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The Other Woman Brenda Novak Elizabeth O'Connell has survived one of the worst betrayals a wife can imagine. Finding out that she wasn't the only woman in her husband's life meant the end of her marriage and a year of personal hell. Now she's focusing on her new business and raising her two kids. Carter Hudson isn't part of her plan. When he's introduced to Liz by well-meaning friends, her dislike is instant.But as she spends time with him, Liz realizes she likes having Carter in her life–more than likes it. However, Carter has secrets in his past that he can't seem to escape, secrets that apparently involve a woman. Liz is sure of one thing–she'll never be "the other woman" again! Praise for Brenda Novak’s Dundee stories: “Novak perfectly captures the feel of small-town life, and her powerful story of two lonely, fragile people who find another chance at love is a sweetly satisfying and richly rewarding romance.” —Booklist on Stranger in Town “Novak is an expert at creating emotionally driven romances full of heat, sensual tension and conflict that not only satisfy her characters but her readers as well.” —Writers Unlimited on A Husband of Her Own “…a poignant story full of genuine feeling. Anyone hungry for a good story, series or otherwise, should check out this complex and involving tale.” —All About Romance on A Home of Her Own “Strong, romantic and heart-warming…” —Romance Reviews Today on A Home of Her Own “Once again, Brenda Novak delivers a stunningly magical performance…. Novak’s fans will easily recognize her unforgettable style and characterization from the first chapter.” —WordWeaving on A Family of Her Own “[A Home of Her Own] kept me on the edge of my seat, Kleenex in hand, totally enthralled to the last page. This is a forget-about-dinner, just-order-a-pizza kind of read.” —Romantic Times BOOKclub “A one-sitting read! Kudos to Brenda Novak for an insightful and emotional story that tore at my heartstrings.” —The Best Reviews on A Baby of Her Own Dear Reader, I love writing stories set in the fictional town of Dundee, and this story was no exception. Maybe it was a little more difficult than most, because Liz, the heroine, had such a complicated background, and because the relationships among this particular group of people are a bit complex. But life is complex, so it rang true to me. And I was glad to give Liz her own happy ending—even if it was with a guy who at first surprised me. I hadn’t originally intended Liz to fall in love with the man she chooses (for those of you who have written me about this, notice I’m not giving away his name!), but I think they’re perfect for each other. He needs her as badly as she needs him (even if he’s a little slow to realize it). And now it’s back to work on my next romantic suspense novel. I’m in the middle of a brand-new series, which begins with the August release of Dead Silence (from MIRA Books). It’s actually quite a bit like the stories I’ve set in Dundee—there are a lot of interesting relationships, small-town intrigue and drama—only, these new books focus on a man who went missing eighteen years ago and the family who knows exactly where he is (a secret they’re willing to guard with their lives). On a completely different note, drop by my Web site at www.brendanovak.com and check out my online auction for juvenile diabetes (my youngest son has this disease). Last year I raised $35,000 for research—this year I’m shooting for $100,000. I should reach it, too. I’ll be auctioning off more than six hundred items (some of which you can’t find anywhere else), so don’t miss out! For those without Internet access, please feel free to contact me at P.O. Box 3781, Citrus Heights, CA 95611. Here’s to making a difference! Brenda Novak The Other Woman Brenda Novak To my Aunt Judy When I was a child, coming to stay with you was an absolutely magical experience—the new houses, the new cars, the dinners, the diets, the giant Cokes and candy bars, the movies, the hours of playing our homegrown version of Pictionary, and especially the sledding. I’ll always remember those times with great fondness. I still smile when I think of your laugh. CONTENTS CHAPTER ONE CHAPTER TWO CHAPTER THREE CHAPTER FOUR CHAPTER FIVE CHAPTER SIX CHAPTER SEVEN CHAPTER EIGHT CHAPTER NINE CHAPTER TEN CHAPTER ELEVEN CHAPTER TWELVE CHAPTER THIRTEEN CHAPTER FOURTEEN CHAPTER FIFTEEN CHAPTER SIXTEEN CHAPTER SEVENTEEN CHAPTER EIGHTEEN CHAPTER NINETEEN CHAPTER TWENTY CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE EPILOGUE CHAPTER ONE ELIZABETH O’CONNELL WASN’T sure she could tolerate another minute. This was her fifth blind date in as many weeks, and each of them had been significantly worse than the one before. “I heard what happened with your ex-husband.” Carter Hudson, the tall, dark-haired man seated across from her at the new Dundee Inn and Steakhouse reached over to touch her hand. “It must’ve been a terrible ordeal.” With light-brown eyes and strong, rugged features, Carter wasn’t unhandsome. But the way his thumb rested against the pulse at her wrist gave the impression he didn’t care so much about what she’d suffered as he did about pretending to commiserate with her—to make sure this night ended in as friendly a way as it could. Besides, his New York accent grated on her nerves. Almost everything about him grated on her nerves. Looking for a distraction, she glanced around the dining room to see if she could spot someone she knew. She’d lived in Idaho for less than two years, but Dundee was a town of only fifteen hundred people, and she’d already become acquainted with many of the locals. Unfortunately, it was a Thursday in late May, the height of the tourist season. She saw no one familiar. City slickers and yuppies drawn to the area by the Running Y Ranch, which offered visitors an authentic western vacation, filled the steak house. Liz, while stubbornly keeping her smile in place, wished the waitress would arrive with their dinners and tried to focus. “It wasn’t easy,” she said. “But it’s over now. Thank God.” Carter didn’t take the hint. “And yet you’re on friendly terms with him. Wasn’t he on the phone a moment ago?” Keith, her ex, was attempting to fix the wall at her new store. She knew she probably shouldn’t allow him to do her any more favors. But she’d relied on him for so long that it was still easier to accept his help than refuse it. And he was the father of her children. If The Chocolaterie proved as successful as she hoped it would, they all stood to benefit. With Keith working at the hardware store, it wasn’t as if he could provide her with much child support. “Yes.” “You spoke to him as if you are good friends,” he marveled. It seemed that every man she dated either wanted to discuss his past relationships or hers. And once what had happened to her was out in the open, she faced a million questions. She used the excuse of taking a drink of water to shift her hand. “I don’t see any reason to be the stereotypical ex-wife.” Carter relaxed in his chair with easy grace. Judging from his build, he could move with impressive coordination and speed. But Liz doubted Carter ever really exerted himself. “That’s pretty forgiving. I’m sure it doesn’t sound very nice, but if I were you I’d make him pay—whether I was being stereotypical or not.” Her grip tightened on her glass. Her emotions were complicated when it came to Keith, and Carter’s negativity wasn’t helping. “Why, when we have so many friends and loved ones in common? Maybe it’d be different if we lived in a big city. But in a town like this, we have to deal with each other every day.” “You’re serious? You can take what he did as though it was nothing?” “We have two children together,” she said, hoping he could understand the point of that, if nothing else. Carter reacted with a snort of incredulity. “From what I’ve heard, he has three more with your brother’s wife.” Liz told herself to count to ten. She itched to get up and walk out. Without an explanation. Without a backward glance. But she couldn’t. She loved Senator Garth Holbrook and his wife, Celeste, who’d set up this dinner date. She didn’t want her behavior to reflect poorly on them. Maybe if Carter was only a casual acquaintance of the senator’s, she wouldn’t have to be so careful. But he’d just opened a field office for Garth and still worked with him. “She wasn’t my brother’s wife at the time,” she said. “No, you were both married to Keith.” The waitress approached, carrying two plates, and Liz sat back in relief. But the arrival of their food didn’t distract Carter. He simply dodged the waitress’s movements and continued to talk. “How long did he lead this double life—wasn’t it close to eight years?” Liz couldn’t imagine Senator Holbrook sharing such information with someone she didn’t know. Not when his daughter Reenie had suffered because of Keith, too. “Who told you about it?” “Everyone who gets the chance,” he responded, adjusting the napkin on his lap. “You’re talking about Keith, aren’t you?” the waitress said. Liz had met this woman at the salon when she was getting her hair cut, and had seen her around town several times since. Her name was Mandy something, and she always stopped Liz to marvel over what had happened as if they were good friends when, in reality, Liz barely knew her. “What an incredible story,” she went on before Liz or Carter could respond. “That he was able to maintain two separate families without giving himself away is amazing. I still can’t believe he didn’t go to jail for what he did.” “The state has too many violent criminals to spend money prosecuting someone like Keith. He didn’t marry me to commit fraud, and he’s always taken care of his children.” “Still. It’s amazing.” “Yes, it is,” Carter said dryly. Liz ground her teeth. These people had no idea what she’d been through—or why. “Maybe if you knew Keith, you’d understand. He was gone half the time because of his job. I had no reason to suspect him of being unfaithful.” Carter drew forward in his seat. “Unfaithful? He had a whole other family.” “He wouldn’t strike you as the type of person to do what he did.” “You were living with him,” he pointed out. The waitress, who’d been struggling to light a candle on the table finally managed to succeed. “Yeah, but she and Reenie were two states apart. Otherwise, they probably would’ve found out sooner.” She put her lighter back into the pocket of her burgundy apron and smiled engagingly at Carter. “By the way, I love your accent.” Liz had no patience left and ran over Carter’s polite acknowledgment as she tried to make her point. “Keith has a strong sense of responsibility. That’s partly what got him into trouble.” The waitress toyed with the salt and pepper shakers in a rather obvious attempt to stick around, but when Liz leveled her with a meaningful look she finally seemed to realize she had no business there. “I’ll check back in a few,” she said, belatedly snapping into work mode. “Thank you,” Liz said and picked up her fork. Mandy hurried off and Carter cut into his steak. “If you ask me, lying and cheating is what got your ex-husband into trouble.” There had been a time when she wouldn’t have attempted to justify Keith’s behaviour. But now that she’d put some emotional distance between the revelation that had caused her divorce and herself, she could almost understand how her ex-husband’s particular strengths and weaknesses had combined to turn a simple affair into an even bigger mistake. In any case, she felt more loyalty to Keith than she did this stranger. Had Keith not married her, Mica wouldn’t have had the family she’d known for the first eight years of her life and Christopher never would have been born. “How can I blame Keith for loving Reenie, when my own brother couldn’t resist her?” “Your brother married her almost as soon as she was divorced from Keith, right?” She bit back a sigh. “Right.” “So you came first?” Carter asked. “He met the senator’s daughter after?” Liz cleared her throat, struggling with the shame that so often engulfed her. She hadn’t come first. Keith had already been married to Reenie for three years when Liz met him on that plane. She hadn’t been aware of this, of course. She and Reenie had lived in parallel universes, unknown to each other until Liz’s brother had uncovered the truth eighteen months earlier. When Isaac spotted Keith at the airport, traveling to Idaho the very day he was supposed to be in Phoenix, her world had come crashing down around her. “No. But I had no idea he was already married.” She’d been pregnant with Mica and head-over-heels in love. “It came as a complete shock.” Carter continued to look disbelieving. She nodded. “Wow.” He wiped his mouth with his napkin. “You’re remarkably forgiving to be on speaking terms with him.” Liz could feel Carter’s disapproval, despite the fact that his remark appeared to be a compliment. “You’ve never been married, have you?” He held his fork halfway to his mouth. “What makes you think so?” His inflexibility had given him away. He still believed he could call all the shots in a relationship, live in a world of absolutes and straightforward decisions. If she had her guess, he’d never been deeply in love or deeply hurt. So he had the luxury of believing he didn’t have to compromise. “A good guess.” She swallowed her bite of garlic mashed potato without tasting a thing. He’d learn someday, she told herself. She didn’t have to worry about it. This man wasn’t right for her. She wanted to steer the conversation back to neutral ground until they could part ways amicably. Evidently, however, her tone had revealed more irritation or been more challenging than she’d intended, because his expression darkened and became guarded. “Senator Holbrook said you’re from Brooklyn,” she said, trying to fill the sudden silence. “That’s right. I grew up there.” “How are you surviving in such a small town? It’s got to be a shock.” “It’s different.” He shrugged as if he accepted the shift in topic, but the wariness that had become so noticeable following Liz’s comment about marriage clung to him like frost. “I’m not convinced it’s all bad.” “You’ve only been here a few weeks.” “Are you telling me it’s going to get worse?” She couldn’t help wishing his Dundee experience wouldn’t be entirely positive. “You haven’t been through a winter yet.” His lips, which she would have found beautifully sculpted had she been willing to admire them, quirked. “Do you mean to give the impression you’re trying to get rid of me?” “I’m just doubtful you’ll like it here, that’s all,” she said, as if her feelings were really that simple. He started to eat again, chewing slowly, his actions deliberate. “You’re from Los Angeles. How do you like it?” It had taken a significant adjustment. If not for the desire to see her children grow up with their father nearby, she would’ve returned to L.A. long ago. But now… She surveyed the familiar dining room. She didn’t want to tear Mica and Christopher away from Keith, and she couldn’t imagine leaving her brother, Reenie or Reenie’s three girls. She was also afraid of what she might do if she were to go back. Trouble waited for her there in the form of her former tennis coach. Briefly, she wondered if her infatuation with Dave Shapiro, seven years her junior, was the cause of her less than enthusiastic response to the much more eligible men she was dating in Dundee. “It’s becoming home.” “You don’t think the same thing will happen for me?” “I doubt it.” She pushed at her potatoes with her fork, avoiding his gaze. “I’m guessing you’re too ambitious for these parts, too interested in climbing the ladder of success. Which means you won’t be staying long.” “You say that as if ambition is bad.” “Not necessarily. As long as you don’t mind temporary relationships.” “Dundee’s not a real hot spot,” he agreed, washing down another bite of meat with a sip of wine. “But there’s nothing wrong with temporary relationships. People pass in and out of other people’s lives all the time. You never know what you might learn from someone, how a particular person can enrich your experience, even if they don’t become a permanent fixture.” She chuckled softly. At least this guy made no apologies for who or what he was. She had to respect that. “Your words sound an awful lot like that country song, ‘Lot of Leavin’ Left to Do.’” He laughed out loud. Feeling triumphant at seeing through him so quickly, she was tempted to let her lips curve into a smile. But she suspected that his motivations weren’t quite that simple. He just wanted her to think so. She buttered a sourdough roll. “How’d you meet Senator Holbrook in the first place?” “When I went to college—” “Where’d you go?” “Harvard.” Liz refused to let that impress her. “Anyway, I thought I wanted to go into politics, so I interned for a state senator in Massachusetts. After I graduated, he hired me full-time and I ran his first campaign.” “But then?” “But then I took a different career path. When I eventually decided to get back into politics, I contacted him. He didn’t have an immediate opening, but he asked around and almost before I knew it, I was flying out here.” “I see. So you’re looking for someone to help stave off the boredom while you’re in Dundee? Is that it?” “I’m interested in company,” he said with a shrug. “I’m not sure about anything else.” “By anything else…you mean a relationship?” He chewed thoughtfully before answering. At last, he said, “Probably.” “Well…” She gave him a confident smile. “You don’t have to put me on notice.” “I don’t?” “No.” A dimple flashed in his cheek, seeming rather out of place amid the hard planes of his face. “Interesting you think so.” “Why?” “What I’ve heard so far wouldn’t lead me to believe that.” Her knife scraped against the surface of her plate. “Because my husband cheated on me?” she asked, forcing herself to stay calm. “He was husband and father to another family through your entire marriage and you never suspected it. That’s a pretty big thing to miss.” Senator Holbrook’s new right-hand man certainly didn’t sugarcoat his thoughts. “If you’re intimating that I didn’t see the truth because I didn’t want to, you’re wrong.” Liz was tempted to tell him how devoted Keith had been, how he’d never even shown interest in another woman when he was in her presence. Reenie hadn’t suspected, either. But why waste her breath? She wasn’t ever going out with this man again. “If you say so.” “Are you trying to offend me, Mr. Hudson?” she asked. “I’m trying to figure you out.” She forked another bit of potato into her mouth and swallowed without tasting. “Don’t bother.” He poured her more wine. “Too threatened by taking a hard look at yourself?” She felt her eyebrows draw together. “Excuse me, but this is a first date.” He studied her. “And that means what?” “I’d rather pretend I’m having fun.” She expected him to be offended. But her words seemed to have the opposite effect. He actually chuckled as though he approved of her response. “So you do have a backbone.” “You were checking?” “I was curious. Something has to explain what happened.” “That’s it.” She nearly spilled their drinks as she shoved her chair away from the table. “I’m finished here.” “Just because I won’t play according to the rules, Ms. O’Connell?” “The rules?” she echoed, standing over him. He didn’t bother getting up. “Stick to tedious small talk. Never say anything that evokes an emotional reaction. Be as solicitous and fake as possible. Those rules.” “Maybe I like playing by the rules.” “Then you’re smart to call it quits, because I value my time too much to waste it on superficial encounters.” She blinked, surprised that he’d come right back at her. Earlier, she’d been halfway convinced he wanted to take her home with him. She’d had no plans to comply, but his willingness to let her go so easily still came as a shock. “That’s it?” “If it’s all you can handle,” he said. She stared at him. For the sake of her friendship with Reenie and Reenie’s parents, she knew she should sit back down. But she couldn’t. She had more than enough to worry about, getting her new business up and running. She didn’t need this. “Fine, no problem,” she said and stalked off. KEITH WAS BUSY TAPING the wall he’d just fixed when Liz came in through the back of the shop. “Hey, that’s not bad,” she said. The surprise in her voice made her ex-husband scowl. “You didn’t think I could do it?” “You’ve never been known for carpentry. But most computer guys aren’t,” she added. “I’ve been working at the hardware store ever since…Well, for a while,” he said, obviousy choosing not to refer to the reason he had given up a $190,000-a-year job with Softscape, Inc. to work for twelve dollars an hour in Dundee. Liz was grateful he hadn’t reiterated what had caused the destruction of the life she’d previously known. She didn’t need to be reminded of the fact that he’d abandoned her in an effort to save his marriage to Reenie. Carter had already done that. “I’m getting the hang of being a handyman,” he added. She didn’t think he’d ever be much good at manual labor. It wasn’t in him. But she was grateful for his efforts, all the same. She’d sunk every dime from the sale of the house they’d shared in California into her new candy-making business and she didn’t have money left over to hire extra help. “You’re learning.” The improvements to the premises she’d leased three weeks earlier lifted her spirits despite her frustration and anger toward Carter Hudson. Pausing from his work, Keith ran his eyes over the simple coral-colored linen dress she’d worn for her date this evening. “You’re back awfully early.” Liz didn’t want to admit that her encounter with Senator Holbrook’s new aide had been a flop, so she shrugged off the comment. “I’m tired.” “You cut the evening short?” She met his gaze. Dating was relatively new to her. Only in the past six months had she felt sufficiently recovered from her divorce to meet other men. “We’d already had dinner.” Part of it, anyway, she added to herself. “So you didn’t like him.” Her ex-husband’s apparent relief made her supremely conscious of how much Keith seemed to want her back. Sometimes she was tempted to relent, to do what she could to rebuild their relationship. With his chiseled features, deep brown eyes and dark blond hair, he’d always appealed to her on a physical level. He appealed to her in a lot of other ways, as well. Memories of better days occasionally teased her into wondering if she could reclaim what they’d once had. But then she remembered that he’d loved Reenie more—that he’d been willing to give up Liz and their two children if it meant he could keep his other wife—and she couldn’t summon the trust. With Keith, she’d always be second best. He was only hoping to get back with her because Reenie was no longer available. “I liked him fine,” she lied. He wiped his hands on a pair of faded, holey jeans. “Garth acts as if Hudson’s the most brilliant man in the world.” He was a Harvard graduate, which was impressive. “He’s candid and confident.” “Do you think he’s handsome?” She pictured the dark-haired man she’d left at the steak house. “He’s okay, I guess.” Keith squatted to scrape the edge of his trowel against the lip of the bucket at his feet. “Reenie claims he’s one of the best-looking men she’s ever seen.” Wanting to make sure the plumber had installed the new sink, Liz went into the small bathroom in the back corner. “Reenie’s a lot more enthusiastic about him than I am,” she called. Evidently he heard her, because he answered right away. “Why?” “He has a New York accent.” “You said that as if he has an unsightly mole covering half his face. What’s wrong with an accent?” She wasn’t sure. It was just something she’d focused on. Maybe it was easier not to find him appealing if she dwelled on the blunt, unfamiliar feel of his voice and language instead of his attractive features. “It’s pretty strong.” “I heard he grew up in Brooklyn. What else would you expect?” She didn’t answer. She was too busy trying out the new sink. “What does he look like?” Keith called. Satisfied that the sink worked, she came out of the bathroom. “Do we have to talk about Carter?” “I’m curious,” he insisted. “Okay, he’s tall.” Keith flicked some plaster off his forearm and stood. “Taller than me?” She quickly tried to compare the two. “Maybe by a couple of inches.” “That would make him nearly six foot four,” he said, skeptically. “He’s not that tall, is he?” Hearing the jealousy in Keith’s voice, Liz grabbed a broom and started sweeping up the dust and dirt left behind when they ripped out the old cabinets. She didn’t want to analyze Carter Hudson. Especially with her ex-husband. She had a lot to do if she hoped to open The Chocolaterie by Memorial Day. Although a candy shop had been Liz’s idea, when Mary Thornton, who’d recently opened a gift store next door, had heard about it, she’d decided to sell chocolate, too. Mary was busy building her business while Liz struggled to finish the improvements to her space. “Is he?” Keith prompted. “I don’t remember. He’s a big man, okay?” “Big as in fat?” With a sigh, she faced him. “No. Big, as in muscular. Big, as in he has broad shoulders, a well-defined chest and a flat stomach. Big, as in—” “Okay, okay, I get it,” he grumbled, holding up a hand to stop her. “Jeez, I thought you couldn’t remember.” “You wanted details,” she said, and could’ve given him a few more. She hadn’t mentioned that Carter had a soccer player’s build, with nice long legs and large, rugged hands. Or that, judging from the golden color of his skin, he spent a fair amount of time outdoors, which she definitely hadn’t expected from a political aide. But she’d said enough. “Have you heard from Mica and Christopher?” she asked, changing the subject. “No, was I supposed to check on the kids?” He wiped a bead of sweat from his temple. “Not necessarily. I’m sure they’re fine. They love it at Reenie’s.” “You’d know, since the two of you are such good friends,” he said flippantly. The pique behind those words confirmed what Liz already knew. Keith resented the closeness between Liz and his other ex-wife. Liz supposed she could understand why. After having the love and attention of both women for so long, he was suddenly the odd man out, and that wasn’t likely to change. Not now that Reenie had married Liz’s brother. It probably didn’t make the situation any easier for Keith that Isaac was also the man who’d found him out and revealed his duplicity. Liz considered it ironic that, prior to Isaac’s spotting Keith at the airport catching a plane to Idaho when he was supposed to be in Arizona, Isaac hadn’t really been involved in their lives. He’d spent much of the previous eight years researching pygmy elephants in Africa. And when he was in the States, he’d lived in Chicago, where he taught biology at Chicago University. If not for that fateful visit to Liz and Keith’s home in L.A. following one of his research trips, Liz might still be married to Keith and living in California, believing it was only her husband’s job that took him away. “Reenie and I are more than friends. She’s my sister-in-law, remember?” Liz said, using a dustpan to empty her sweeping into the wheelbarrow Keith had brought with him. “I’m not likely to forget,” he mumbled. Dipping his trowel into a bucket of compound, he smeared more taping mixture on the wall. “Is this Carter guy planning on running for office someday?” “I don’t know.” Liz’s mind had already shifted to what remained to be done at the shop. “I hope the other display case I ordered will be big enough.” “You didn’t ask?” Keith said. “About the display case?” “Whether or not Carter Hudson is someday planning to run for office.” Carter again. Liz propped the broom against the wall. “No, I didn’t ask. Thanks to you, we talked mostly about me.” The hand holding the trowel stopped moving, then began to scrape along the mended Sheetrock. “What’d he want to know?” She gathered up the ceiling tiles they’d torn down. “Like everyone else, he was curious to know how you managed to get away with having two families for so long. And how you and I could still be friends.” “That’s none of his business,” Keith snapped. Liz ignored his response. “But he’s not as generous as some people,” she continued. “He seems to think I’m a fool for not realizing I was being duped.” “Then, it didn’t go well between you.” That was all that registered from what she’d shared? Closing her eyes, Liz shook her head. “No,” she finally admitted. “It didn’t go well.” “Good. Maybe, even though he’s big, as in muscular and well built, I won’t be as easy to replace as you thought.” “Keith—” He lifted his arms as if her pointed stare was a gun. “That’s all I’m saying.” “You’ve said it before. As much as I wish it wasn’t so, it’s too late for us.” “With a little forgiveness, it doesn’t have to be,” he murmured. The look on his face might have stirred something inside her once. It had been a long time since he’d touched her—since any man had touched her. In a way, she wanted to turn back the days and months, to feel the old excitement. But as handsome as Keith was, she had so little feeling left for him. “Thanks for fixing the wall,” she said. “I’d better go pick up the kids.” Keith let her slip out without saying another word, for which she was grateful, relieved. But when she reached her brother and sister-in-law’s small farm, she found the porch light on and a note taped to the door. Liz—We’re at my parents’. Stop by, okay? “Great,” she grumbled, crushing the paper in her hand. She was going to have to give an account of her date to Senator Holbrook and his wife before she could take her children home. CHAPTER TWO WHEN LIZ REACHED the Holbrooks’, she saw a metallic-blue Jaguar parked next to Isaac and Reenie’s minivan. The Jag was a beautiful vehicle, and one that always garnered attention. Which was why she immediately recognized it. She would have turned around on the spot and headed in the other direction, if not for her daughter, Mica, and Reenie’s middle daughter, Angela. They were playing in the hanging swing on the front porch and had already spotted her. “Mom!” Mica called, running down to the sidewalk, waving. “We were wondering when you’d get here. Mr. Hudson came a long time ago.” Evidently, Mr. Hudson had no shame. How could he drive directly to the Holbrooks’ after treating Liz so poorly at the restaurant? Or had he dropped by so he could blame her for their failure to get along? “I’ll be right there.” Pulling up in front of the house across the street, the one she’d rented when she and Isaac had first moved to town, Liz shut off the engine. That house reminded her of some of the darkest hours of her life. She was glad she’d moved across town six months ago, when her lease had expired. She was living in another rental house, but her situation was improving. Maybe not her love life, but…other aspects. And she was going to make sure that trend continued. Mica crowded the car door as soon as Liz opened it. “Did you have fun on your date? Did you like him?” Liz refused to meet her daughter’s eyes. A gifted child, Mica would likely guess the truth if given half a chance. Fortunately, the purple of dusk had deepened into darkness, which provided Liz with some cover. “We had a great time,” she said, averting her face as she leaned across the seat to get her purse. The sensible sedan she’d bought when she could no longer afford the Cadillac Esplanade she’d leased while she’d been married still had a comforting new-car smell, but it wasn’t half as good as the vehicle she’d lost. Angela peered over Mica’s shoulder. “He really likes you, too.” Masking her skepticism, Liz turned off her headlights. “What makes you think so?” “He said it,” Mica replied. From what Liz had gathered so far, Carter Hudson didn’t tell many lies. So this surprised her. “He did?” “Yeah. When he first got here, he told Mrs. Holbrook you’re attractive.” Shoving her glasses higher on her nose, Mica gave Liz a smile. “He also said I’ll be as pretty as my mother someday.” “How charming,” Liz said, but she was hardly convinced of Carter’s sincerity. The man she’d met wasn’t the type to compliment a gangly ten-year-old girl. “But he’s wrong.” Mica blinked at her with wide, owlish eyes. “He is?” “Yes. You’re both already far prettier than I am.” She pecked her daughter’s cheek while giving Angela an affectionate squeeze. They laughed and held hands as they crossed the street. “We’ll tell everyone you’re here,” Mica hollered back. Liz opened her mouth to stop them. She wanted to ask Mica to go in, collect her brother and quietly mention to Reenie that they were leaving. But she knew it would look odd if she didn’t put in an appearance, so she said nothing. Striding up the walkway, she followed the girls past the tall, heavy door they’d left standing open. “Hello?” she called. “Mind if I come in?” “Liz, is that you?” Reenie’s voice could be heard somewhere out back. “We’re in the yard.” The entryway smelled of exotic flowers. After taking a moment to admire the floral arrangement in front of the large gilded mirror, Liz proceeded through the house. Her heels clacked on the marble floor as she passed a tall table topped with a glass bowl full of marbles. The kitchen, with its center island and shiny copper pots dangling from hooks near the ceiling, came next. Beyond that, French doors opened onto an elaborate brick patio illuminated by tulip-shaped yard lights. Senator Holbrook, Celeste, Reenie, Isaac and Carter were out there, relaxing in lawn chairs. “Here she is,” the senator said, getting up to kiss her cheek. “I told you she was special, didn’t I?” he said to Carter. Carter’s eyes lifted momentarily to Liz’s, and she thought she recognized a hint of amusement in their depths. “Yes, you did.” “Can I get you a drink?” Celeste asked. Liz raised a hand. “No, thank you. I won’t be staying long. I’m just here to pick up the kids.” “What happened to your dress?” Reenie asked. She and Isaac sat across the patio at a circular table. Liz did her best to wipe dust and taping mixture from her dress. “Oh, I stopped by the shop.” Her brother stretched out his legs and toyed with the stem of his empty wineglass. “How’s it coming over there?” “Good,” she said. “Keith’s almost finished repairing the wall that was damaged when LeRoy ripped out the television.” “I think LeRoy will regret moving,” Senator Holbrook volunteered, nursing what appeared to be a brandy. “Why do you say that, Dad?” Reenie asked. “Folks have been going to his barbershop for years. They won’t like the change.” “You’re the one who doesn’t like it,” Celeste corrected with a soft chuckle. “Because it means you’ll have to drive somewhere in order to get your hair cut.” “With all the new shops going in on either side of him, I think he made the right decision,” Isaac said. “His rent was going up, and there wasn’t any good reason for him to pay the extra. At this point in his career, he has all the business he wants from regulars. Tourists aren’t really his target market.” The senator winked at Liz. “At least it created a nice spot for a candy store. That makes me happy.” Liz smiled at Reenie’s father. With his dark hair and strong chin, he looked exactly like Reenie and her brother Gabe. The only feature Reenie and Gabe seemed to have inherited from their mother was the shocking blue color of their eyes. “Now you’ll have to walk over to get some fudge instead of a haircut,” she told him. “You bet I will.” He pulled out an extra chair. “Here, have a seat.” “I can’t stay. The kids have school tomorrow.” “It’s only nine o’clock,” he said. “Why not give them fifteen more minutes? They’re downstairs playing pool. They won’t be happy if you drag them away so soon.” “You generally don’t put them to bed until nine-thirty, anyway,” Reenie added. Liz glanced from father to daughter. She wanted to refuse. But she couldn’t tell them she didn’t enjoy Carter’s company. Neither could she say she was in a hurry to get home so she could call a friend in L.A. Reenie and Isaac would both know exactly who she was talking about. “I guess I’ve got a few minutes.” Slipping into the chair Senator Holbrook held out for her, she helped herself to a cookie from a plate on the table. If she had to join the fun, she might as well indulge. It wasn’t as if she’d eaten much dinner. “Are you excited about opening the shop?” Celeste asked. Liz dusted a few crumbs from her lap. “I am,” she said, without adding that she was worried about the competition from Mary Thornton, now that Mary had had a two-month jump on attracting chocolate-loving patrons. “But I was hoping to be ready in time for Memorial Day.” “You’re not going to make it?” “No.” “Why not? Keith promised he’d help you,” Reenie said. “You know him.” When she said this, Liz could feel a spike in Carter’s interest level, and she figured he was sizing up the relationship, wondering how she and Reenie could be so friendly. Liz knew it was remarkable that they had overcome the past. But Reenie was a remarkable woman, and what had happened wasn’t her fault. “He doesn’t know enough about carpentry,” she explained. “And I’m having trouble finding someone else I can afford.” “What about me?” Isaac said. Liz shook her head. Isaac wasn’t any better at construction than Keith, and besides he was always so busy. “You already have your hands full.” “There’s Gabe,” Celeste said. “You’ve seen his furniture. He can build anything.” “He and Hannah should be back from Boston in a few days,” the senator added. Liz exchanged a quick glance with Reenie. They both knew her brother and his wife, Hannah, wouldn’t be home for some time. They’d met a doctor in Massachusetts who thought he could restore some of the mobility in Gabe’s legs, maybe even get him out of his wheelchair. He was scheduled to have surgery a week from now but because of the risks, he’d made Reenie promise to keep it a secret from his parents and Hannah’s sons. Her two boys were staying at home—when they weren’t at the Holbrooks’—since Kenny at nineteen was old enough to care for his ten-year-old brother. “Maybe I’ll talk to him when he gets back,” she said noncommittally. “Meanwhile, Carter could get you started,” the senator said. “He grew up building homes with his dad. Didn’t you, Carter?” Carter put his drink on the table and sat back. Liz could feel his eyes on her, but she refused to look directly at him. She sensed he knew she and Reenie were harboring some kind of secret, even if the Holbrooks didn’t. He seemed to have an uncanny ability to cut through pretenses. “What is it you need?” he asked. She was reluctant to tell him. Even if he had the ability to help her finish the store, she didn’t want his assistance. She’d find someone else eventually—or muddle through on her own. “Liz?” Reenie prompted. “Just a few improvements,” she said at last. “Flooring, paint, some shelves and display cabinets. But please don’t trouble yourself. I’m sure you’re far too busy to be bothered.” “The job should probably wait for Gabe,” he agreed. Carter didn’t like her any more than she liked him, Liz realized. That was apparent. But he’d said Gabe’s name with enough emphasis that she shot Reenie another glance. Did he know? Reenie managed a tiny shrug to indicate she had no idea. “Or someone else,” Liz muttered. “Why wait?” the senator asked. “Besides taking a few calls, there’s not much Carter can do for me until the computers arrive. And we’re a week away from that at least.” Carter’s forehead creased. “I was thinking about driving to Boise to work out of the capitol office until we were up and running here.” The senator bit into a chocolate-chip cookie. “Don’t bother driving to Boise,” he said. “There’re too many people at the capitol already.” “But the painting might be difficult,” Liz interjected. “I was hoping to create a marbled effect.” The senator brushed some crumbs from his mouth. “You can create a marbled effect, can’t you, Carter?” “I’ve never done it before.” “Don’t you have a book or magazine on it?” Senator Holbrook asked Liz. Reenie and Isaac knew she did. She’d shown it to them. “Yes.” The senator finished his cookie. “Carter?” “I suppose I could take a look at it,” he said. “Good. Help Liz for the next week or so, then we’ll see where we’re at with the office.” Liz waited for Carter to refuse. She guessed he wanted to. But he managed a pleasant voice when he answered. “Okay.” He shifted his gaze to her. “What time would you like me to meet you there tomorrow?” There was no polite escape. She’d thrown out a problem and the senator had solved it. “How about six?” she said, still hoping he’d balk. One eyebrow slid up. “Six?” “I thought we’d get an early start. But if you’d rather sleep in…” “No. Six is fine.” Liz knew there was a lot going on behind the unaffected mask he wore, but he gave away nothing. “Carter would work around the clock if I let him,” the senator said. “He’s amazing.” “Yes, he is.” Liz held her breath when her voice came out a little flat, but Isaac immediately jumped in to cover for her. “Sounds like you’ve done a variety of things in your life, Carter. How’d you get into politics?” Carter finished his drink. “I considered it as a profession years ago. I’m just coming back around to it.” “Do you think you’ll ever run for office?” Liz asked, remembering Keith’s question to her. “No.” Reenie’s chair scraped cement as she scooted forward to reach the cookies. “Why not?” “I don’t have the right makeup.” “What kind of makeup does it require?” Liz asked. He smiled as if he understood that she was tempting him into making a blunder. “Diplomacy. The ability to call your enemies friends. My enemies are simply my enemies. But a politician doesn’t have the luxury of living in black and white.” “You can say that again,” Holbrook said with a laugh. “Problem is, in politics your friends and enemies are never clearly defined in the first place. That’s why I need someone like Carter to help me keep them straight.” No longer enjoying her cookie, Liz set the last of it down on a paper plate. “So you’d call yourself a particularly good judge of character, Carter?” “I’m…cautious,” he said. “It’s necessary in my line of work.” “There’s nothing wrong with being cautious.” Isaac took Reenie’s hand, in a casual gesture but when Carter wasn’t looking he shot Liz a glower that told her to back off a bit. For the sake of politeness, she wanted to—but she couldn’t. Not when she had him cornered. “How so?” she asked. He pinned her to her seat with an unswerving gaze. “I’m a strategist of sorts. I keep an eye on the playing field, attempt to figure out who will do what under a certain set of circumstances and go from there.” Liz folded her arms. “So you draw assumptions about people based on limited information.” Reenie’s mouth fell open and Isaac cleared his throat—another attempt to warn her she was being rude. The senator and Celeste shifted uneasily in their seats. But Liz was too intent on making her point to change course. She didn’t even blink as she waited for his answer. “Don’t we all?” he countered. Liz thought she could guess at the assumptions he’d made about her. Past events didn’t paint her as particularly astute or perceptive. “Innocence can make people blind.” “I wouldn’t argue with you there,” he responded. “Maybe that’s not a bad thing,” she said. “Maybe there are too many cynics in the world already.” He scratched his head. “From what I’ve seen, the innocent rarely survive.” “Some people might be tougher than you think.” “That’s definitely a more pleasant surprise than finding out the opposite is true.” He rose to his feet. “I’d better go. It’s been nice chatting with you, but—” he offered Liz a brief smile “—I’ve got an early day tomorrow.” After coaxing Carter to take home a plate of cookies, Celeste showed him out. In the silent aftermath, Liz squirmed against the pointed stares of everyone who remained. “What?” she said. The front door closed and Celeste’s footsteps echoed across the entry. “What’d he do?” Reenie asked, sounding a little shocked. “Nothing,” Liz said. “But you never act like that. You’re soft-spoken, well mannered, reserved. I’m the temperamental one.” “You went after him like a piranha,” Isaac added. “Why don’t you like him?” Liz offered Reenie’s father a feeble smile. “I do like him. Really.” “He comes highly recommended,” the senator responded. “He used to work for a state senator who is now a congressman, and even though Carter’s very discreet about the past ten years or so, according to Congressman Ripley, he’s honest, straightforward, fiscally responsible and hardworking. I’ve seen a lot of that in him myself. I wouldn’t have set you up with him otherwise.” “I know.” Liz patted his arm affectionately. Since her own father had remarried eight months after her mother’s death and basically dropped out of her life, she regarded the senator as a sort of replacement, even though she’d only met him eighteen months ago. She hadn’t meant to be rude to his aide. The frustration she’d felt at dinner, and the disappointment she was experiencing with her love life, had simply boiled over. “I’m sorry.” “You don’t have to apologize,” he assured her. “Carter has a few rough edges, I can see that. Go ahead and challenge him, make him think.” He sat back and smiled. “If anyone can handle it, he can.” LIZ WASN’T HOME fifteen minutes before Reenie called. “Are you okay?” she asked. “Of course. Why?” Carrying the cordless phone with her as she moved through the house, Liz began to straighten up. This part of the day was typically the most difficult. Once the kids were in bed and the place had fallen silent, she rambled, feeling more alone than at any other time and looking for ways to fill the void Keith had left behind. In recent weeks, creating lists and projecting financial statements for The Chocolaterie had given her fresh purpose, but she was too agitated to concentrate on her lists tonight. “You seem stressed.” She was stressed. She feared her investment in her new candy-making enterprise might be a mistake and she wasn’t sure what she’d do if it failed. She didn’t want to go back to working at Finley’s Grocery. There, she couldn’t earn enough to squeeze by. And in such a small town there weren’t many better jobs available for a former flight attendant. “I’m just overwhelmed, trying to launch my own business and all that.” “You need to slow down and relax. Isaac and I are worried about you.” Liz’s brother had always been there for her. When they were young and their stepmother had been making life so miserable for Liz, it had been Isaac who had defended her, supported her, given her a shoulder to cry on. He’d helped her through the rough time right after she’d found out about Keith, too. “Tell him I’m fine. You two have enough to worry about with Gabe. Have you heard from him?” “Yesterday. They’ve postponed the surgery.” “Why?” “They’re still running tests.” Liz picked up her son’s sweatshirt and hung it on a hook in the coat closet. “I wish he’d play it safe and come home.” “So do I,” Reenie said. “If the operation goes badly…” She drew an audible breath. “It’d kill my parents.” It would affect Reenie and Isaac and a lot of other people, too. Since the car accident that had ruined Gabe’s NFL career three years earlier, he had been coaching football at the high school. Most of his players worshipped him like a big brother. “He’ll be okay,” she said. There was a brief silence before Reenie continued. “Mica seemed happy tonight. She talked a lot about the store. She’s so proud of you.” A candy shop had been Liz’s mother’s dream. And now it was hers and Mica’s, too. At Mica’s insistence, Liz had driven by the store on the way home so she and Christopher could see the progress and say good-night to their father. “The kids are doing well.” Liz felt certain she’d done the right thing in following Keith to Dundee. He was a good father, despite what he’d done, and her children were thriving. She had to keep her mind on that, on what really mattered, or the loneliness would drive her crazy. Reenie and Isaac tried to support her, but they were caught up with their own family. And now, with surgery for Reenie’s brother looming in the near future, they were more preoccupied than usual. “So…was it Keith?” Reenie asked. “Was what Keith?” Liz replied absentmindedly. “Did he say something that upset you tonight?” “I wasn’t upset.” Silence met this response, which compelled Liz to elaborate. “I was frustrated.” “Over what?” Where did she start? Eighteen months earlier, she’d been devastated to find out that her husband had another wife and three children living in Idaho. When he’d left her to try and save his first marriage, Liz had followed him from L.A. in order to keep her children near their father. Mica, now ten, and Christopher, seven, desperately loved Keith, but the change had been a shock to Liz. Especially when she’d had to deal with Keith’s first wife so much. Fortunately, that was behind her now. She loved Reenie and, for the most part, she’d made her peace with Keith. But life still wasn’t easy. She was going from blind date to blind date, denying herself contact with Dave, who was the only man she really wanted to be with, and investing every dime she possessed in a business that could break her if it didn’t succeed. She’d known hard times before but she’d never felt so insignificant or overlooked, or so immature and guilty for feeling insignificant and overlooked. “I want to call Dave,” she said simply. “Liz, I know you’re homesick for California and probably a tad lonely—” “A tad?” she interrupted. “That’s what makes it so hard to say go ahead,” Reenie told her. “At this point, you’re too vulnerable.” “Oh, so I could call him if I didn’t need him?” “He’s only twenty-five. If you fell in love with him, would he marry you? Be a good stepfather for your children?” Wearily, Liz ran a hand through her hair. “I don’t want to hear that tonight.” Reenie’s voice rose. “At least one of us has to be realistic.” “It’d still be nice if once in a while you asked if he makes me feel attractive. Or if I’m happy when I’m talking to him. Or even if I think he’s good in bed!” “You’ve slept with him?” Liz silently cursed her own big mouth. She hadn’t told anyone about meeting up with Dave three months ago. She’d simply explained to Keith that she was going back to L.A. to visit her friends and flew to Vegas on a weekend when he had the children. But as much as she and Dave had enjoyed their time together, she regretted that trip. It had started them thinking more seriously about their relationship, and Dave had been after her to meet him again ever since. “It was just one weekend.” “Liz, how long could you reasonably expect a relationship with him to last?” Reenie asked. “You told me yourself that you’ve never seen him with the same woman twice.” It was true. The Dave she’d known in California had definitely been a womanizer. But that was a while ago. He seemed different now. Besides, how much danger could there be in establishing a relationship when they lived a thousand miles apart? Maybe there were times she wanted to meet him again. But she hadn’t given in, even though he offered to pay for the flight. “There’s no real risk. He’d never move here, and I can’t go back to California. Not until the kids are older.” “So why get involved with him?” Reenie argued. Maybe he wasn’t the perfect fit. But she enjoyed him. That was better than nothing, wasn’t it? “He gives me someone to talk to, someone to dream about.” Reenie sighed into the phone. “Don’t settle, Liz.” “That’s easy advice for you to give. You’re remarried and happier than ever.” “It can happen for you, too.” Liz put in a load of laundry. “Oh yeah? Who do you have in mind?” “What’s wrong with Carter?” Reenie replied. “He seems like a good candidate.” “You barely know him. What makes you think he’s any more suitable than Dave?” “He’s local, for one.” “I bet he won’t stick around for long.” “He might. And he’s older, more mature—” “There are no guarantees.” “My dad doesn’t get enthusiastic about people unless they deserve it, Liz. He’s really impressed with Carter.” Reenie’s father hadn’t always been such a good judge of character. He’d once had an affair that had resulted in a child, a girl, who’d shown up in Dundee as an adult and nearly cost him his marriage. Gabe, Reenie’s brother, still resented her. But Liz wasn’t about to bring up the past. Everyone made mistakes and, all in all, Garth was one of the best men she’d ever known. Using her shoulder to hold the phone to her ear, she unloaded the dishwasher. “Does your father even know what Carter has done for the past ten years? He could be an ex-convict, for Pete’s sake.” “Congressman Ripley wouldn’t have recommended an ex-convict. Carter’s a straight arrow, and Dad says he’ll be one hell of a campaign manager.” “Campaign manager?” Liz paused with a stack of clean glasses in her hand. “I thought he was an aide.” “Only until the next election.” She finished putting away the glasses. “Your dad doesn’t need a high-powered campaign manager to retain his seat in the state senate. He’s a shoo-in.” “You’re probably right,” Reenie agreed. Silverware jangled as Liz pulled a basket from the dishwasher. “So you’re telling me he’s thinking of running for congress again?” “I’m pretty sure he has his eye on a national senate seat this time.” “That could be a tough race,” Liz said. Considering the scandal that had ensued when Lucky returned to town and everyone had found out who her father was. “He always aims high. You know that,” Reenie responded. “And Carter can help get him where he wants to go.” Liz opened the silverware drawer. “He seems capable enough. But on a personal level, he’s…” “What?” “Too standoffish, impatient…. I don’t know.” Reenie hesitated. “You got all that from one dinner?” “How long do you think it takes?” “Are you sure you read him right?” “I’m sure.” Finished unloading the dishwasher, Liz wandered into the living room and sank onto the sofa. “Did he comment on our date?” “Not much. We asked him if he enjoyed dinner, and he said you were good company.” Liz raked her fingers through her long hair. At least he hadn’t used what had happened to make her look bad. That brought him up a little in her esteem. “We have conflicting personalities.” “I’ve never known you to conflict with anyone.” A call-waiting beep interrupted their conversation, causing a prickle of excitement along Liz’s spine. Was it Dave? She checked her caller ID. Sure enough. She didn’t have to decide whether or not to phone him. She only had to decide whether or not to answer. And regardless of all the reasons she shouldn’t, she already knew what she was going to do. “I’m tired. I’ll let you go.” “Liz, I heard that beep and I know what it means—” “Talk to you tomorrow,” she said and switched over. CHAPTER THREE “THERE YOU ARE,” DAVE SAID. “Where’ve you been? I’ve been trying to reach you for days.” Liz had been avoiding his calls and refusing to return his messages—a futile exercise. Despite her resolution to forget him and find someone better suited to her needs, she was right back where she’d been before, wanting to hear his voice, see him, be with him. “I’ve been busy,” she said, choosing to keep the truth to herself. “Getting your chocolate shop up and running?” “Trying to.” They were talking about innocuous things, but the tension that had slowly built between them since she’d left California—tension that had definitely spiked since Vegas—made Liz nervous. The last time she’d called him, he’d talked almost nonstop about wanting to make love to her again. That was partly why she’d decided to bail out while she still could. Those words hung over everything else they said. “What’s left to do?” he asked. His deep voice felt like a caress. Briefly, Liz wondered if he’d have been a temptation when he coached her, had she been less dedicated to Keith. While she’d been married, she hadn’t allowed herself to admire Dave’s muscular physique, engaging smile or laughing eyes. She’d been too in love with her husband, too intent on protecting her family. Not that it had done her any good. Her marriage hadn’t lasted, despite her commitment to it. When Keith had flown off to “work,” he’d actually been traveling to Dundee to be with Reenie and their three children. The depth of Keith’s betrayal sometimes crept up on Liz and nearly swallowed her whole. Tonight it was the power of those emotions that eroded her resolve. Dave made her feel desirable, and that had to count for something. After the toll divorce had taken on her ego, Liz craved the attention. “A lot,” she said, finally answering his question. “I’m beginning to think it’ll never be finished.” “And you want to open next week?” “It would be nice. Winters will be lean. It’d be smart to capitalize on the tourist season as much as I can.” “We have mild winters here in California. Lots of great weather.” She grinned at the enticement in his voice. “We weren’t talking about the weather,” she said. “We were talking about tourists.” “We have lots of those, too.” “I remember,” she said with a laugh. “Come on. Don’t you miss it here? Isn’t it time to come home?” “I can’t.” “The longer you stay in Idaho, the more difficult it will be to move.” He had a point. She and her children were growing attached to this place. But Liz didn’t feel she had a choice about staying. Not when leaving would have a negative impact on Mica and Christopher. “I can’t take the kids away from Keith or their half sisters.” “Ever?” “Maybe when they’re older.” There was a slight pause. “Will I be gray by then?” She laughed. “No, but I probably will be.” She couldn’t help pointing out the difference in their ages. The gap between them had to bother him on some level, didn’t it? She always expected him to wake up and realize how easily he could get someone younger, someone less encumbered. But he usually ignored such references, as he did now. “I can’t compete with a mother’s dedication to her children.” “Single mothers have to make tough decisions,” she said. “And you owe it all to Keith.” Leaning back, she stretched her legs over one arm of the sofa. Dave was like a bouncy puppy—always warm and friendly. Unlike Carter Hudson, who reminded her of a shark, gliding silently through deep waters. “If Keith hadn’t done what he’d done, we wouldn’t even be talking.” “Good point.” He became more cheerful. “So…is he helping you get the shop ready?” “He’s trying. It’s just not coming together as quickly as I’d hoped. Today I wanted him to meet me as soon as he got off work, so he’d have time to patch a wall and make some progress on the painting.” “And?” “Angela wanted him to take her on a bike ride, so he showed up two hours late.” “Sounds to me like he’s dragging his feet.” “Why would he do that?” “Maybe he’d rather not see you open this business.” Liz changed the phone to her other ear. “Why would he care?” “Didn’t you tell me he wants another chance?” Dave asked. “That’s what he says.” “The more independent you are, the less likely you’ll be to give him that chance.” Liz had never thought of the situation in quite that way. She hadn’t considered Keith’s take on her actions at all. She’d simply wanted to start her own business and stop punching a time card and collecting a small wage from someone else. “The more I make, the more secure Mica and Christopher will be. Which will mean less pressure on Keith to help support them.” “Doesn’t he need to find a better job, anyway?” Dave asked. “He can’t work at that hardware store indefinitely.” “He’s looking, and doing some projects on the side. But it isn’t easy to find a software development company that will let him telecommute from Idaho. That’s why he can’t go back to Softscape. They’ve moved their offices from Boise to L.A. and want him to live there. But he won’t move.” There’s got to be other opportunities in Boise.” “Even that’s too far to go.” “Why?” “I think it’s because he’s afraid he’ll lose his Number One Dad status with Jennifer, Angela and Isabella. The competition he feels toward Isaac has made him even more determined to remain a central figure in their lives.” “Aren’t divorces fun?” Dave said. “Suddenly parents are competing for their children’s affection and admiration, instead of acting like adults.” She knew he’d grown up in a broken home. She could tell by the conviction in his words how much he’d hated it. His mother had packed up and moved out of state almost as soon as the divorce was final, and left him with his father. Liz sometimes wondered if he liked older women because he was searching for a mother figure to replace the one he’d lost when he was young. She wanted to ask but was positive it wouldn’t go over very well. “You’re speaking from experience.” “I am. My father tried to become my best friend, instead of just being my parent. It was pretty damn embarrassing to see him dressing like a kid my own age.” “It’s tough to keep what’s really important in mind when you’re reeling emotionally,” she said, trying to be fair. “I know. That’s why I admire you.” Liz wasn’t sure how to respond. She didn’t expect any praise for trying to hold up her end, but the compliment felt good. “Thanks,” she said softly. “What do you need in order to finish the store?” he asked. “Someone who knows what he’s doing,” she replied with a laugh. “And a few more hours in each day. I’ve been checking out chocolate suppliers, experimenting with ideas, buying the pots and equipment I need, and getting the proper licenses. I haven’t had enough time to focus on the actual improvements. Now I know it won’t happen unless I push a little harder.” “I wish I was there to help you.” “Do you know much about carpentry?” “No. But I’m good at other things.” “Like…” His voice turned as thick as honey. “Rubbing the tension from your shoulders.” Liz covered her eyes and imagined him bending toward her, brushing his lips softly across hers. Pushing herself upright, she redirected her thoughts. It was that kind of reverie that made her realize she had no business remaining in contact with Dave. “You won’t even miss me as soon as you get another woman out on the court who has a better pair of legs,” she said. “Are you kidding?” he replied. “There is no one with a better pair of legs.” “I bet you say that to all the girls.” There was a slight pause. “Dave?” “What?” She could tell by his tone that she’d upset him and regretted going so far. “I was only joking.” “Very funny. You say stuff like that almost every time we talk.” It was true. She supposed she was trying to remind herself of the risks involved in letting this relationship grow. “I’m sorry. Maybe if you were older, I could take you more seriously.” “Here we go again.” Liz rubbed her left temple. “It’s just—” “Who cares about the difference in our ages?” he interrupted. “It’s only seven years. If I was older than you, no one would think twice about it.” Liz turned off the lamp overhead. She preferred to sit in the dark when talking to Dave. “It’s not only that,” she said. “It’s the fact that I have two children.” “So? I’m good with kids. Do I have to be thirty before you’ll introduce me?” “Of course not. If we lived closer, you could meet Mica and Chris.” She wasn’t sure that was really the case. Setting herself up for disappointment was one thing; doing it to her children was another. But she didn’t want to argue. “I bet if I was there, I could make you forget about the age difference.” “No, you couldn’t.” “I proved you wrong once. Should I come for a visit? See if I can do it again?” Liz blinked in surprise. They often talked about their trip to Vegas and the possibility of another meeting. He’d been pressuring her to return to L.A. for a few days. But even though Dave had a cousin in Boise, this was the first time he’d ever mentioned venturing into her world. She guessed that would be a little too much reality for both of them. Knowing if she could just put him off now they’d probably never address the issue again, she said, “It’d be better to come in the winter when you’re not so busy at the club, wouldn’t it?” “Winter is pretty far away.” “Mommy?” Liz spun around as if she’d just been caught doing something wrong. Christopher was standing in the doorway, rubbing his eyes. “What’s the matter, honey?” “I can’t sleep,” he complained. “Will you lie down with me?” Liz bit her lip. She wasn’t ready to end the conversation. But as she looked at her son’s sleepy face and thought of how quickly he was growing up, she knew what she needed to do. “I’ve gotta go,” she said into the receiver. “Call me later?” Dave asked. “Tomorrow,” she said and hung up. CARTER HUDSON WAITED impatiently beneath the old-fashioned sign that identified Liz’s new store as a chocolaterie. He’d never heard of a chocolaterie, but she was the one who had to worry about making this business a success. His only problem was that he had to spend a whole day with her, which wasn’t going to be easy because she reminded him so much of Laurel. He remembered the feel of Liz’s slim fingers, the flutter of the pulse at her wrist. When he’d touched her hand at the restaurant, he’d wanted to close his eyes, block out the restaurant and everyone else in it, and simply count the steady beat of her heart. How he craved just one more moment with Laurel, the chance to say goodbye… He’d been too aggressive with Liz. But he didn’t care. The whole encounter had been illogical. Besides, he wasn’t planning on getting to know her in any meaningful way, so it didn’t matter. Which was good, because they weren’t off to a better start this morning. After dragging him out of bed at the crack of dawn, she was late. The only shops open this early were those that catered to the ranchers—the diner, the feed store, the hardware store and the old-fashioned doughnut shop. Wishing he’d stopped for a cup of coffee, Carter wandered over to Belinda’s Bagels two doors down, then frowned at the sign in the window. The place didn’t open until eight. Evidently bagels, at least in Dundee, were a tourist item, and tourists typically didn’t venture into town until later in the morning. He considered walking back to the doughnut shop—it was only a few blocks away—but ultimately decided not to. He’d grab a cup when the bagel shop opened. He’d need that coffee even more in a couple of hours. Last night he’d had another terrible nightmare. After jerking awake in a cold sweat, it had taken at least ten minutes to convince himself he’d just been dreaming. Laurel… The sudden, hollow ache in his chest nearly made him sick. He knew the pain would ease eventually. He’d had plenty of practice dealing with that. He just had to keep his mind occupied. Dropping a quarter into the newspaper bin next to the curb, he removed a copy of the Dundee Weekly and sat down at one of three small outdoor tables. If Liz didn’t come in the next fifteen minutes, he was going to head home. Helping her finish the inside of her chocolate shop wasn’t actually in his job description. He would’ve said so the night before, but the supportive, helpful attitude of the people around here inspired him. Dundee was so different from the big city. So…rejuvenating. He needed the change, whether he wanted to admit it or not. Of course, the helpfulness he so often encountered here had a downside. It sometimes bordered on nosiness, even outright interference. But at least these folks typically meant well. At least they cared. He gazed down the ribbon of street that split the small town in half. Would it have made a difference if he’d brought Laurel to a place such as this? The question crept unbidden into his consciousness but, with some effort, he shoved it out of his mind. Second-guessing wouldn’t help. There was nothing more he could have done. And now he had no choice except to square his shoulders and face each new day as it came. He shifted his attention to the newspaper and, slowly, the ache subsided. He found no stories of rape or murder. No missing persons. Nothing violent or ugly. The headline read Crab Feed Raises $10,000 for Schools. He couldn’t call the accompanying article riveting, but it was comforting to know that a crab feed could still be front-page news. Laurel would’ve liked that…. Annoyed with himself, he made another attempt to control his thoughts by moving to the article directly below the one he’d already read. City Council Bucks Rodeo Improvements Is it time to improve the rodeo grounds? According to Councilwoman Foley, it is. But with Mayor Wells out of town, the council voted 3–2 last week against appropriating the necessary funds. Fortunately, the opportunity to make your opinion heard hasn’t been lost. The mayor is back and calling for another vote. If you’d like to see… The beep of a horn brought up Carter’s head. Liz had arrived. At last. Tucking the paper under his arm, he stood and waited for her to park. Her keys rattled as she slipped them into her pocket and hurried over. Dressed in a red T-shirt, blue denim shorts, tennis shoes and a gray zip-up sweatshirt to ward off the morning chill, she’d pulled her long blond hair into a ponytail. She hadn’t bothered with makeup, but then she didn’t need any. Large hazel eyes watched him from above a narrow, well-defined nose and high cheekbones. As much as he hated to acknowledge it, she possessed a delicate sort of beauty. Like Laurel’s. But her mouth was all her own. Too expressive for a woman who looked so reserved and sophisticated, it added an accessible human touch to a face that, without it, might have almost appeared too perfect—more like white marble than flesh and bone. “Have you been waiting long?” she asked as she approached him. He sent her a pointed glance. “Since six.” “Right. You were on time. Of course.” She cleared her throat and shifted a roll of blueprints from one arm to the other. “Sorry about that. I had trouble rousing Keith’s mother. She’d forgotten she agreed to get the kids off to school for me.” “No problem.” Trailing her to the shop, he waited as she unlocked the door. Then he followed her inside to find the gutted remains of a retail establishment, which he knew from the conversation the night before, had previously been a barbershop. He eyed the well-worn floor, the freshly patched wall, the wheelbarrow in the corner. A door at the back led to what appeared to be another room. “Storage?” he asked, waving toward it. “It used to be a small apartment, which the previous owner leased out. When we’re done it’ll be my kitchen and pantry.” He rubbed his chin. “So we’re starting from scratch.” “Basically.” “What’s the goal here? With the improvements, I mean?” She unrolled her plans on the lone display case and let Carter take a look. “Have you ever seen the movie Chocolat?” “Never heard of it.” She stared at him. “It was nominated for several Academy Awards, including best picture.” He was busy already noting what would have to be done, trying to estimate how long the work might take him. “When?” “I don’t know exactly. Several years ago.” The biggest part of the job would be the kitchen. The showroom needed little more than flooring and paint and the placement of some additional display cases and shelving. “Does this movie have any karate fights?” “No.” He glanced up at her. “Explosions?” She scowled. “It’s not that kind of movie.” “Then I probably didn’t waste my money on it,” he said, a shrug in his voice. He was teasing, but if she understood that she didn’t crack a smile. “Your loss,” she said, sounding slightly offended. “It’s fabulous. Almost as good as the book.” Having studied the plans, Carter crossed the floor to make sure Keith’s patched wall was dry enough to paint. “I’m guessing there’s a tie-in?” She put down her purse on top of the plans, to keep the paper from rolling back into a scroll. “There is. I’m trying to re-create the atmosphere of the shop in that movie.” “Which was a choco-later-ie?” “That was a poor attempt even for a Yankee,” she said, making a face. “It’s pronounced chocolaterie. The movie is set in a provincial French town.” He’d slaughtered the word on purpose, but he didn’t bother to point that out. “Just like this small western one, huh?” At last she seemed to realize he was baiting her. Her mouth twitched as if she might smile, but she frowned instead. “I can only do so much. Anyway, Vianne, who owns the chocolate shop in the movie, has traveled widely and brings a bit of her mother’s Mayan heritage along with her. I want to decorate this shop the same way.” “I’m not familiar with Mayan decor,” he said, facing her. “Think decadent and sensually appealing, with a South American flavor.” Carter hadn’t found anything sensually appealing in a long time, regardless of the “flavor,” but he pretended otherwise. “It’s starting to sound good.” Too caught up in her vision to be interrupted, she ignored him. “You see, Vianne is serving more than chocolate to the locals—” “And now it’s getting even better.” She spread her hands in exasperation. “Would you quit?” Satisfied he’d already made himself look like enough of an ass, he became more serious. “Okay, so what’s she serving?” “Love, acceptance, change—a rebirth. I find the whole concept incredibly…uplifting.” As much as he’d decided he wouldn’t let himself like Liz—nor let her like him—he couldn’t poke fun at that. Her sincere words seemed to echo around the hollow space inside him, making him crave those very things. “Are you actually making the chocolate?” “No, Vianne crushed cocoa beans and made her own chocolate. But there’s no need for me to do the same. Generally, only really large companies do that. I buy my chocolate from San Francisco.” “Ghirardelli?” “No, Guittard. For some of my truffles, I also incorporate European chocolate to produce my own unique flavor.” “So they ship it to you from California?” “Exactly. It comes in boxes of five ten-pound bars, which I temper and then use to create various decadent candies.” “Temper?” “Melt in a particular way, to keep it shiny and smooth.” “What kind of candies?” “Candies made with pretzels, Oreos, marshmallows…Strawberries, bananas and raisins dipped in chocolate. I also make fudge and truffles, even cakes and frosted brownies. But like Vianne, my signature is going to be rich hot chocolate.” The passion and excitement in her voice again summoned memories of Laurel. Turning away, Carter pretended to examine the walls, making note of the nicks and gouges that remained. “We should really patch a few more spots.” “Probably,” she said. “Old LeRoy wasn’t much for maintenance or housekeeping. The dirt and grime in this place was unbelievable when I got here.” No longer interested in conversation, Carter let her comment go. “Do you have the supplies we’ll need?” Her eyebrows inched up a notch at his brisk tone, but she responded at once to the question. “I should. Keith brought over a lot of stuff last night. It’s all in the back room. If we need anything else, there’s always the hardware store down the street. And the good news is that we finally have a sink that works, which should help with rinsing out trays and so forth. I just had the plumber install it yesterday.” Carter glanced in the direction Liz had pointed. The bathroom door was only partially open. He couldn’t see the sink well—but it didn’t look right. Walking over to the doorway, he poked his head inside. “Did you say he already installed it or he’s going to?” Liz came up behind him. She didn’t answer; she didn’t need to. The shock on her face, when she saw that the sink had been torn from the wall, said everything. CHAPTER FOUR LIZ STOOD AT THE BACK of the hardware store, trying to keep her voice low enough that Keith’s boss, Ollie Weston, wouldn’t hear them arguing. “It had to be you,” she said vehemently. Keith stepped closer, looming over her. His anger and indignation etched a deep V between his eyebrows and almost made Liz retract the accusation. He didn’t look guilty. But he’d been the last one to leave her shop the night before. Who else would have had the time or opportunity to cause the damage she’d found? “Why would I do that?” he demanded, his voice rising. “I spent three hours there last night trying to help you!” Ollie glanced at them from the cash register in front, and Liz felt her cheeks grow warm. When she’d first come to Dundee, she’d caused a huge scandal simply by virtue of being the Other Woman. Because Reenie had grown up here and was a popular figure, folks had felt protective of her, and they’d whispered about Liz, even stared at her, as though she’d purposely destroyed Reenie’s marriage. A private person to begin with, Liz didn’t want to draw attention to herself now that she was feeling comfortable in this place. “Be quiet, will you?” she said. “You’re accusing me of something I didn’t do,” Keith snapped. “Who else could it have been?” “Anyone!” He threw up his hands. “Christopher was playing with the key you gave me and lost it. I couldn’t lock up last night.” “What? Why didn’t you call me?” “Because I didn’t want to wake you. I didn’t think it was a big deal. The place isn’t even fixed up yet.” Again, Ollie angled his head to see if he could hear what was going on, but Liz turned her back to him. “I paid a small fortune for all the supplies that are lying on that floor,” she said in a half whisper. “So? This is Dundee. Who’s going to steal them?” “I grew up in L.A., where people lock their businesses.” He straightened a sack of fertilizer that had fallen from the shelf. “You’ve been here for a year and a half, Liz. You know what it’s like. The worst crime we ever see is drunk-and-disorderly. Why would I worry about not being able to lock the door? Especially the back one?” Liz tucked the hair that was falling from her ponytail behind her ears. If Keith hadn’t caused the damage at her shop, was it some sort of hate crime? Vengeance from someone who blamed her for wrecking Reenie’s first marriage? She couldn’t imagine anyone holding a grudge over that. Especially since she hadn’t done it intentionally and Reenie was so obviously in love with Isaac. Watching him and Reenie for two seconds revealed how happy they were together. The only people who weren’t pleased about their relationship were Keith and his family…. Narrowing her eyes, Liz stabbed a finger into Keith’s chest. “Your brothers would never do this, would they?” “My brothers? Cal lives in Boise, for crying out loud. Do you think he’d drive up here just to wreck your sink? And Luke’s still in Texas. He’s staying at Baylor for summer term.” “What about your father?” Keith gave the fertilizer a kick because it had tipped again. “Come off it, Liz.” “Your folks have never liked me, Keith. Even now that they help out with the kids, they barely speak to me.” “They’re still struggling with what’s happened. You can’t blame them for that.” No, she couldn’t. What had happened was entirely Keith’s fault. Which was one of the reasons she could never reconcile with him. As hard as she tried, she couldn’t completely forgive him for the devastation he’d wrought in her life. And she couldn’t imagine trying to belong to a family that resented her as much as Frank, Georgia, Cal and Luke did. She was the physical embodiment of the disappointment and embarrassment they’d all suffered over Keith’s deception. “Are they struggling so much that they’d try and make me fail?” she asked. His jaw dropped as if he couldn’t believe she’d even suggest it. “Of course not. They’re better people than that.” Liz wanted to think so. But she wasn’t entirely convinced. Someone had torn the sink from the wall. “Maybe it was Mary Thornton,” he said. Liz bit her lip. She and Mary had exchanged words, but…“She wouldn’t go that far.” “Why not? You know she’s upset that you’re opening a chocolate shop right next to her candy store.” “When I leased the space, she wasn’t selling candy. She had a card-and-gift shop!” “That’s my point. She’s green with envy. Grant Nibley did that big write-up on you in the paper and how you’re basing your shop on the movie and all that, so she copied you, and still her shop didn’t make the paper.” “At least her store is open.” “But not doing particularly well, from all indications.” Pressing her fingers to her forehead in an attempt to ease the headache pounding behind her eyes, Liz sighed. “She’s just disappointed that she didn’t think of a chocolate shop.” “I agree. She feels you’ve outdone her, and yet she has as much riding on her business as you do on yours. She quit her job at Slinkerhoff’s law office to make this big career change. She’s a single mother. Her ex-husband has been a total flake—” Liz didn’t want to hear it. She didn’t feel sorry for Mary. Maybe Mary’s ex-husband paid his child support in fits and starts and rarely came around, but Mary had it better than she liked to portray. “Are you kidding me? How stressed can she be when she’s still living with her parents? When they’re helping her raise her son and filling in with anything else she needs? It’s their money behind that shop, not hers.” “No one our age likes accepting help,” Keith said. Liz knew his parents had had to come to his rescue a time or two during the past eighteen months. Keith hated needing help. But that didn’t mean Mary Thornton felt the same. She used her parents. “So why doesn’t she move out? Make it on her own?” Liz asked. “Like the rest of us?” Because of her stepmother, Liz had run away from home at seventeen and had never returned. She’d graduated from high school while living with a girlfriend, spending most her weekends hanging out with Isaac at college. “I don’t know,” he said. “I’m just saying that if you’re having trouble at the shop, Mary could be behind it.” Liz stared at him. Was her neighbor really trying to cause trouble? “Listen, I’ll pay the plumber to reinstall the sink, okay?” Keith said. “Then maybe you won’t think I caused the damage.” Liz didn’t want him to pay the plumber. Because of what Dave had suggested earlier, Liz had accused Keith without any real proof, and now she felt terrible. “Thanks anyway, but…I’ll take care of it.” She started out of the store, but Keith caught her arm. “Liz.” “What?” she asked as she turned. “You believe me, don’t you?” She noted his earnest expression. “I believe you. I’m just scared,” she admitted. She was putting everything she had into the shop—all her money, her hopes, her dreams. “It’ll be okay,” he promised. There was a time when Keith’s words would have encouraged her. But her trust in him had been destroyed when Isaac had revealed his infidelity. She nodded, but he still held her arm. “There’s something else,” he said. “What?” “When you first came in here, I thought…Well, since you haven’t mentioned it, I’m guessing you don’t know.” The seriousness of his tone made her leery. “What?” she repeated. “Your father’s in town.” “No!” The word came out far too loudly. Ollie frowned at the two of them, but Keith ignored his employer. “Yes. I ran into him at the gas station on my way to work. He looked a bit rumpled around the edges, as though he’d driven all night, but it was definitely the man I’ve seen in your childhood scrapbooks. I spoke with him briefly and tried calling you afterward, but no one answered.” “I was at the shop,” she said numbly. “I went by there.” “Then I must’ve been at your parents’ house, dropping off the kids.” “I figured you were in transit. And since you don’t have a cell phone…” Cellular coverage had improved to the point where people in Dundee could now get service. But local reception wasn’t the best, and Liz couldn’t afford it. Keith didn’t have a cell phone, either. Since he’d left Softscape, they’d both been forced to tighten their budgets. She blinked, wondering how she could even be thinking about cell phones. “Are you okay?” he asked. She took a deep breath, trying to dispel the shock. “What does he want?” “You haven’t talked to him recently?” She shook her head. The past two Christmases, she’d sent her father a card containing a few photos of the kids. In more than ten years, that was the extent of their contact. “That would explain why he didn’t know we were divorced.” A muscle flexed in Keith’s cheek. “It was pretty damned embarrassing.” “Embarrassing?” Regret filled his eyes. “Right before we got married, I called to see if he’d meet us in Vegas. He gave me some flimsy excuse, which made me mad, so I told him not to bother. I said you didn’t need a bastard like him, that I’d take care of you.” An uncomfortable-looking shrug followed this admission. Keith didn’t spell it out, but Liz knew what he was thinking. When he’d spoken to her father, he’d already been married to Reenie. It had only been a matter of time before he’d broken both their hearts. But another thought surfaced on the heels of the previous realization. Was the way her father had responded part of the reason Keith had gone ahead with the marriage? In addition to the fact that she’d been pregnant with Mica? “You never told me you were going to call him,” she said. “After I’d spoken to him, I was glad I hadn’t told you.” The heat of the day seemed to grow worse, become stifling. A large fan whirred in the corner, but Ollie was too conservative to use an air conditioner in May. “What does he want?” she asked, wondering why her father’s actions still hurt so badly. “He and Luanna have split up.” Liz’s heart leaped into her throat. How many times had she prayed that her father would separate from the woman who’d made her life so miserable? How many times had she dreamed of reclaiming his love and approval? “Is he here to see me or Isaac?” she asked. “I’m guessing he wants to see both of you. Who else does he have, now that Luanna’s out of the picture?” There was Luanna’s son, Marty, but he was Liz’s age and on his own. Liz couldn’t imagine her father being attached to him. Luanna had spoiled Marty so terribly that hardly anyone could stand him. But maybe he’d changed. Liz couldn’t say for sure what kind of man he’d turned out to be. She hadn’t been in touch with him either since she’d run away. “Liz…” She lifted her eyes to his. “What?” He sighed. “You look devastated.” “I’m fine.” After all, she’d had eighteen months to recover from the previous blow. “You’re not fine.” Gently tugging her up against his chest, he kissed her head. Liz would have resisted, as she always did these days, but she wasn’t thinking straight. The news he’d just delivered felt like a knockout punch. Keith smelled good. Familiar. Comfortable. Not so long ago, he’d meant the world to her. Certainly one moment in his arms wouldn’t hurt. Resting her head against his shoulder, she tried to decide what to do about her father. “I know you’re under a lot of pressure right now, and you don’t need this.” Keith’s hands caressed her back, reassuring her with their strength. Liz knew Ollie was watching, and that word of the embrace would probably spread. But she stayed where she was, too shocked to pull away. “Do you want me to ask him to leave town?” Keith asked. “No.” “Why not?” Because it was no longer Keith’s responsibility. He had no right. “I’m sure Isaac will take care of that,” Liz said. Her brother felt angrier toward their father than she did, even though Luanna had treated Isaac much better. His presence in the house hadn’t threatened Luanna in the way that Liz’s presence had. “I wonder what happened to their marriage,” she said, still trying to come to terms with her father’s sudden appearance in Dundee. “He said he got tired of Luanna’s bullshit. But—” Keith brought her chin up “—I got the impression it was Luanna who left.” The sting of this particular detail surprised Liz. Had she hoped, after all these years, that her father had finally come to his senses? What did it matter? It was too late, anyway. The girl who’d needed him so badly was an adult, now. Straightening up, she disengaged herself from her ex-husband’s embrace. “So he’s here because he has no better place to go.” Keith’s sympathy reminded Liz that he wasn’t quite as bad as she sometimes liked to tell herself he was. “I’m sorry, babe,” he said. She smiled sadly and said, “Thanks. But don’t call me babe, okay?” Then she forced her feet to carry her out into the dazzling sunshine. AS SHE EMERGED from the hardware store, Liz nearly bumped into Carter. “You’ve already started?” she asked when she noticed the cranberry-colored paint that speckled his hands and hair and even the soft T-shirt that made the most of his muscular build. “Was I supposed to wait?” he replied. “No, it’s just that I was going to help you. But—” She shook her head, trying to order her scrambled thoughts. She felt like a punctured balloon, in the process of deflating. “Did you figure out the marbling?” “Yeah. It’s easy.” “Okay, well, I’ll be there shortly.” “I could use a more expensive roller,” he said. “This one won’t last an hour. And I figure I might as well get a few of these while I’m here.” He showed her a tiny screw that he carried in one large hand. “We’ll need them when it comes time to reattach the light plates.” “Light plates?” she murmured, unable to immediately picture what he was talking about. “The face plates that go over the outlets and light switches?” “Oh, right.” She waved a hand halfheartedly. “Tell Ollie to put whatever you need on my account.” He peered more closely at her. “Is something wrong?” She stole a glance down the street. “No, why?” “You seem a little dazed.” An old truck came rattling by. Holding her breath, she tried to identify the man behind the wheel…. It was Hawthorne Cawley, one of the longtime ranchers who lived in the area. The vehicle was probably one he didn’t bring to town very often, which was why she didn’t recognize it. Letting her breath out slowly, she said, “It’s nothing.” “You’re sure?” “I’m sure.” She began to step around him, but he cut her off. “What’d you find out about the sink?” Anxious to get to her car and head for the high school, where she hoped to find her brother, she rubbed the palms of her hands on her shorts. “It wasn’t Keith.” “You’re sure?” “I’m sure.” “How do you know?” She pulled her sunglasses out of her purse and took refuge behind the dark lenses. “He said so.” Carter’s smooth forehead rumpled with impatience and disbelief. “You’re taking him at his word?” At this point, Liz wasn’t as concerned about the vandalism as she was about the next twenty-four hours. How long would her father stay? What would she say to him? And how would he treat her children? He’d never even met Mica and Christopher. “I guess.” “We’re talking about the same man who lied to you your entire marriage.” She managed to give him her full attention. “Listen, I’m grateful for your help at the shop, and I’ll do what I can to compensate you.” “But…” “I don’t need any of your cynical bullshit right now,” she said and walked away. She knew he stared after her, that she’d surprised him once again. But she couldn’t find it in herself to care. CARTER HAD QUIT HIS JOB with the Federal Bureau of Investigation shortly after Laurel’s funeral. He knew he’d never go back. But he was still a cop at heart, and that made him reluctant to allow the mystery of the vandalized bathroom to go unsolved. Someone had been inside Liz O’Connell’s chocolate shop; someone had caused the damage. He intended to find out who was responsible—and he doubted he’d have to work very hard to do it. The way Liz had muttered, “Keith!” before she’d stormed out and marched over to the hardware store told him she had reason to believe it might be her ex-husband. Which meant Keith probably had a solid motive. And a solid motive made him Carter’s best suspect. Maybe Liz’s ex denied ripping the sink from the wall, but any man who could lead the double life Keith had led had to be one hell of a liar. Carter hated liars almost as much as he hated petty thieves and vandals. In seven years with the bureau, he’d learned that small crimes stemmed from the same lack of regard for others that fostered larger crimes. “Can I help you?” An old guy with spidery veins covering his ruddy cheeks stood at the cash register. Carter paused long enough to hold up the screw. “Can you tell me where I can find these?” He took a moment to peer at it. “Aisle nine.” “Thanks.” Carter moved on. He hoped to run into Liz’s ex while he shopped. But he found a new paint roller and the right screws without meeting anyone else, so he wandered about the store until he heard voices coming from the nursery that leaned against one side of the building. Sure enough, there was a tall dark-blond man inside. Judging by his T-shirt, which had Ollie’s Hardware written across it in red, and by his approximate age, Carter guessed he’d found Keith. Taking a well-worn dirt path that snaked through the plants, Carter drew closer and listened as Keith spoke to a middle-aged woman and her teenage son. They wanted advice on getting rid of snails in their garden without using pesticides. Carter paused while Keith answered, using the time to examine a stone birdbath in front of him. Finally, the teenager hefted a bag of potting soil over his shoulder, and he and his mother headed out of the nursery. Carter sauntered closer. “Can I help you find something in particular?” Keith asked. Carter took in the sharp angles of the other man’s face. Keith appeared to be fit and healthy, and Carter guessed most women would find him attractive. But the way his clothes hung on him suggested he’d lost weight recently. Was he depressed? Skipping meals? Experimenting with drugs? Carter wished he could ignore such details, the way most other people did. But it was the minutiae that made the difference in an investigation. Noticing had become second nature to him. “You’re Keith O’Connell?” Keith’s eyebrows shot up. He wasn’t wearing a name badge, probably because there wasn’t any need for it. In a town this size, most folks would already know who he was. “Have we met?” “I’m new in Dundee. I work for Senator Holbrook.” “Oh, right.” He looked Carter over thoroughly. “I hear you went out with my ex-wife last night.” “I went out with one of them,” Carter corrected. His pointed allusion to Keith’s past prompted a tightening about the mouth and a quick retaliation. “Yeah, well, from what I hear, she wasn’t very excited about your dinner together.” Keith’s dig bothered Carter, and that surprised him. He hadn’t cared about anything for a long time. But he’d made no effort to endear himself to Liz and he knew he couldn’t expect any better. Anyway, he had no real interest in a woman with emotional baggage. He had too much of his own. “I guess I’m not very good at small talk,” he said. “I can see that,” Keith replied. “It’s almost as if you came here just to piss me off.” Carter held up the new roller he meant to purchase. “Actually, I came to get a few supplies, too. Otherwise, I couldn’t make the improvements at the chocolate shop.” Keith’s jaw dropped. “The what?” “You heard me.” Carter suspected he was being too combative. He didn’t even know Keith. But since the numbness that set in after Laurel’s death had worn off, the darker emotions simmering beneath his skin sometimes got the best of him—especially when he found a target as deserving as a man who’d cheated and lied to the extent that Keith had done. “Did Liz ask for your help?” “The senator suggested it.” Liz’s ex stepped closer, giving Carter the impression he wasn’t the type to back down from a fight. “Well, you can forget about it. She doesn’t need you. She’s got me.” Carter eyed Keith’s hands, which had nearly doubled into fists. He waited to see if Keith would take a swing at him, but when Keith made no move, he said, “Evidently it’s not happening fast enough.” “I’ll get to it.” “No need,” Carter said. “The place will be painted before you can get off work.” “That’s all you wanted to tell me? That you’re helping Liz—and that you can get it done quicker than I can?” “No. There’s one more thing.” Keith’s nostrils flared. “What’s that?” “If you’re the person who ripped her sink from the wall, you’d better not try that shit again,” he said and stalked off. “Who the hell do you think you are, you arrogant son of a bitch?” Keith called after him. Carter didn’t respond. He’d already made his point. Besides, he wasn’t arrogant. He was angry. CHAPTER FIVE LIZ WRUNG HER HANDS TOGETHER as she stood at the door of Isaac’s classroom, barely able to resist the urge to barge in while he was teaching. She wasn’t sure what she expected him to do about their father’s unexpected arrival. But she wanted to warn him. Isaac hadn’t spoken to Gordon for years, hadn’t even bothered with a Christmas card. Liz had encouraged him to do what he could to improve the relationship, but Isaac had no patience for any talk of reconciliation. He couldn’t understand how Gordon could have allowed Luanna to do what she’d done to Liz. To be honest, Liz couldn’t understand it, either. Her father had probably been lonely and in love, she told herself. He had needs, too. But Luanna had been downright cruel, at least to Liz. And Gordon hadn’t interfered. At last, the class bell rang, tinny and loud enough to rattle Liz’s nerves. Taking a moment to regain her composure, she threaded her way through a crowd of high school students surging past her. She spotted Isaac sitting on the edge of his desk, wearing a pair of chinos and a blue short-sleeved shirt. He was speaking with a female student. “You’re making it more difficult than it has to be,” he said calmly. “The number of electrons surrounding the nucleus of an atom is equal to the number of protons inside.” The girl scrunched up her nose. “Always?” “Always,” he replied. “And the number of the element on the periodic chart is the number of protons in that element’s nucleus.” She smacked her forehead. “Now I get it.” “It’s that easy.” Catching sight of Liz over the girl’s head, Isaac started to get up. The student grabbed his forearm. “But what do I use to build my model?” “Anything you want.” He gently extricated himself, as if he’d had ample practice slipping out of the clutches of overenthusiastic teenage girls. “That’s the fun of it. You can be creative.” “I like this class.” The adoration in the student’s voice indicated she was far more interested in her handsome teacher than in the subject he taught. Liz raised her eyebrows at her brother and Isaac blushed. The student’s crush obviously embarrassed him. “You’ll do fine,” he said as he shepherded her to the door. “Model’s due on Monday. Don’t forget.” The girl cast a jealous glance at Liz before stepping outside. Clearly she wasn’t pleased she’d lost her audience with Isaac so soon. If not for her own preoccupation, Liz would’ve laughed. Isaac handled the attention he received so well. If Liz hadn’t witnessed this little scene firsthand, she knew he never would’ve mentioned it. “Evidently you have another female admirer,” she said when the door clicked shut. He shrugged as if he’d barely noticed. “The only female admirer I care about these days teaches next door.” Although Isaac wasn’t the type to cheat on his wife, especially with a student, he was human and had more opportunity than most men. After what Keith, who’d once seemed equally devoted had done, Liz thought it was probably good Reenie worked so close. “What’s up?” he asked, folding his arms and settling back onto the corner of his desk. “The last time you showed up here, you’d just quit your job and leased a thousand square feet of retail space. I’m almost afraid to hear what’s happening next.” “This isn’t about the store.” When she didn’t crack a smile, he grew serious. “Are Mica and Christopher okay?” “They’re fine. It’s…” She cleared her throat “It’s Dad.” Isaac stiffened slightly but showed no other emotion. “What about him?” “He’s in town.” He sat perfectly still for several long seconds, then sighed. “Did he call? Stop by? What?” “I haven’t seen him yet. Keith bumped into him at the gas station a couple hours ago.” “I guess it’s too much to hope that it was a chance meeting? That he was only passing through?” “Probably.” Liz turned to examine the handmade rockets that covered one table. She didn’t want her brother to read the mixed emotions on her face. He was good at remaining aloof, at shutting off whatever he’d once felt for their father. Liz wished she could do the same, or channel her emotions into something simple and all-encompassing, like hate, but she wasn’t built that way. “Luanna has left him,” she said. “No kidding.” When Isaac added a curse, Liz glanced up. “She would wait until now,” he explained. “She probably hung on for so long just to spite us.” Liz toyed with the zipper on her sweatshirt. “What do you think we should do?” “Ignore him until he goes away, I guess.” “That’s not realistic.” “Why not? He ignored us for years. Or he took Luanna’s side in every argument.” “She was his wife, Isaac,” she said. Her brother moved toward her. “I don’t care. She was in the wrong.” Liz couldn’t argue with that. Luanna had constantly found fault with her, even in the beginning when Liz was still trying so hard to please. How long can it take to do a simple batch of dishes?…I swear you’d forget your head if not for your neck…. I don’t know what’s ever going to become of you…. Stupid girl…I’d be humiliated if you were my daughter…. That voice came to her even now, every once in a while, undermining her confidence. She’d heard a bit more of it than usual since she’d decided to take the risk of starting her own business. But that was between her and Luanna. Isaac wasn’t part of it. Or in any case, he didn’t have to be. “I don’t want you hating Dad because of me.” “I don’t hate him because of you. He’s earned my derision.” Liz couldn’t believe it wasn’t because of her. When they were growing up, it had been Isaac who’d tried to protect her. She knew a lot of what he felt had to do with how she’d been treated. “It’s in the past.” “He treats you like shit for years and years, and then one day he shows up out of the blue, and you’re ready to welcome him with open arms?” It’s in the past was easy to say, but not so easy to act upon. She was nervous, frightened, hopeful—and those were just the emotions she could identify. “I guess I’m willing to give him an audience, and see what he has to say.” “If you think he’s come to make you an apology, Liz, I wouldn’t get my hopes up. He won’t admit he did anything wrong. I’ve tried talking to him about it before. He says you and Luanna didn’t get along. As if the problem could be summed up so simply. As if he had no responsibility in the matter.” “Maybe I wasn’t as good a girl as I thought.” Isaac rolled his eyes. “No. I was there, too. You were sweet and innocent and…It wasn’t fair.” But Liz must have done something to make Luanna target her. Isaac was treated with a mild sort of neglect, but he was never berated. “Okay, say our stepmother was completely to blame and our father let me down—” “Which is true.” “I’m thirty-two years old.” She slipped into the desk in front of him. “I can’t hang onto the resentment forever. I have to let go.” “Can you?” That was the big question. Liz wasn’t sure. She hadn’t expected to be faced with this decision, not right now and not after so long. Her father hadn’t even cared enough to stay in contact with them. So why was he here? “What if he’s willing to be a better grandfather than he was a dad?” she asked instead of answering Isaac’s question. “It might be good for Mica and Christopher to know him.” Isaac’s long fingers tapped the top of his desk. “And what if Luanna takes him back after a week or two, and things revert to the way they were? How will you feel then?” Cheated. Betrayed. Like before. She wasn’t up for it, she realized. Not when she had so much going on in her life. She stood. “You’re right. It’s not a good time for me. Maybe in a couple years—” The door opened and a male student sauntered in. Liz knew many more would arrive in a matter of minutes. “Never mind,” she said. “You’ve got another class coming up. We’ll talk about it later.” Isaac followed her to the door. “You can tell him to leave you alone if you want to, Liz. Remember that.” “Right. I’ll remember,” she said. “Who, Mr. Russell?” the student asked. “No one you know,” he responded. The boy’s eyes lit up. “Is someone stalking your sister?” Liz noted the kid’s black hair, black pants, black T-shirt and black fingernail polish. A quick glance at the cover of his notebook revealed numerous drawings of skeletons, vampires and graveyards. “Nothing quite so dramatic, Devon,” Isaac said with a chuckle. “This is still Dundee, remember?” “How can I forget?” The boy slumped into a desk in the back row. “I’ll die if I don’t get back to Detroit soon. I’m tired of watching the grass grow.” “There’s always homework.” He slouched even lower. “Yeah, right.” Isaac flashed Liz a smile as he held the door for her. “Call me after he’s caught up with you, okay?” “How do you know he’s here to see me?” she asked as she stepped outside. “Because he knows enough not to try and contact me,” he replied and waved as a sea of arriving students surrounded him. “WHAT’S ACHOCOLATERIE?” Carter paused from painting long enough to look down at the unshaven but well-dressed man. Liz’s father, who’d identified himself as Gordon Russell, had his arms crossed over a lightweight V-necked sweater and stood gazing out the front window. He’d appeared almost as soon as Carter had returned from the hardware store. Since then, he’d asked several questions about Liz—where she was, how he could reach her, where she lived. Carter didn’t have any of that information. But he probably wouldn’t have shared it even if he did. His background occasionally made him too secretive, he knew, but he found it pretty strange that a father wouldn’t be more familiar with his own daughter. “Evidently, it’s a chocolate shop,” he said, focusing on his work. The man’s expensive Italian loafers made barely any sound as he wandered over and stood beside the ladder. “Why doesn’t she just call it that?” Carter reloaded the paint on his roller. He remembered what Liz had said about the movie, and he liked the idea. But Russell’s condescending attitude made him undeserving of an explanation. “I guess she doesn’t want to.” At the coolness of his response, Liz’s father propped his hands on his hips, splaying well-manicured fingers—one of which sported a large diamond. Either he had money or he liked to pretend he did. Carter was betting on the latter. “Who did you say you are?” Russell asked. “A friend of a friend,” Carter responded. “So you know Keith?” “Not really.” “In a town this size?” “I’m new.” Russell had to be nearing sixty, but the years had been kind to him. If not for the crow’s feet at his eyes and the subtle lines around his mouth, he could easily pass for ten, maybe fifteen years younger. He certainly took care of himself. Judging by his muscular physique, he worked out often. And he went to the added trouble of coloring his hair. It stuck up a bit as if he hadn’t showered after rolling out of bed this morning, but it was completely brown, without any hint of gray. “How well do you know Liz?” he asked. “Not very well,” Carter admitted. “You two aren’t dating, are you?” Russell said it as if he wouldn’t be pleased to see his daughter fall for a mere painter. Carter took exception to the implication but refused to reveal how much it bugged him. “No, we’re not dating.” He didn’t bother to explain that they’d had dinner together last night. One evening didn’t qualify. Liz’s father consulted the thin gold watch at his wrist. Carter sensed that his visitor was growing impatient, but Russell didn’t leave. He walked into the back rooms, poked around, used the restroom. “Maybe I should go back to the diner down the street,” he said when he returned. “The waitress who told me Liz would be here might be able to give me directions to her house.” “Probably,” Carter said. “But I don’t think your daughter went home.” “There’re only so many places she could be in this Podunk town.” With one foot, he tapped the wrapper of Carter’s new roller. “To be honest, I don’t know how you stand it.” “It has its benefits,” Carter said. Russell didn’t appear to be convinced. “Really?” “Sure. Depends on what you’re looking for, right?” “What are you looking for?” Carter needed the space. He’d lost the idealism that had once characterized him so strongly—the belief that good would eventually prevail. Because of that, he didn’t have the patience he’d once possessed, the kindness, the diplomacy or the understanding. Hell, he didn’t even have the desire to be close to anyone. Charles Hooper, who was now spending the rest of his life in prison, had seen to that. “A crab feed on the front page of the newspaper,” he mumbled. “Did you say crab feed?” The deep grooves in Russell’s forehead revealed his confusion at such an answer, but he didn’t have time to question Carter further. The door swung open and Liz walked in. “Sorry that took so—” Her words trailed off as soon as she saw her father. “Surprise!” Crossing over to her, Russell swept her into his arms. Liz didn’t push away, but neither did she respond to the embrace. She tolerated it—at least that was Carter’s interpretation. “Keith told me he saw you in town,” she said, her voice breathless and wispy. “Can you believe it?” Russell’s response was a little too loud to sound completely natural. “Me, all the way out here? I’m already going nuts without a Starbucks on one corner and a golf course on the other. What made you move to the boonies?” He acted as if Liz’s relocation was something that had just happened. But Carter was fairly certain she’d been living in Dundee for over a year. Maybe two. “I like it here,” she said simply. She didn’t mention what Keith had done to her—that she’d only come because of her children. Anyone even remotely connected to her knew about that scandal. So how was it her father didn’t? “To each his own, I guess.” He waved toward Carter. “Your painter wants a crab feed on the front page of the paper. He doesn’t ask for much, eh?” Liz offered Carter a quick, apologetic smile. “He’s not my painter.” “No?” “He works for Senator Holbrook. He’s just helping me out.” “There’s a senator in the area?” Russell said. Obviously that was the part that impressed him most. “A state senator,” Liz clarified. “He’s Isaac’s father-in-law.” At the mention of Isaac, there was a strained silence, but Russell’s pleasant expression remained stubbornly in place. “Isaac married, huh?” “Yes. A year ago.” “Good for him. Sounds like it’s about time I came out. We’ve got a lot of catching up to do.” Liz clutched her purse to her side. She hadn’t taken a single step from where she’d been when her father had hugged her. “Where are you staying?” “I’m not sure,” he said. “Is there a motel around here?” Liz’s father must’ve passed the Timberline on his way through town. Carter guessed he was hinting—hoping Liz would put him up. “There is,” she said. “But…” “The Timberline’s only sixty-five bucks a night,” Carter volunteered. Russell blinked at him, but Liz made the offer anyway. “I guess you could stay with me. For a few days,” she added quickly. Carter shook his head. He couldn’t protect people from themselves. He’d learned that the hard way. “A few days ought to be enough,” Gordon said. “I’m just here to meet those kids of yours.” Had this guy been out of the country? Carter wondered. Liz’s children had to be six and nine, at least. Maybe older. “Right,” she said, but she seemed more confused than anything, and immediately launched into a series of questions. “So you’re retired now? You’ve sold your law practice or…or closed it down?” “I sold out to my two partners, coupla years ago. Got a good price, too. It’s nothing but traveling and golf for me. A whole new life.” “And Luanna?” Liz asked. A shadow fell over Russell’s face. Carter told himself to keep painting, that the scene unfolding beside him was none of his business. But he hadn’t felt so much tension crackling in the air since he’d arrived in Dundee. He slowed his paint strokes so he could hear clearly over the spin of his roller. “We split up.” “Does that mean it’s over? For good?” “That’s right. She’s too difficult to live with.” He grinned conspiratorially. “You of all people should know that.” Liz didn’t answer, but Carter got the impression she had plenty to say. Her father clapped his hands, obviously eager to put the subject behind them. “So what should I do with my bags?” Liz looked at Carter. When he saw the uncertainty in her eyes, he couldn’t help getting involved again. “You might prefer to stay at the Running Y,” he said. “It’s a nice resort. They have eighteen holes out there. Hunting. Fishing. Horseback riding. Scenery’s beautiful.” Liz turned expectantly to her father. But he shook his head. “That’s okay. No need to waste good money when I’ve got family in town, eh?” The knuckles of Liz’s fingers grew white on her purse. “Right,” she said. “Well…in that case, why don’t you follow me over to the house?” “Sounds good. Nice meeting you,” he added, but Carter could tell he didn’t mean a word of it. “Same here,” Carter replied, equally insincere. Liz’s polite smile disappeared as soon as her father moved ahead and could no longer see her face. Her chest lifted, as if she was attempting to summon more strength, then she began to follow him. But as the door swung shut behind Russell, Carter reached over and managed to catch a piece of her sweatshirt. “What are you doing?” he asked, keeping his voice low. He thought she’d tell him to mind his own business. She definitely had reason to. But she didn’t. “I have absolutely no idea,” she murmured, shaking her head. “Maybe you should rethink this one.” “How can I?” she said. “He’s my father.” Carter frowned as he watched her go, wishing she’d let him take control of the situation. But then he cursed himself. Why did he care? Maybe blocking his emotions made him more of a robot than a man, but at least he could still function. Drawing in a deep breath, he returned to his work. Mr. Russell’s appearance wasn’t a life-or-death situation, certainly nothing like what Carter had faced in the past. He had no moral responsibility in this, and he could safely go on with his day as if the situation didn’t exist. But Russell’s arrival seemed pretty catastrophic to Liz. CHAPTER SIX LIZ WALKED STIFFLY through the four-bedroom house she rented on a month-to-month basis. When she first moved from the Holbrooks’ neighborhood, she’d considered purchasing. But buying a house had felt far too permanent. She was staying in Dundee for her children’s sake, but she was comforted by the knowledge that she could escape with relative ease if she wanted to. Maybe that was what made Dave’s calls so titillating. There was always the possibility she could pick up and go. That was true, even with the store, since she’d signed only a six-month lease. Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес». Прочитайте эту книгу целиком, купив полную легальную версию (https://www.litres.ru/brenda-novak-2/the-other-woman/?lfrom=334617187) на ЛитРес. Безопасно оплатить книгу можно банковской картой Visa, MasterCard, Maestro, со счета мобильного телефона, с платежного терминала, в салоне МТС или Связной, через PayPal, WebMoney, Яндекс.Деньги, QIWI Кошелек, бонусными картами или другим удобным Вам способом.
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