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Allison Standish was swept with an overpowering urge to throw the nearest heavy object, or scream at the top of her lungs, or at the very least, slam the door. She did none of those things, clinging instead to the maxim she’d hammered out for herself years ago: If they see you lose control, they win.
She actually managed to pin a stiff smile on her face. “Sorry I interrupted.” She turned and walked steadily toward the door of Greg’s loft.
It was Diane, her boss, who rushed after her from the bedroom, wrapping a sheet around her abundant curves. “Allison, wait. This isn’t what it looks like.”
Allison’s temper nearly slipped its leash at the trite remark. “It’s exactly what it looks like. No wonder you were so eager to see me get on the road.”
“Now, Allison.” Diane reached for her with one hand while she grabbed the wandering sheet with the other.
The sheet was one of those Allison had picked out to go with the bedroom furniture she’d helped Greg choose. She’d even gotten him her professional designer’s discount.
“Let’s be adult about this,” Diane continued. “There’s no reason why we can’t continue working together.”
“Listen to her, baby.” Greg appeared in the bedroom doorway, wearing a hastily-donned T-shirt and shorts.
“Shut up.” Diane tossed the words back over her shoulder.
Greg ran a hand through the shoulder-length black hair that inevitably attracted female attention. If he’d said something to her then…
But he didn’t. He subsided, looking sulky. Diane had that effect on a lot of people.
“Come on, Ally.” Di’s voice turned coaxing. “These things happen. Take your week off. By the time you come back to the office, this will just be a memory. You have a good thing going. Don’t ruin it.”
For a man. Di didn’t say the words, but they were implied. Di wouldn’t dream of sacrificing one single step of her career for a man. That was how she’d become manager of the most prestigious interior design firm in Philadelphia.
Allison found she actually could manage a smile at that. “Sorry. I guess I’m not really that adult.” This time she did slam the door.
She’d gotten all the way to the car before reaction set in. It took her three tries to unlock the car door, and she slid behind the wheel, relieved that she didn’t have to trust her legs to hold her up any longer. She clutched the steering wheel, willing herself not to be sick.
A rusty meow from the backseat demanded attention. If Hector had to be confined to the cat carrier, he considered that the least she could do was keep the vehicle moving.
“In a minute,” she muttered. If cats were supposed to sense one’s mood, Hector was deficient in that ability.
Diane had been similarly concerned to get her moving this afternoon, suggesting Allison leave the office early so she could beat Philadelphia’s rush hour traffic. Clearly she hadn’t anticipated that Allison would stop by Greg’s loft to say goodbye before setting off for Amish country.
She nearly hadn’t. Hector had been recalcitrant about getting into the cat carrier, wedging his fat orange-striped body under the dresser just out of her reach the instant he’d seen the carrier. She’d finally had to resort to a can of tuna to snag him.
Then, with cat carrier and suitcase stowed in her compact, she’d had, she thought, just enough time to give Greg a goodbye kiss before heading for the wilds of Lancaster County and the property she’d so surprisingly been left in her grandmother’s will.
She’d probably known the truth when she’d spotted Diane’s Volvo parked in front of Greg’s building. Her head just hadn’t been able to convince her heart. She’d had to see for herself.
Well, she’d seen all right. Now she just had to figure out what she was going to do with her life.
Hector complained again. Loudly.
“All right, all right.” She started the engine and pulled onto the street as cautiously as a sixteen-year-old learning to drive.
At least she had a breathing space before making any tough decisions. She’d already planned to spend a week in Laurel Ridge arranging to rid herself of the white elephant her birth father’s mother had so surprisingly left her. But now she didn’t have any reason to rush back.
Allison joined the steady stream of traffic heading out of the city. There would be other jobs. One thing she could say about Di: her code, whatever it was, might allow her to poach a friend’s man, but she wouldn’t stoop to withhold a glowing reference, even if it meant Allison would be decorating multi-million dollar homes for one of her competitors.
As for Greg—well, apparently he didn’t live by any code at all exempt the whim of expediency. Allison must have had blinders on not to see that. Still, it was easy to be dazzled in the early stages of love, or whatever had passed for love between them.
Several hours later, Allison had begun to think she’d also had blinders on when she’d read the map and decided she could reach Laurel Ridge before dark. The April evening had quickly faded, and only the faintest glow on the western horizon remained. She seemed to have been wandering past fields and forests on a two-lane county route for hours, and the sole vehicle she’d passed in miles had been an Amish buggy.
The GPS she relied on was not helpful. Its metallic voice hadn’t contributed anything in the past half hour but a persistent “Recalculating” that was nearly as annoying as Hector’s raucous complaints. When the cat started sounding like a rusty hinge, it meant the situation was getting desperate.
Her tired brain played with the idea that Laurel Ridge didn’t exist, that her legacy was one last spiteful act on the part of the grandmother who’d never acknowledged Allison’s existence while she was alive.
Pondering the possibility, Allison nearly missed the sign. She stopped, backed up, and read the words she’d been looking for. Laurel Ridge, 2 miles. Relief swept over her, and she put the car in gear.
“Cheer up, Hector. The end is in sight.”
A doubtful scratch at the carrier’s door was his only response.
A few minutes later she was driving down Laurel Ridge’s main, and maybe only, business street. Storefronts were dark and foot traffic non-existent. Apparently Laurel Ridge shut down early. The only sign of life was a café and, across the street, a bed-and-breakfast with porch light left on. Probably for her, since she’d booked a room there for the week.
As she pulled to the curb, Allison’s gaze was caught by the building next to the bed and breakfast. In contrast to the homey Victorian charm of the white clapboard inn, this building loomed over the street, three stories of Italianate classic architecture dwarfing the smaller buildings around it. She could just make out the brass plate attached to the wrought-iron gate. Blackburn House. So this was her inheritance.
“An Italianate mansion dating from the 1850s.” The attorney’s voice, dry and pedantic, sounded in her mind. “It belonged to Laurel Ridge’s founding family. Your late grandfather purchased it from the Blackburn family fifty years ago. He had it zoned commercial and divided to form several shops and offices.”
The attorney’s voice had sounded disapproving, either of the property or, more likely, of her.
Allison had mentally translated his description into old and dilapidated, with the architectural integrity of the original house compromised by ill-conceived renovations. But from the outside, at least, the building looked well-kept, its paint flawless, small lawn smooth and green, and early spring daffodils bloomed along the front walk. A porch wrapped around the sides of the building, and a round tower anchored each end of the front.
Allison slid out and hauled the cat carrier from the backseat. “There it is, Hector. What do you think of it?”
Hector’s snarl was probably meant to express his displeasure with his confinement, but it echoed her feelings quite well.
At least she ought to be able to realize some profit from the place when she put it on the market. Aside from a few random gifts that had been totally unsuited to either her age or interests, her father hadn’t contributed much but a name and an accumulation of genes to her life. Maybe his mother had decided to make a last gesture toward rectifying his failure with her bequest.
“We may as well have a look. Don’t you think so?” Talking to the cat was becoming a habit. Was that a sign that she’d eventually turn into an old mail with no one in her life but cats? At least Hector didn’t betray her or smash her dreams to bits.
Holding the cat carrier in one hand and fishing for the keys the lawyer had sent her with the other, Allison advanced on the door of Blackburn House.
Nick Whiting stepped out into the cool April evening, the lock clicking behind him on the door to the old Blackburn carriage house, now the workshop of Whiting and Whiting Cabinetry. The only way he’d convinced his father to go home in time for supper was to assure Dad he’d stop back later to check on the shipment of brushed pewter cabinet knobs that had been guaranteed delivery today.
It was important for Nick to be home for supper with Jamie, important to supervise his first-grade homework and to go through the bedtime rituals with him. When you were six, that sort of thing mattered.
Not that Mom or Dad wouldn’t have been happy to take over, but where his son was concerned, Nick didn’t take shortcuts. Jamie might have lost out in the mother department, but he’d always know he could rely on his dad.
So he’d settled Jamie in the twin bed in the room Nick and his brother had shared as kids, tucking him under the tractor quilt that was Jamie’s favorite. And then he’d driven the mile back into town to the shop.
The package had been leaning against the door, probably having arrived soon after they’d left. He stowed it away in the workshop, pleased the supplier had come through. This meant they could finish Mrs. Phelps’ new kitchen cabinets tomorrow, unless she changed her mind yet again. He’d lingered in the shop for a few minutes, looking over the finished cabinets one last time. He liked checking the progress of the work on hand, enjoyed running his palm over the warm maple and the elegant curves of their custom cabinets.
Nick grinned into the dark. He’d seen his dad do the same thing often enough. It must be a Whiting family trait, one that had somehow skipped his brother, Mac. Double-checking the door, Nick headed for his car, thinking about the wedge of cherry pie Mom would have saved for him.
A light from one of the windows of Blackburn House caught his eye as he rounded the corner of the building, and he paused. First floor--it was in the bookstore. Ralph or his clerk must be working late, maybe unpacking a new shipment of books. Even as he thought it the light switched off. Five steps later the light re-appeared, in the quilt shop this time.
He stopped, frowning. Sarah Bitler wasn’t likely to be in her shop at this hour. Sarah was Amish, and she didn’t like driving her buggy along the country roads after dark. Apprehension slid along Nick’s skin like a touch, and he reached into his pocket for his keys.
The light went out and the pattern repeated as another came on, this time in his showroom. Someone was getting into the businesses on the first floor of Blackburn House. Yanking his keys out, Nick ran for the backdoor.
A prowler? It could be the custodian, he supposed, but Fred Glick was usually gone by this hour, and making a final pass through the building wasn’t characteristic of his lackadaisical approach to his job.
The rumors that had been making the rounds in town popped into his mind. Laurel Ridge couldn’t seem to decide whether it was being plagued by a prowler, a peeping tom, or a sneak thief. Maybe now he’d get the answer to that question.
Nick held the knob firmly as he unlocked the back door, wary of any betraying creak as he eased the door open. Stepping inside, he considered his brother Mac’s reaction if Nick actually caught the prowler. Mac, Laurel Ridge’s police chief, had been skeptical from the start about the rumors, saying it was probably a manifestation of cabin fever after the long winter.
Nick slipped past the storerooms at the back of the building and eased open the door that led to the front part of the house. The wide hallway that ran from this point to the front of the building was deserted, but a patch of light lay on the marble floor. Staying in the shadow cast by the wide center staircase, Nick moved silently forward. To judge by the location of the light, the intruder was in their showroom. He heard the sound of movement, as if something brushed against a cabinet.
If he went to the showroom door, he’d be seen instantly. But he could slip in the door that led from the hallway to the office behind the showroom, and he might be able to get close enough to see without being seen. Pulse racing, Nick crossed to the office door and fumbled for the key. He realized he was enjoying this small adventure, and he had to laugh at himself. Maybe a guy never outgrew all those cops versus bad guys scenarios of childhood.
Holding his breath, Nick eased open the door and sidled into the office. No one was here, but a wedge of light lay on the floor from the open door into the showroom. He worked his way around the desk and groped to the wall next to the door. He paused there for a moment and then cautiously peered into the showroom.
The rows of cabinet doors on display made an effective screen. He couldn’t see the guy from here, but he could hear footsteps, followed by a soft thud as something bumped one of the cabinets.
Nick held his breath and moved soundlessly farther into the showroom, taking cover behind a pegboard displaying hardware styles. The footsteps came nearer. Frowning in concentration, Nick counted the steps, estimating the prowler’s location. One step, two—he must be within a foot now, so close Nick imagined he could hear a breath.
Muscles tense, he waited. The instant he saw movement, he lunged, grabbing the form. Several things happened at once. He realized he was clutching a female, he felt her swing something, and he heard the crack as it hit his leg with numbing force. Another crack, a banshee shriek, and an orange ball of fur plummeted toward the floor.
The cat turned on a dime, hissed, and spat at him, spine arching. The woman, yanking free of his grasp, looked as if she’d like to do the same. Nick had a quick image of shining auburn hair, pale creamy skin, and bright green eyes that seemed to shoot sparks of rage.
“What are you doing? Are you insane?” She held what he now realized was a cat carrier, its door hanging by one hinge. She raised it threateningly, and he had no doubt she’d hit him again at an unwary movement.
He raised both hands, palms out, and took a step out of range. “Take it easy. I could ask you the same thing. What are you doing in my shop?”
“Your shop?” she echoed.
Nick saw the doubt enter her face, and a delicate pink stained her cheeks. The green eyes were framed by uncompromising brows, and her heart-shaped face had a stubborn cast along the line of her jaw. As for her lips…for a moment he was distracted, and he forced himself to focus.
“That’s right, my shop. I’m Nick Whiting. This is the office and showroom of Whiting and Whiting Cabinetry. I repeat, who are you? How did you get in? Or maybe I should just call the police.” He sketched a gesture toward the pocket that held his cell phone.
“That’s not necessary.” Her chin lifted. “You’re Mr. Whiting? I’m Allison Standish.” She said it as if it should mean something to him.
It did. “You’re Ms. Standish? The long-lost granddaughter Evelyn left this place to?”
“I haven’t been lost, Mr. Whiting,” her tone was cool. “But yes. I’m the new owner of this building, so I have every right to be here.”
He raised an eyebrow, wondering if it would infuriate her. “You may or may not be the owner of Blackburn House, but this is my shop. According to my lease, I’m supposed to be notified in advance if the owner wants access.”
Nick had no idea if the lease actually said that, since it had been negotiated by his father years ago, but if it didn’t, it should.
“I see.” Her tone was icy. “I suppose I should have a look at all the leases, shouldn’t I?”
Naturally she would, possibly to his sorrow. Maybe he shouldn’t have mentioned it. He took the opportunity for a long look at her. Sleek chin-length hair the color of polished mahogany, earrings a delicate tangle of silver and jet, jacket of butter-soft leather and a silk shirt that molded full breasts, a skirt that flirted with her legs and a pair of high-heeled boots that looked capable of kicking if necessary.
Well. With this woman taking over Blackburn House, there might be a lot of changes coming.
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