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The old proverb "change is the only constant" seemed to echo inside the empty house as Susanna Adams stood in the doorway of her home for the last time. And she kept standing there, somehow not ready to leave even though she'd done nothing for weeks but prepare. Apparently all the activity of packing and storing twenty years of memories in a portable storage container had been nothing but a diversion.
Once she left, she'd need to lock the door then drop off the key with the real estate agent. She wouldn't be able to get inside her home ever again. What if this move was a huge mistake? Suddenly, taking that one last step symbolized everything she was leaving behind.
Glancing into the quiet darkness, Susanna took a steadying breath and tried to capture the moment in memory. She knew every square inch of this house by heart. The wall separating this foyer from the living area, a wall she'd often bumped into with her arms full of groceries. How many bruises had she sported through the years because some brainy architect thought the wall should extend beyond a clear passage to the living room?
Susanna had no clue. She only knew that without the kids' photos marking their stepping stones through school years or Skip's stuffed fish showcased front and center, the wall looked foreign. Only a wall surrounded by unfamiliar shadows.
Without her family, this house was just a house, the way it had been when a real estate agent had unlocked the door for the first time twenty years ago. Before she and Skip had filled every room with expectations and dreams.
They had been such big dreamers.
The thought grabbed Susanna around the throat, made her swallow hard. They'd bought this house while still in college, ignoring every bit of advice from their parents and friends.
"You 're too young to get married."
"Finish college and start careers before settling down."
"Live a little before saddling yourselves with a mortgage."
She and Skip had filled this house with dreams of a life together where anything could happen. And did.
They'd started careers while having their family, had paced floors in the wee hours through colic while still managing to make it to work on time the next morning.
They'd been T-ball coach and Brownie leader. They'd taken turns as chaperone for school field trips. They'd been homeroom mom who baked designer cupcakes en masse and homeroom dad who tended every classroom pet from mammal to reptile.
"What's the rush? You've got a lifetime to settle down."
No, they hadn't. They'd had only a limited number of years together, certainly not the lifetime everyone had promised. Thank God they'd ignored the advice and hadn't wasted a second. As Skip was losing his battle with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, he'd said his only regret was not getting more time with her and the beautiful family they'd made.
That was still her only regret.
So, Susanna had forged on while he missed the teenage years, the championship games, the homecomings, the proms, the graduations. Survival helped her through grief, helped her focus on what was importantkeeping life familiar for the kids. She'd been playing the roles of both mom and dad, keeping life moving in the direction she and Skip had intended for their family.
Now both kids were away at college. Bedtime stories and good-night kisses were a thing from the distant past as Brooke was three states away in Virginia and Brandon five states away in South Carolina. If she could ever take this last step and get on the road, she'd only be one state away from each.
Then selling the house wasn't a mistake, was it?
What else could Susanna do? She had an opportunity for job advancement that would get her family back on solid financial ground for the first time since Skip had died. True, there was risk, but she didn't like the alternative any bettercontinuing to knock around this empty house, losing her mind from loneliness.
The kids didn't know. She was the parent, the only one they had left. She'd reared them to be independent adults. They needed to go off and experience life, not tie themselves to home, worried about leaving their mother alone.
But was she being selfish by selling the only home they'd ever known? Once she locked this door, none of them could come back to the one place they would always have memories of Skip.
She hadn't realized how much those memories, and the tangible evidence of his presence in their lives, had kept him alive. But as she stared into the foyer, she realized how close he'd been in spirit, as if he'd only gone on a business trip and would be awaiting them at the airport to bring him home.
Now all visible reminders were packed away, their family scattered. Brooke and Brandon lived separate lives on separate campuses in separate states. Susanna was the only one left at home with the memories. Now she'd be forced to move on, too. Was she ready?
Being a single parent was one thing. She'd had purpose to keep the family together, to help her kids deal with their father's death. Being a single woman with a life of her own was another thing entirely.
That was something she'd never really done. After leaving home, she'd tackled college dorm life with her best friend beside her. Then, as a young bride, she'd moved from the dorms to this house with Skip .
Susanna honestly didn't know what came next, what she could handle. She only knew that loneliness had grown all too familiar of late and something had to change.
Another deep breath.
She had to take this next step in life as an individual or else she'd remain here, feeling left behind, pining for everything she'd once had.
Life was change. Susanna knew that, and the kids could travel on school breaks far more easily to her new home in Charlotte, North Carolina, than they could return to New York where she was now. That was the reality of the situation. She'd figure out how to move on, even if she couldn't see beyond placing one foot in front of the other.
Memories would travel with them wherever they went.
One last glance into that shadowy interior Susanna pulled the door shut quietly, slipped the key into the lock and turned the bolt for the last time.
Jay Canady moved past doors in the administrative corridor, pausing only to glance into the financial office.
"Got a call from the gatehouse," he said. "The new administrator is on her way."
He didn't bother waiting for a reply but kept going until just shy of the front lobby, a spot where he could view the comings and goings around the reception desk, while remaining mostly hidden from view.
Mostly was the operative word. Jay wasn't fooling anyone around here. And certainly not the daytime receptionist. Amber routinely accused him of lurking behind potted palms to catch her tweeting on her iPhone during her shift.
He wasn't doing anything of the sort, but as owner and property administrator of The Arbors, A-list memory-care facility and family business, he was fond of hiding. Moments when he wasn't in popular demand were few and far between.
But hiding never worked for long. Especially with Amber. She didn't need X-ray vision to find him on any one of the sixty acres that made up the property. She wielded that iPhone like a lightsaber, texting him whenever he wasn't within earshot and getting miffed if he didn't reply immediately.
Jay should institute a new policy: no cell phones on shift. Radios only. But what was the point? In the very near future, none of his policies would mean squat.
The thought made him smile. As soon as the new property administrator walked through the door, everyone around here could start reprogramming their internal GPSs to take problems to someone else for solutions.
"Got your fingers crossed?" a voice crackly with age asked.
"You betcha." Jay raised a hand to display the good-luck gesture. He didn't bother turning around to see the man who'd shuffled up behind. Careful steps had announced Walter's approach long before he'd reached his destination.
Like Jay himself, Walter Higgins was a fixture around The Arbors. The longtime chief financial officer was another employee who could track down Jay no matter where he was. But Walter had the distinction of being an employee who also had a role in Jay's personal life.
Not that the entire staff couldn't him call 24/7. They could and did. Often. But Walter's calls weren't always work related. Not only had he been managing The Arbors' finances since before Jay had been born, but Walter had become an honorary grandfather since Jay's real granddad had passed away.
That connection had been cemented when Jay's late grandmother, after grieving the loss of her forty-year marriage, had gotten involved with Walter. Jay had never askednever would, eitherbut he suspected Walter had loved Gran all along and stayed single until he got his chance to woo her into an honest relationship.
Jay would certainly miss Walter. But selling The Arbors didn't mean giving up the people in his life. He had some work to do proving that to Walter, though.
The electronic hiss of sliding doors dragged Jay's attention to the main lobby. His breath tightened in his chest as a dark-haired woman in a business suit strolled through with brisk steps.
"I thought you said they were sending a middle-aged widow with grown kids," Walter grumbled.
"Widow with college kids." The distinction obviously made a difference. "Northstar provided a bio. If memory servesand it still does, which is always a good thingthe new administrator is around forty. Not middle-aged."
Not for Jay, who was pulling up the rear at thirty-two, or for Walter, who was pushing eighty-six. "I'm not even sure that's her. There wasn't a photo."
"She could be my granddaughter, Jay. My great-granddaughter."
"How's that? You never had any kids."
Walter grunted, narrowing his gaze at the reception desk. The woman currently greeting Amber wasn't Jay's idea of what a widow with college kids would look like, either. The suit emphasized her curves. She wasn't tall, but not short, either. Just really curvy.
Withdrawing a business card from her jacket, she handed it to Amber, who leaped from the chair on immediate hyperalert. Reaching across the desk, she extended a hand in welcome.
Walter scowled harder.
Judging by Amber's actions, this woman was the new administrator, whether she was what Jay expected or not. The woman flashed an easy smile that animated a heart-shaped face framed by a tumble of dark hair.
She was a very beautiful woman, which really shouldn't be the first thing Jay noticed. Not if he planned to retire from the memory-care business with some peace of mind.
Competent. Experienced. Professional. Compassionate. Those were the things he should be looking for.
He'd noticed one of four.
Dressing professionally was a start, he supposed. And what did competence, experience or compassion look like, anyway? Jay shook off the thought. Worry was getting the best of him, but he wouldn't admit that to Walter, who sought any reason to launch into The-Arbors-is-your-responsibility lecture again.
Jay had heard the arguments and the lectures. More than once, thank you.
"Okay. She's professional," he said. "Attractive. Stylish. A bit younger than I expected"
"Haven't had access to her personnel file," Jay reminded. "Technically she works for Northstar Management."
"Which is why I can't figure out why I'm adding her to our payroll. She doesn't come cheap, Jay. You'll be eating a fair sum if this deal falls through."
The deal wouldn't fall through. "We've got to assume some risk. It's only fair. Northstar would acquire this property tomorrow if it wasn't for me insisting on a transition period."
As much as Jay wanted out of hereand he did in a big wayhe couldn't leave without witnessing North-star's procedural changes and being reassured they would uphold The Arbors' standard of care. This new administrator had six months to actualize Northstar's promise to provide growth potential while maintaining the excellence of service established by Jay, and generations of his family before him.
That was the best he could do. He was leaving, although Walter still hadn't given up hope he might yet dissuade Jay. But the decision was made. He'd worked hard to put together a plan to insure the future for The Arbors, the staff and residents.
Walter could grouse all he wantedthe only thing left to do was get through the transition. Jay almost felt bad for the new administrator. Walter wouldn't be a pushover. He'd compare her to Gran, whose shoes were awfully big to fill, as he was so fond of saying. So big that not even Jay had filled them.
But Walter only wanted what was best for The Arbors. That much Jay knew. The rest of the staff, too. They were all competent and experienced professionals. Well versed in what it meant to be an employee at The Arbors.
The Compassion to Care.
That catchphrase had been around since the very beginning, when Gran had started the place to care for her mother during an era when not much had been known about Alzheimer's disease.
Gran had wanted to provide some quality of life, so she'd transformed a wing of the house on Granddad's farm into an ALF, an assisted-living facility. This was long before Jay's time, but he knew she'd added one bed at a time so her mother would have pleasant companions to fill her days.
Gran had learned all she could about Alzheimer's care and kept up with the research. Her tiny ALF had grown from one bed in the main house to one hundred and twenty beds in a new three-story facility with a nursing center on the ground floor. The Arbors had become an A-list memory-care community with a long waiting list for admission.
Would this around-forty widow with college kids have the compassion and ability to carry on Gran's legacy? Northstar Management had promised to send the perfect person to replace him so he could get on with living his life. Finally.
He'd given so much to this place that, if he didn't get out soon, there would be nothing left of him. This place was sucking him dry.
"And you really won't close the deal if you're unhappy withwhat's her name again?" Walter asked.
"Ms. Adams. Ms. Susanna Adams."
"If you're unhappy with Ms. Susanna Adams?" Everything about Walter, from the creased white eyebrows to the hard stare in his eyes, which still read between the lines, broadcast his doubt.
"Really, Walter? You're questioning my integrity?"
He shook his head. "Just your ability to see clearly."
The same could be said about Walter and his stubborn refusal to even consider a future with Northstar. He'd seized any chance to talk some sense into Jay, had been rallying the troops to his side at every opportunity.