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Jennifer Truesdale's cell phone rang. She stopped sweeping at warp speed and eyed the miniature tormentor sitting on the dusty counter, wondering what bad news it could bring this time.
Wasn't it enough for one afternoon that Meyer's Auto Repair had called to say the car needed new brakes and two tires? That her best friend, Darcie, had phoned and said she couldn't help clean the dealership after all, because she had to work. That the town's biggest gossip had probed for confirmation that her older brother's marriage was in trouble—as if Jennifer would know. That the middle school assistant principal had called to report Ashley had been disciplined—again—for defiantly remaining in the hall after the bell had rung—again. Thank God school was out next week.
Although, then she'd be juggling keeping track of Ashley with her job.
The phone continued to ring. The way today had been going the caller could be her potential buyer backing out. The man's static-ridden message on the real estate office's answering machine had announced he would arrive tomorrow morning to look at the dealership. She should have known a real, live prospect was too good to be true.
Jennifer leaned the broom against the counter and opened her cell phone.
She quickly realized the official voice on the other end was not the potential buyer—so, at least for now, a buyer for this barely breathing dealership remained a possibility.
"Mrs. Stenner?" It was the woman from the state she'd talked to several times, most recently last winter.
"I've returned to my maiden name—Truesdale."
"Ah." The syllable held a wealth of understanding. Jennifer pushed back a strand of hair that had escaped the bandanna she wore in a futile attempt to keep her hair clean. The woman told her briskly, but not unkindly, what Jennifer had already suspected—they'd had no luck tracking down Eric Stenner to collect the child support he owed.
As she listened to the detailed explanation, Jennifer looked through a clear patch of the plate glass window she was still hours away from washing. This afternoon was slipping away even faster than the sun that was about to disappear behind a sheet of gray clouds rolling in from the west and flattening the sky over Drago, Illinois.
"Thank you for your efforts, Ms. Dorran," she said.
"Oh, I'm not done trying, Ms. Truesdale. I just didn't want you counting on the money in the near future."
After they hung up, Jennifer found herself swiping at the counter with the sleeve of the old jersey she wore. From her box of cleaning supplies, she grabbed a spray bottle and cloth, going to work on that counter as if it were the enemy.
No, she definitely wouldn't count on child support. She would count on herself. And she would make it. She had to make it. For Ashley. If she could just hang on until the real estate market picked up in Drago.
That's why the appearance of a potential buyer for the car dealership had seemed like such a miracle. Selling Stenner Autos would produce a commission that would plug that gap beautifully for her, along with saving this place from bankruptcy. But she only had seventeen hours before the potential buyer's arrival.
She wished she had more time. More time and more money. Heck, as long as she was wishing for time and money, she might as well throw in wisdom.And with a soon-to-be-teenage daughter, patience. Yes, she most definitely needed patience.
But right now she didn't have time to worry about patience. Especially when she also had to fix dinner, try to impress on Ashley the necessity of following the rules, tear her away from endless debating about what to wear tomorrow, get her to do her homework and go to bed. Maybe, if Darcie's shift had ended by then, she'd keep on eye on Ashley while Jennifer returned here to clean. Ashley would be incensed, proclaiming that at nearly thirteen she didn't need a babysitter. But she'd go to sleep, and someone she knew would be there, in case she woke up. And it would make Jennifer feel better.
Jennifer gave the now-shining counter a pat before resuming sweeping debris into a dustpan that she then dumped into a nearly filled trash bag.
Seventeen hours to wipe out more than a year of being abandoned and who knew how many months of neglect before that.
The words'echo rapped against the inside of Jennifer's ribs. The dealership. She meant the dealership. That's what she needed to be thinking about. Selling it would tide them over until the technology company Zeke-Tech moved to town, bringing employees who would need places to live. Then her efforts as a real estate agent would really take off.
But first, she had to sell Stenner Autos, which had stood empty since her ex-husband ran it nearly into bankruptcy.
With that commission in the bank she wouldn't have to work so much, and she'd have more time to spend with Ashley. Maybe more patience, too. Wisdom? Well, you didn't get everything you wished for. Or that you needed.
Jennifer dropped the full trash bag with others piled near the front door and snagged a fresh one, heading around the high counter and into the general manager's office, the last place to sweep. Then she would wash the windows and desks. Floors, too. Water stains marked the ceiling, but fixing that was beyond even wishing for. There was only so much she could do in seventeen hours.
She swept quickly in the near dark. She'd have to bring lightbulbs after dinner.
Jennifer heard the soft whoosh of the main door that she hadn't bothered to lock behind her when she'd hurried in with the cleaning supplies. Her heartbeat stumbled.
Not from fear—Drago wasn't that kind of town—but from a premonition.
It couldn't be the buyer. It couldn't. The phone message had definitely said tomorrow morning at ten.
It had seemed a miracle that between the old machine's pops, distortion and sound-blurs slices of clarity made "Stenner Autos" and "ten tomorrow morning" recognizable. She'd also pieced together a phrase about "interested" and something about coming into town. As for his name or a phone number to call him back to fill in the gaps, forget it.
But she hadn't minded. She'd been more than happy with the miracle of "Stenner Autos" and "ten tomorrow morning."
She eased to the office's open door and peered around its edge.Against the front window's lighter background of gray she saw the outline of a man standing a yard inside the door, feet slightly spread, hands on lean hips, head tipped back as he scanned the ceiling. She couldn't see his face, but she was certain he was frowning. He would look at the ceiling first. Damn.
She didn't recognize the outline as anyone she knew. So who—?
The potential buyer. A day early.
A stream of words she never used—because sure as heck if she did, Ashley would hear and feel free to use them—rocketed through her head.
Okay, okay. If it was the client, she couldn't do anything about his being here. And she couldn't do anything about his seeing the place looking like this. But she could try to slip out without his seeing her looking like this. Tomorrow, in her navy-blue suit, he would see only a calm, confident professional whose words would carry enough weight to talk away any objection, including water stains on the ceiling.
She would edge out the door, staying low to take advantage of shadows from the counter, and slip down the hall to the back door. It might be tricky using the key without making noise, but—
The dust of empty spaces, old paper and who knew what else, all stirred by her broom, wrenched a sneeze from her. Then another and a third.
So much for remaining unnoticed. Still, she automatically dodged behind the office door.
The sneezes came so hard and fast that for a moment she could only lean on the broom and gasp.
Footsteps headed across the showroom toward her. "Who's there?"
Damn. She straightened away from the broom. "Hello?" the voice repeated. It sounded vaguely familiar. So maybe it wasn't the client. Maybe it was a friend or neighbor who'd stopped by. Not from any interest in buying Stenner Autos—nobody in Drago could afford it—but maybe to help.
"Who's back there?" It sounded more like a command than a question.
He shifted and she could see the way he moved. No, he wasn't anyone from Drago. She was sure.
Escape was hopeless. She stepped forward to the office doorway reluctantly, but determined to not be apologetic or wimpy. He was the one who had no right to be here.
"Who are you?" she demanded. The sneezes—and the irritation—lowered her voice and added a rasp.
He stopped beside the counter and peered at her. "Sorry, I didn't mean to startle you." His tone held less command, more gentleness now. But broad shoulders, several inches of height above hers and dark coloring still made him a commanding figure. "I was driving by and stopped to look inside. The door was open."
"The door might not have been locked, but it wasn't open." Her sharpness stemmed partly from the fact that he'd startled her, partly from the knowledge that she'd been wrong. It was someone she knew.
In fact, she realized with a sickening spasm in her stomach, it was both the client and someone from Drago. Originally from Drago, anyway.
"Sorry again." He drawled out the words, his face shifting into a grin. Most women probably found that expression charming. "Though, you should have the alarm switched on, being here alone."
She could hardly imagine a man she would find less charming at this moment than this particular one.
Her ex-husband's younger brother, Trent Stenner. She hadn't seen him in years. When she'd still been going to Stenner family gatherings with Eric, Trent had been noticeably absent. But she couldn't mistake the broad cheekbones divided by a strong nose with a distinctive thin scar angled across it.
"I'm Trent Stenner," he said. "I called the real estate office about seeing the dealership."
He hadn't recognized her.
She could hardly blame him, but still... He'd grown more solid and more confident in the years since they'd seen each other. She'd grown...well, she'd like to think wiser, but the downside of wiser was that it went with older.
"Tomorrow." Her voice started in the sneeze-induced lower register, and she made sure it remained there. Just in case.
"You're supposed to be here tomorrow. You came early to catch—" She swallowed the word me. Maybe, just maybe, she could still present herself as a real estate professional tomorrow, if she got out of today without his recognizing her. "The agent."
His dark eyebrows popped up. But she was done with placating Stenner men. Heck, this one had never even pretended he liked her.
"No," he said evenly. "I just got to town and it was spur-of-the-moment to stop by here. Like I said, I was driving by."
He gestured toward the window, which showed a shining car parked next to her aged compact.
"Why did you come to town a day early?"
"Just the way my schedule worked." That didn't sound like the truth. By comparison, his statement about spur-of-the-moment did ring true.
So what could have brought him to Drago a day early? In fact, why was he here at all? It wasn't as if he'd shown any interest in visiting his hometown for years.
And why on earth would he suddenly get it into his head to look into buying the dealership?
Eric had spent time at Stenner Autos, letting customers shake hands with the owner's star quarterback son. Trent had stayed far away. Once he was in college, he'd rarely even returned to town.
"Looks like you've been doing hand-to-hand combat with the dirt." Trent brushed his finger over the trailing cuff of her long-sleeved jersey, snapping her attention back to the immediate situation.
Could he possibly recognize it as one of his brother's? It had been years, but it did have Eric's old high school football number on it. Wouldn't that be perfect—he hadn't recognized his brother's old wife, but did recognize his brother's old shirt? She had to get him out of here fast.
"I have to get back to work. Come back tomorrow."
"They left you to clean this whole place by yourself?"
"It's my job."
"Big job for one person."
She grunted and turned away, wielding the broom.
He didn't budge. "Will you get in trouble with the boss because I saw the place like this?"
"No. Now, please go."
The door whooshed again.
As Jennifer turned to identify her new interruption, a familiar voice came.