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Branson, Missouri October
Alone on the balcony, Allison Caldwell watched the shadows deepen across Table Rock Lake. Even in the fading daylight, the hills that framed the water burned with autumn color — the flames and crimsons of black gum and bittersweet, the scarlets and golds of maple, ash, oak, and hickory, all at the peak of their fall glory.
In the darkening twilight, lights glowed from the distant boat marina, blurring into mist as a bank of fog moved in over the lake. A gull winged its way shoreward. A sport fishing boat, trailing a wake like a silver ribbon, passed and vanished from sight.
Below the trail that passed the house, a fresh breeze rippled the water. It tugged at Allison's long diamond earrings and loosened tendrils from her upswept honey-blond hair. She raised a manicured hand to control the damage but made no move to go back inside to the party.
Behind her, on the other side of the French doors, her guests were sampling pâté with truffles, caviar, tiny Bavarian sausages, and a rich selection of vintage wines. Fifteen minutes from now they'd be sitting down to a dinner of black bass on cabbage, caramelized plantation shrimp, pea tendrils, and walnut toffee tartlets. Allison had put weeks of work and planning into this forty-seventh birthday dinner for her husband, to say nothing of the small fortune the caterer had cost. But the result had been worth the effort. From the food to the décor, from the mellow piano jazz CDs that Burke liked, to her own chic little black Armani dress — everything was perfect.
So why did the thought of going back inside make her want to lean out past the rail and puke all over the hydrangeas?
Filling her lungs with the moist air, Allison struggled to calm her nerves. She would have to rejoin the party soon or there'd be even more talk. But every time she turned toward the doors, the snippets of conversation she'd overheard returned to stab her in the back.
"So, Burke's got himself a little trophy wife. How old is she? Thirty, maybe thirty-five? Lord, what would Kate say? The poor dear must be turning over in her grave!"
"And just look at this place! That leather couch alone must have cost three thousand dollars. The woman's going through his money like a cat through a tin of sardines. Let's hope Burke had the sense to draw up a prenup."
"I'll wager he's going to need one. They got married last year — you remember that fairy-tale wedding at Top of the Rock. How much longer do you give it before they're talking through their lawyers? Six months?"
"A year, tops. Care to lay a little bet?"
"Fifty bucks? You're on!"
Allison willed herself not to cry. Tears were hell on mascara, and the last thing she wanted was to walk back into the party with raccoon eyes. But she'd tried so hard to make Burke's friends like her. All that effort, and now this. She might as well have spat in their judgmental faces!
"Here you are." The strains of "My Funny Valentine," from the Ahmad Jamal Trio CD, drifted through the French doors as Burke came out onto the balcony. At the sight of her rigid back, he turned and closed the latch softly behind him. The music fell to a hush that blended with the clink of crystal and the muffled sound of voices.
"Is everything all right, honey?" She felt his big, strong hands slide around her waist. Allison had fallen in love with those hands, just as she'd fallen in love with his cobalt eyes, his close-clipped platinum hair and the dimple in his jutting chin. She hadn't been looking for an older man, let alone a wealthy one; but from the moment he'd stepped into her small California gift gallery to buy a silver mermaid charm for his daughter, she'd felt as if they were meant to be together.
What had gone wrong?
"Allison?" He drew her back against him, his lips brushing her shoulder. "Are you okay?"
"Fine." She nodded, not wanting to spoil things for him. "Just getting a breath of air."
"It's been a long day."
"Quite a shindig you've put together. The gang's impressed, I can tell."
Sure, they are. Just ask them about your little trophy wife. "I wanted your birthday to be special," she said.
"Any night with you is special." He pulled her closer, his arms moving to cloak her shoulders. The scent of the expensive men's cologne she'd bought stole into her senses. She knew he'd only worn it to please her, but she still liked it. "I'd have settled for burgers at Stumpy's and an early bedtime," he murmured against her hair. "You know that, don't you, Kate?"
Allison went cold in his arms. It had been six years since Burke's first wife had died of cancer. Still, when he was distracted, hers was the name that popped out of his mouth. Allison knew it wasn't intentional. Often, like now, he didn't even seem aware of what he'd said. But one would think, after so much time ...
She pulled away from him. "We'd better go back inside. Dinner should be ready in a few minutes."
"I can't stay for dinner." He blocked her path to the doorway. "That's what I came out here to tell you. I just got a call from Max at the theater. The Mayweather Family Gospel Singers are opening tonight. Two hours before the show, Mrs. Mayweather found out her husband was cheating. They had a big blowup. She blacked his eye, and now she's refusing to perform with him. The audience is getting restless. If there's no show, they'll be wanting their money back. I've got to drive into town and straighten out the mess."
"But surely it can wait till after dinner! It's your birthday! There'll be a cake —"
"It'll have to keep, Allison. I've got to go now. Tell our friends I said to enjoy my birthday party. They'll understand."
"But will your wife?" The words burst out before Allison could stop them, gushing like blood from a ruptured artery. "When you proposed, you talked about all the good times we'd have together. But all you seem to think about is that blasted theater business of yours! Lately I feel as if I don't even exist for you!" She blinked away a scalding tear. "Damn it, Burke, sometimes you don't even remember to call me by the right name!"
He stepped backward, his mouth a grim, flat line. "I don't have time for this, Allison. Not now."
"So when will you have time?" she demanded, catching the sleeve of his dinner jacket. "Tomorrow? Next month? How about never?"
"Don't be a child." Jerking loose, he turned and walked away. As he opened the door, the lush piano notes of "The Second Time Around" drifted into the twilight.
For an instant Burke seemed to hesitate. Then he strode across the threshold and closed the door with a click, leaving her alone.
Allison's stomach clenched as she heard the garage door opening and, seconds later, the growl of Burke's 1988 Porsche Carrera backing down the driveway onto Peaceful Lane. He drove that old car like a testosterone-charged teenager, especially when he was upset; and that twisting highway between here and downtown Branson could be dangerous at night, especially in bad weather.
She should have told him to be careful. But then, what difference would it have made? Burke never paid any heed to her concerns. She could only pray he wouldn't slide off the road or cut too close around a blind curve and meet a truck coming the other way.
Smoothing her hair, she turned back toward the lighted French doors. She had no choice except to go back inside and put on a cheerful face for Burke's friends. But she knew there'd be talk, especially after the way he'd gone roaring off.
Burke had said they'd understand, and maybe they would. He'd worked for decades, first as a theatrical agent, scouting the country for talent, and then as CEO of a company that included the agency, some real estate holdings, and the American Heartland Theater, which had earned a solid reputation in Branson, a town whose lifeblood was wholesome family entertainment. Guarding that reputation was all-important to him. But would it have killed the man to wait an hour before racing to defuse a crisis — especially when his presence at dinner meant so much to her?
Forcing a brittle smile, she opened the door and stepped back into the great room. Heads swiveled toward her, then jerked self-consciously away. Conversations that had stalled at her appearance resumed on a stilted note. Most of the couples at the party had known Burke for more than twenty years. They'd known Kate as well. Some of them, especially the women, behaved as if Kate were still alive and Allison was an interloper who'd broken up Burke's first marriage.
Sprinkled among these old friends, however, were a few younger people who worked for Burke's theatrical agency. Garrett Miles, the partner who managed the financial and legal end of the business, caught her eye across the room and cut his way through the crowd toward her.
Garrett had been hired out of Harvard with an MBA and had stayed on to become Burke's right-hand man. His affable manner and movie star smile masked a mind like a steel trap. Allison couldn't say she liked him. He struck her as too smooth, too sure of himself. But right now Garrett was the only port in a storm of hostility.
"You look like the Goddess of Angst," he muttered in her ear. "Are you all right?"
"I'm dandy," she lied. "Did Burke happen to tell you he was leaving?"
"He did. Don't worry, everything's under control here. I've spread the word that he had an emergency and couldn't stay. You won't need to explain a thing."
"Thank you, Garrett." Her tone carried an edge. "I don't suppose you offered to go in his place, did you?"
"Actually, I did." He gripped her elbow and propelled her out into the dimly lit foyer. "Burke insisted on going himself. The problem was a personnel issue, not a finance issue, and he didn't trust anyone else to smooth things over."
"I see." Allison exhaled, willing herself to relax. She had nothing to gain by alienating this man, especially tonight, when she needed his support. "Sorry about that," she said with a raw laugh. "It's just that I was hoping Burke could relax and enjoy his friends tonight. He's been so preoccupied lately — working till all hours, coming home exhausted and then lying awake the rest of the night ..." She glanced up to see Garrett's gold-flecked eyes watching her intently. "If Burke were involved with another woman, I'd have something to fight. But my rival is that damned business. Short of burning the American Heartland Theater to the ground, there's nothing I can do!"
Realizing she'd said too much, Allison glanced back toward the brightly lit great room. "Sorry again," she said, forcing a smile. "I do tend to get carried away. Isn't your wife here tonight, Garrett? I don't recall seeing her."
"Burke didn't tell you?" One brown eyebrow lifted. "Julie and I separated last month. I've moved into one of the company condos. She's filed for divorce."
"That's too bad — and no, he didn't tell me." Allison licked her lips, a nervous habit she'd been trying to break. "Burke doesn't discuss company business, let alone the personal lives of his colleagues, with me. After all, I'm only his wife."
"God, then you don't even know, do you?" He was gazing down at her like a doctor about to deliver a terminal diagnosis.
"Don't know what?" A sense of foreboding hovered over her head, as if a vulture had flapped down to perch on the chandelier. "Tell me what's going on, Garrett. Now."
"The American Heartland's been losing money for the past year — and now, with the fall season on, it's like the dam's broken," he said. "Last spring we took out a short-term bank loan just to get the place up to code. We fixed the roof, replaced the old seats, and got a new lighting system. But it wasn't enough to improve our ticket sales."
"But why?" Allison had always assumed Burke's business was doing fine. "What's wrong?"
Garret shook his head. "The building's old and still doesn't have the technical setup for the spectacular shows that audiences want these days. And even with the agency reps scouting for talent, the top acts are out of our price range. Bottom line — most of our old customers are going for the big names, the flashy displays and aerial acts, or the dinner theater shows. We're having to discount the tickets just to fill the seats."
"But there must be something you can do." Allison struggled against disbelief. This was real, and she needed to pay attention.
"The only way to compete with the newer, bigger places would be to shut down for six months, do a complete remodeling job, and reopen in the spring with a big-name act."
"That sounds like a good plan. But what about the money?" Allison had run her own small gallery in Capitola. She was no financial wizard, but she knew the basics of what it took to operate a business. At the top of the list was capital.
"Burke and I are still weighing the options," Garrett said. "Aside from just shutting down, we've got two choices. While our credit's still decent, we can refinance the business for enough to cover the existing loan and make the updates. But it would leave us over our heads in debt. Worse, if we couldn't make the payments, we'd lose everything."
By we, Garrett meant Burke, who would take the risk and stand the loss — that much, Allison knew, was a given. Garrett had been made a partner for his expertise, but his financial stake was little more than a token. "And the other choice?" she asked.
"We could take on a new partner, an investor with deep pockets who could revamp the American Heartland and make it everything it should be — a partner with connections to some of the biggest names in the entertainment business."
"That sounds like an easy choice. Do you have an investor in mind?"
"I do — someone who's very interested and has the resources we need. But Burke's dragging his heels — doesn't want anybody else to have a say in his business. I think he's in denial. The original bank loan's due at the first of the year. If we just let things slide, we'll be in foreclosure."
Allison stared up at him, feeling as if the blood in her body had drained into the floor, leaving nothing for her heart to pump but thin, dry air. She must have swayed on her high heels because Garrett reached out and laid a hand on her shoulder.
"We're trying to keep it under wraps," he said, "but you need to understand. Burke's been under one hell of a strain."
"But why didn't he tell me?" she whispered. "I'm his wife, for God's sake, not some child who needs to be coddled and protected!"
Garrett's fingers were smooth and hard against her bare skin. "Knowing Burke, I'm sure he had his reasons. Right now, the best thing you can do for him is go back to the party. Be nice to his friends. Act as if nothing has happened."
"They don't know?"
"Nobody here knows except you and me. For now, consider it our little secret." His hand lingered on her shoulder, his touch suddenly too intimate. Allison stepped away.
"I'm going back by way of the kitchen," she said. "If dinner's ready, maybe you can help me seat the guests. And don't worry about my giving anything away. I'm a good actress."
But as she thought about the coming ordeal of a five-course dinner, she wondered how the glassy smile on her face could fool anyone who cared enough to look. She'd counted on Burke to keep the conversation lively. Alone, surrounded by people who despised her, how could she possibly hold her own?
Why hadn't Burke told her the American Heartland was in trouble? How could he have let her spend money on herself, on refurbishing the house, and on this god-awful charade of a birthday party, when he was facing financial meltdown? And how could he have let her say the things she'd said to him tonight? If she'd known about the trouble, she would have understood. She would have stood by him, supported him, sacrificed anything to help him save his dream.
If Burke had shared his concerns with her, she could have been a real wife to him. Instead, in her innocence, she'd behaved like a spoiled child! Burke's headstrong nineteen-year-old daughter, Brianna, would've shown more maturity than she had, Allison chided herself. But this latest clash wasn't all her fault. When Burke came home, the two of them would need to have a long, serious talk.
The vintage Harley-Davidson cruiser roared northward along Sheridan Road, past the Grosse Point Lighthouse and onto the side road into Evanston's Lawson Park. Brianna clung to the driver's leather jacket, her jeans-clad legs nestled behind his. Until six weeks ago, she had never ridden on a motorcycle. And she had never in her life known a man like Liam Shaughnessy.
Excerpted from "Letters from Peaceful Lane"
Copyright © 2019 Revocable Trust Created by Jimmy Dean Dailey and Mary Sue Dailey.
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