“I think it’s time to sell the hotel.”
Quinn Freeman stiffened with both tension and shock as he gazed out at a wintry Central Park. Drifts of dirty snow were heaped alongside the cobbled pavements, and the leafless trees’ stark branches were rimed with ice.
“Quinn?” His mother’s voice was gentle and sad. “What do you think?”
“I suppose it’s more important what Adam thinks,” Quinn answered as he turned around to face his mother. “He’s the one calling the shots.” His older brother was CEO of Freeman Enterprises and never let his two younger brothers forget it. Certainly he hadn’t let Quinn forget it when he’d tried to take part in the family business.
Margo sighed and shook her head. “It’s an emotional decision for all of us.”
“Yes, although not as much for me.” The tightening of his gut and the sudden lurch of emotion belied his words, but Quinn continued, his voice smooth and toneless, “I don’t even remember the hotel or our life there. We left when I was six.”
“I know.” His mother’s mouth turned down at the corners and she looked away. Quinn’s gut gave another painful twist. Of course his mother knew. The Freemans had left Creighton Falls over twenty years ago, after the death of Peter Freeman, beloved husband and father, in a drowning accident. An accident that had involved Quinn, even if he couldn’t remember a single thing about it. Even if he wished every day of his life that it hadn’t happened.
He sat across from his mother, patting her hand and wishing he knew what to say. The Freemans had stopped talking intimately years ago; everything just glided on the surface. He was amazed his mother had mentioned the hotel at all.
Margo smiled her thanks and then sat back in the silk-patterned wingback chair, her hands folded in her lap. “It’s been a long time,” she said softly.
Yes, it had. Maybe even long enough to forget, except he’d never remembered in the first place. “Why are you bringing this up now?” Quinn asked. Creighton Falls had been off-limits in family conversation for over two decades.
“It seemed a good time to discuss it with you, considering how rarely you’re home.” She lifted elegantly arced eyebrows. “When are you off again?”
“I’m not sure.” He’d spent the last six months bartending on the beaches of Thailand, just another one of his many jaunts abroad, but at twenty-eight years old his nomadic lifestyle was definitely starting to pale. The trouble was, the only other thing he wanted to do was forbidden to him.
Margo Freeman pressed her lips together, her gaze turning distant. “The hotel is becoming derelict,” she told him. “I’ve received a warning from the county council claiming it’s a dangerous building, and they want it condemned.”
“I thought we had someone taking care of the place.” Quinn knew the Creighton Falls Hotel had been empty since they’d shut it twenty-two years ago, when they’d all abruptly pulled out of Creighton Falls and its hard memories. “A caretaker to keep things tidy.”
“We did at first, but I’m afraid it’s slipped over the years. I’ve never liked to think about Creighton Falls, and Adam is so busy…” Margo shrugged slender shoulders. “I’m ashamed that we’ve let it get in such a state. I suppose it was easier simply not to think about it.”
“In any case, it was too much work for one man. The caretaker we hired had trouble enough keeping on top of it before he retired.”
“And now?” Quinn asked.
“Something needs to be done.”
“What does Adam say?”
“I haven’t had a chance to talk to him yet.” Margo tilted her head, her gaze resting thoughtfully on her youngest son. Quinn felt its gentle probing and shifted in his seat. His mother didn’t usually inquire too deeply about his life or his choices, but she looked poised to dig a little now. “I thought perhaps you could go up and have a first look at the place. See how much work needs to be done to get into a decent shape for sale.”
“Me?” Quinn stared at her in blatant surprise. In the seven years since he’d dropped out of university, his mother had hardly asked anything of him. No one had really ever, because he was the youngest son, the surprise baby, the kid on the fringes of the family, who just tagged along for the ride. He’d got used to things being that way; he almost liked it. “Why me?”
“Why not you?” Margo countered. “You know how busy Adam is and Jacob is in Bolivia. You’re the natural choice.”
“You mean the only choice.” Adam was running the world and Jake was CEO of his own company, For Free World Disaster Recovery Services. He was more of a globetrotter than Quinn, but instead of mixing cocktails and pouring shots, he was saving lives and being a hero.
“Call it what you will, Quinn,” Margo said, “but it would help me if you’d go up to Creighton Falls.” Pain flashed across his mother’s face and her mouth twisted. “You know I can’t bear to be up there. Maybe it’s weakness, but…”
“No, it’s not.” Remorse soured inside him, a corrosive acid that had already eaten away most of his soul. “Of course I’ll go,” he said gruffly. His mother didn’t ask him for much, but when she finally did, Quinn knew he’d say yes. He could never make up for what happened when he was six, for being alive now when his father was dead. He’d do whatever he could to try, though.
Margo reached forward and touched her son’s cheek with the tips of her fingers. “Thank you, Quinn,” she said softly.
Quinn didn’t reply.
“Someone’s up at the hotel.”
Meghan O’Reilly glanced up from where she was lying on her back, underneath a kitchen sink, without much interest. “Someone’s always nosing up around there. The county council want to have the place condemned, and kids sneak in to smoke or drink or make out.” She made a face as she gave the valve under Brenda Wickley’s sink a twist with her wrench. “Or all three.”
“I don’t mean someone like that.” Brenda swiped a strand of peroxide-blond hair from her eyes, an e-cigarette dangling from her lips, and squinted out her kitchen window that looked out on Creighton Falls’ overgrown green. The tufty grass was patched with dirty snow; it was late February, and winter still held upstate New York in its fierce grip, even though everyone was hoping for spring.
“Who, then?” Meghan asked. She scooted out from underneath the sink and started putting her tools away. “That should do it, Brenda.”
Brenda sucked hard on her e-cigarette. “You’re a marvel, Meghan—”
“It was an easy job,” Meghan said, dismissively. “You could have done it yourself.”
“If I knew one end of a wrench from the other,” Brenda agreed. “Anyway, back to the hotel. Someone important is up there. Someone with a Beamer.”
“A BMW?” Meghan’s hands stilled on the toolbox. No one in Creighton Falls had that kind of fancy car. It was pointless in a place that required off-road capabilities for most of the year.
“Yes,” Brenda said smugly. “A BMW. Who do you think that is?”
“Not a Freeman.” It was the conclusion Brenda was obviously jumping to, but there hadn’t been a Freeman in Creighton Falls in over twenty years, never mind that they’d once run the town.
“Who else could it be?” Brenda countered, tapping her e-cigarette on the edge of a plastic ashtray even though the thing generated no ash. “Sally Jackson is secretary to someone on the council, and she said they’ve been writing Margaret Freeman about the place. Saying something needs to be done before it falls down.”
“Why should that make a difference?” Meghan answered. “The Freemans haven’t bothered about the place for years, and they’ve never been back to Creighton Falls.” A bitterness she’d thought she’d put to rest niggled her insides. So what if the Freemans had left? So had a lot of other people.
“Maybe they’ll bother now.”
“To do what? Reopen it again?” Meghan shook her head. “Hardly.”
“Sell it, maybe.”
“If they can find a buyer for that ramshackle old place.” Meghan loved Creighton Falls fiercely, had spent her whole life there, but there could be no denying that the closure of its one hotel had taken it off the tourists’ map.
When she’d been little, Creighton Falls had been a tourist destination, admittedly an off-the-beaten-trail one, with a few quaint shops and a couple of restaurants. When she’d been little, her father had had a job as a tour guide for city types who wanted to fish on the St. Lawrence River. People had stayed in the hotel and shopped in the town and eaten in the restaurants.
Then the hotel had gone empty and the town had deteriorated, shops closing, people moving. Residents had tried to keep things going; Elsie McGuinness ran the diner, and Fiona had taken over an old carpet store on the edge of town and turned it into a bakery. Don Furman sold chainsaw sculpture at local craft fairs, and Sam Taylor offered ice fishing in the winter. People made do, jogging along as best as they could, but nothing could make up for the loss of the town’s grand hotel.
“Well, I think it’s interesting,” Brenda said with a bit of a huff. “I don’t know anyone who owns a Beamer.”
“Me neither,” Meghan answered. “But in any case, I doubt they’re staying.”
Brenda wagged a nicotine-stained finger at her. “You’re too cynical for someone your age, Meghan.”
“My age?” Meghan smiled and raised her eyebrows. “I’m twenty-eight.”
“Wait until you’re fifty and you’ve seen something of the world. Then maybe—”
“I might not have ever left Creighton Falls,” Meghan answered, and just kept herself from adding that neither had Brenda, “but I’ve seen plenty of human nature.”
Brenda’s face softened. “I know that, honey—”
Not wanting to endure Brenda’s pity, Meghan shoved her arms into her parka and then grabbed her toolbox. “Okay, that’s it, then. Let me know if you have any more problems with the sink.”
“I will.” Brenda’s face brightened. “Are you going to the talent show on Friday night?”
“How on earth could I miss it?” The Creighton Falls Talent Show was a highlight of the town’s social calendar. Plus there was pie. “I’ll be there,” she promised Brenda. With earplugs, she added silently. Billy Kargas’s rendition of I Will Always Love You could strip paint from the walls, not that anyone would ever tell him so.
Outside, the air was cold and damp with not even a hint of spring to lift the spirits. The sky was a leaden gray, the snow, now several weeks since the last fall, nearly the same color. A thin layer of ice covered the puddles in the rutted road, and Meghan carefully stepped over one, knowing all too well how a boot could break through and she’d find herself shin-deep in icy, muddy water.
“Roll on, spring,” she muttered, even though spring in upstate New York meant lots of mud. Still, it also meant fields full of flowers, the sun sparkling off the river, a hint of warmth in the air. She threw her toolbox in the back of her battered pickup and climbed into the driver’s side, resting her hands lightly on the wheel as she took a moment simply to be. She’d been rushing from one job to another all day; the one benefit of being the area’s only plumber was that she was rarely out of work, but sometimes she felt the toll of the relentless pace.
She checked her phone for messages from her younger sister, Polly, who worked in a supermarket near Watertown, and was relieved to see there were none. Some days she might get a dozen messages from her sister, most of them asking the most random questions or simply to tell her something she thought was interesting. Sometimes, though, the texts were important; Polly had gotten upset or misunderstood something, and Meghan had to keep her sister from melting down.
Meghan had long ago learned how to best manage Polly; she’d had to, when her mother had moved out to Arizona with her new husband, and her dad, although around, wasn’t up for much in the parenting department.
She loved Polly with every cell of her being, would defend her to the death, but managing her day after day took its toll.
Meghan started the truck and pulled away from the curb, squinting as she glanced up toward the derelict hotel. The gold lettering on the sign out front was chipped and faded, and the iron scrollwork surrounding it was long gone. The hotel’s windows were shuttered or broken; some of them were missing all of their glass panes, so they were nothing more than gaping holes, looking like empty eyesockets in a falling-down face. The decorative gingerbread that had graced the roofline was now rotting, much of it missing. The wide, sweeping porch that spanned the entire front of the building was bowed and clearly rotten.
Built as it was on the highest point of the green, it was meant to be the town’s crowning glory. Instead it was the building equivalent of Miss Havisham’s wedding dress.
Meghan drove slowly by the building, noticing the Beamer parked in the empty lot behind the hotel. She put on the brakes, her gaze sweeping over the place, but she couldn’t see anyone moving about.
Had one of the Freeman brothers actually come back? And if the Freemans sold the hotel, what would it become? Maybe a hotel, but more likely it would be turned into something useful, a nursing home or subsidized housing. Meghan sighed and put her foot on the gas pedal. She had enough going on in her life without worrying about the hotel, or wonder for one minute about the faraway Freeman brothers.
Creighton Falls was a dump. Quinn stood outside his car, hands planted on hips, as he gazed at the scruffy green and the dilapidated gazebo that graced it. On the far side he could see a rusty slide and some broken swings half-covered in dirty snow.
The hotel was definitely a blight on the town’s landscape, but it wasn’t the only falling-down building here. Not by a long shot.
Admittedly, the town possessed some charm. The old Victorian houses still held the gracious elegance of an earlier age, with their cupolas and intricate gingerbread. And the scenery was spectacular—stands of towering pines and cedars, rolling hills, and of course the river.
Resolutely Quinn trained his gaze on that sparkling ribbon of water in the distance. It was beautiful, even if the sight of it made his stomach cramp. Since returning to Creighton Falls – he’d searched his brain for forgotten memories, hoping something about this dilapidated town would stir something in his head or heart about the first six years of his life. Nothing had.
He’d spent the afternoon walking through the downstairs of the hotel, noting the rotting floorboards, the wallpaper coming off in long, moldy strips. It had felt like walking through a ghost town or a haunted house, everything old and faded and rotten, and yet just left. The hotel’s grand reception room still had most of its furniture, wingback chairs and marble end tables and velveteen sofas, all of it now moldy and reeking. He hadn’t dared to go up the front stairs to the second floor; underneath the moldy carpet—someone had removed the brass stair rods—he suspected the floorboards were rotten and he’d plummet to his death if he took one wrong step.
In any case, he’d seen enough. The hotel was a disaster, and should be rightly condemned, and if his mother wanted a chance in hell of selling it, it was going to need a lot of work first.
A bitter wind blew from the river and Quinn shivered despite his down parka. A soft, purple dusk was already settling on the town, the green soon lost in shadows, a few stars twinkling in the indigo sky. It was a beautiful scene, with the lighted windows of the houses around the green lending it a cozy cheer that gave Quinn an unexpected pang.
Had he been happy here? Had he played on that green, run inside to a house that he no longer could identify? He could almost imagine it, but that’s exactly what it was. Imagining. Nothing felt real or remembered.
He got in his car and drove past six pickup trucks parked alongside the green, wincing slightly at what a fish out of water he was. He’d traveled enough to think himself fairly worldly wise; he’d picked up a spattering of a half a dozen languages during his various bartending stints, but Creighton Falls was another matter entirely. He didn’t belong here. Maybe he never had.
His fingers tightened on the wheel as his mind bumped up against that dark, blank spot once more. Most people had memories of before they were six. Maybe not many, but surely a few. The first grade spelling bee. A birthday party. Something. Why the hell didn’t he have any? Had that afternoon on the ice wiped his memory clean? It was as if a curtain had come down in his mind, in his heart, and even now he wasn’t sure he wanted to lift it. Because maybe his mind chose not to remember for a reason. Maybe if he remembered his father, he’d miss him more.
He drove out of Creighton Falls without looking back, and headed for Watertown twenty miles away. He’d booked into one of the town’s budget hotels for the night and tomorrow he’d head back to the city and inform his mother that the place was a disaster.
Of course his mother was going to want a bit more information than that. She’d want a detailed list of what needed repairing and how much it would cost. She’d want to be able to give such a list to Adam. And making such a list would take weeks.
The thought of spending that much time in Creighton Falls made Quinn uneasy. He’d had a prickling between his shoulder blades the whole time he’d been walking around that hotel, as if his subconscious had sensed someone was watching and waiting, ready to creep up on him. Stupid, maybe, to be unnerved by an empty hotel, but he couldn’t quite shake the feeling.
As he drove through Watertown, he noted the beautiful buildings in the town’s faded downtown area, a town hall, an old church, with most of the stately Victorian buildings now given over to discount chains and charity stores. Quinn parked at his hotel and checked in before deciding to hit the town’s streets in search of a meal and a drink.
Quinn found a bar near the town hall, a pokey little dive with fake wood paneling and booths of ripped red vinyl. Still, it offered hamburgers along with alcohol and that’s what Quinn wanted.
He slid onto a stool at the Formica-topped bar and ordered a burger and a whiskey. A few trucker-types with baseball caps pulled low over their faces were hunched over their beers, and from the corner of his eye Quinn saw that the only other people in the place were a gaggle of twenty-something women in stretchy tops and short skirts. He could see they were eyeing him openly, and he deliberately looked away and took a sip of his drink. No need for female company tonight, even though he wasn’t normally averse. Tonight he felt too edgy and restless, those non-memories stirring up things inside him that had lain stagnant for a long time.
“Hey there, stranger.”
Quinn turned to see a young woman from the table in the corner standing in front of him. A quick onceover told him she would be pretty, if she’d held back a little on the face paint and cheap, tight clothing. She’d planted one hand on her hip and stuck her leg out, a parody of a pose, the smile on her face so forced and fake Quinn inwardly cringed.
“Hi,” he said neutrally, and looked away again. He didn’t want to be rude, but this woman clearly needed no encouragement. He saw her glance back at her friends who were clearly egging her on. Then she slid onto the stool next to him.
“Buy me a drink?” she suggested and Quinn gritted his teeth.
“Sorry, I’m just about to leave.” Her face fell in childish disappointment and he noted how round her cheeks were, how wide her eyes. Hell, she was little more than a kid. “Maybe next time,” he said, simply to soften the blow, and too late he realized he shouldn’t have said anything because she took it as encouragement.
“Why not now?” she answered, a pouty note entering her voice.
“I’m sorry, but I told you I’m leaving.” He downed the rest of his whiskey and was about to get up when the girl, quite suddenly, plopped herself in his lap. Quinn had no choice but to put his hands on her waist, to keep her from sliding straight onto the floor. She threw her arms about his neck and he eased backward to keep her from planting a big one right on his lips.
“Easy there,” he said, trying for a smile because even now he had the bizarre impulse not to hurt her feelings. She seemed so young.
“I knew you were nice,” she replied, and laid her head against his shoulder, curling into him like a little kitten.
Quinn had no idea what to do. He’d had plenty of experience with women of all types, but nothing like this.
He glanced back at the girls in the booth, but they were all tittering behind their hands. The farmers hunched along the bar were looking avidly in the other direction.
“Listen…” he began, but before he could say anything else someone was throwing open the door of the bar so hard it banged against the wall, and then a woman was striding towards him, all glittering-eyed fury and swirling dark hair.
“Hey you,” she snarled. “Get the hell away from my sister.”
End of Excerpt