pet it again?"
"But she says she's changed."
"Like all the other times she's changed. Sorry, Uncle Chuck. Not happening and that topic is now closed." Luke reached across the cab of the truck and pulled over a new cost estimate he had gotten from the foreman of the crew. "I'm gonna need more money in the building account. Push a few thousand in there, as well."
"Moving it as we speak. Are things going okay at the house?"
"I've had to move my trailer here until the job is done. So up to now, no, not going so good."
One of the construction workers sauntered down the ramp out the front door, his yellow hard hat askew on his head, a cigarette dangling from indifferent lips. He paused as he took a few more puffs before flicking the cigarette onto the lawn. He snagged a couple of two-by-fours, laid them on his shoulder and carted them back in. He could have easily brought in triple that.
"Efficiency is a problem. I'm sure I can get things going back on track ifI'm physically here," Luke said, pulling out his metal clipboard. Then he jumped as a cold, wet nose was shoved in the back of his neck.
Cooper, his golden lab, heaved a canine sigh and laid his head on Luke's shoulder, expressing his frustration with the current level of inactivity. He'd been cooped up in the back of Luke's truck for the five-hour drive from Calgary north to the town of Riverbend.
At first Luke had toyed with the idea of putting Cooper in the holiday trailer he was pulling behind the truck, his temporary office and residence while he was supervising this house reno, but Cooper would get bored, and when he was bored he chewed. Anything. Pillows. Telephones. Cushions. Curtains. Any of the dozens of books Luke always took with him. If Cooper could get his mouth around it, he would chew it. So Cooper had spent the entire drive with his head hanging over the seat with expectant optimism.
"I really don't think you need to worry. You'll do okay," Chuck assured him, his voice turning crackly as the reception grew worse. "Have you thought of keeping this one for yourself? From the pictures you sent me, it has lots of potential."
Luke gave a short laugh as he got out of the truck to improve the reception. "This house is way too big for a bachelor. And the yard would take too much upkeep."
As he spoke, his gaze shifted to the yard next door. Grass so green it made his eyes hurt, a veranda holding chairs with fat, welcoming cushions.
And pots of flowers everywhere. Hanging from the sagging veranda roof, lined up on the crooked steps and at the end of a cracked and broken sidewalk.
The flowers seemed a valiant effort at hiding the broken-down condition of the house.
When he bought his current project a couple weeks ago, the Realtor had helpfully told him that the widow next door was young and had three children. As if this was all the information he needed to seal the deal.
"One of these days you're going to find someone," Gary had said in that avuncular way that could either set Luke's teeth on edge or make him smile.
Today he was feeling out of sorts. When he was done with this house it would be the fifth house he had rehabbed in the past three years. It would be the fifth time he put all his energy, imagination and personality into a house, only to turn around and let someone else settle into the home he had worked so hard to create. Truth be told, he was getting tired of the work. Getting tired of his life. Sure he wanted to settle down, and once upon a time, in a rosy and perfect past, he would have.
But Jocelyn kept putting off the wedding date, and after the fourth time, Luke gave her an ultimatum.
The next day he sold the house they had bought and since then, he had owned lots of houses but never had a home.
"You're my account manager, Chuck, not my personal adviser," Luke grumbled, shoving his hand through his hair.
He needed a haircut. It seemed he always needed a haircut. And a shave. Just too busy to keep up the appearances. No wonder he was still single.
"I'm also your uncle. And ever since Al died, I'm allowed to take over his father role."
Chuck's quick claim on Luke made him smile. From the day Luke had come to Al's home as a surly twelve-year-old foster child, Al's brother, Chuck, had insisted Luke call him Uncle.
"I don't need a father anymore, Chuck," Luke said.
"Everyone needs a father. I still miss my father. Especially now with Al gone."
"How are you doing?" Luke asked, leaning against the warm hood of the truck, his gaze alternating between his money pit and the house beside it.
Three kids and a widow.
"I'm okay. Sure, I miss my brother, but I'm more worried about you. You didn't stick around very long after the funeral."
Guilt settled around Luke like a dark cloud. "I know. I'm sorry. It's just " his voice petered out.
"Okay. I won't push. But you make sure when you're done with that house up in the wilds of Northern Alberta that you come down to Victoria and see me and your Aunt Rose."
"And as for Lillian?"
"Uncle Chuck, don't push. And don't tell her where I live."
The pause in the conversation told him this warning had come too late.
"I'm sorry. I thought I was helping."
"Maybe she'll just hit a bar and forget what you told her. But I gotta go. Take care, and I'll call you in a couple of days."
Luke said goodbye, then snapped his phone shut and slipped it in his pocket.
A whine from the truck shifted his attention from the past to the present. He should take Cooper for a walk. The poor dog had been patient the long drive up. Maybe he could put him in the backyard.
He walked across the overgrown, patchy lawn, the line of demarcation between his and the neighbor's lawn a stubby hedge leading to a rickety fence separating the backyards. A perfect before and after image, Luke thought. Green and lush on one side, and decidedly otherwise on his side.
The worn fence listed to one side.
The yard was in even worse shape than the house. Paint cans were piled in a tumbled heap against the fence. Discarded bicycle bodies lay rusted on the overgrown grass beside endless stacks of misshapen cardboard boxes. The only thing missing was a car jacked up on blocks.
He thought the crew might have done some cleaning up, but no.
Luke glanced from the decrepit yard to the house. Gary had been right about the place's promise. The huge yard, the corner lot, the older house with its gabled dormers and bay windows, all created potential curb appeal.
It would make a great family home, Luke thought with a touch of wistfulness. All it needed was a major cash input and, well, a family.
The money Luke had. The soft drink franchise he and his foster father, Al, had run had done okay. And when Al died, Luke sold the business. He'd never had a heart for it, so he turned his attention to real estate. He had enough money to move quickly on old houses, hire the right crews and wait until the market grew favorable to sell them.
Money wasn't the problem.
But family? Somehow, money couldn't solve that particular problem.
Luke turned back to the yard, imagining away the junk, the overgrown grass and picturing children in the yard, a wife sitting in a chair. His dog snoozing in the sun.
The perfect suburban family.
The family he thought he'd have a good start on by now.
A flash of color from the other yard distracted him from his internal grumbling. A little girl was tossing a stuffed bear into the air, her brown curls bouncing and bobbling as she picked it up and threw it again. A little boy sat on the steps overlooking the yard, bent over a book.
"C'mon, Todd," the little girl said. "Come and play with me and Berry Bear."
"I want to finish this chapter before Mom comes," Todd replied.
A memory teased Luke's consciousness as he watched the boy. Himself at exactly the same age doing exactly the same thing. Only no younger sister nagged at him to come and play. No mother was expected home any minute. He read because in the stories he immersed himself in, things always turned out okay by the end. Reading was his escape from the empty mobile home and the ever-present fear that his mom might not come home that night.
Go play with your sister, Luke silently urged the boy. You don't know how lucky you are.
Cooper's bark broke into his memories. Luke pushed himself away from the fence as Cooper barked again. He had to take the dog out of the truck.
As he turned, a woman pulled up behind his trailer and got out of the car.
The widow, he presumed.
She was younger than he had imagined. Slimmer. Dark hair pulled back under a bandanna, dark eyebrows that winged upward enhancing her eyes. She had a droop to her shoulders, but then she stopped at the end of the sidewalk and a gentle smile eased across her lips. She bent over the flowerpots, picked a wilted blossom out of it and her eyes seemed to brighten.
Luke was still watching her as he walked to his truck and opened the door for his dog.
Seeing his moment of freedom, Cooper bolted past him, almost knocking him over.
Luke caught himself on the edge of the door, regaining his balance and watched with the horror of inevitability as his Cooper streaked down the sidewalk, all legs and flapping ears and lolling tongue.
"Cooper. Come back here now," he yelled, as if what he said penetrated the gray matter that was his dog's brain.
Cooper was out, and he was in a new place full of new smells and new things to see. His master was, for the moment, invisible.
"Cooper. Heel," Luke shouted, charging around the front of the truck.
Cooper stopped, and for a brief moment Luke thought all those dog obedience classes might have sunk in.
But the woman bending over the flowerpots had caught his attention. A potential playmate. And with one burst of exuberant energy, Cooper jumped on top of her just as he always did to Luke.
Only, this woman wasn't as big as Luke and she went down like a rock, taking the flowerpots with her.
The woman managed to push Cooper off her and scrambled to her feet just as Luke ran up. Cooper cavorted on the lawn in front of her, ready to play.
"Sit, you dumb mongrel," she snapped.
Cooper tilted his head, as if studying her.
"I said sit." She sounded really ticked now.
And to Luke's surprise, Cooper did. Right on the flowers that had spilled out of the pot, effectively squashing them.
"I don't believe this," she said, turning her startlingly blue eyes to him as he grabbed Cooper's collar. "This is like a nightmare."
Even though her mouth was pulled tight with disapproval, she couldn't hide the fullness of her lips or the delicate tilt of her cheekbones. He couldn't rightly say she was cute when she was angry, but he wanted her to smile again like she was when she had walked up the sidewalk.
Of course, he wasn't going to be the recipient of that happy occasion anytime soon, judging from the depth of her frown or the way her hands were clenched into tight fists.
"Sorry about that," Luke said, trying to sound apologetic without sounding obsequious.
"Could you please get your dog to get off my flowers?"
"Of course." He didn't apologize this time. That was getting old, and more apologies wouldn't change the destruction his dog had created. "I own the house next door," he said, trying to make conversation to bridge the awkwardness between them. "My name is Luke. Luke Harris."
"Janie Corbett," she said in a clipped voice, still glaring at Cooper, who was staring at her.
"I'll pay for whatever damage he's done."
"That's not necessary," Janie Corbett said. "And besides, these plants can't be replaced. They're very unusual."
"How unusual can flowers be?" Luke couldn't understand what she was talking about. Flowers were flowers, right? You buy some more, stick them in the pots and you're done.
"I started them myself from seed," she said bending over to salvage what she could from the mess Cooper had made. "And your dumb dog just ruined five months of work. Five months I can't reproduce."
Was that a hitch in her voice? Was she really that upset over a few lousy flowers?
Then the door to the house slammed open and the little girl with the brown curly hair bounced onto the deck, clutching her bear.
"Mommy. You're home," she called.
Distracted by this new person, Cooper leaped to his feet, barking and tugging on the collar.
"Luke, hang on to that dog," Janie cried out.
"Mommy. The dog."
Autumn's frightened voice caught Janie's attention and, it seemed, that ludicrous dog's. He barked again and took a step away from his owner, his focus on her daughter standing on the porch.
"Hold on to him," she shouted at Luke. It couldn't happen again. Please not again.
"Mommy." Autumn's voice grew panicky as the dog responded to her cry with unrestrained gusto.
Janie watched the creature pull free then rush toward Autumn, who had dropped her bear and now stood frozen on the porch.
"Cooper. Down. Now," Luke yelled in a feeble last-ditch effort.
Autumn's hands were pressed against her eyes, as if bracing herself for what might happen. Again.
But the dog came to a halt, then dropped to a squat on the sidewalk below Autumn, head cocked to one side.
"Luke, if that dog hurts her " Janie couldn't finish the sentence; her voice was trembling too hard.
"I think he's okay," Luke said, edging closer to him.