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He didn't have time for this.
Brendan Kane followed the path of destruction down the hall to the living room, where tiny pieces of white foam scattered across the hardwood floor made it look as if an early snowfall had swept across Michigan's Upper Peninsula. The trail wound between the coffee table and leather recliner and disappeared behind the sofa.
Brendan knelt down for a better look. Sure enough, peering at him over a barricade of stolen goods was the perpetrator of the latest crime spree. A slightly overweight basset hound happily stripping the remaining leaves from the branch of a silk ficus his mother had rescued from the curb just moments before it was devoured by the steel jaws of the garbage truck.
Because rescuing things was part of Sunni's M.O., which was how Brendan had ended up with Missy, a troublesome canine who preferred leather shoes, artificial plants and, yes, even the occasional sofa pillow, over rawhide chews.
"There are laws against vandalism, you know." He scowled at the dog but she ignored him. It reminded Brendan of Sunni's response when he'd told her that he was too busy to care for a pet.
A few months ago, his mother had started volunteering at the local animal shelter, and it had become her personal mission to find homes for all the stray dogs and cats that came in on her watch. Sunni was gaining quite a reputation in Castle Falls for her ability to match an animal with just the right owner. But so far, when it came to her oldest son, she was 0 for 3.
Brendan had been waiting for her to realize that he was the common denominator in all the failed relationships.
"This is strike three, you know." And he was out. "You're going to have to chew someone else out of house and" Brendan paused as his cell phone began to blast the theme song from Mission: Impossible, signaling an incoming call from his youngest brother.
Brendan stabbed at the green circle on the screen. "What?"
"I'm fine. Thanks for asking." Aiden's low chuckle rattled in his ear. "Are you busy?"
"I'm always busy." Brendan narrowed his eyes at the basset hound. She'd dropped the ficus branch and was eyeing his shoelaces as if they were the next item on the buffet. "Don't even think about it," he muttered.
"Don't think about what?"
"I wasn't talking to you."
"Okay," Aiden said mildly. "Then who are you talking to?"
Busted. "No one."
"Disturbing. And proof you need to get out more."
"Fine. I was talking to Missy." Brendan was forced to be honest, although he hated giving his kid brother any ammunition that could potentially be used against him in the future.
"Are you kidding?" Aiden hooted. Obviously forgetting the fact that he was four years younger, two inches shorter and had yet to beat Brendan in hand-to-hand sibling combat. "Liam and I didn't think she'd last a week."
Brendan silently counted backward. "You were right." The statement was followed by a whistle that threatened to pierce his left eardrum. "Have you broken the news to Mom?"
"Can I watch?"
"Very funny." Brendan swept up a handful of damp leaf debris. "I tried to tell her this was destined to fail."
Missy cast a reproachful look in his direction, took a few waddling steps forward and leaped onto the couch. No easy feat for an animal roughly the size and shape of the pillow she'd recently shredded.
"You know Mom," Aiden said. "She wants everyone to be happy."
"Then why isn't she leaving dogs on your doorstep?"
Brendan relocated an African violet from the windowsill to the stone ledge above the fireplace. Just in case.
"Maybe she thinks you need the practice," his brother said cheerfully.
Brendan scowled. "What kind of practice?"
"Uh the commitment kind?"
"I am committed." To the business he'd poured his heart and soul into for the past fifteen years. At sixteen, Brendan had saved Castle Falls Outfitters from bankruptcy. Ten years later, he'd doubled its annual profit. And any day now, if everything went according to plan, he would be signing a contract with a large sporting-goods chain, making their custom-made canoes available throughout the Midwest.
No one seemed to realize that kind of responsibility didn't leave a whole lot of time for anything else. Not that Brendan was complaining. It would take a lifetime to repay the debt he owed Sunni Mason, a woman who'd taken in three aspiring juvenile delinquents when they'd had nowhere else to go.
"Or Mom knows you practically live in your office, and she doesn't want you to be lonely."
"Lonely." When Brendan barely had a minute to himself? He worked out of an office at their mother's house, and even though his two younger brothers had converted storage space above the garage into a spacious apartment, they spent more time hanging out at his place than they did their own.
"You've heard the word, right?" Aiden laughed. "It's one of those pesky little things people sometimes refer to as emotions."
Brendan rolled his eyes. He didn't have time for those, either.
A car door slammed, and he glanced at the clock. Five o'clock on the dot. Sonia, affectionately known as Sunni to the people who loved her, was always punctual.
"I have to go."
Brendan hung up the phone. A split second later, he heard Sunni humming the chorus of a familiar praise song as she made her way up the sidewalk.
Missy tipped her nose toward the ceiling and let out a mournful howl.
The humming stopped.
"Tattletale," he grumbled.
The dog ignored himnaturallyand launched herself off the sofa. All four paws shot out in different directions on the hardwood floor like the points on a compass, and yet she still managed to beat him to the front door.
Looking, Brendan noted wryly, not at him but at the overweight basset hound nibbling on the laces of her pink hiking boots.
"How are you two getting along?"
Also directed at the dog.
Brendan decided to answer the question anyway. Since he was the one who had opposable thumbsand actually could speak. "She shredded my favorite tie yesterday."
"Good girl, Missy," his mother whispered. "I never did care for that tie."
"You're the one who bought it for me," Brendan pointed out.
"Only because I knew you'd like it." Bending down to give Missy's glossy head a pat, Sunni spotted the dog bed and basket of toys stacked neatly beside the door. Shook her head. "What seems to be the problem?"
She didn't add the words this time. They were implied.
"Missy is a great dog." A slight exaggeration, considering her penchant for turning everything into a chew toy. "But I just can't give her the attention she deserves." Brendan braced himself for the fallout. Again.
Sunni smiled. Smiled. "I understand."
"Really?" Because he remembered saying the same thing the day she'd dropped off Raquel, the incontinent Yorkie, and Bette Davis, a Doberman pinscher who'd hidden under the bed whenever someone knocked on the door, totally undermining his mother's claim that she'd be a great watchdog.
"I'll take Missy with me to church tonight and introduce her to Ed Wilson. His wife passed away a few months ago, and I heard him tell Pastor Tamblin the house is too quiet."
Brendan's eyes narrowed.
That was it?
"She'll be happier," he said. "You know that, right?"
"But will you?" Sunni murmured. Brendan took a moment to think about that.
Yes. Yes, he would.
"I'll put this stuff in the car for you. I'm sure Missy and Mr. Wilson will get along really well." He grabbed the box of toys before she could change her mind.
"Thank you, sweetheart. I have some last-minute packing to finish up before choir practice starts." Sunni followed him outside to the gray Subaru parked in front of the house, Missy happily chugging along at her heels.
Brendan popped open the trunk and blinked. "What's all this?"
"Paint." His mom grinned. "The house is long overdue for a makeover. I figured the best time to tackle a project that size is while I'm away on my birthday cruise."
Brendan couldn't argue with the timing or her claim that the rooms would benefit from a fresh coat of paint. The walls were still the same color they'd been when he'd moved from Detroit to Castle Falls at the age of fifteen. Six months after he and his brothers unpacked their belongings, Sunni had been more worried about keeping the bank from foreclosing on the house than she had about decorating it.
"Mark which color goes in which room." Brendan silently rearranged his schedule to accommodate a new project. "I can't promise I'll have it finished by the time you get home, but I'll do my best."
"Oh, you don't have to do a thing, sweetheart. I made other arrangements."
Brendan slowly pivoted to face her. "What kind of other arrangements?"
"You're always saying how busy you are" Sunni flashed a smile that rivaled the July sunshine for brightness "so I hired someone."
Lily Michaels tapped on the brake, and her car rolled to a stop on a crack in the asphalt where the road ended and a narrow wooden bridge began. Leaning forward, she squinted at a hand-painted sign framed between two pine trees on the other side of the river.
Castle Falls Outfitters.
She pulled in a breath and held it.
This was it. The beginning of a brand-new adventure.
Or the biggest mistake of your life.
Lily refused to listen to that negative inner voicea gruff baritone that sounded suspiciously like her father's.
But the contract in her purse, signed by Sonia Mason, proved that God was directing her steps. Even if Lily had never actually met the woman in person.
She glanced at the clock on the dashboard and sighed.
It didn't look as if she'd have the opportunity to meet her very first client today, either. Lily's plan to get an early start that morning had been sabotaged by a nail that had found its way into her tire as she'd backed out of the driveway of her apartment complex.
Please make yourself at home if I'm not there when you arrive, Sunni had written in her last email.
Another answer to prayer.
There were no hotels in Castle Falls, so Sunni had offered the use of her guest room until she returned from her Caribbean cruise. Lily had agreed to the arrangement without hesitation. The town was too far from Traverse City to commute back and forthand too far away for her father to drop by.
Something he'd been doing on a daily basis for the past few weeks. Nolan Michaels made no secret of the fact he wasn't happy with Lily's "impulsive decision" to change careers, even temporarily.
Her hands tightened around the steering wheel as the wooden bridge shuddered beneath the weight of her compact car. Once she was safely on the other side, it was easier to appreciate the unspoiled beauty of her surroundings. On the map, the river had been a tiny blue thread embroidered along an edge of national forest in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. She caught a flash of sapphire through the trees and heard the water humming a cheerful melody as it spilled over the rocks.
Lily couldn't wait to explore. If there was one thing she'd learned from Shelby, it was to view every day as a gift from God, meant to be unwrapped and enjoyed.
The thick hedge of trees began to thin out, and the late-afternoon sun winked off a metal roof. Rounding a curve, Lily drove past a large aluminum pole building and caught a glimpse of a rustic cabin tucked in a stand of trees behind it.
Sonia had mentioned she ran a home-based business, but Lily had been too busy concentrating on her own list of last-minute details to ask questions.
When the house came into view, she realized she probably should have.
The Craftsman-style Foursquare, dating back to the '50s, wore a shaggy coat of iron-gray paint. Its patchwork roof dipped low over the front porch like an old tweed cap, shading the windows from the sun. It looked to Lily as if the pink petunias planted along the sidewalk were nodding a welcome as she hopped out of the car.
Underneath the sisal welcome mat, she found a key to the front door. The small piece of metal felt heavy in the palm of Lily's hand.
Although she had requested photographs of the rooms she'd be renovating, Sunni had neglected to send any. Now, after seeing the outside of the house, Lily wondered if the oversight had been deliberate.
Well, there's only one way to find out, isn't there?
She fit the key in the lock and pushed the door open. One step forward and Lily found herself standing in a tunnel of blue-and-white gingham check, the pattern broken only by a line of bright red, wallpaper roosters marching along the strip of baseboard.
Following the roosters into the kitchen, Lily clapped one hand over her mouth to muffle a burst of laughter.
Yellow plaid wallpaper and sheep. Dozens of them, stenciled from floor to ceiling on all four walls and grazing between the cupboards.
By the time Lily walked into the living room and saw the tangerine walls, she decided this was going to be fun. The interior might be a bit outdated, but overall, the house had a personality as warm and inviting as a flannel shirt in January.
She opened the last door at the end of the hall and felt a jolt of surprise.
Sparse and utilitarian, the only furnishings were a navy blue wingback chair and a desk that, oddly enough, didn't face the row of windows overlooking the river. Unlike the rest of the rooms, there were no houseplants or knickknacks on the shelves. No pictures on the walls. Even though Lily had never met Sonia, she couldn't imagine the woman spending her days in an office that lacked the warmth of the rest of her home.
She'd start the transformation here. Brendan was late.
True, he probably shouldn't have scheduled an appointment on the day his mother had to be at the airport, but there should have been plenty of time for both if Brendan hadn't been forced to take a detour because of road construction. And if the detour hadn't been a back road with more twists and turns than a corn maze. Which meant Domita Peterson had probably gotten tired of waiting for him and left.
He hadn't been able to reach her by phone, not an uncommon occurrence given the unreliable cell-phone reception in the area. Ordinarily, Liam and Aiden would have been available to greet a potential customer, but they'd left that morning for a weekend-long camping trip to test one of Liam's new designs.
Brendan could only hope Mrs. Peterson had more patience than he did.
The frustration he'd been battling distilled into relief at the sight of an unfamiliar vehicle parked in the driveway.
As he pulled up next to it and got out of the car, a woman rounded the corner of the house. A young woman.
When Domita Peterson had called to request a meeting, she'd mentioned that she wanted to give her husband a canoe as a gift for his retirement. Brendan hadn't anticipated she would be in her mid-twenties, closer to his age than his mother's. With a face and figure guaranteed to draw a second glance.
Although the combination of faded jeans, a bright pink T-shirt and golden-blond hair separated into two ponytails made her look more girl-next-door than trophy wife.
"I'm sorry I'm late." Brendan kept his expression neutral.
Reminded himself that the woman's personal business wasn't any of his. "Why don't we go inside, where it's cooler?"
The woman's eyes, an unusual shade of blue-violet that reminded Brendan of the wildflowers that carpeted the woods every spring, widened in response to the suggestion.
Maybe she'd been expecting that the Castle Falls Outfitters' office would be housed in something other than a house. It wouldn't be the first time a potential customer had a difficult time reconciling the craftsmanship of their work with the place where they worked.
Brendan made it halfway down the sidewalk when he realized this potential customer wasn't following him. He glanced over his shoulder.
"Is something wrong?"
"I.I think you have me confused with someone else."
Brendan frowned. "Aren't you Domita Peterson? My six o'clock appointment?"
The woman shook her head, and the movement sent the twin ponytails dancing.
"I'm Lily Michaelsthe painter. And you are "
Someone who plans to have a little chat with his mother as soon as possible, Brendan thought grimly.
Except that he couldn't. Because at that very moment, Sunni was on a cruise ship bound for the Caribbean.