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What was she doing here?
Garret Beck let the door of Mug Shots, his favorite place in Hartley Creek, fall shut behind him as he caught sight of Larissa Weir in one corner of the coffee shop. She sat across the table from her Uncle Baxter, her hands shaping pictures as she spoke. Her green eyes sparkled with laughter. Her dark hair shimmered in the light from the window beside her.
The green dotted scarf she had draped over her white shirt enhanced the color of her eyes and matched the dangly earrings swinging against her cheek.
He looked at the floor and in spite of his emotions, he had to smile. Her shoes lay on their sides, her bare toes layered over each other.
She always did that. And he always teased her about being an original barefoot hippie.
He tried to rein in his errant heart, disappointed that after all these years she still could make him feel like a foolish, breathless teenager. Could still make him remember, too easily, how much she had meant to him.
He swallowed, his Adam's apple pushing against the knot of his silk tie. He stopped himself from reaching up and straightening it. From brushing the lapels of his suit jacket.
From trying to make himself look presentable in front of the only girl he had ever truly loved.
We were just kids then, he reminded himself. You're no longer a broke lumber piler working for her dad.
And Larissa Weir chose her father over you.
"Hey, Carter, what can I get you?"
A bright, cheerful voice called out and Garret pulled his gaze away from Larissa to the woman standing behind the counter, wiping her hands on a towel, her graying hair partially covered in a pink bandanna, her wide smile like a beacon of welcome light.
Garret resisted the urge to play the mistaken identity game he and his twin brother, Carter, used to indulge in when they were younger. "I'm Garret," he corrected her, adding a grin.
Kerry frowned, then her mouth fell open and she pressed a hand to her chest. "Oh, my goodness. It is you. I should have known. I don't think I've ever seen Carter in a suit and tie." She shook her head, taking a step back as if to get the full picture. "Look at you. All successful looking. How long are you back in town this time?"
"I have plans to stay for a while." And those plans were the reason for his meeting with the man sitting across from Larissa. "Proud to say that Hartley Creek, British Columbia is now my new home," he said with a grin.
"Or latest home," Kerry said, flipping the towel over her shoulder. "Heard you've been working all over the world."
"I've been here and there," he admitted, trying to keep his focus on her as his Larissa's light laugh tugged at his attention.
"So, now that you're here, I imagine you'll have your usual oversize coffee?" Kerry asked, grabbing a large mug and filling it up even before he could give his order. "Garret?" she prompted when he didn't answer.
Garret gave himself a mental shake, turning back to Kerry. "Of course. Need all the caffeine I can ingest," he replied pulling his wallet out of his suit jacket.
Kerry took his money, handed him his coffee and, as if sensing the reason for his distraction, gave him a wink along with his change. "Glad to see you back. I know your grandmother and cousins missed you, not to mention Carter."
He gave Kerry his full attention as he dropped change in the till. It was dangerous to be seen mooning over his ex in this venue. Facebook and Twitter had nothing on what he and his brother, Carter, jokingly called The Mug Shots Messaging Service. Anything spoken in the coffee shop traveled around Hartley Creek quicker than a sneeze.
"I've missed them too," he said. Then he risked another glance at Larissa and the man sitting across from her. Had Larissa been one of the people who missed him?
Garret brushed aside the pointless question, took a steadying breath as he picked up the hot mug of coffee. He walked with measured steps across the wooden floor to the table where Larissa and her uncle sat.
". .so let me know how that works out," Baxter was saying. "We can discuss it later."
Larissa nodded, her hair slipping over her face as she bent her head and scribbled some notes on the papers lying on the table in front of her.
Baxter Lincoln sat back, glancing around as Garret approached.
Garret knew the precise moment Baxter caught his gaze.
His gray eyes blinked then his glance flew first to his niece sitting across from him, then to the Rolex strapped to his wrist.
Yes, I'm early, Garret wanted to say. And he guessed Larissa was supposed to have been gone before Garret had arrived.
Garret gave Baxter a tight smile freezing it in place when Larissa looked up at her uncle, frowning at his expression. She followed the direction of Baxter's gaze.
As her eyes met his, alarm swept across her beautiful features and her pen clattered to the table.
However, Larissa was truly her father's daughter, so her expression reverted quickly to bland politeness. Her smile reappeared, a shadow of its previous incarnation.
"Hello, Garret. I heard you were back in town," she said, her voice as neutral as her facial expression as she picked up her pen.
"I didn't expect you for another fifteen minutes," Baxter put in, his voice taking on an excessively hearty tone.
Garret gave Larissa a curt nod, acknowledging her greeting, then dragged his gaze away from the woman who had once been the focus of his entire life and turned back to her uncle.
"Thought I'd enjoy Kerry's legendary coffee before our meeting," he said, pleased at how casual his voice came out.
"Of course. That's great," Baxter said, twisting his watch around his wrist. "Glad you could make it." He got up and pulled a chair over to the empty end of their table.
Garret wasn't sure what to do. He didn't relish the idea of sitting with Larissa, especially when it looked as if she and her uncle were discussing business. But to ignore the gesture would look rude.
Besides, the hot mug grew heavy in his hand.
"You go ahead and sit down," Larissa said quietly, gathering up her papers and tapping them on the table. "I should get going anyway."
The coolness of her tone accompanied by her polite smile unsettled him. Especially here in Mug Shots, the place where he and Larissa spent so much time when they were dating. The place he had first told her he loved her.
Then she looked up at him again and he caught the fleeting glow of anger in the depths of her eyes.
His own back stiffened in response as he set his mug on the table.
Why did she have any right to be angry with him? She was the one who refused to come with him ten years ago.
Silence, rife with old emotions, rose up between them.
The fact disappointed and depressed him. He thought he had long moved on. He knew she had. Her silence after he left town told him clearly whom she had chosen over him.
She looked away, breaking the connection.
"I've got to talk to Mia about some flowers and then I should get back to the inn," Larissa told her uncle. "Will you be coming there after?"
Baxter shook his head no. "We'll have to finish up tomorrow."
Larissa nodded, then bent over and picked up her briefcase, slipping the papers inside, followed by the laptop she had sitting on the table as well.
Businesswoman, Garret thought, his mind slipping back to the blue jeans, hooded sweatshirts and running shoes Larissa used to favor. Designer blue jeans, mind you, but blue jeans nonetheless.
Now she looked as though she had been transplanted from some Manhattan office tower and plunked into downtown Hartley Creek.
"Don't forget your shoes," he said, looking down at the pumps lying on the floor.
Her cheeks flushed and without looking at him she slipped her shoes on, which lifted her about two inches higher. She slung her briefcase over her shoulder, picking up her mug and a plate that held the remains of her lunch. As she straightened, her eyes grazed his but this time he saw nothing in their depths.
Which bothered him more than the anger he saw previously.
"Good to see you again, Garret," she said, her voice cool and composed. Then she turned to her uncle who got to his feet. "So I'll see you tomorrow at the inn then."
"I'll be by about eight o'clock," he said.
She nodded and swept past Garret, leaving behind the faintest hint of flowers from her perfume.
The scent brought back another wave of memories. He and Larissa sneaking down the back alleys of Main Street to come here, hoping her father wouldn't catch them. He and Larissa sitting in this very corner at Mug Shotstheir spotsharing a scone, a few laughs. A kiss.
He shook his head as if to clear away the insidious webs of memory. He had to get a grip, he thought. He was bound to run into Larissa again. Hartley Creek wasn't big enough to avoid her completely.
Baxter got to his feet and shook Garret's hand, as if officially beginning their own meeting. "Good to see you again, Garret. It's been a while."
Garret returned his solid grip, then sat down in the chair Baxter had pulled out for him, settling in. He couldn't help a flutter of anticipation at what would transpire. A few months ago, when Garret was in town for Carter's wedding, Garret had heard rumblings that Baxter wanted to downsize. Sell off some of his business holdings, one of which was his majority shares in Timberline Mills, the sawmill where Garret used to work, owned by Larissa's father, Jack Weir.
The man who had come between him and Larissa all those years ago. The man who had fired his mother even earlier than that.
Garret had struggled with his reasons for buying these shares. Holding the majority share in a company Jack Weir owned would give him some control over the man who, at one time, had so much control over his life. The idea was intriguing and, if he were honest, a bit exciting.
When he was younger he had promised himself that the only way he would come back to Hartley Creek was as an established businessman.
Buying the mill was his chance to prove to himself and to the town that he had arrived.
He pushed the thought back where it belonged. He didn't care what Larissa thought of him.
"I'm glad we could finally get this meeting together," Garret said, "I'm looking forward to discussing this deal."
Baxter leaned back in his chair, his finger tracing the line of his mustache, now more silver than the dark black it was when Garret worked for Timberline Mills. "So tell me again why a man, educated as a petroleum engineer, wants to buy shares in a sawmill?" His tone was pleasant but Garret sensed an underlying reservation. He guessed it had much to do with Baxter's brother-in-law and partner, Jack Weir. Larissa's father.
Garret took a quick sip of his coffee, searching for the right words.
"My grandmother, as you know, had a heart attack a while back and hinted that she wanted me and my brother and cousins to come back home. And I'd been wanting to for a while." Garret's mind slipped back to the endless evenings in lonely hotel rooms overseas. He'd sensed that something was missing in his life, something he wouldn't find until he came back to the place where his best memories were formed.
When his brother approached him about buying the ranch, Garret wasn't financially ready to come back to town. And he'd never been as involved as Carter in the family ranch.
But seeing Carter so happy at his wedding, so willing to settle back in Hartley Creek, made Garret yearn for the same thing.
Knowing Larissa Weir still lived here had nothing to do with it?
Garret dismissed the random thought. Larissa was as much a part of his past as the old football cleats that probably still sat in a box somewhere in Nana Beck's basement on the ranch.
"I suspect you've already talked to the bank about financing?" Baxter asked, a hint of skepticism in his voice as he continued to hold Garret's gaze.
Garret couldn't help but laugh at the doubt threaded through Baxter's voice. "I know you're wondering how someone who started working for you as a lumber piler can afford to buy out your share."
"I admit. I am." Baxter smiled at Garret's blunt comment.
"I lived cheap while I was working," Garret said. "Once I paid my loans back I was able to save quite a bit of money. I plowed as much as I could into the stock market. I made a good call on some undervalued IPO's after the first big dip in the stock market." Garret leaned back feeling again the exhilaration of watching the value of those penny stocks skyrocket and wondering when to get off the thrill ride. That decision had changed his life. And given him many more options, one of which was making Baxter this offer. "The bank is willing to work with me based on my assets. Plus, the mill is a good investment with a healthy profit margin." A profit margin that would give him a better return on his investment than his current portfolio. Though he had benefited from the previous jump, in the past few months his money hadn't been doing as well as it could. He had pulled some out to finance his purchase of the shares in the mill, the rest he left, waiting for them to come up again.
"I'm glad financing won't be a problem," Baxter was saying, leaning forward and folding his hands on the table. He paused, looking down at his interlaced fingers, a frown creasing his forehead. He paused and Garret felt a building premonition of dread.
"You look concerned. Is something wrong?" Garret asked.
Baxter blew out his breath, then looked up at Garret. "I don't know how to say this, but I've changed my mind about selling my share in the mill."
Garret dropped back in his chair. "Is this because of my dealings with Jack in the past?"
Or my dealings with Jack's daughter?
When Larissa and Garret started dating, Larissa had been adamant her father not find out. Jack Weir's grand plans for his daughter didn't include her dating a lowly worker at his mill. So he and Larissa had met in secret, which lent an air of clandestine excitement to their relationship. But Jack had found out and the consequences had split him and Larissa apart.
"No, Garret, my change of heart has nothing to do with Jack." Baxter held Garret's gaze, his green eyes, so like Larissa's drilling into his. "I simply changed my mind."
Garret wanted to argue with him, but what could he say? Baxter held all the cards in this deal.