Instead she created a home.
Interior designer Amanda Lowery can turn Blake Randall’s crumbling castle into a Gallant Lake showplace. But helping the real estate mogul with his guarded heart and his troubled, orphaned nephew? A much bigger challenge. With demons in her own past, Amanda yearns to help them both heal. But will she find the family and safety she’s craved…or become a Christmas casualty in Blake’s latest business plan?
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"This has got to be the stupidest thing I've ever done."
"What? The shopping or the job?"
Amanda Lowery juggled the bags in her hand, laughing at her cousin's question.
"Both, I guess. There's no way I'll get the job after Mr. Randall meets me tomorrow, which means I won't be able to pay for any of this stuff."
The two women stood on the sidewalk in Gallant Lake, New York. Like so many upstate villages, a lot of the brick or clapboard storefronts were empty. There were still a few businesses left, and they'd managed to shop in every one of them. There was just a hint of color starting to show in the mountains surrounding the lake, which glittered in the afternoon sun. Labor Day was just over a week away. Soon those trees would be ablaze in the reds and golds of autumn. Amanda and Mel were standing in front of a colorful coffee shop directly across the road from a tiny park overlooking the lake.
"Hey, you got this final interview fair and square ..." Mel grimaced. "Well, not exactly fair, but you know what I mean. You're the one who came up with the plans the guy liked."
"Yes, but he thinks those plans came from David, not me. He's expecting a man to show up tomorrow morning. Like I said — stupid." She looked up at the bright orange coffee shop door. "Come on, let's get a cappuccino before we head back to the resort."
After ordering, they settled in at a table by the window. The café was small, but there weren't many people inside, so Amanda didn't have to worry about her personal space. Their table was bright blue. The chairs were each a different color. Nothing in the place matched, creating a chaotic, but energetic, atmosphere. As a designer, Amanda would describe the look as bohemian eclectic. Local artwork on the brick walls displayed widely varying degrees of talent. The place smelled of roasted coffee beans, cinnamon and sawdust. The latter was courtesy of the woodworking shop next door.
"Amanda, once this Randall guy meets you and hears that you specialize in historic homes and how many projects you've already managed, he'll forget all about that little 'mix-up' and hire you on the spot." Mel smiled and pushed her dark hair behind an ear. Two older men sitting near the counter were openly staring at her, but Mel was used to it. She had cheekbones most women would kill for. And legs that went on forever. And violet eyes that evoked memories of Elizabeth Taylor. Amanda sighed, glancing down at her short legs and ... um ... curvy figure. Genetics were tricky. That's why Mel was a former supermodel, while women like Amanda ended up working behind the scenes with furniture and fabric.
"It wasn't a mix-up, Mel. It was intentional. I'm a deceiver." She was so desperate for this job that she'd resorted to unethical business practices. That was so not who she was. But a woman had to eat, right?
Mel waved off her concerns — easy to do when you were rich and famous. "I wonder what these signs are about? I've been seeing them all over town."
Mel pointed at a cardboard sign in the window with the word casino across the front in black, and a giant red circle and diagonal line over it. Amanda hadn't noticed, too occupied with worrying about tomorrow.
The café's owner brought their cappuccinos to the table. She was an older woman, with long salt-and-pepper hair and a heavy skirt that doubled as a floor sweeper. There was no doubt where the hippie vibe of the coffee shop came from.
"Here you go, honeys. My name's Cathy. Anything else I can getcha?"
Mel pointed to the sign. "What's the story with that?"
Cathy's smile faded. "Bad news for Gallant Lake." She shook her head, lips pressed together. "Some big-shot developer bought the old resort a couple years ago, and instead of fixing it up like we'd hoped, he wants to tear it down and build a damned casino. A casino! I mean, what is this, New Jersey? Are we going to be living in one of those De Niro movies now?" Cathy's face twisted in disgust. "We're fighting him, though. No way do we want some giant sign of a neon bimbo here in our town, kicking her leg at the sky."
Mel smirked, and Amanda knew what she was thinking. Clearly, someone hadn't been to Vegas lately. Not all casinos were gaudy and gauche. On a more selfish note, Amanda wondered if they'd hired a decorator yet.
"The Gallant Lake Resort?" Mel said. "That's where we're staying. It seems nice." The sprawling four-story stone-and-timber hotel hugged the shoreline of the lake. The decor might be kitschy and straight out of the sixties, but the place was clean and the views were wonderful.
"Yeah, the family that used to own it always took good care of the place. But they could never afford to remodel. Still, there's no need to tear it down."
Amanda looked out the window at Main Street, dotted with puddles from last night's rain. She saw several boarded-up storefronts. "Wouldn't a casino bring in more jobs and tourists?"
Cathy shrugged. "But at what cost? That resort's history is a part of us. Old Blue Eyes himself used to sing there! The whole Rat Pack did. Streisand sang for the governor's birthday party once. People would come up here from the city and boy, would they spend money!" Cathy brushed some dust off the windowsill with the corner of her apron. "The old resorts are being torn down all over the Catskills, and we don't want to lose ours." She perched on the edge of a nearby table. Mel smiled, as if enjoying the small-town lack of pretense. "We think if it was spruced up and advertised more, it would bring vacationers back to Gallant Lake again. Maybe the old ski resort would reopen. And the golf course. Business would pick up for everyone."
"But wouldn't a nice new casino do the same thing?" Amanda couldn't stand to be in a casino herself, with people pressing in from everywhere. Just thinking about it made her palms sweat. But if it would bring business to the obviously struggling town ...
"Ha! The operative word is nice. Mr. Hotshot wants to build some ugly ten-story high-rise on our beautiful lake. Main Street will be nothing more than a thoroughfare from the highway to his casino. That won't help my business. He's buying up houses just to turn them into parking lots. Parking lots!" Cathy laughed and winked. "Of course, we stopped him from turning one of them into a parking lot. We had his big old house declared a landmark and now he's stuck with it! That boy picked the wrong little town to mess with."
Cathy was still cackling when she walked away. Mel gave a low whistle. "Whoever that guy is, I hope he doesn't buy his coffee here. I'm pretty sure Cathy would spit in it."
Amanda giggled, then reached over to squeeze her cousin's hand.
"Thanks for coming with me this weekend, Mel. Whatever happens with the job interview tomorrow, it'll be easier to handle the fallout with you here." She was pretty sure she knew exactly what was going to happen. She was going to be sent packing. Her stomach clenched. It would be exactly what she deserved.
"You'll do great, kid," Mel said. "No matter who he's expecting, he liked the plans you sent, and he's going to like you, too."
Her cousin had no idea how close Amanda was to giving up and going home to her mother's house in Nowheresville, Kansas, with her tail tucked between her legs — a failure.
"I hope so. If I can get a showcase job like this, it might be enough to start my own solo business." It would also save her from slinking back home in disgrace after once again trusting the wrong guy. "We should get back to the resort."
"Yeah, I want to look at that purse you found at the antiques shop. I still say that little key was for a really fancy chastity belt."
Amanda smiled. Despite her budget woes, she'd found something she couldn't resist buying. She'd fallen in love with the vintage beaded evening bag from the 1920s. To her delight, she'd discovered a tiny ornate key tucked inside. She and Mel had made up some hysterical possibilities for what that key might unlock.
They grabbed their bags and headed to the rental car parked across the street. Mel was giving another lecture on how Amanda was worrying too much about things. Amanda did her best to tune it out because discussing her worry didn't make her worry any less.
Mel grabbed Amanda's arm with a cry as she stepped off the sidewalk. An enormous black SUV sped by, too close to the curb. It hit a puddle, and before Amanda could react, she was drenched. The jerk barely slowed down before speeding off around the corner.
"Son of a bitch!" Amanda jumped back and turned to Mel, who, of course, was perfectly dry. She was also doubled over with laughter.
Amanda looked down. Her pink sweater clung to her, and water dripped off her fingertips. She wanted to be mad. She was mad. But when she looked up and found Mel still giggling, wiping tears from her eyes, Amanda couldn't help but join her. If there was an edge of hysteria to her laughter, who could blame her?
They were still laughing when they got back to the resort. Mel insisted that they walk right through the lobby with all their packages, despite Amanda's soggy footprints.
"Cathy said they're tearing the place down anyway, so what difference does it make?"
"Nathan, are you kidding me?" Blake Randall pressed harder on the gas and sent his SUV roaring up the country road approaching Gallant Lake. "You took our nephew to school a week early so you could take your girls on vacation without him? Who the hell does that to a ten-year-old kid?" Blake floored it past farms, doublewides and large Victorian homes. His hands gripped the wheel so tight he was surprised it didn't snap.
"I've had Zachary all summer, Blake," his brother whined over the speakerphone. "Michaela wanted some time with our family."
"He is your damned family!" He and Nathan were the only family Zach had left. Their father wouldn't even ac- knowledge the boy's existence, so that left him and Nathan to give Zach a sense of family. Even if it was a thoroughly dysfunctional one.
"You know what I mean." He could hear Nathan taking a deep breath. His older brother always did that when he was trying to find the balls to challenge Blake. "Look, you're his guardian. We took him for the summer, but it wasn't a permanent thing."
"But you already have a family." Nathan was a father. A questionable one, perhaps, but still. At least he wasn't as clueless about kids as Blake was. "Why can't you add one more?"
"Not happening, Blake. Tiffany named you in her will. Not me."
"Only because she and Michaela hated each other." Tiffany used to refer to Nathan's wife as Butt Stick. Blake's lips twitched at the memory of him and his sister laughing over that name.
"And yet you think Michaela should raise Tiffany's kid. What sense does that make?"
Nathan had a point. Blake had qualms about Michaela raising her own children. As if Blake was some kind of expert.
"He shouldn't be at Beakman Academy by himself, a week ahead of the other kids."
"The upperclassmen are there this week," Nathan sighed. "The headmaster said he'd be fine."
Blake slowed to pass a farm tractor driving up the road. Was that thing even legal? He stepped on the gas after he passed it, going too fast for being this close to the village. Sheriff Adams must have been busy somewhere else because Blake didn't see any flashing lights. Benefits of a one-cop town.
"So Zach's at school with a bunch of kids four grades ahead of him? That's perfect, genius. What could possibly go wrong?"
"Jesus, Blake, I'm not an idiot. He's not in the dorm — he's staying with the headmaster and his family for the week. Feel free to drive over and get him if you don't like it."
Blake chewed his lip. Zach was ten years old. He'd lost his mother less than a year ago. Blake had a feeling everything was a big deal to the poor kid. But still ... being at school gave him more structure than he'd have with Blake, or even Nathan and Butt Stick.
"Can you guys at least take him for the holiday break?" Tiffany had died at Christmas. Zach deserved a much happier holiday this year.
"No way. We're taking the girls on a cruise for Christmas, and Michaela already said —"
"Yeah, yeah. I can imagine what Michaela said." Blake let off the gas pedal and hung up on his brother. He reached for his coffee and bit out a curse when some spilled on his pants. What a perfect freakin' day. He saw a flash of pink when he looked up and swore again. A petite blonde stepped off the sidewalk, directly into his path.
Blake swerved. The engine on the big vehicle roared. He'd drifted pretty damned close to the curb, scaring the daylights out of himself and no doubt her. After he passed, he glanced in the rearview mirror and winced. He'd hit a puddle and sent a tidal wave of water over her. She was stomping her feet and gesturing to the taller woman behind her, pushing long, wet hair out of her face.
A nice person would have stopped and apologized. But Blake had learned the hard way that being nice in Gallant Lake got him nowhere. He was not popular, and he'd only attract an angry mob if anyone saw him stopped in the middle of town. He felt bad about ruining the woman's afternoon, though. Driving away without stopping made him feel uncomfortably similar to the ogre some of the locals painted him as. He didn't like it.
Speaking of angry mobs, there were five or six picketers just setting up at the entrance to his resort. The small Gallant Lake Preservation Society liked to show up with their handwritten signs, especially if they knew Blake was in town. They loved telling him, loudly and often, that they "weren't giving up the fight" when it came to his plans for the casino. They didn't seem to realize the town had given up on itself years before. That had nothing to do with him. Their signs proclaimed the same old mantra.
Save Gallant Lake!
Leave Our Lake Alone!
They were usually well behaved and didn't interfere with resort traffic. But guests would be asking questions. He saw a scruffy pair of guys at the edge of the group. They didn't fit in with the generally older protesters, but it wasn't the first time he'd seen them hanging around. The two always looked ready to take up torches and pitchforks rather than neatly lettered signs. Their anger simmered a little closer to the surface, like it was personal, but Blake had no idea who they were.
The group recognized his vehicle and pressed closer to the entrance, forcing him to slow down to avoid hitting them. He could call the sheriff, but that wouldn't do any good. The protestors always stayed back off his property lines when the guy they affectionately called "Sheriff Dan" was around. Blake had a sneaking suspicion the sheriff supported the locals more than him when it came down to it.
Once past the entrance, he parked in the employee lot and came in the side door. The old place had character, along with a stellar view. The previous owners had maintained the resort well, even if the interior needed updating everywhere. Those updates would be pointless now since it was slated for demolition as soon as the state senate gave its blessing to the casino plans. He was only a few votes away. When he'd made the purchase originally, sight unseen, he'd assumed the resort was one of those tired old Catskills resorts whose glory days ended with the Dirty Dancing era. It was a pleasant surprise to see the place actually making a little money with a modest marketing campaign, which took some of the sting out of waiting for those last few votes.
It was smaller than his other hotels, but he ran it with the same attention to detail. He was known for his No Surprises approach to business, and the employees here had been quick to catch on — they took care of little problems before they became big ones.
He saw the muddy footprints as soon as he entered the lobby on his way to the front desk. What the hell? The sun was shining outside, but this looked like someone had walked through here after swimming in a ditch somewhere. He caught a glimpse of pink ahead, stepping inside the elevator. Well, he'd be damned. The blonde he'd almost mowed down in town was a guest at the resort.
It seemed she'd rewarded his behavior with a trail of mud across the lobby carpet, almost as if she knew it was his place. Blake couldn't help the smile that tugged at his mouth. It served him right for not stopping to apologize.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "It Started at Christmas ..."
Copyright © 2019 Jo McNally.
Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
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