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Jack eased his old truck against the curb behind a bright red BMW Z4 parked outside Missy Saunders's and wished he had the time to work on the house. He hated to see the magnificent old buildings of the former gold-mining town lying unloved and unkept. This home was a particularly fine specimen, built by a miner who'd struck it rich with a huge nugget back in the 1870s. It had passed down through the miner's family, eventually going to Missy Saunders. Missy was an only child and had never married. Jack guessed it had been sold long ago to pay Missy's nursing-home fees. The sweet old lady had spent a while at the Twilight Years before passing on. Jack regretted he hadn't been living in Spruce Lake so he could've attended her funeral—especially since his mom had reported that Gracie had made a brief appearance to pay her respects to her great-aunt. He wished he'd seen her then. It might have helped him make up his mind about a few things, maybe get her out of his system once and for all.
He shook his head to clear it. No point in reminiscing about what might have been. He and Gracie were history. She was never coming back to town; she'd told him as much. He really needed to get over her and move on with his life. His realization that he was still in love with her had helped him decide that he'd never make a priest and he'd left the seminary in L.A. before being ordained. Although there'd been other reasons for leaving, Gracie had been the main one. But she was a married woman and therefore off-limits, so instead he'd channeled his energies into a carpentry apprenticeship, then worked with underprivileged kids helping them learn a trade and life skills. It was rewarding work, but a lonely life nevertheless.
Since returning to Spruce Lake a couple of years ago, Jack had restored many of the town's Victorianera buildings—but none of them had the size and grandeur of Missy Saunders's place. Still, there were other contractors in the county, whom Mike had probably been sweet-talking all week. Funny that no one else had taken on the project.
Parked in front of the sports car was his new truck, emblazoned with Jack O 'Malley Constructions on the doors. Jack had taken delivery of the Dodge Ram only last week. And he hated it. It was just too new and shiny for him. He preferred his old Ford F150.
Jack had had Betsy since high school and, before that, she'd been used to run around the family ranch, Two Elk. She had over a million miles on the clock and wasn't missing a beat. Her seats were worn and comfortable and fitted Jack's butt like a glove.
He'd felt like a traitor when he'd taken Betsy down to trade her in on the Dodge. They'd offered peanuts for her, so he'd kept Betsy and bought the Dodge.
Two days later he gave the Dodge to his foreman, Al Hernandez, to drive. Al was only too happy to use the boss's truck, with its smell of new leather and its too shiny paintwork. Al had three young boys, and the twin cab arrangement suited his family perfectly.
Jack had arranged to meet Al at the house, figuring the two of them would get through the assessment twice as fast. He'd blow this doctor off with a ridiculously high estimate and then he'd be able to start on Adam's place with a clear conscience—and the knowledge that another contractor in town would get the job. Not that any other contractor would be as good as Jack and his team, but what did this doctor think? That he could snap his fingers and have someone start immediately?
The door of the sports car opened and a woman stepped out. Her dark hair fell across her face, hiding her features, but Jack didn't miss the oh-so-long legs and trim figure as she stalked around the front of her sports car and onto the sidewalk.
She walked with confidence, like a woman used to getting her own way. She, and the car, looked totally out of place in Spruce Lake. Jack's hometown was more battered SUVs, jeans and cowboy boots—not flashy sports cars, designer dresses and six-inch heels.
One of those heels wedged itself in a crack in the sidewalk.
Jack watched as she bent to pull it out, revealing a lot more leg and the bright red undersides of her shoes.
He enjoyed the show, wondering who this fish out of water could be visiting in Spruce Lake, because for sure she wasn't local. Jack would've noticed her way before this if she was.
He could hear her cursing through the open window of his truck. Time to rescue the damsel in distress, he decided as he climbed out and sauntered over to the woman. "Need any help?" he asked.
She stopped cussing and pulling at her leg long enough to stand up to her full height and look him in the eye.
Jack felt the sucker punch right to his gut. He'd know those bewitching light brown eyes, that pert nose, those soft full lips, anywhere.
She'd lost a good fifteen pounds, had her hair cut and styled and was wearing way too much makeup, but it was her, all right.
He swallowed and said, "Hi, Gracie."
She frowned and said, "Do I know you?"
Jack felt the sucker punch again as she reminded him how insignificant a part of her life he'd been, in spite of their dating for nearly two years in high school.
He pulled off his sunglasses and held out his hand. "Jack O'Malley. We dated for a while. Remember?"
Jack had fallen hard for Gracie the day she'd entered his classroom in their junior year. She'd graduated with an A-plus average, while Jack—thanks to his dyslexia—had barely scraped through. She'd won a scholarship to college, then medical school. Jack hadn't fared quite so well—at least, not scholastically. He'd joined the peace corps right out of high school and worked on projects around the world for two years. He'd come home, drifted through college. Then, believing it was the best way to answer his calling to help others, he entered the seminary.
She stared at Jack, glanced at Betsy and then at his shiny new truck with Jack O 'Malley Constructions on the door, and finally back at him. "Jack? You're my contractor?"
"You inherited the house from your Aunt Missy?"
She shrugged. "Sort of. It's a long story."
One Jack was curious about since if anyone should have inherited, he'd expected it to be Gracie's bum of a father. So Mike was well aware of who the owner was and Jack's connection to her.
Meddling Mike wasn't above a bit of matchmaking. Well, he'd lose any bets on this one.
Mike probably figured Jack wouldn't be able to say no to his high school sweetheart. Mike was wrong.
"I'm not your contractor," he said, almost wishing—perversely—that he was. He had something to prove to Gracie Saunders. "I agreed to do an estimate, for comparison's sake. That's all."
"He told me.. " She suddenly seemed to remember that her shoe was still stuck in the sidewalk and bent again to try pulling it out. Since the heels were so high and her dress so short and tight-fitting, it wasn't an easy task.
"Allow me," Jack said, and knelt at her feet. He grimaced at the metaphor. He'd virtually worshipped the ground Gracie walked on in high school. She'd been his first girlfriend. His first lover. And then she'd walked all over his heart.
He gently grasped her ankle in one hand and her shoe in the other.
Grace felt a shot of heat race up her leg at Jack's touch. She watched as those big, capable hands eased her foot from her Christian Louboutin pump and placed it on the sidewalk while he worked on getting her shoe out of the crack. Jack had sure grown up. No wonder she hadn't recognized him. He was so much taller, so much broader. Jack was no longer a high school boy; he was a man, and that resonated deep inside her.
But Jack was the one person whose path she hadn't wanted to cross in Spruce Lake. If they spent any time together, she was afraid he'd discover her secret, which had the potential to destroy them both.
"Careful!" she warned as he pulled her shoe from the walk.
Jack stood to his full height, towering over her by at least eight inches now that she was balancing on her foot without the benefit of six-inch heels.
He examined the shoe, then handed it to her, saying, "Why anyone would want to wear something as impractical as this is beyond my comprehension."
Grace had worn those shoes to impress. Impress anyone from her past she might happen to run into in Spruce Lake. She wanted to show them that Grace Saunders—in spite of her crappy home life, her loser parents, her hand-me-down clothes—had made good. In fact, she'd made better than good. She was a successful Boston pediatrician with a long list of patients.
Her shoulders sagged. A list of patients she'd handed over in her haste to leave town. She might be financially secure and successful. But she was also completely burned out.
She took the shoe from Jack and examined the heel. It was shattered. She cursed.
"Thankyou is the usual form of appreciation in this town," he said.
She glanced up at him and said, "So, I heard you'd become a priest or something?"
He nodded. "Or something. I'm now a contractor." No point in telling her the whole story. She wouldn't be in town long enough for it to matter. "My contractor."
He shook his head. "I've already told Mike I couldn't do this job."
"Even if I paid you double?"
Now he stuck both hands in the back pockets of his jeans. She had him there. Money always talked and he had plenty of community projects he could direct some extra funds to, but Adam and Carly were family. He owed them.
"Not even then."
"I don't remember you being such a hard case in high school, Jack," she said, practically batting her eyelashes at him.
"High school was a long time ago, Gracie," he said, since she seemed to be avoiding the fact that they'd dated for two years.
When Gracie had put her name forward as a peer tutor, Jack, struggling because of dyslexia, had signed up. They'd spent a lot of time together after school hours and eventually he'd built up the courage to ask her out. She'd said, "What took you so long? Where did you have in mind?"
Jack had been so flabbergasted, never believing she'd say yes, that he didn't have anywhere in mind. Except to go parking at Inspiration Point, the local necking spot.
Not that he'd ever necked with a girl. And he didn't get to do it that night, either. But later.
"What do you mean, 'Not even then'?" she demanded, bringing him back to the present.
Jack crossed his arms and widened his stance. "I'm due to start work on my brother's house outside town tomorrow. I don't break my promises."
Grace admired his candor. Then a need to prick the confidence he was projecting made her say, "Didn't you break your promise to the church by leaving the priesthood?" Aunt Missy had written her about it.
His eyes narrowed. "My relationship with the church, and why I left, is none of your business."
Dammit! She was intrigued and couldn't let it go. "Did you fall in love with one of your parishioners?"
"And you just stepped way over the mark." He gave her a tiny salute, saying, "Goodbye, Gracie," turned on his heel and headed to his truck. "I'd say it's been a pleasure. But it hasn't."
"It's Grace!" she shouted to his back. "Not Gracie." How dare he just walk away like that!
He shrugged and pulled open the door of his truck. "Whatever," he said, and climbed in.
"Wait!" she cried, and hobbled toward his truck, one shoe on and one off.
She went to rest her arms on the passenger's side window frame, then noticed it was dusty. She touched the frame with her fingertips and leaned in. "I'm sorry, Jack. I didn't mean to pry."
"Yes, you did." He started the truck.
"You can't leave me here like this! You promised to give me an estimate."
"I promised Mike I'd give him an estimate. That was before I knew who his doctor client was. Goodbye, Grace."
Posted March 28, 2013
Posted March 22, 2013