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Checking his watch for the tenth time in an hour didn't make the minute hand move any faster. Deputy Sheriff Seth Campbell frowned as he started to relock the door of his Kirkwood, New York, rental property. Boxes surrounded him in the retail area, but the person in charge of those boxes-his new lessee-hadn't appeared as scheduled. And that meant- "Seth Campbell?"
He turned, surprised, because the back door of the old-world-style building faced the street, which was where he'd been looking. The lakeside door, overlooking the quaint boardwalk lining the sandy north shore of Kirkwood Lake, hadn't entered into his realm of possibilities as an entrance in January. An icy wind accompanied the woman through the door. She shut it quickly and turned.
Huge, dark eyes met his gaze. Waist-length black curls tumbled from beneath a jaunty cap. A muted knit scarf that screamed money was knotted around the neck of her short wool jacket. Blue jeans and leather boots said she knew how to dress for fun, but one look into the depths of those eyes and Seth knew she hadn't had a lot of fun lately.
"Gianna Costanza?" He stepped forward and offered his hand.
"Yes." She gripped his hand and smiled. "Nice to meet you after all our virtual back-and-forth. I tried calling-" she held up a cell phone "-but it appears reception in these mountains is about as spotty as mine was back home in the Adirondacks."
"Technology is an amazing thing when it works," he agreed. He swept a hand around the shop interior. "Does it meet with your approval in person?"
Her quick smile said the character and warmth of the vintage space pleased her, and that pleased him. "I should pretend it's not up to par and see if I can whittle you down on rent, but that would be outright dishonest, because if anything, it's better than the pictures showed."
"Not too rustic or old-world?"
"Is there such a thing?" She shook her head, and when she did, the tumble of hair shifted right, then left, untamed by spray, which made him wonder if it could possibly be as soft as it looked. She laughed at his expression, which said there might be such a thing as too old-fashioned, and walked to the nearest wall. "No, this is perfect. The wainscoting. The chair-rail ledge for knickknacks and artifacts."
"Dust catchers," he noted, grinning. "My mother's a big fan of them, too. Can't reason it out myself. Just more to clean."
"Must be a woman thing." She smiled up at him, then motioned to the right. "And the apartment is through here?"
"Yes." He led her through a curtained door and showed her around the unpretentious apartment. "I had time to upgrade the shopping space, but the living area hasn't received any intensive attention from my hands or bank account yet."
"It looks fine," she told him. "Simple and clean-cut. The furnishings are great. Having them here makes my life a whole lot easier right now. Starting a new business in a new town is work enough. Hauling tons of furniture five hours cross state didn't make my short list." She set a small, dark floral bag on the countertop. "The pictures showed a first-floor bedroom and a bath, right?"
"Right here." He took her into a well-lit room off the living area, and her smile rewarded him when she spotted the lake view. "You like this."
"My grandmother will love it," she told him. She pointed east. "I have her enjoying coffee at Tina Marie's Café. It was a long ride down and I'm afraid I tired her out." She stepped to the left, opened a door with an unadorned left hand and made a little face. "The bathroom is great, but may I ask one more thing of you?"
As pretty as you are? Ask away, sweetheart.
Reason reined in his teasing reply. He invited her question with a simple raised brow instead. Her smile lit her face in anticipation, brightening those dark, round eyes, and making the gold tone of her skin shine. But hitting on her probably wouldn't be the smartest move in the book because this was a business arrangement. Doing anything to make it go foul in a small, tight town would be stupid beyond belief, so he shoved the temptation to flirt aside.
"Could we install a bar in the shower? Is that too much work? Grandma gets around great, but I'm afraid she might slip if she doesn't have something to hold on to."
"Not a problem," Seth assured her. "My father owns the hardware store on Main Street. I can get a support bar in place by Monday."
"That would be wonderful, Seth." She moved back toward the living space. "Can we see the upstairs?"
"Sure." He let her precede him up the stairs, and her squeal of delight when she spotted the second floor made him smile. She turned in time to see the grin and made a face again.
"I'm sorry, I sound like a schoolgirl when I do that. It's utterly ridiculous. But this is so pretty up here."
Seth considered the two small bedrooms and the open lofted area overlooking the lake on one side and the living room and kitchen below. "It's loud." She frowned.
"When there are people below, it's loud up here," he explained. "Terrible for sleeping."
"Ah." An understanding look said she was starting to get the picture. "You used to live here."
"Before I bought my house, yes. It was a great investment. My grandmother's family owned this building, so I bought it and fixed it up when I was fresh out of college."
"And your buddies would come to stay."
He nodded, then grinned, following her drift. "You're thinking that Grandma might not be as loud and intrusive as a couple of Campbell boys and their partying friends."
"Exactly. I don't think Grandma's knitting will keep me up, but thanks for the warning."
He laughed, and Gianna's heart went soft on the spot. A big laugh, hearty and full. The kind of laugh that saw lots of practice. She'd known that kind of laugh once. The sound of it called to her now, but she wasn't here for romance .
Not by a long shot.
Although, Gram thought it was time for her to move on with her life, and had spent over five hours of driving time reminding her that when God closes a door, He always opens a window.
Gianna knew that, hence the complete change in her life. Decisions she'd made before her mother and aunt left to spend the cold, long months of an upstate winter in Florida. By the time they came back north
She shoved that thought aside and smiled up at Seth. "I'll have the moving van pull around to the apartment door and unload my things. You have keys for me?"
"Right here." He reached into his pocket and pulled out two sets. "I keep a master set for myself, so if you ever lock yourself out, I'm just across the street on Overlook Drive."
He pointed through the window. "The white house with the porch on the double lot."
"A perfect family home." She smiled at the view and could just imagine a crew of kids racing around the wide, sloped front yard playing tag. Climbing the trees that were to the left.
Seth's smile disappeared. His shoulders looked suddenly heavy, and she had the oddest urge to wrap her arms around the big guy and give him a hug. But with her behavior labeled strange if not crazy these past few years, she curbed the impulse. Life had a way of messing people over. She knew that. Lived it. But right here, right now, was the new beginning she'd grabbed hold of a few months back. Months of praying, planning and implementation would come to fruition in Kirkwood, New York, overlooking the lake of the same name. Here she would embrace the life taken from her. The peace and hope of a new day dawning. She'd have the winter to settle in, and by the time the busy season rolled around after an early-April Easter, she'd be facing a new reality.
Would her mother understand? Would she embrace and forgive, or rage on in a mix of Italian and English and then cook pasta for the multitudes of Bianchis?
Time would tell.
Gianna followed Seth down the open stairs. He turned at the door. "Do you have help to unload?"
"I do." She pointed to the road, where a yellow moving van had pulled up. "My cousin and brother are my slaves for the moment. I promised them food to help me. They're Italian men so it really doesn't take much more than that."
"That works well on us Scottish guys, too," Seth admitted with a grin. She absolutely, positively refused to label his smile endearing or sweet. A smile was just a smile. Right?
One look up at him told her how wrong she was. Time to change the direction of her gaze. She turned and swung open the door to the small side porch. "The fact that I'm taking Gram off their hands sweetened the deal. Italian women are bossy by nature-something that doesn't appear to wane with age."
Seth laughed, understanding, while Gianna looked around the quiet, snow-filled, lakeside town. "She's going to love it here. I could see that the minute we rolled into town. For Grandma, this is like coming home."
Seth nodded agreement. "My grandma loved living in Kirkwood. It was her place, her town. Her history, she called it. Will your grandmother miss your old place?"
Gianna shook her head. "Not if there's a sewing machine handy. I get my affection for old things from her. She taught me to sew when I was barely old enough to thread a needle, and I loved it. So this venture into my own brick-and-mortar business is a big step for both of us, but I'm pretty sure she'll be content. I know I will."
"Well, good." He shoved his hands into his pockets as two dark-haired young men headed their way. "You guys need help?"
The taller one eyed the freshly shoveled driveway and shook his head. "I think we can back her up right here and unload to this porch. That way we can keep the snow and wet out of the house."
"I agree." The shorter man stuck out a hand to Seth. "I'm Mauro, Gianna's cousin."
Seth shook Mauro's hand and turned toward the taller man. "That makes you the brother."
"Joe Rinaldi. Nice to meet you. You're the landlord?"
"Seth Campbell. I live over there." Seth indicated his house with a general wave across the street. "If there's anything your sister or grandmother need, I'm nearby."
"Good to hear since her entire family and support network will be over five hours away, in good driving conditions. With the exception of my seventysomething grandmother." Joe's tone scolded, but Gianna knew he meant well. Protecting her had become the order of the day after she had lost Michael.
You didn't lose him. He was taken from you. Stolen, in the dark of night. One simple moment of time, a twist of fate, and your life turned upside down.
It had, but she was determined to get her life back, with or without Bianchi approval. And about time, too. "Joe, really?" Gianna motioned to the truck. "Gram can outwork all of us, so it's great to have her on board with this new venture. Back the truck in here and let's get this done. We are not having this conversation again."
"That's because you don't have to deal with the multitudes of relatives on both sides," he called over his shoulder as he and Mauro headed back to the street. "But I'll run interference for you. It's what brothers do."
Seth turned, arched a brow, and the look on his face said she'd just become more interesting. "You ran away from home, Gianna?"
She laughed and shrugged as she stepped back inside. "In a manner of speaking. My family is American by birth but old-world Italian by nature. They like their ducklings to stay close to the nest, marry other Italians and raise a bunch of cute Italian babies within five minutes of the family home. I'm bucking the trend." She let her smile include the old-fashioned setting surrounding them. "But they'll all be okay with it once I'm here and settled. The idea that I'm making a move like this while they're in Florida is giving my mother and aunt agita."
She tipped her face up to him as he moved to the door. "You're not Italian."
"No, but I've got buddies who've caused their mothers a little agita now and again. I get it."
She nodded as she held the door open. "They know we're moving here, but I didn't exactly do this with a nod of approval, if you know what I mean. By the time they come back north, Gram and I will be settled in. We'll be sewing up a storm of vintage-looking clothing for retail and special orders, we'll have the gently used clothing part of the store set up for business and all will be well with the world."
"Spring is a wonderful thing around here." Seth jutted his chin across the lamplit village road as he stepped outside. "Remember-I'm right over there if you need anything."
"I won't forget," she promised. She watched him walk up the slick black asphalt and thought how solid and safe he looked. Square shouldered, light eyed, brown hair cut short, flat on top, a don't-mess-with-me set to his jaw, his gaze. But when he smiled or laughed, his joy welcomed like a big, old hug.
And it was nice to know he lived close by. She'd mentioned that her mother was protective, but that was like calling a Category 4 hurricane a minor storm. She'd stretched the truth by minimizing her family's love and care. She had to, because she'd taken other steps without her family's knowledge, choosing a path that couldn't be backtracked.
If Sofia Bianchi-her mother-knew what she'd done, she might think Gianna had totally lost it. And Mike's mother, her former mother-in-law? Another battle to wage, even more difficult in some ways, but not yet. She'd bought time by moving this far away. Faith and time were what she needed right now. She had until spring to get things in order. Four months to make things happen before the older generation returned. And with Gram's help, that was just what she intended to do.
The subzero windchill seemed less irksome as Seth strode toward the café in search of an early supper. The diner would have their every-Saturday meat-loaf special, but he wasn't in the mood for meat loaf.
Tori hated meat loaf. Remember how often you pushed her to try it? Why did you do that? Was it really all that important?
Seth shoved the internal scolding aside to make room for the greater ache in his heart. Another Christmas gone. Another empty holiday put behind him. In the cold, late-day light of early January, darkness seeped into him.
What was she doing now? Was her mother cherishing her? Or was the girl's presence cramping her mother's style? And then what would Jasmine do?