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Amy Parker slowed her steps as she approached the Grand Picture Theatre. The setting sun painted the old cinema's crumbling white Spanish Mission facade pink and apricot, and for a moment—if she squinted and really used her imagination—she could picture the Grand as it had once been: elegant, beautiful, a testament to a bygone era.
Four more days.
Then the sale contract would be signed off and the Grand would be hers and she could start making the image in her mind a reality.
Amy stepped closer to the double glass doors at the entrance. The front windows had been covered with newspaper for years, but a section on the right door had peeled away. She stood on her toes and shaded her eyes with her hands so she could see through the gap. Inside, the marble parquet tiles were dull with dirt and grime while crumpled newspaper, old boxes and dust balls dotted the floor. The once stunning concession stand was scarred with age, the mirrors behind it tarnished and chipped. It would take weeks to set things right in there. And the foyer was the least of her problems. Way down on her To Do list.
The roof needed fixing, the stucco on the facade had to be renewed. The plumbing was shot and the whole of the interior smelled of damp and mold. She had her work cut out for her, that was for sure.
She smiled. She couldn't freaking wait.
"Amy. There you are. I tried you at the store but your mother said you'd left already."
It was Reg Hanover, council chairman. Even though he was wearing yet another of his truly hideous ties, she beamed at him. On Friday, this portly middle-aged man and his fellow council members would be signing over the Grand to her in exchange for her hard-won savings and a sizable bank loan. Right now, she loved him, ugly tie and all.
"Reg. Hey there. I was just drooling," she said. "Prematurely, I know. But I couldn't help myself."
Reg's face was pink from the walk from her parents' hardware store.
"Yes. Well. About that." He cleared his throat and smoothed a hand down his tie. This one was beige, with a picture of a black horse rearing on it. Really bad, even for Reg.
She shifted her attention to his face. There was something about the way he couldn't quite make himself meet her eyes. And the way he kept swallowing nervously.
"Is there some kind of problem?"
"Amy, there's no point in beating around the bush. I'm just going to say it—we've had another offer. And we're going to take it."
Amy blinked a few times, trying to make sense of his words. "I don't understand."
"Ulrich Construction has come in with a last-minute offer. The council needs to think of the whole community, and we believe this is the best outcome for everyone."
He sounded stiff, as though he'd been rehearsing his speech in his mind.
"But we had a deal. A contract."
"No, Amy, we had a conversation. A conversation is not legally binding."
She gaped. She couldn't believe he was being so slippery.
"We negotiated a contract, Reg. I have a copy at home. You were going to sign it at this week's meeting."
"I'm sorry, but we had a better deal come in, and we took it. I know you're disappointed, but that's the way these things go."
He checked his watch then glanced up the street, as though he had better things to do than break her heart.
"Have you signed off on the deal yet?" she asked.
"No, but we will on Friday."
"I want to talk to the other councillors," she said, crossing her arms over her chest and lifting her chin.
"Fine. They'll all be at the meeting. Members of the public are welcome."
Members of the public? Yesterday the council had been ready to sign over ownership of the Grand to her and today she was a member of the public?
She was still trying to find something to say that didn't contain the words sneaky rat fink when Reg reached out and patted her arm.
"It's probably for the best. It was unlikely you were ever going to be able to restore this big old place on your own, anyway."
He walked away. Amy stared at his retreating back. She was at a loss as to how to respond, how to feel, what to think.
For more than ten years she'd lived and breathed the dream of buying the old theatre that her great-grandfather had built. She'd lain awake on more nights than she could count regilding the decorative moldings in her mind, reupholstering the sectional seating, polishing the floors, imagining how glorious it could all be if she could only scrape together the money to purchase the theatre from the local council.
She'd invested the small legacy her grandparents had left her and saved her wages from working in her parents' hardware store and taken any extra work that had come her way, planning for the day when she'd have enough for a deposit.
And finally she'd made it. At least she'd thought she had.
The shock was beginning to wear off. She didn't understand how another offer could come out of the blue. The Grand had been an eyesore on the main street of the small Victoria, Australia town of Daylesford for years. It had ceased operating as a cinema in the eighties and had been empty for a long time, ever since the antiques dealer who'd been renting the space had found better premises. No one except Amy had seemed to give a toss about the old place. And yet suddenly the Grand was a hot ticket?
She needed to know more. She pulled out her cell phone and dialed her friend Denise, who worked at the municipal office. If anyone knew the details of this other offer, it would be her.
"'Nise, it's me. I need some inside info. But only if it won't get you in trouble."
"Fire away. I'm all yours, babe," Denise said.
"Ulrich Construction has put in a last-minute bid on the Grand. I need to know what their prop says."
"But the Grand is yours! I typed up your contract myself."
"It's not signed yet, 'Nise."
"Oh. Crap. The meeting's this week, isn't it? Give me five minutes, I'll call you back."
Amy paced in front of the Grand while she waited, arms crossed over her chest. It was late April and it was getting darker and colder by the minute, but she didn't care. She wasn't leaving this spot until she knew for sure what was going on. That her dream really was over.
Seven minutes later, her phone rang. It was Denise, and when she told Amy what she'd discovered, Amy literally felt dizzy with shock.
Ulrich Construction wanted to buy the Grand and knock down everything but the facade, replacing it with a four-story apartment block. They wanted to destroy the intricate plasterwork on the domed ceiling inside the theatre, smash the marble stairway to the balcony section, scrap the Murano glass wall sconces. They would pay lip service to preserving the Grand while wiping out everything that made the theatre so unique.
"You want me to come pick you up and pour some wine into you?" Denise offered when Amy was silent for too long.
"No. Thanks for this, 'Nise. I have to go."
Amy ended the call and pressed her palm against her forehead.
She needed to think. She needed to get past the panic that was making her heart race and her stomach churn.
She needed a lawyer.
Yes. Absolutely. That was definitely the first step. She needed a smart, sharp mouthpiece in a suit. Someone formidable who could arm her with the necessary information.
She started searching her phone contacts for a number she hadn't dialed in months.
There had been good reasons for that, of course. Sensible, sanity preserving reasons. But this was an emergency. All bets were off. Her old school friend Lisa dealt with property law all the time in Sydney. She'd know how to handle this. She'd tell Amy if there was any way she could stop this disaster from happening.
Amy found the number as an unwelcome thought slunk into her mind: What if Quinn answers instead of Lisa?
Amy froze, staring at the number on the screen.
After all these years, she still couldn't think of Quinn Whitfield without feeling a skip of excitement, closely followed by a thump of dread.
Dumb. And dangerous. He was married. They were married. Her two best friends.
Which was why she'd been deliberately trying to distance herself recently. Not returning phone calls. Being lazy with e-mails. Freezing them out.
But it wasn't as though she'd gone to school with a million lawyers. It was either Lisa or a lawyer chosen at random from the phone book—an arrangement that would come complete with a hefty bill her tight restoration budget could not afford.
Hopefully Lisa would pick up and not Quinn. And if it was him…well, Amy would deal with it. She pressed the button and listened as the phone rang.
Come on, Lisa, pick up. Pick up, pick up, pick up.
A click sounded and suddenly Quinn's voice was in her ear. Her stomach tensed—then she realized it was only a recording.
"Hi, there. You've called the Whitfields. We can't get to the phone right now. Leave a message and your contact details and we'll do our best to get back to you as soon as we can. Unless you're selling life insurance, then you know what you can do."
It had been nearly eighteen months since she'd spoken to Quinn, but he sounded exactly the same. She could even imagine the slight smile he would have been wearing when he recorded the message. Self-aware, wry. Charming as all hell.
The answering machine beeped and she took a quick breath.
"Lisa and, um, Quinn. Long time no speak, huh? Lis, I was actually calling to talk to you. I need some legal advice and it's kind of urgent—"
"Amy. Hey. How the hell are you?"
Amy's heart banged against her rib cage as Quinn's deep voice sounded down the line. Not a recording this time. The real thing.
She closed her eyes. He sounded so good. And so pleased to hear from her.
And why not? She'd been the "best person" at his wedding. They'd grown up next door to each other. He'd taught her how to fish, and she'd taught him the best way to climb the apple tree at the bottom of her parents' yard. They'd learned to ride their bikes together, and they'd been punished together any number of times for too many pranks to count. Rotten eggs in the air-conditioning vent at school. Releasing Quinn's pet ferret in class. Filling the neighbor's exhaust pipe with water from the garden hose.
Their exploits had been legendary. Then Lisa moved to town the year of Amy's fourteenth birthday, and everything changed.
"I'm good, thanks. How about you?" she said.
"Keeping body and soul together. Man, it's been a long time since I heard your voice."
"Yeah." She swallowed the lump in her throat. Wondered if he guessed she'd been deliberately pushing him away, or if he thought it was just time and distance that had come between them.
"I was thinking about you the other day, actually," he said.
She'd been about to ask if Lisa was home, but his words caught her by surprise. "Really?"
"Yeah. I was thinking about the wedding. The night before, actually. How you and I went down to the lake and drank all that beer. Remember?"
How could she forget? She'd matched him beer for beer, desperate to prolong every last second with him before he stopped being her best friend and became one half of Mr. and Mrs. Quinn and Lisa Whitfield.
Would it have been easier if Lisa hadn't been her close friend, the third musketeer? Would it have hurt as much if Quinn had fallen for a stranger from out of town?
Amy would never know.
She pinched the bridge of her nose. This was why she'd hesitated over calling. So many memories, all washing over her.
Time to get this conversation back on track.
"Listen, I, um, don't want to keep you too long. Is Lisa around? I need to ask her advice on a legal thing."
There was a short pause as Quinn registered the abrupt shift in conversation. She'd been too sharp, too quick to cut him off. She held her breath, waiting for him to ask the questions that were bubbling beneath the surface of their conversation.
Why did you stop returning my calls?
Why aren't we friends anymore?
What did I do wrong?
"Lisa's not around at the moment. Is it anything I can help with?"
"It's fine. I'll wait for her to call me back."
"What's the problem, Ames? Lisa might have gotten better marks than me but I made partner before her." Quinn was joking, but there was an edge to his tone.
Because, of course, Quinn was a lawyer, too. One of the many things he and Lisa had in common. He could just as easily answer her questions, yet Amy had made a point of asking for Lisa, of thinking of Lisa and not him when she'd realized she needed legal advice.
"It's not that. I didn't want to bother you," she said quickly.
"But you're happy to bother Lisa?"
Because I haven't been in love with Lisa for more years than I can count. Because talking to her doesn't make me think about all the hours I've spent aching over you, wishing you loved me instead of her. Making myself sick with jealousy and guilt and lust.
"No. It's just we haven't spoken for a while, and I don't want to be one of those fair-weather friends who calls out of the blue and hits you up for a favor because I need some legal advice."
Quinn made an impatient noise. "For Pete's sake, Amy. We grew up together. You're my oldest friend. Tell me the problem."
She hesitated a moment longer. But he was right. She was being stupid. She'd always been stupid where Quinn was concerned.
"I've been negotiating with the council for the past few months to buy the Grand. We have a contract all ready to go—"
"Whoa. Hold on a second. You finally got the money together to buy the Grand?"
"That's what I said."
"Ames. That's fantastic. What an amazing achievement."
It scared her how much his praise meant to her, how much it made her chest ache.
"Well, I'm not there yet."
"Right. You've got a contract…?" he prompted.
Over the next few minutes she briefed him on the situation. It made her feel sick and angry all over again as she thought about the peremptory way Reg Hanover had delivered the news. As though she was a pesky child to be shooed from the room.
"If the contract wasn't signed, there's not much you can do to hold them to the agreement. You know that, right?" Quinn said.
"This isn't about my contract. I need to know if there's anything I can do to protect the Grand. It's on the town's heritage register. Surely that means Ulrich can't knock it down?"
Her voice broke on the last few words and she felt immeasurably foolish.