When Lucky Caldwell was ten, her mother married Morris Caldwell, a wealthy and much older man. It didn’t last, but having grown up without a father, Lucky considered Morris’s kindness the highlight of her young life.
Mike Hill, Morris’s grandson, doesn’t feel quite as warm and fuzzy about that time. He believes Lucky’s mother purposely alienated Morris from his family. What’s worse, Morris’s Victorian mansion, right next door to Mike’s ranch, wasn’t inherited by one of his grandchildren. Instead the house went to Lucky, who left it sitting empty for years.
Now that her mother and Morris have both passed, Lucky has finally come back to Dundee. She plans to restore the derelict home—and to look for her real father, once and for all. That means Mike has a new neighbor. One he doesn’t want to like…
Originally published in 2004 under the title A Home of Her Own
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A Home Of Her Own
By Brenda Novak
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTHE VACANT HOUSE LOOKED haunted. Large and imposing, with a full moon hanging directly behind, the old Victorian cast a grotesque shadow across the snow, and the windows shone like so many eyes.
Ignoring the gooseflesh that prickled her arms, Lucky Caldwell stood on the ornate porch, braced against a chill wind as she pushed the heavy front door a little wider. She didn't really want to venture inside now that it had grown so late. The house had sat empty long enough that rats, possums, raccoons or other crawling things could easily have taken over. Or maybe she'd find some mass murderer hiding in one of the rooms....
If she was anywhere else, she'd head into town and get a motel for the night. But as soon as even one person in Dundee spotted the distinctive strawberry-blond hair she'd inherited from her mother, word would spread all over town that she was back. And she didn't want to alert anyone to her return just yet. She needed to get her bearings. Coming here was a risk, a huge risk, and she'd never been as lucky as her name.
The floor creaked as she stepped across the threshold. Instinctively she reached for the light switch, but then paused. Somehow, waltzing inside and lighting up the place seemed too brazen. She didn't belong here; she'dnever belonged here.
But she didn't belong anywhere else, either.
Marshalling her nerve, she flipped the light switch anyway.
Nothing happened. The pace of life in Dundee was maddeningly slow but, evidently, not so slow that Mike Hill, executor of the Caldwell Family Trust, hadn't gotten around to having the utility company shut off the electricity. Which, after six years, didn't come as any big surprise. She'd inherited this rambling Victorian when Morris died and hadn't been back since. During that time, she'd received a couple of calls from Fred Winston, the town's only real estate agent and a man she remembered as wearing a cheap brown toupee. He'd told her the paint was peeling and the porch was sagging and asked if she wanted to sell. But she knew who wanted to buy and the answer had been and still was - no. At least not yet. She had unfinished business here in Idaho.
She set her backpack on the dusty floor and searched for her flashlight. Unfortunately, it was already on when she found it and, judging by the weak beam, had been on for several hours.
Lucky considered returning to her car for the extra set of batteries. She'd had to park out front because the roof on the garage had collapsed. But she was afraid she'd lose her nerve if she turned back now. Better to forge ahead....
She hefted her backpack to her shoulder, trained the dim light in front of her and left the door open in case she encountered something or someone she'd rather not meet.
Entering the formal living room, she quickly swept the light around the perimeter. Nothing moved - but the familiarity of the place evoked bittersweet memories. As bad as her childhood had been, she'd been truly happy for a few short months while living in this house. Especially that first Christmas after her mother had married Morris.
In the dark, cobwebby corner to her left, she could easily imagine the splendid tree that had once stood there, proudly bearing a thousand twinkling lights and an abundance of shiny gold balls. That was the first time her family had possessed enough money to buy a tree any taller than a token three or four feet. And to have it flocked with fake snow and decorated so elegantly was really an extravagance. Every year since she'd become an adult, Lucky bought as big a tree as her current abode would allow and always flocked it, on principle. But she'd been living off the money she'd inherited from Morris, which was barely enough to get by on, since she gave most of it away. In order to keep traveling, she'd had to cut down on expenses. The places she'd been renting, for a few months here and six weeks there, had low ceilings and generally weren't the nicest. Which meant she'd never been able to duplicate the opulence of that damn tree.
She wrinkled her nose at the musty smell and glanced back at the open door before moving deeper into the house. The moonlight filtered through the bare, thick-paned windows, painting silver squares on the hardwood floor and, together with the faint beam of her flashlight, made it possible for her to see.
The Georgian-style staircase rose up in front of her. A large office with double doors jutted off to the right, along with what used to be an impressive library. Lucky waved a cobweb out of her way and poked her head into the library, then the office, relieved to find them both vacant of scurrying animals and - thank God - anything larger.
She continued her search, pausing to listen carefully here and there, until she reached the kitchen and family room. Situated at the back of the house, they were more like one big room with floor-to-ceiling windows that curved into a semi-circle and looked out over the pond at the bottom of the hill.
Unfortunately, most of the windows at the back were broken now. Bending to retrieve a small rock lying among the glittering shards of glass on the old stone floor, Lucky tossed it up and caught it again. So much had changed. Morris was dead. Her mother, too. Her brothers, Sean and Kyle, who were both older than she was, had sold the land they'd inherited and moved elsewhere. But the feeling of being unwelcome here, the resentment of this small community, seemed to linger.
Lucky threw the rock away and watched it skitter across the floor. So much for the hope that coming back would be easier than she'd anticipated. Owning a house didn't make it a home.
Considering the state of the Victorian, she wondered whether she should sleep in her car. A metallic blue '64 Mustang, it was fully restored and beautiful. But sitting out in her car would be as cramped as it was cold. She'd be better off inside. Despite the creepy feel of the place, she hadn't seen anything more threatening than a few spiderwebs. Discarded trash here and there indicated that others had been inside the house since it had been closed up, but nothing showed recent activity.
Her tension easing, Lucky delved into her backpack and retrieved her supplies. Ten tall fragrant candles. Three fire-starter logs. Matches. A jug of water. Trail mix. And barbecue-flavored sunflower seeds. Her suitcase, cleaning supplies and bedding were still out in the car.
With its stone floor and broken windows, the kitchen was colder than the front of the house. But the family room portion had a wood-burning stove and provided the most natural light. Come morning, Lucky planned to make the place livable. For now - she blew on her hands to warm them - she just needed to get through the next six or seven hours.
She lit the candles, then arranged them on the marble countertop. They created a dim, ethereal glow and gave off a comforting scent that helped dispel the dank odor of neglect. Building a fire didn't take long, either, thanks to the starter logs. When Lucky was a senior in high school and Morris had divorced her mother and moved back in with his first wife, across town, where he'd lived the final few months of his life, Red had stripped the place bare. She took everything of value down to the drapes, the stained-glass window on the second-floor landing, even the expensive knobs on the cupboards. But, thankfully, she hadn't bothered carting off the wood by the stove. Lucky used the last of the split logs to build up her fire, welcoming the infusion of heat and hoping it would last for a few hours. Then she moved gingerly back, her feet crunching over the broken glass from the windows, which was thickest by the stove, to watch the smoldering orange flames catch and grow.
Excerpted from A Home Of Her Own by Brenda Novak Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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