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Wade hated the snow. Always had. You'd think a man born and raised in New England would feel differently or leave, but he'd done neither. Every November when the first few flakes started falling, a part of his soul would shrivel up until spring. That was why he'd booked himself a trip to Jamaica for the week before Christmas. He'd planned to return to the Edens', as always, for the holiday, but the frantic call he'd received from his foster sister, Julianne, had changed everything.
He had been loath to tell his assistant to cancel the trip, but perhaps if all went well, he could use the reservation after Christmas. He could ring in the New Year on a beach, drinking something frothy, with thoughts of his troubles buried deep.
Interesting choice of words.
The BMW SUV wound its way down the two-lane road that led to the Garden of Eden Christmas Tree Farm. Wade preferred to drive his roadster, but rural Connecticut in winter was just not the place for it, so he'd left it in Manhattan. The SUV had snow tires, chains in the back and enough clearance not to scrape on chunks of ice in poorly cleared areas.
Spying the large red apple-shaped sign that marked the entrance to his foster parents' Christmas tree farm, Wade breathed a sigh of relief. He hadn't realized until that moment that he'd been holding his breath. Even under the less-than-ideal circumstances, returning home always made him feel better.
The farm was the only home he'd ever really had. None of the other foster homes had felt like one. He had no warm memories of living with his great-aunt before that, nor of his early years with his mother. But the Garden of Eden was just that: paradise. Especially for an abandoned young boy who could just as easily have become a career criminal as a millionaire in real estate.
The Edens changed everything. For him and every other child who had come to live there. He owed that couple his life. They were his parents, without question. Wade didn't know who his father was and had only seen his mother once since she dropped him at her aunt's doorstep as a toddler. When he thought of home and family, he thought of the farm and the family the Edens had pulled together.
They were able to have only one child of their own, their daughter, Julianne. For a time it seemed that their dreams of a house bustling with children who would help on the farm and one day take over the family business had been dashed. But then they decided to renovate an old barn into a bunkhouse perfect for rowdy boys and started taking in foster children.
Wade had been the first. Julianne had been in pigtails when he arrived, dragging her favorite doll behind her. Wade had been in his share of foster homes, and this time just felt different. He was not a burden. Not a way to get a check from the state. He was their son.
Which is why he wished he was visiting them for another reason. In his own mind, disappointing his parents would be the greatest sin he could commit. Even worse than the one he'd committed fifteen years ago that got him into this mess.
Wade turned the SUV into the driveway, then bypassed the parking lot and took the small road behind their large Federal-style house to where the family kept their cars. It was nearing the middle of the afternoon on a Friday, but even so, there were at least ten customer cars in the lot. It was December 21only a few days until Christmas. His mother, Molly, would be in the gift shop, pushing sugar cookies, cider and hot chocolate on folks while they waited for Ken or one of the employees to haul and bag their new tree.
Wade felt the sudden, familiar urge to start trimming trees and hauling them out to people's cars. He'd done it for all of his teenage years and every Christmas break from Yale. It came naturally to want to jump back into the work. But first things first. He had to take care of the business that had brought him here instead of the warm beaches of Jamaica.
Julianne's call had been unexpected. None of the kids were very good about calling or visiting their parents or each other like they should. They were all busy, all successful, the way the Edens had wanted them to be. But their success also made it easy to forget to make time for the important people in their lives.
When Julianne had shown up at the farm for Thanksgiving with little warning, she'd been in for quite the surprise. Their father, Ken, was recovering from a heart attack. They hadn't called any of the kids because they didn't want them worrying about it or the crippling hospital bills.
Wade, Heath, Xander, Brodyany of the boys could've written a check and taken care of their problems, but Ken and Molly insisted they had it under control. Unfortunately, their solution was to sell a few plots of land they couldn't use for growing trees. They couldn't understand why the kids were so upset. And of course, the kids couldn't tell their parents the truth. That secret needed to remain buried in the past. And Wade was here to make sure it stayed that way.
If he was lucky, he could take one of the four-wheelers out to the property, buy the land back from the new owner and return before Molly could start wondering what he was up to. He wouldn't keep the purchase a secret from his parents, but he'd certainly rather they not fret over the whole situation until it was done.
Wade found the house empty, as expected. He left a note on the worn kitchen table, slipped into his heavy coat and boots and went out to grab one of the four-wheelers. He could've driven his SUV, but he didn't want to pull up in an expensive car and start waving money around at people.
Heath and Brody had both made visits to the farm since Julianne broke the news. Digging up as much information as they could, they found out that the person who had bought the smallest parcel of land was already living out there in some kind of camper. That sounded positive to him. They might need the money more than the land. But if they thought some rich guy was bullying them to sell it, they'd clamp down. Or jack up the price.
Wade took the four-wheeler down the well-worn path that went through the center of the farm. After selling eighty-five acres, the Edens still had two hundred acres left. Almost all of it was populated with balsam and Fraser fir trees. The northeastern portion of the property was sloped and rocky. They'd never had much success planting trees out there, so he'd understood why Ken had opted to sell it. He just wished his father hadn't.
By the time he rounded a corner on the trail and neared the border of the Edens' property, it was a little after two-thirty. The sky was clear and blue and the sun's rays pounded down on the snow, making it nearly blinding despite his sunglasses. He slowed and pulled out the new surveyor's map Brody had downloaded. The eighty-five acres that his parents had sold were split into two large tracts and one small one. Comparing the map to the GPS location on his phone, he could tell that just over the rise was the smallest, a ten-acre residential property. He was fairly certain this was the one he was after.
Wade refolded the map and looked around for any familiar landmarks. He'd deliberately chosen a spot he would remember. There had been a crooked maple tree and a rock that looked like a giant turtle. He scanned the landscape, but it appeared to him as though all the trees were crooked, and all the rocks were buried under a foot of snow. It was impossible to know for sure if this chunk of the property was the right one.
Damn. He'd thought for certain that he would know the spot when he saw it. That night fifteen years ago remained etched in his memory no matter how hard he tried to forget it. It was one of those moments that changes your whole life. Where you make a decision, right or wrong, and have to live with it forever.
Still, Wade was certain this was the right area. He didn't remember traveling far enough to reach the other plots. He'd been in too big a hurry to roam around the property all night trying to find the perfect spot. He eyed another maple tree, this one more crooked than the others. That had to be the one. He'd just have to buy the land back and hope that once spring came around, he would find the turtle rock at its base and know he'd bought the right plot.
Surging forward through the snow, he continued up to the rise and then started descending into the clearing toward what looked like some sort of shimmering silver mirage.
He pulled closer and realized it was the midafter-noon sun reflecting off the superbly polished aluminum siding of an old Airstream trailer. You could have got a suntan from the rays coming off that thing. Parked beside it was an old Ford pickup truck with dually tires to haul the twenty-foot monster of a camper.
Wade stopped and killed the engine on the four-wheeler. There was no sign of life from inside the camper yet. Brody had searched online for the property sale records and found the new owner was V. A. Sullivan. Cornwall was a fairly small town, and he didn't remember any Sullivans when he went to school, so they must be new to the area. That was just as well. He didn't need to deal with anyone who remembered his troublesome days before the Edens and might give him grief.
His boots crunched through the snow until he reached the rounded doorway. It had a small window in it that he watched for movement when he knocked. Nothing. No sound of people inside, either.
Just great. He'd come all the way out here for nothing.
Wade was about to turn and head back home when he heard the telltale click of a shotgun safety. His head spun to the left, following the sound, and he found himself in the sights. The woman was standing about twenty feet away, bundled just as heavily as he was in a winter coat with a knit cap and sunglasses hiding most of her features. Long strands of fiery red hair peeked out from her hat and blew in the chilly wind. The distinctive color immediately caught his eye. He'd known a woman with hair that color a long time ago. It had been beautiful, like liquid flames. Appropriate, since he was playing with fire now.
On reflex, his hands went up. Getting shot by some overprotective, rural militia type was not on his agenda for the day. "Hey, there," he called out, trying to sound as friendly and nonthreatening as he could.
The woman hesitated, and then the shotgun dropped slightly. "Can I help you?"
"Are you Mrs. Sullivan?" Hopefully Mr. Sullivan wasn't out in the woods with a shotgun of his own.
"Miss Sullivan," she corrected. "What's it to you?"
A single female. Even better. Wade had a certain charm about him that served him well with the fairer sex. He smiled widely. "My name is Wade Mitchell. I wanted to talk to you about possibly"
"Arrogant, pigheaded real-estate developer Wade Mitchell?" The woman took a few steps forward.
Wade frowned. She didn't seem to care for him at all. He wished to God the woman wasn't so bundled up so he could see who she was. Maybe then he could figure out why the mention of his name seemed to agitate her. Of course, he was wearing just as much winter gear as she was. "Yes, ma'am, although I wouldn't go so far as to use those adjectives. I wanted to see if you would be interested in
His words dropped off as the shotgun rose again. "Aw, hell," she lamented. "I thought it looked kinda like you under all those layers, but I thought, why would Wade Mitchell be in Cornwall making my life hell again after all this time?"
Wade's eyes widened behind his dark sunglasses. "I have no intention of making your life hell, Miss Sullivan."
"Get off my land."
"I'm sorry, have I done something to you?" He scanned his brain. Had he dated a Sullivan? Beaten up her brother? He had no memory of what he could've done to piss this woman off so badly.
The woman stomped across the snow, closing the gap between them with the gun still pointed directly at him. She pulled off her sunglasses to study him more closely, revealing a lovely heart-shaped face and pale eyes. Her skin was creamy, the perfect backdrop to the fiery strands of hair framing her face. When her blue eyes met his, he noticed a challenge there, as though she was daring him not to remember her.
Fortunately, Wade had an excellent memory. One good enough to know that he was in trouble. The fiery redhead glaring at him was a hard woman to forget. He'd certainly tried over the years, but from time to time, she'd slipped into his subconscious and haunted his dreams with her piercing, ice-blue gaze. A gaze that reflected the hurt of betrayal that he couldn't understand.
Property owner V. A. Sullivan was none other than Victoria Sullivan: green architect, eco-warrior and the employee he'd fired from his company seven years ago.
His stomach instantly sank. Of all the people who could've bought this property, it had to be her. Victoria Sullivan. The first person he'd ever fired from his company. It had pained him at the time, but he'd really had no choice. He had a strict policy on ethics violations. She hadn't taken the news well. And judging by her stiff posture and tightly gripped firearm, she was still upset about it.
"Victoria!" he said with a wide smile, trying to sound pleasantly surprised to see her after all this time. "I had no idea you were living out here now."
"Miss Sullivan," she corrected.
Wade nodded. "Of course. Could you please drop the gun? I'm unarmed."
"You won't be when the cops come." Her words were as icy cold as the snow, but eventually the gun disengaged and dropped to her side.
She pushed past him to the front door of the Air-stream, pulling it open and climbing the stairs. "What do you want, Mr. Mitchell?"
As she hung at the top of the steps, looking back at him, Wade realized he needed to change his tactic, and fast. His original plan had been to tell the owner that he wanted the property for one of his development projects. If he told her that, she'd refuse him just to ruin his plans.
He'd have to appeal to a different side of her. That is, if he could explain himself before she started shooting.
"Miss Sullivan, I'd like to buy back this property from you."