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Tara Rawlings Gordon stood in front of the bay windows in the front room that was their conference room of the Queen Anne house that doubled as the office space for their interior design firm, Design Lines. The four young software designers who sat around the other end of the oval table studied her and her designs impassively, not giving anything away. Designing office space for a start-up software company was a new venture for her firm, mostly used to dealing with homes and smaller offices like law firms and such. But this start-up was not a traditional company, challenging their typical layouts and structure for office space, which could showcase a new area of talent and originality for their firm, one Tara and her partner, Angela Barnes, had been looking for. Anything to help their firm stand out in the crowded design field in San Francisco. Only, judging by the lack of expression on the faces before her, Tara wasn’t sure how the presentation was going.
Pasting a bright smile on her face, she gestured for her assistant to bring up the sketches of the interior. “We went with the open floor plan you had requested. No cubicle walls, small pods instead of individual desks, and collaborative work stations.”
The president of the company nodded. “This seems somewhat … bare.”
Tara exchanged a glance with her assistant and gestured for her to switch the image to the interior shot. “We went with a minimalist style, clean and simple. You expressed an interest in modern and sleek.”
He nodded but didn’t seem to approve. Although he wasn’t exactly disapproving either. Tara honestly didn’t know what to think and she wasn’t accustomed to that reaction. The four people shuffled through the presentation in front of them, filtered through the samples of materials Tara had laid on the table to let them get a feel for what she proposed and studied the 3D model she had worked up over the previous two weekends, working almost round the clock to get that done in time.
A knock at the door interrupted the low murmuring and Tara glared until her partner poked her head inside. Angela motioned for Tara to step outside even after Tara shook her head. Tara laid her notes down on the table.
“Why don’t you take a few minutes to look at our notes, the model on the table and our sketches over here? Talk for a few minutes among yourselves and I’ll be back to hear your thoughts and suggestions. Feel free to help yourself to coffee or tea, or anything else. Mandy can also assist if you need anything.”
She nodded to her assistant and then stepped out of the room. “What is so all-fired important that you needed me this minute, Angela? I had them, was about the seal the deal.” Tara crossed her fingers at the little fib. It was more of a hope than a reality, but she was trying to be positive.
Angela pursed her lips. “You have a phone call.”
Tara frowned. “I get phone calls all day. Why is this one so important?”
“It’s from home. From a West Morgan?” The older woman spoke gently, studied her closely.
Tara froze. In the overall scheme of who would ever be calling her from home, West Morgan was the last person she’d ever expect. And the least desired. “Are you sure? What could he want?”
“There’s only one way to find out. We’ll put him through to your office.” Angela pushed her gently in the direction of the stairs and her second-floor office.
Tara dug in her heels. “No, I have this presentation to finish. Take a message. I’ll call him back.”
Angela shook her head. “I think you need to take this. Right now. I’ll handle the presentation. I know it as well as you do, considering I practiced with you every day.”
The other woman’s tone was odd, almost sympathetic, and Tara’s heart seized. “Fine, I’ll be right back.”
“Take as long as you need.” With that cryptic statement, Angela went into the conference room and Tara headed up the stairs to her office.
She closed her door and sat behind her desk, her refuge over the past few months. She sighed and picked up the phone, pressing the blinking light, and braced herself for the deep voice that always made her stomach clench.
“Hello, Tara.” The deep rumble hadn’t changed much.
She had traveled so many places in her time away from Montana, met so many people, and no man had ever had a voice so deep, so sexy as West Morgan. Too bad it was attached to the most irritating man that had ever walked the earth. The one man guaranteed to piss her off. Well… except for her ex-husband. And the one man who always made her feel so goddamned incompetent.
“What did you need to talk to me about right this instant? What was so damned important?”
A slow pause. “I’m sorry, Tara, but your father is dead.”
After receiving the details from West and confirming that she’d be there as soon as she could, Tara stared out the office turret window overlooking Alamo Square Park, at the vibrant green grass and beautiful flowers that decorated the expanse. Families were having picnics and playing on this beautiful Tuesday afternoon in late May, and Tara would often join them at lunch, but today, even that beauty couldn’t lighten her mood. She should go back downstairs to her presentation, but her legs wouldn’t cooperate, her brain completely shut down for the second time in six months.
A quiet knock pulled her attention, then her door opened. Angela poked her head in. “How are you doing, honey?”
Tara took a quick breath and stood, deliberately ignoring the elephant in the room. “Fine. I’ll be right down.”
Angela stepped in the room and shut the door behind her. “No, we’re done for the day. I spoke with Eric Carmichael and rescheduled the rest of the presentation. They requested more time to review our plans anyway.”
Tara sagged back into her chair and swiveled it to face the park again, laying her head back against the padded headrest, trying to muster up some emotion for the failed presentation, but honestly couldn’t, not with everything else swirling in her brain. “Well, that’s it then. Sorry, Angela. I tried my best, but I guess I’m just not up on the hip and fresh design styles. I should stick to boring old houses and staid law firms.”
A rustling behind her indicated that her partner had sat down instead of leaving. “Tara, you’ve had a rough six months—honestly, a rough year. You’ve really been pushing yourself so hard and I’m worried about you, especially now. How are you doing?”
Tara blinked at the bright sunlight. Shouldn’t it be foggy? With news like this, she would have expected the day to be raw and damp, not bright, beautiful and near picture-perfect. Today of all days, San Francisco had let her down, like so many other people in her life. Then again, why should the day be any different since she had no idea how to feel herself? She was numb, her body tingling and buzzing, the room spinning around her, but her eyes were dry.
She twirled the chair around to face her partner and friend. “I don’t know how I feel, Angela. How’s that for honesty? My father is dead. I haven’t seen him in almost a year, and I have no reaction whatsoever. Somehow, I don’t think I’m going to be winning daughter of the year anytime soon.”
She gave a laugh that was raw and bitter, with none of the humor that she had been going for. Angela’s expression never changed to the horror Tara expected. Instead, she got up from her chair and hurried around the desk and enveloped Tara in a tight hug, as if trying to keep her together. Tara clung to her, her one anchor in the chaos that had been her life for the past six months, but still the tears never fell. Slowly, however, her rigid muscles relaxed minutely, and she pulled back from Angela. She was alone now. No husband, no parents. It was best that she learned how to be on her own. Even Angela had a family. She didn’t need to keep dealing with an emotionally stunted friend and business partner.
Angela leaned against the desk and regarded her sadly. “When do you leave?”
“I’m not sure. I need to contact the funeral home and make the arrangements. West, one of my father’s foster boys, has been dealing with it, but it’s really up to me as his daughter. Technically, only I can formalize the arrangements although I wouldn’t be surprised if West can do everything. I should really get up there before they have him buried without me.”
“They can’t bury him without his only daughter,” Angela gasped.
Tara smiled. “I don’t think my wishes matter one bit when it comes to this or anything regarding my father or the ranch. It never has, really. I’ll go through my projects and see what I can put off. I should be back in a few days.” She opened her planner and scanned her upcoming projects and meetings.
Angela laid a hand in the middle of the planner. “Tara. Stop.” She waited until Tara looked up. “You’ve been going nonstop for the past several months, taking on more projects than anyone, burning yourself out in the process. To be honest, I’ve been worried about you. I think you might need a break.”
Tara snorted. “I don’t think a funeral is the break you had in mind.”
Angela smiled gently. “Of course not. But, don’t you have things to do with the estate? If your dad had a ranch and a house, won’t you have to handle the details of that? It’s going to take more than five days to go through all of that. I think you should take at least a month and deal with this. Tara, I worry that you’re not dealing with this or what happened before. When was the last time you spoke with your father?”
Tara glanced away, face burning. “It’s been a few months. At least. We’ve been busy with the Carmichael presentation and I didn’t have time to speak to him.” Bitterness twisted her words, a sour taste in her mouth.
Angela blinked back tears. “I’m so sorry, Tara. I can’t imagine the regret you must be feeling.”
Despite the pain choking her, the tears still wouldn’t fall. “Now, there’s nothing I can do. I can’t explain, apologize, or even talk to him again. It’s over.”
“There’s one thing I think you have to do. Go home. Stay there for a while. Take some time to grieve and maybe you can also find a way to forgive yourself, or at least connect with your father the only way you have left. You need this. You need to stop running, Tara.” Angela laid a hand on her shoulder and squeezed gently. “We can handle everything here. You need to do this. For yourself.”
She quietly closed the door behind her, leaving Tara to her thoughts. And her fears.
End of Excerpt