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Beth Carrigan took a last glance at her cell phone, shoved it into her pocket and heaved a sigh.
A crisp, sunny October weekend in Aspen Creek, Wisconsin, usually brought crowds of tourists from Chicago, Minneapolis, and all parts in between.
It didn't bring unexpected calls from Washington, D.C., California, and the Henderson Law Office. Calls that now had her stomach doing crazy cartwheels.
What on earth was she going to do?
But everything is going to be fine, Lord. It's going to be fine, right? She surveyed her bookstore, breathing in the beloved scents of books, dark-roast coffee and apricot tea as she walked to the back, where her friends were already settled in an eclectic mix of comfy upholstered chairs and rockers.
Their voices fell silent as three pairs of worried eyes looked up at her. Their concern was so palpable that she forced herself to dredge up a nonchalant smile. "How's the coffee? Is it better this time? I bought a new fair trade brand and"
"The question is, how are you?" Olivia Lawson, the oldest book-club member at fifty-six, had been an adjunct professor of literature at an exclusive private college in Chicago before walking away from the rat race and moving to Aspen Creek to teach at the community college.
Her eyebrows, dark in contrast to her short, prematurely silver hair, drew together in a worried frown. "You definitely look upset. Did that fool banker deny your loan application again?"
"No news." Beth closed her eyes briefly for a quick silent prayer over the vacant building next door, where she hoped to open a gift shop and provide space for a youth center on the upper level.
Keeley North, owner of an antiques shop a few blocks away, snorted. "If it's those vandals again, we can all march over to the sheriff's office and make sure he takes things seriously this time."
Despite her worries, Beth smiled. Blond, blue-eyed, with an effervescent sense of humor that belied her bulldog tenacity, Keeley was loyal to a fault. Beth could easily see her backing the sheriff into a corner until he called in the National Guard. "No vandals. It's well, a little more complicated than that."
"If this is a bad time, we can all leave, dear." Olivia frowned. "Unless, of course, there's something we can do to help."
For years, they'd been meeting twice a month on Saturday mornings, an hour before the store opened.
The five members had been friends in good times and bad, and though Hannah was away to help with family problems in Texas, Beth knew she could count on every one of them for support and the utmost discretion. Still, she stumbled over her thoughts trying to frame her news in the best light.
"The first call was from my mother. She's taking the scenic route from California, and will arrive here next weekend. For two whole weeks."
"How wonderful." The glint in her eyes betrayed Olivia's true feelings. "You two can spend some quality time together, and catch up."
Beth bit her lower lip. "I hope so if things go better this time. Usually she comes wanting to revamp my whole life, but she didn't sound quite that upbeat on the phone. I hope everything is all right."
Sophie Alexander, the youngest of the group at twenty-nine, slowly shook her cap of short auburn hair. "Last time you were frazzled for months afterward, just trying to find everything."
"Believe me, if Mom just spends every minute rearranging my house and the store again, I'll be very thankful." Beth took a deep breath. "Because that second call was from Dev. He's coming back on Monday, and plans to be in town for a week."
Olivia's mouth dropped open. "Your mother and ex-husband. In the same town." She paused for a moment, then tilted her head and angled a speculative look at Beth. "And he called you to say he's coming. Interesting."
"Believe me, there's no love lost between us now. When he filed for divorce, it was final." Beth winced, trying to hold back the painful memories of the day he'd announced that he wanted to end their marriage and the even more painful memories of what happened later. "I haven't heard a word from him since, other than when he came back to town for his mother's funeral six months ago."
"As I remember, it wasn't exactly a friendly meeting." Keeley frowned. "I know it was a funeral and all, but he barely acknowledged you."
And Beth had had trouble controlling her hurt and anger even during that brief encounter, though she'd known it was her duty to attend. "Well, he won't be in town long this time either, before he heads right back to the Middle East or wherever it is he's stationed. That was the drill throughout our marriage, and I'm sure he hasn't changed."
Sophie shuddered. "This should be interesting."
"I don't even know why he bothered to let me know he's coming." Beth managed an offhand smile. "But it's a blessing to know in advance. With luck, I can make sure my mom and I don't run into him, and all will be well. I doubt he'll be out and about much."
A hush fell over the group. "Isis he all right?" Keeley ventured after an awkward pause.
"He mentioned a shoulder injuryenough to land him at Walter Reed for a few weeks. He's on medical leave right now."
"When I provide physical therapy for a rotator cuff I tell my patients it'll take a good six months to heal, and for some it's almost a year. A contaminated battle wound could be much worse." Sophie's brow furrowed. "Will he end up with a medical discharge?"
"I asked, but he vehemently denied it." She felt a twinge in a small, scarred part of her heart as she recalled just how dedicated Dev was to military service. Nothing had mattered more to him. Not his family, not her. "He sounded awfully touchy when I asked."
There'd been a time when she would've given anything for him to come home for good. But those romantic feelings were long gone, and now she felt only sympathy for a man whose entire adult life had been focused on covert operations that he could never discuss. If he had to leave the service, she could only imagine how difficult the adjustment would be.
Olivia shook her head. "That has to be tough."
"Definitely, but he'll have a lot of options once he takes possession of his inheritance. His parents bought up a lot of cheap property long before the town became such a tourist destination. They owned this whole block, and I can't imagine what it's all worth now." Beth hesitated. "That third phone call a few minutes ago was from the family's attorney."
"The attorney called you?" Sophie's soft green eyes filled with worry. "That doesn't sound good."
"I'm supposed to be there for the reading of Vivian's will. It's just a formality, though. Dev is the only heir."
"Wow. It sure took a long time to settle things."
"Apparently Vivian was very specific about wanting both of us present, even if it meant a long delay because of his military service."
Just the thought of that meeting gave her jitters.
Dev had betrayed their relationship. Thrown away her love, and left her to face the worst experience of her life alone. She'd prayed hard, trying to forgive him, and maybe she had, but seeing him again would reopen those wounds.
And worse, Dev had made it plain during their divorce that he'd never live in Aspen Creek again. Would he callously decide to terminate her lease so he could sell all of his parents' property to the highest bidder?
If he did, she'd lose her home and her livelihood. Her customers and the members of the book club were like family to her, and she'd lose them as well, if she couldn't find another affordable location in this town.
And the bitter end of their marriage made it all a distinct possibility.
Keeley sat forward in her chair and shoved a strand of gleaming, honey-blond hair behind her ear. "Now, that's intriguing. You need to be there for the reading of the will, but you've been divorced, whata year?"
"About that." Thirteen months and two weeks, to be exact, though she'd never admit to being so aware of the time frame.
"Maybe she left everything to you."
"And not to their only child? No way."
Keeley's irreverent grin matched the sparkle in her eyes. "All the more reason to at least divide it up."
"A will might have been drawn up during the years Dev and I were still married, but I'm sure his mother wasted no time amending it. She always thought he'd married down the social scale and way too young, even though he was twenty-one. And honestly," Beth added with a rueful laugh, "she was probably right on both counts."
"He was lucky to find someone like you," Sophie said staunchly.
"My own mother wasn't much happier, believe me." Beth shrugged. "I'll show up at that meeting, then slip away so Dev and the lawyer can get down to business. If I can just get past this next week, then everything should go back to normal. I hope."
Dev wearily dropped his duffel bag at his feet, fished a key out of his pocket and opened the front door of the empty Walker building to look inside. The massive limestone walls of the two-story structure had stood solid and uncompromising for over a hundred years, home to everything from a turn-of-the century wood mill to a medical office and finally the law offices of a long-departed attorney and his partners back in the 1980s.
It was at one end of the block-long row of four large buildings his parents had owned, which all backed up to Aspen Creek. The middle two buildings had been leased as storage for the past few years, though one of them was now empty. The bookstore was the only busy commercial establishment at this end of Hawthorne Avenue.
At that thought, he sighed.
After the reading of his mother's will, he'd need to make some hard decisions about the family home and all of this property, and he'd need to do it fast, before he shipped out to the Middle East again. But what would happen to Beth's beloved store if he sold out? He knew she couldn't possibly have the money to buy it.
He took a step into the empty building and surveyed the trash, old lumber and crumbling boxes that had accumulated inside over the years.
During some of his long, cold and deathly quiet nights on recon missions since his mother's death, he'd sometimes let his mind wander back to this building, and to what he'd do with it. Since it had been vacant for a few years, would it even attract buyers?
Yet the old building seemed like a perfect location for a fine restaurant, or an upscale clothing store of some kind. Or even better, a high-adventure sporting-goods store, with kayak and canoe rentals handled at the walk-out basement level, where customers would be able to launch practically from the back door. Surely the increasing tourism in the area could draw buyers with something like that in mind.
He stifled a flash of regret at imagining the place belonging to someone else. He certainly wasn't planning to stay in town, much less start a business, and sentiment wouldn't pay the real estate taxes at the end of the year, or the cost of ongoing upkeep, either.
Selling it to the right buyers would even bring more traffic to this secluded street and help Beth's bookstore in the process, which would all be for the good.
Running a hand over the rough stone walls, he tried to force her from his thoughts, but her image stayed therewounded, vulnerable, betrayedwith the shock and pain still in her eyes at the moment he'd demanded a divorce and then walked out of her life.
Maybe he could finally absolve some of his own guilt if he were to set a rock-bottom price and a no-interest payment contract, to ensure that she could buy her beloved building. He owed her that and more, for how badly he'd treated her.
If she was even willing to talk to him about it. He certainly had no doubts about what her reaction would be when they met face-to-face at the lawyer's office.
Her formal, distant words and cool nod of sympathy at his mother's funeral marked a chasm between them that had probably only deepened since then.
He'd be lucky if she even showed up. But what did he expect, after what he'd done to her? She'd been a forever kind of woman and she'd deserved so much more than someone as damaged as him.
At the oddly magnified sound of approaching footsteps, he lifted a hand to adjust his new hearing aid and froze, his senses still hyperalert as he fought a flashback to mortar fire and an explosion of rock and steel. For a split second he couldn't draw breath in the choking dust of it all. Felt the searing pain. Saw the crumpled bodiesall that was left of his squad.
His buddies for the past ten years, and the only family he knew beyond the parents who'd estranged themselves from him so long ago.
That he'd been the one left with just wounds and a severe, temporary hearing loss filled him with renewed guilt and sorrow every single day.
He forced himself to relax and look over his shoulder, and found Nora Henderson sauntering toward him with a briefcase in one hand and a stack of manila folders held in the crook of her other arm.
She nodded toward the law office across the street. "Mondays are usually quiet, and I finished with my previous appointment a little early. If you're ready, come on over."
"And Beth?" The name felt soft and sweet, like the woman herself, and he found himself reining in emotions he'd thought long dead.
The attorney shifted her load and snagged a cell phone from her briefcase. "We definitely need her, too. I'll give her a call."
"Can I ask why she has to be there? I thought everything was settled during our divorce."
A flicker of a smile touched the older woman's lips as she veered off to cross the street. "I'm simply following your mother's instructions," she said over her shoulder. "She was always remarkably specific, you know. See you in a few minutes?"
Memories swamped him as he watched the lawyer walk away. Remarkably specific. Now that was hitting the nail square on the head for both of his parents, he thought with a hollow, silent laugh.
They'd planned every step of his education. Every decision had been theirs, without fail, no matter what he'd wanted, right down to where he would go to college for premed, the GPA he had to earn, and which medical school he would attend.
They'd brooked no arguments. Hadn't listened.