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Had Amy Sagar known that sabotage wore Giorgio Armani, she would have paid a lot more attention. If she'd had even a hint at what was to come, she'd have broken her open-door policy the day Jonathon Wiseman had walked into her office and, instead, slammed the oak door shut in his face. She most definitely would not have slept with him.
As it happened, she'd been oblivious to the calculating deceit and the utter betrayal, which was why she was now standing on the front porch of a neat and tidy home in Whitetail, Wisconsin. It was 420 miles from Chicago and the Fortune 500 company she'd called home for the past five years. It may as well have been another planet.
She rang the bell, listening to the high-pitched peep of the frogs while she waited for the door to be answered.
An older woman with short, pink hair opened the door, her face friendly and inquisitive. "May I help you?" I hope so. "Mrs. Norell?"
"I'm Amy Sagar. It's been a long time but my family used to rent a cottage from you and"
"You 're little Amy Sagar?" Delight spun through the words.
Amy shrugged. "I am. Only now I'm all grown up."
And it totally sucks.
"What a lovely surprise. Why, the last time I saw you and your sisters, you must have been, what?"
"Oh, my! It can't have been eighteen years, can it?"
Amy didn't quite know what to say to that except the obvious, yes, which was an easier reply than saying, and it makes me thirty-two.
Mrs. Norell stepped out onto the porch, opened her arms and enveloped Amy in a huge hug before stepping back. "Now, just look at you."
Amy wished she wouldn't. The last shower she'd had was yesterday when her life was as it should beorganized, scheduled and career totally on track. Now she stood in a crushed business suit, panty hose with spectacular runs and ballet flats, along with a ketchup stain on her blouse courtesy of the burger she'd eaten when she'd taken a break on the long eight-hour drive.
"It's good to see you again, Mrs. Norell."
"Call me Ella." Concern hovered in her eyes. "Is everything all right, dear?"
Remembering how good Mrs. Norell's hug had just felt, Amy had to work really hard at ignoring the caring expression on her face. It beckoned strongly, tempting her to tell all.
Stay strong. No one must know. Ever!
She refused to give in to a momentary needy weakness and admit that her life was in the toilet. And it wasn't just because she didn't want to look tragic in anyone's eyes, although who ever enjoyed being pitied? No, it was because she was fairly convinced that her own stupidity had been the cause of her current situation.
Smiling against aching muscles, she said, "Everything's great. I just had a hankering to see the lake and I thought, why not today. There's no time like the present, right?"
Ella frowned. "Except that it's hard to see the lake in the dark, dear."
Amy ignored the implication that perhaps she hadn't thought this trip through. "Do you still rent out the cottage, Mrs.Ella?"
She shook her head slowly. "No, dear. I sold it a long time ago."
"Oh." Amy wrung her hands. The idea that the cottage wouldn't be available hadn't even occurred to her nine hours ago when she'd fled Chicago.
This morning at ten, when she'd walked back into her apartment clutching the box of personal effects from her desk, she could barely breathe, let alone think. What had started off as a normal, everyday Friday morning had ended ten minutes into the working day. Her stellar career in corporate law had been demolished faster than a house of cards and she hadn't even seen it coming.
Shocked and numb, she wasn't certain how she'd even got home on the El. She had no clue how long she'd curled up on her sofa clutching her knees and rocking back and forth, but she did remember the moment she'd raised her head and seen the photo that had been taken of her at the lake all those years ago. She'd adored that vacation. She'd been happy. Filled with hope for her future. Purposeful.
The memory had penetrated the monotone in her head that had been running continuously since she'd been escorted from the M.M. Enterprises building by security. The one that said, You allowed a rat bastard to kill your career. You can't trust anyone.
Coming back to the lake had seemed so logical that she'd jumped off the couch, grabbed two suitcases, frantically dumped in whatever clothes had been clean, put her house plant in a sink of water and had got into her car. On the long drive north, it had been the memory of that cottage on the lake that had kept her from driving into a tree.
"If you're just here for the night, dear, you're welcome to stay with me," Ella said kindly.
She bit her knuckle. "Thank you, but I really wanted to stay longer. It's been forever since I had a vacation."
Ironically, the fact she hadn't taken any vacation time in the past five years other than the prescribed holidays, meant her severance pay included quite a few weeks of vacation time. If having her job stolen out from under her had a silver lining, she supposed this might be it.
Ella tapped the doorjamb as if it helped her think and then she smiled. "The Rasmussens' vacation house is empty."
Hope soared. "Would they mind if I used it?"
"I think they'd be happy someone was living there in the off-season. Sometimes we get break-ins especially when it's obvious the house is empty. The only thing is, it's not quite in the same league as my cottage."
The old cottage had been pretty basic, which was the only reason her family had been able to afford the rental. Amy hadn't done basic in years unless she counted four-star accommodations. "It's not too rustic, is it?" she asked with some trepidation.
Ella laughed. "Put it this way. It gives a whole new definition to the word. I'll just go get the keys, a flashlight and I'll draw you a map."
Amy slumped. A new definition of rustic? Could this day possibly get any worse? Apparently it could. With exhaustion clawing at every part of her, she just wanted to curl up on a bed and put an end to this horrendous day.
Why? Tomorrow won't be any different. You still won't have a job and your career will still be dead. Sadly, the truth of that was inarguable.
Sweat poured off Ben Armytage as he pushed his extremely heavy, red, vintage Harley-Davidson up the road. The sign he'd just passed read, Two Miles to Whitetail, the Home of Weddings That Wow. The irony of the situation hadn't escaped him. His beloved bike, which had carried him without mishap over the thousands of miles between Argentina and Alaska, had chosen to break down four hundred miles away from Milwaukee. The home of Harley-Davidson and the place Red had been made.
The fact it had happened outside a town that celebrated weddings was just an added extra on the irony scale and a lot like rubbing salt into a wound. After all, this entire two-continent trip was the result of a wedding. Or, to be more precise, the lack of a wedding. His. He unzipped his leather jacket. Had the bike not weighed so much, and if there'd been another town that was closer, nothing would have enticed him to step foot in Whitetail.
Over the past two hundred and eighty days, he'd come to think of his bike in terms of the ideal woman. She didn't talk back, she sat between his legs and more often than not she was a little bit dirty. "Red, you could have planned this better."
She dripped oil on his boots.
If his lungs hadn't been cramping so much from exertion, he probably would have enjoyed the fresh scent of pine on the early-evening air. As it was, he could barely appreciate the vivid autumnal colorsthe red of the maple, the yellow of the poplar and the orange of the beech, all of which glowed incandescently, backlit by the setting sun. It was very different from his native Australia and the evergreen gum trees.
He heard the hum of an engine behind him and he moved Red to the edge of the narrow road.
The truck slowed and an older man with a shock of white hair stuck his head out the window. "You outta gas?"
"No. She's fueled up but she started running rough and now she won't start."
He leaned over and opened the door. "Get in and I'll drive you into town."
"I appreciate the offer but I'm not keen to leave Red on her own."
The man nodded in perfect understanding. "Oh, yeah, she's a sweet ride. Hydra-Glide, eh? What year?"
Ben was used to answering questions about Red, but getting one from someone who recognized her straight off the bat was unusual. "Nineteen fifty-seven."
"I've got a '41 chopper myself." He got a faraway look in his eyes. "Back in the day I ruled these roads on that baby."
Ben laughed thinking of the motorcycle club his father belonged to whose motto was Grow Old Disgracefully. "You probably still can and should."
"Mebbe you're right. Just lately I got too much work to ride her much." He tugged on his beard. "Your baby's gonna be fine here. It'll only take ten minutes to get back with the tow truck and we'll have her tucked up safe by nightfall. Meanwhile, you look like you could use a beer, eh?"
Ben grinned. He'd only been in Wisconsin one day but the locals' love affair with beer almost matched Australia's. He pulled his wallet, phone and passport out of a saddlebag and got into the truck. "Thanks, mate. I'm Ben."
"Al Swenson, Whitetail's mechanic." He shook Ben's hand before putting the truck in gear and moving off. "Is that an accent I hear?"
Ben tried not to laugh because Al sounded like a character off A Prairie Home Companion. "Yeah. I'm Australian."
"An Aussie on a Harley in Wisconsin, eh?" Al slapped the top of the steering wheel with his palm. "Damn. Now, that's not something we see every day. Welcome to Whitetail, son. It's a nice little town. Why not stay awhile, eh?"
Ben saw an advertising flyer on the dash for Feel Like a Star Car and Carriage Service. It featured a photo of a bride in a horse-drawn carriage. He shuddered. "I'll think about it," he said, being polite, but there was no way in hell he would consider it for a second. Nothing short of the apocalypse could keep him in a town that celebrated weddings.
Half an hour later, Ben stood in Al's auto repair workshop not quite able to believe his luck that the guy who'd offered him help was a mechanic with a passion for bikes. Not that Ben didn't know his way around Red's engine; he did. He tinkered with it constantly and, truth be told, he probably took better care of it than he took of himself. Al would be great backup, though, if he couldn't fix Red himself and a good contact if he needed parts.
He glanced around. By the looks of the clutter in the workshop, Al was also a lover of all things that provided humans with transport. The front part of the workshop looked relatively modern but the back was filled with old engines, worn buggies that had once been pulled by elegant horses and something that looked like it might be a rusted-out Mustang. It reminded him of his dad's shed.
"Some people would say I collect junk but I know different. Did up an old landau a while back and now it's used as a wedding carriage." Al rose from a squat after taking a quick look at Red. "Going on what you told me, Ben, it could be anything from valves to the manifold. I'll take a look at her first thing in the morning." He threw a tarp over Red.
"It might just be dirty fuel. We could work on her now," Ben said firmly, eager to find the problem, fix it and get out of town.
"Son, you just finished telling me you've been on the road for over two hundred days. Red needs rest and, looking at you, you need a home-cooked meal. What's your hurry, eh? We'll deal with it tomorrow." He opened the door and flicked off the lights as if the topic was now closed for discussion. "My daughter's putting supper on the table right about now."
Ben was used to the beat of his own drum. "I don't want to hold you up but if you're happy for me to work here alone, I'm sure I can solve the problem. I've kept her going this long."
"And risk her breaking down on you again and this time in the dark?" Al gave him a look that said Ben was clueless. "It's over a hundred miles to Eau Claire and there's no town bigger than Whitetail in between. It's not like you need to be anywhere in particular tonight, eh?"
Al had him there. The whole point of life on the road was to take it as it comes. He was an expert at doing that but he didn't want to do it in this town. Without transport, though, he was stuck and he could hardly break into the workshop and fix her.
Recognizing a fait accompli, he reluctantly followed Al back to the truck. "Can you suggest somewhere cheap I can stay?"
Al scratched his chin. "Oh, hell. I just remembered there's a wedding tomorrow and everywhere's booked solid."
Ben's gut tightened. A town filled with happy and excited wedding guests was the last place he wanted to be. He turned back toward the garage door. "Let me take a look. It's probably just the spark plugs."
Al's beefy hand shot out and clamped on his shoulder. "You're not going anywhere except to my house for supper."
Ben wasn't used to such insistent hospitality and he was getting the strong impression it would be easier to just give in but that wasn't something he was very good at.
"I'd invite you to stay with me," Al continued, "but my family's visiting from Saint Paul for the wedding." He sighed. "The house is full of excited women."
Ben thought he'd just dodged a bullet. "No worries. I'll pitch my tent."
Al shook his head again. "The mornings are mighty chilly this far north."
Ben had camped in a lot worse places. "I'll cope. I saw a sign about a campground near the lake."
"It closed last week." The mechanic's pale blue eyes suddenly lit up. "But I know just the place and it's right on the lake. How about I lend you my chopper and you head out there straight after supper, eh?"
The thought of a sweet ride on a chopper silenced all his concerns about spending time in the wedding town. He shot out his hand. "It's a deal."