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Renita Thatcher tugged at the jacket of her blue silk-blend suit, struggling to fasten it across her stomach. Cripes, if she got any bigger she'd have to wear a tent to work. Usually she left the jacket open, but a button had popped off her blouse. Of all days
Her office door burst open. Poppy, her young assistant, announced breathlessly, "Brett O'Connor's here."
"Already?" Renita sucked in her gut, tightened what stomach muscles she possessed, and squeezed the button through the hole. "Give me two minutes, then show him in."
Poppy left, closing the door behind her. Renita whipped a compact out of her top drawer and checked her hair, tucking a wavy dark strand behind her ear. She tried taking her glasses off. Nope, she was blind without them. Baring her teeth in the tiny mirror, she made sure there were no lipstick smears or sesame seeds from her breakfast bagel.
She put away her compact and took several deep breaths to slow her tripping heart, coaching herself
not to get anxious over this meeting. Her high school crush on Brett O'Connor was ancient history. Anyway, he'd never been interested in her that way, so his visit was nothing to get excited about.
Sure, she was curious about why he'd returned to Summerside, but her biggest concern right now was that a) her jacket button didn't pop and b) she didn't reveal by a single word, gesture or look that she'd ever had the slightest hint of romantic feelings toward him.
Professionalism, that was the key. She was no longer a nerdy, chubby fifteen-year-old infatuated with the school jock who'd broken her heart. She was a businesswoman and the loans manager at Community Bank, just doing her job.
Poppy knocked. Renita's mouth felt as dry as the paper she was clutching in her damp palms as a prop. Poppy opened the door, ushering in Brett O'Connor, who was gorgeous as ever in a casual suit jacket over an open-necked shirt and designer jeans. He carried a manila envelope.
At the last second Renita remembered the jar of jelly beans and whisked it off her desk and into a drawer.
"Hello, Brett." She rose, grateful that her voice, at least, was cool and calm. The sight of his thick, sun-streaked hair and slightly crooked nose transported her straight back to grade eleven, when a passing glance from him in the school corridor had been enough to send her into dreamy reveries.
Not now, though. No way.
She extended a hand. "How are you?"
"G'day, Renita. It's been a while." His clasp was firm, almost painful, as if he didn't know his own strength, and his blue gaze so direct it was like a stab to the heart. "What is it, thirteen years?"
"Something like that." She gestured to a chair. "Tell me, what can I do for you?"
He sat, but instead of getting down to business, he leaned back and shook his head. "I can't get over it. You're exactly the same."
"Gee, thanks. And here I thought I'd improved."
He flashed her his easy grin. "You always had a wisecrack for every occasion."
"No, I only speak the truth," she deadpanned. "Everyone just thinks I'm joking."
"What I meant was you look fabulous." When she raised her eyebrows skeptically, he insisted, "Honestly, you do."
"Don't flatter me, Brett." Renita knew she was well-groomed, pretty but not beautiful. Most of the time she thought she looked just finewell, except for the extra weight. But she didn't believe for one second that Brett, who was used to being mobbed by half-naked football groupies, could possibly think she looked fabulous.
"You look real," he amended, having the grace to appear sheepish at being called on his sincerity.
"Real. Yep, that's me." Real meant eyeglasses,
hair with a mind of its own, jackets that strained at the buttons.
She searched beneath his gorgeousness for signs that he'd aged badly from the debauched life he must have led as a professional football player. Not to mention Australian rules football was a rough sport. Brett had been hot in high school. Hotter still during televised football games, with his cheek smeared with dirt and his musclesall sweaty and glisteningexposed by his sleeveless jersey and tight shorts. But apart from a small white scar across his right eyebrow, laughter lines around his eyes and mouth and the way his lanky frame had filled out with solid muscle, he looked pretty much the same as he had at seventeen. Sexy and athletic.
"So, Brett, are you here for a loan?"
"First I'd like to know how my favorite math tutor is doing," he said, still with that easy smile, that confidence that used to enthrall her. Now it only grated on her nerves.
He was trying to charm her. It came to him as easily as breathing, and probably just as unconsciously. It took her back to afternoons around her parents' farmhouse kitchen table. She had tried earnestly to teach him trigonometry; he had tried to distract her with jokes. She'd wanted to slap him.
Or kiss him.
"How could I be your favorite tutor?" She laughed nervously, although she was anything but amused.
"I dropped you two weeks before the final exam, remember?"
"Oh, yeah." Brett frowned. "Why did you do that, anyway?"
"Dad needed my help with chores after school," she lied, even as hurt and anger pushed their way to the surface.
What an idiot she'd been back then, imagining that just because they'd laughed together, just because he'd tweaked her ponytail, he'd liked her. She could still see his stunned expression, hear his excruciatingly blunt, "Sorry, you're not my type," when she'd asked him to the grade eleven dance.
"Is it a home loan or business loan you're after?"
"Your father used to put the fear of God into me whenever I came around," Brett went on, seemingly oblivious to her efforts to change the subject. "But I'll never forget the cakes and cookies your mum baked for our study sessions. How are your folks doing?"
"They sold the farm and moved into Summerside to be near Jack, Lexie and me," Renita said, summing up the past six months in a few quick words. What she didn't say was that her parents, Steve and Hetty Thatcher, weren't fine at all. They were having marriage problems, and her dad was sick. But she was done chatting. She shuffled some papers on her desk. "Interest rates are set to go up next month, so I'm recommending to our borrowers that they lock in for a fixed term."
"I ran into Jack yesterday in the grocery store,"
Brett added. "He told me your father had been in the hospital."
Renita nodded, biting her lip. The scare was recent enough that she was still shaken up over it.
"Is Steve all right?" Brett pressed. "Jack was in a hurry and didn't have time to tell me what happened."
She gripped her pen tightly between her fingers. "My dad's been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes."
Brett leaned forward, his clear blue eyes troubled. "I didn't think that usually meant a hospital stay."
Couldn't he just drop it? Renita met his gaze, and that was her undoing. His expression was so sympathetic she couldn't resist confiding in him. "Mum was away on a meditation retreat and Dad let his diet go to hell. No one knew he had diabetes or that he was eating a ton of sweets. Next thing, he was severely dehydrated and his blood sugar levels were through the roof. He was in a coma for two days."
"I'm sorry," Brett murmured. "Is he okay now?"
Sorry. Was he? Renita tapped the pen against her blotter. For reasons she'd never understood, Brett and her father didn't get along.
"He's out of the hospital. Mum's back home and taking care of him." Grudgingly. Hetty, and even Jack and Sienna, believed Steve had brought his illness on himself to punish her for going away.
"My gym is sponsoring the Diabetes Fun Run next month," Brett said. "You and Steve should think about entering."
"Me, run?" Renita laughed. "I'm built for comfort, not speed." She was like her dad in many ways, including having a weakness for sweets.
"It's not a race," Brett said. "It's to support a good cause. And an excuse to get some exercise."
Renita shifted uncomfortably, feeling her waistband pinch. Steve's health crisis had given her a jolt. She needed to do something about her weight or she might end up with type 2 diabetes. In fact, she was going on a diet. Starting next Monday. Or Tuesday.
Just thinking about being hungry made her cranky.
"I support the cause, but as for exercise, I'd sooner stick flaming bamboo shoots beneath my fingernails."
"Okay, I get the picture. I'm not here to torture you." Brett let the subject go. "What are you doing these days? Do you still see anyone from high
"Most everyone has moved away." Didn't he get that they weren't friends?
"I'm looking forward to catching up with Jack and his fiancée," he said. "What's her name?"
"Sienna. Look, could we get down to business?" Renita sat up straighter to ease the strain on her jacket. "I'm sure your time is valuable, and I have another appointment coming up. Are you here about a bank loan?"
Silence followed her brusque request.
"I want to buy the Summerside Fitness Center,"
Brett finally admitted. "I've taken over managing the place and the owner's keen to sell."
"You must have just started there. I haven't seen you around town." Hadn't heard any buzz that Brett's minor celebrity status would have generated, either.
"That's right. We moved in last week, to a house
on Cliff Road."
"We?" The word popped out before Renita could stop herself. Brett's divorce six months ago had been splashed all over the tabloids, but she wouldn't be surprised if he'd already found another girlfriend. "Sorry, your personal life is none of my business."
"You can ask. We're old friends." Another moment of silence passed, as if he expected her to agree. When she didn't, his blue eyes hardened. "My daughter, Tegan, and I."
"Oh, I see."
"Tegan wishes there were more fashion boutiques in Summerside, but I'm glad she can't spend all her time shopping." Brett rolled on, regaining his good humor. "With us practically living on the beach, she'll be able to learn to sail. Summerside is a good place to grow up, on the fringe between city and country. Well, you would know. You had a great childhood on the farm."
There he was, inviting Renita to reminisce again. She wasn't going to bite. "About the gym I drive past there regularly. The building looks run-down. I hope it's going for a good price."
"Seven hundred and fifty thousand dollars. That
includes all equipment, such as it is. It's reasonable," Brett said. "But I'll need to completely refurbish the place. Exercise machines, flooring, coffee area, child care, change roomsthe works."
Finally, they were getting down to business. "Coffee?" Renita asked. "Isn't that encouraging unhealthy habits?"
"I gather this used to be a squash club. There's a small kitchen where players used to wait for a court." He shrugged. "I'm into fitness, but I'm not a fanatic. If people want coffee, they can have it."
"Is the gym currently running at a profit?"
"A very slim one. The place has been neglected since the owner moved to Sydney last year. His manager quit months ago and hasn't been replaced. One of the instructors has been in charge, but obviously, she can't do that justice and teach classes at the same time. Once I take over things will improve." Brett removed a sheaf of papers from his manila envelope and handed them to Renita. "I've worked up a statement of operating costs, revenue and expenses."
She scanned the detailed spreadsheets. "You've certainly done your homework."
"And this time without your assistance."
She glanced up. He was watching her with that half smile that used to turn her knees to jelly. The pages rattled faintly in her hands. "Let's hope you're better at math than you used to be."
Renita ducked her head and studied the figures.
She still found Brett physically attractive; a woman would have to be blind not to. But she was over him.
She was aware of him shifting in his chair. He never could sit still for long. Then he stood up. Right, there he goes. He paced around the room, looking at the art on the walls, picking up objects. She tried to concentrate on the columns of figures, but couldn't help peeking at him out of the corner of her eye.
Those long legs, broad shoulders.
He examined the bowl of flowering succulents she kept on the credenza beneath the window. Then he lifted the framed photo of Frankie and Johnny, her pet cockatoo and her cat. Next to that was a picture of Lucy, her golden retriever. Brett glanced back at the nameplate on her desk, which bore her maiden name. She knew what he was thinking. Single woman. Her pets are her kids.
"Did you ever marry?" he asked, confirming her thought.
Hello! She was only thirty-two. Maybe she didn't want to marry. Or maybe she'd kept her own name. She was a career woman, after all. "I'm too busy for a serious relationship."
"You always were smarter than the rest of us." Setting the photo down, he leaned against the credenza, arms loosely crossed. "Tegan begged me for a cockatiel, but I don't like to keep birds in cages."