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It was all about the shoes.
Carinna Clark Duncan stood in front of the store window, staring at the pair of red pumps winking at her through the glass. She wanted those shoes. But she couldn't have them. Not now. Maybe not ever. Her days of extravagant shoe shopping were over. Lead me not to temptation, Lord.
She glanced around the quaint main street of Knotwood Mountain, Georgia, and then looked to her left at the old run-down turn-of-the-century Victorian house she'd inherited after her father's death a month ago. Duncan House—that's what her parents had called it. Now it had a dilapidated old sign that said Photography and Frames—Reasonable Prices hanging off one of the porch beams. Her childhood home had been reduced to a business rental, but the last renter had left in a hurry from what she'd been told by her father's lawyer.
The house was the only part of James Duncan's vast estate she'd received. The bitterness and pain rose up like bile inside her. But it wasn't because she wanted the whole estate, even though some cold hard cash would be good right now. No, her deep-seated resentment and anger came from another source. And her prayers for release hadn't worked.
This anger and jealousy was toward the woman who'd swooped in and wooed Cari's still-grieving father into marrying her just months after Cari's mother had died. That woman, Doreen Stillman, and her two children, had managed not only to fool Cari's vulnerable father for the last few years; they'd also managed to turn him against his only daughter. The daughter who'd loved and adored him and still grieved for her mother and him so much it woke her up in tears in the middle of the night.
Once the apple of her doting father's eye, Cari had soon become the outcast, the troublemaker who stood against Doreen. And Doreen made sure James Duncan knew this, made sure he heard all about how horribly Cari treated Doreen and her children. Even if it wasn't true, even if she'd been the one who'd been mistreated, there was no way to convince her besotted, grief-stricken father. No way. And now it was too late to make amends with him. Cari only hoped she'd been able to get through to him enough before he died to make him understand that she loved him.
Staring at the shoes with a Monday morning mo-roseness, she thought it was pretty ironic that a pair of shoes had started the whole chain of events that had eventually caused Cari to fall out of her father's good graces in the first place. Cari and her younger stepsister Bridget had been fighting over a pair of blue sandals. They belonged to Cari, but Bridget had insisted she wanted to borrow them. Cari had refused, saying Bridget was too young and her feet too long for the narrow, strappy shoes that Cari intended to wear to a party that night. But Doreen and Cari's father had sided with Bridget. Cari had not only lost the shoes—Bridget never gave them back—she'd also lost a lot of respect for her father. And apparently, he'd lost respect for her, too. Things had gone from bad to worse after that. Her once storybook life had become miserable.
But he had left her the house.
That alone had sustained Cari after his death. He'd left her the one thing she remembered with happiness and joy—the house where she'd grown up with both her parents. It had been a loving, wonderful, faith-filled home back then, full of adventure and all the things a little girl loved, including a turret room. Cari used to pretend she was a princess; she'd dreamed big dreams in that round little room just off her bedroom on the right side of the two-story house. Now, the pretty memories faded and she was left staring at a harsh reality.
Doreen had immediately moved the family out to a big, modern house on the Chattahoochee River and convinced James to let the town rezone this house for commercial use. Only she'd neglected to take care of this particular piece of property. Doreen wouldn't know a house with good bones if it fell on her.
The old house was still solid, but it needed a lot of cosmetic work, Cari thought. And so did she. Maybe she could make some sense of things, redoing this old place. Maybe. By leaving her the house, her father had given her a new lease on life. She once again had big dreams—for herself and for the house she had opened up earlier today. She planned to renovate it room by room. And she planned to open a quaint little boutique to showcase her jewelry and trinkets on the first floor. She could live on the second floor. It would be a great arrangement if she could make a go of it. Please, God, let me do this right.
But she did have another big problem. A definite lack of capital. She had to figure out a way to find the money to do everything she envisioned. From the research she'd done, a loan didn't look possible.
She turned back to the shoes, a longing bursting through her heart. She was a material girl—or at least she used to be. She reminded herself that those days were gone and so she couldn't afford the shoes. But she sure did admire them anyway.
Just keep on admiring, she told herself. And remember why you're here. You have something else to focus on now besides shopping. You have a home.
Cari thanked God and thanked her father. Maybe this was his way of telling her he had loved her in spite of everything. And she knew in her heart God had never abandoned her, even if it had felt that way since she'd become an exile from Knotwood Mountain.
The sound of shifting gears caused her to turn around. The bright summer sun shone brightly on the battered old brown-and-white open Jeep pulling up to the curb. The man driving downshifted and cut the roaring engine then hopped out, heading toward where Cari stood in front of Adams General Store and Apparel.
"Go on in and try them on," he said with a grin, motioning toward the shoes.
And Cari turned and faced another dream she'd forgotten. Rick Adams. In the flesh and looking too bright and way too good with the early-morning sunlight glinting across his auburn-brown curly hair. Did he remember her? Cari doubted it. He'd been a few years older and he'd run with a different crowd in high school. The fun football and cheerleader crowd. While she'd preferred reading sappy fiction on most Saturday nights and observing him from afar on most school days. The classic tale of the plain Jane wanting the handsome prince, with no happy ending in sight.
"Hi," she said with a stiff smile. "I can't try them on. I can't afford them." Honesty was her new policy.
He gave her a blue-eyed appraisal but she didn't see recognition in that enticing stare. "Too bad. I think they'd fit you just right."
She shook her head. "I don't think so. And don't tempt me. I've got to get going." She didn't give him time to talk her into trying on the gorgeous shoes. Cari hurried to the rambling house next door and quickly went inside.
"Did you see Cari out there?"
Rick looked up at his mother's words, spoken from the second floor of Adams General Store and Apparel. Gayle was leaning over the timbered banister holding an armful of women's T-shirts with the words I rode the river at Knotwood Mountain emblazed across them, grinning down at her son.
"Cari? Cari who?"
"Cari Duncan. I thought I saw you talking to her."
Rick glanced outside then back up at his mom. "That pretty strawberry-blonde looking at the red shoes in the window? That was shy little Cari Duncan?"
"That's her—back home and about to open up her own shop right next door in the old Duncan House, according to Jolena." Gayle put the shirts on a nearby rack and came down the stairs. "Jolena told me all about it when I went by the diner this morning."
Rick looked up at his mother, his hands on his hips. "Why didn't I know about this?"
Gayle let out a chuckle. "Maybe because you missed the chamber of commerce meeting last night—again. Everyone was talking about it, Jolena said. And apparently, Doreen was fit to be tied because she planned to sell the house and turn a tidy profit on that corner lot."
Rick groaned. "I completely forgot the meeting. I had to get all this fishing gear and our rafts and floats ready for the summer crowds." He couldn't believe he'd just talked to Cari and hadn't even realized it was her. "Well, I'm glad someone's taking over the old place. It's an eyesore and last time I did attend a meeting, everyone on First Street agreed something needed to be done about it."
Gayle busied herself with straightening the bait-and-tackle rack by the cash register. "Doreen didn't worry about the upkeep on the place. I'm sure she's unhappy that it no longer belongs to her." She pursed her lips. "You know, that's all Cari got from the inheritance."
"You're kidding?" Rick went back to the window. "Her father owned half the property in town and she got stuck with that old house. That building needs to be overhauled. It's gone to ruin since the last tenant left."
"Doreen kicked the last tenant out," Gayle replied as she poured him a cup of coffee off the stove at the back of the store. "She's not an easy landlady from what I've heard."
"Then she probably wasn't an easy stepmother either," Rick countered. "I hope Cari can stand up to the woman. She was always so passive and shy in high school." Not that he hadn't noticed her pretty turquoise eyes and nice smile back then. But that was about as far as Rick had ever gotten with Cari. His girlfriend hadn't liked him being kind to a girl she considered "a boring little spoiled princess."
The girlfriend was long gone, and well…Cari was back and right next door, and she didn't look boring at all. The hometown princess was all grown-up. He'd have to go and visit her, apologize for not recognizing her.
"I can't believe I didn't know it was her," he said to his mother. "She's changed."
"Yes, lost weight and cut her hair. She's downright spunky-looking now," Gayle said as she grabbed one of Jolena's famous cinnamon rolls and headed back up to the women's department of the sprawling store. "And she'll need to be spunky if she intends to renovate that place. We'll have to offer her some help. Be neighborly."
Rick grinned then headed to the stockroom. He'd have to be neighborly another day. He had lots to do today. Only a few weeks until the Fourth of July and the flood of tourists who'd come to Knotwood Mountain to camp, fish, swim and go tubing and rafting on the nearby Chattahoochee River. And hopefully shop at Adams General Store and Apparel for all their outfitter needs.
They'd made this store a nice place since he'd come back five years ago. His mother had taken over the top floor for her women's apparel, knickknacks, souvenirs and artwork and he had the bottom floor for more manly stuff like rafting and fishing gear, rugged outdoor clothes and shoes and cowboy and work boots. And since his older brother Simon designed handmade cowboy boots in a studio just outside of town on their small ranch, Rick also had the pleasure of selling his brother's popular boots both retail and online. A nice setup and, finally, one that was seeing a profit. He wished his father was still alive to see how he'd turned the old family store into a tourist attraction.
But…wishes didn't get the work done, so he went into the stockroom and headed to the back alley, intent on unloading and inventorying stock in between customers for the rest of the day.
First, he had to gather the empty boxes from yesterday and take them out to the recycling bin before the truck came cruising through. Always something to do around this place, that was for sure. But Rick liked the nice steady work and the casual atmosphere. It sure beat his hectic, stressful lifestyle back in Atlanta.
He'd put all of that behind him now. He'd come home.
He stopped at the trash dump and stared at the leaning back porch of Cari's place, wondering what had brought her back. Surely not just this old Victorian diamond in the rough.
He was about to turn and head back inside when the door of the house creaked open and he heard a feminine voice shouting, "Shoo, get out of here."
Out swooped a pigeon, flapping its wings as it lifted into the air.
The woman stood on the porch with her hands on her hips, smiling up at the terrified bird. "And don't come back. I'm the only squatter allowed on these premises now."
Rick let out a hoot of laughter. "Poor little pigeon."
Cari whirled, mortified that Rick had heard her fussing at the innocent pigeon. "Oh, hi. Sorry but it was either him or me. He's made a mess of what used to be a storage room, I think. And I'm pretty sure he's had a few feathered friends over for some wild parties, too. First thing on my list—fix that broken window-pane."
Rick strolled over toward the porch then looked up at her. "Cari," he said, his smile sharp enough to burn away all the cobwebs she had yet to clear out of the first floor. "You've changed."
Cari pushed at her shaggy, damp hair. This pleasant morning was fast turning into ahot afternoon. "Same old me," she said, wondering if he was even taller now. "I figured you didn't recognize me, though." And he'd aged to perfection, curly brown hair, crinkling, laughing eyes.
"No, sorry I didn't. But it's sure nice to see you again. It's been a while."
She leaned on the rickety old railing, the sound of the river gurgling over the nearby rocks soothing her frazzled mind. "Yep. Last time I saw you, you were off to Georgia Tech with a cheerleader on your arm. How'd that go for you?"
He shook his head, looked down at his work boots. "Not too well at first. I partied more than I studied and the cheerleader found her one true love—it wasn't me. Just about flunked out. My old man didn't appreciate my lack of commitment, let me tell you. But I finally got things together and pulled through."