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“Hi, Mom, are you up?” Sarah Hunter called as she entered her mother’s house on the outskirts of Sweetheart. It was a half hour before she usually dropped off her three-year-old, Jeffy, but she wanted to get to work early. It was going to be a big day.
Milo, her mother’s French bulldog, tore down the hall to greet them and then raced back the other way, barking excitedly. Jeffy took off after him. “Milo, here, boy.”
“I’m up.” Heather Mills came out of the kitchen in a quilted blue dressing gown and slippers and scooped her grandson up in her arms, tousling his fine brown hair. “Goodness, you’re getting tall.”
“I got a truck.” Jeffy thrust his toy at his grandma for her to see.
“Thanks for taking him early.” Sarah left Jeffy’s stroller on the porch and carried in bags containing a change of clothes, a snack, and a few of his favorite toys.
“No problem.” Her mom set Jeffy back on the floor and smoothed out her silver bob. “Have you heard yet?”
“The mayor is going to call me this morning,” Sarah said. “I’ll have to go down to the council offices and sign a new contract, then make a few calls to let people know. Do a little happy dance.” Arms raised, she gyrated on the spot.
“Congratulations in advance.” Her mother hugged her, smiling, too.
“Thanks,” Sarah said. “I know I shouldn’t count my chickens, but I can’t help it.”
She’d been acting tourism director for the past six months ever since Brianna, the previous director, left to start her own IT consultancy and run for a seat on the local council. Now that Brianna had moved on, no one in Sweetheart was more qualified or experienced than Sarah at the job. She’d helped Brianna set up the tourist information center and together they’d organized the first ever cherry blossom festival.
The past two years since her late husband Len had died had been tough, both emotionally and financially, but she was holding her own. Once her new position was official, she could start making definite plans—renovate her bathroom, replace her aging car, maybe take a short vacation.
“I ran into Daniel the other day when I was walking Milo,” Heather said casually, referring to Len’s brother. “He was at the high school, watching the football team practice.”
“I would have thought he’d be too busy at the eco-resort for things like that.” Sarah ruthlessly suppressed the spark of interest she felt at any mention of Daniel. Back when they’d dated in high school, she’d been so sure that he was the one, but he’d left right after graduation to play pro football without a backward glance. Sure, he’d tried to get her back years later, but he’d left it until the eve of her wedding to his brother, Len, to tell her she was making a mistake! What kind of fool did he take her for?
Now Daniel had come home to Sweetheart and had bought an eco-resort on Flathead Lake. The whole town was abuzz with news of the local hero. Well, not her.
“We had a nice chat,” her mother went on, taking no notice of Sarah’s dismissive tone. “He says the main lodge is at lock-up stage and they’ve started work on the interior.”
“Did I bring in Jeffy’s snack bag in?” Sarah asked, glancing around. She so did not want to talk about Daniel.
“Here it is.” Her mom held up the insulated lunch bag. “Daniel does sound extremely busy, though. He’s doing all the hiring himself.”
“What does an ex-football player know about staffing a hotel?” Sarah said. “He should hire a management company and go back to Dallas or Malibu or wherever he lives.”
“Sarah, he’s moved back here.” Her mother was mildly reproachful. “I’m sure he’s going to get experienced help, but he seems to be enjoying getting the resort up and running.”
“Whatever. I’ve got to go.” She bent to give Jeffy a hug and kiss. “See you tonight, sweetie. We’ll have pizza and ice cream to celebrate my new job.”
“Have you even seen Daniel since he’s been back in town?” her mother asked as she followed Sarah back down the hall to the front door.
“I haven’t seen him since he was here last May during the cherry blossom festival.” She wished her mom would drop the subject. “He’s called a couple of times, but I missed the calls and I haven’t had a chance to get back to him.” Truth was, she’d deliberately avoided returning his calls.
“You should get in touch,” her mom said as they stood outside on the porch. “It’ll be nice for Jeffy to have his uncle living here again.”
Sarah searched her handbag for her car keys. Daniel wasn’t just Jeffy’s uncle, but her mother didn’t know that. Now that Len had passed, only she and Daniel knew that Jeffy had been conceived using sperm donated by Daniel. Len’s idea, not hers. Len couldn’t father a child but he’d wanted to have a kid related to him by blood, so he’d swallowed his pride and resentment and asked Daniel. Sarah’s mixed emotions about carrying Daniel’s child had made for some sleepless nights while she wrestled with the decision. In the end, she’d gone along with it because she’d badly wanted to start a family and because a baby might strengthen her and Len’s struggling marriage. Classic mistake.
“Why don’t you like him anymore?” her mom asked, lowering her voice so Jeffy wouldn’t hear. “You must be the only person in town who isn’t thrilled he’s here.”
“I don’t dislike him. I just don’t get what all the fuss is about when he’s hardly been around for the past fifteen years,” Sarah said, snagging her key chain.
His voice message saying he couldn’t wait to see Jeffy she took with a grain of salt. If he was so interested in the boy, why hadn’t he come around more over the years? She didn’t want Jeffy to get too attached to his ‘Unca Dan.’ Her son had already suffered significant loss in his young life with the death of his father. She would hate to see him bond with Daniel only to lose him, too, when Daniel got bored of his eco-resort—as he surely would—and left again for greener pastures.
“He’s very generous,” her mother said. “He’s donated to every charity in town.”
“He’s helped a lot of people,” Sarah conceded. She paused, searching for a plausible reason to explain her reluctance to see Daniel. “Len didn’t get along with him.”
“Oh, well. Len.” Her mom’s mouth thinned.
“Please don’t start.” Instantly, she wished she hadn’t invoked Len, tired of defending him to her mom. She’d stayed with Len long after she’d known marrying him was a mistake. Daniel had been right, damn him. But even with hindsight, she wouldn’t change a thing because that would mean not having Jeffy and that was unthinkable.
“Well, I’m sorry, but a volunteer fireman with a wife and baby shouldn’t race into the teeth of a wildfire against the orders of his captain to try to rescue a stubborn old hermit who ignored evacuation orders,” Heather said.
“Len received a medal,” Sarah reminded her. “He saved the old man’s life.” Len had had his faults and weaknesses, but he’d had his strengths, too. He hadn’t been a bad man; just not the right man for her.
“And lost his own.” The creases around her mom’s eyes and mouth deepened. “Daniel, now—”
“I’ve got to go.” Sarah blocked her own pain and anger. She had too many other things on her mind today to brood over her conflicted loyalties. “Will everything go according to plan with Jeffy? You don’t have any meetings or errands?”
“No, I’m all clear. The hand-over to childcare will run like clockwork.”
“Thank you so much. I don’t know what I’d do without you.” Sarah leaned up to envelop her mother in a warm hug.
Jeffy’s daily routine was complicated, but they had it down pat. Sarah dropped him off at her mother’s before work. Her mom cared for Jeffy for a couple of hours and then took him to preschool at nine a.m. She picked him up again at noon, fed him lunch, and then dropped him off at child care for the afternoon before going to her part-time job at the library. Sarah picked Jeffy up from child care after work around five thirty.
Now and then, the tightly choreographed schedule was thrown out of whack. Sarah’s mom was sick, or the child care center had an emergency, or Sarah couldn’t pick Jeffy up on time. Even when it all ran smoothly, it was a long day for a three-year-old. And it was a lot to ask of her mother who, much as she loved her grandson, had work and hobbies and a life of her own.
Fifteen minutes later, Sarah unlocked the door of the tourist information center. Flipping on all the lights, she went through the outer public area and into her office.
Dropping her handbag and jacket, she clicked her computer awake and opened her inbox, swiftly scanning the new messages for an email from Mayor Kimble. Nothing. She checked her landline but the light wasn’t blinking so no voice mail messages. Well, it was early, not even eight o’clock.
She got to work, chasing down the autumn banners she’d ordered for the town and which should have arrived two days ago. Then she started preparing a proposal for a Thanksgiving celebration at the town hall to present to the council for approval. Once she was confirmed as the new director, she wanted to hit the ground running.
Every ping of incoming email made her pounce on her inbox. Still nothing from the mayor. Should she call him? No, he wouldn’t have forgotten this was the day he’d promised to let her know the council’s decision. He was busy, too. He would get to her as soon as he could.
She updated the white board Brianna had bought during her time as director. Local events in various stages of planning were marked on a hand-drawn calendar in multi-colored inks. As the dates approached there would be decisions to make, phone calls to place, and myriad small tasks to complete.
Sarah got huge satisfaction from making sure that everything ran smoothly, from getting flyers printed on time to training the volunteers that manned the desk. The council hadn’t hired another assistant to fill her old role after Brianna left but she expected that would happen once she was appointed director.
Just after ten o’clock, she heard the ping of another incoming email. It was from the mayor’s office. Her pulse kicked up but before opening it she forced herself to complete the note she was writing to herself with an idea for a harvest farmer’s market.
At last, she opened her inbox, clicked on the email, and waited the maddening two seconds it took load.
Finally, it came into view.
“Dear Sarah, I regret to inform you…”
She blinked, not comprehending. She read the email again. And a third time. Finally it began to sink in. She hadn’t gotten the job. The council had voted to hire a complete outsider, a marketing man from Denver. This couldn’t be happening.
She read the email a fourth time and only now registered the sting in the tail. The mayor thanked her for her contribution but now that the bulk of the work had been done to set up the center, the council had decided not to renew her old position of assistant to the director.
Not only didn’t she get the promotion, but she was also being booted out of her old job.
Sarah rose and left her glass-walled office, and walked, zombie-like, through the information center. Her hand trailed along the racks of pamphlets she’d searched out and stocked, the books on local attractions she’d ordered and shelved. The posters of Flathead Lake and the Mission Ranges she’d stood on a ladder to tack to the walls. The display cases of jewelry and pottery from local artisans she’d sourced.
It was over. She no longer worked here. What now? She’d been so certain she would get the tourism directorship that it hadn’t even occurred to her to apply for anything else while she was waiting to hear. She had two weeks to find a new job.
Her phone rang. She fished in the pocket of her skirt. “Hello?”
“Well?” Brianna demanded.
Sarah tilted her head back and squeezed her eyes shut against the pricking tears.
“Sarah?” Brianna said. “Are you there?”
“Didn’t get it.”
“What?” Brianna was incredulous. “Why not?”
“Don’t know.” Sarah’s voice wobbled. “Um, sorry Brianna, I’m really busy. I’ll call you later.” She hung up and went back to her office in search of a tissue.
A minute later, Brianna called back. “You don’t have to say a word. I just want to let you know that there are lots of jobs going here at the eco-resort. I’ll text you the link.”
The link arrived seconds later. Dully, Sarah clicked on it, following the prompts to the page of positions available. Brianna was right, there were plenty of jobs. Wait staff, housekeeping, reception, activities coordinator, general manager…
Sarah clicked out of the web page, unable to bear the thought of any of these positions. She returned to the preparations for the farmer’s market and couldn’t face that, either.
Straightening her shoulders, she went back to the jobs page at the resort. Time to woman up. She didn’t have time to waste, and she couldn’t afford to be choosy. She had to pick something, anything, and update her resume.
Activities coordinator was the role she was most qualified for and, given how badly she needed a job, it made sense to apply for that. But something in her rebelled against choosing the safe option. She’d worked her butt off in the tourist office, pushed herself hard and succeeded at things she’d never dreamed she was capable of. She deserved better than taking another mid-level position. What the heck, why not go for gold? She would apply for general manager.
“How’s your morning so far, Mr. Hunter?” the waiter at the Montreau Hotel asked as he refilled Daniel’s coffee. “A window table is free now if you’d prefer.”
“I’m fine here.” Daniel smiled his thanks, and the waiter went on his way.
Daniel had deliberately chosen a table hidden in a nook. People were continually coming up to him and wanting to talk about his football days. Normally, he didn’t mind, and he always took the time to be friendly, but right now he was on a mission. With his eco-resort close to opening, he was trying to learn all he could about how such an establishment was run.
Case in point, the dining room. He’d stayed in hundreds of luxury hotels in his time without paying much attention to his surroundings. Now that he was going into the business, he was becoming aware of how much went on in the background.
The Montreau, a refurbished heritage hotel, did a lot of things really well. At the breakfast buffet, the food was fresh, tasty, and plentiful. The bain-maries were kept topped up, spills were cleaned immediately, and attentive waiters refilled coffee cups and removed empty plates promptly.
This attention to detail didn’t happen by accident. The staff was well trained, the maître d’ kept a close eye on the patrons, and every so often, the chef came out and personally checked the food or said a word to the regulars.
“’Morning, Daniel,” Mayor Jerry Kimble greeted him as he went past with a plate loaded with an omelet and fresh fruit. “Hiding out?”
“Just catching up on a little light reading.” Daniel held up the book on the hospitality business he was speed reading. But the mayor had been very helpful in getting permits for the eco-resort so he gestured to the chair opposite. “Care to join me?”
“Thanks.” Jerry sat and unfolded a napkin. “I don’t usually eat breakfast out but my kitchen’s being remodeled. How are your folks? Bet they’re happy to have you around more.”
“Yes, it’s great to be able to spend time with them.” Daniel kept his voice enthusiastic, but his smile faltered. In recent encounters with his parents, his mother fawned over him as if he was still a celebrity, while his father was standoffish to the point of rudeness. He’d hoped that upon returning to Sweetheart he would reconnect with his dad and his mom would become more relaxed around him. After being away for fifteen years, it was only natural that strengthening his relationship with them would take time, but he hadn’t expected it to be so difficult.
“You know you can hire people to run the resort,” Jerry said. “You don’t have to do it all yourself.”
“I’ve hired a human resources director to help with hiring, but she can’t start for another two weeks,” Daniel said. “Meanwhile, I’m getting a buzz out of learning the business and setting it up.”
Plus, it distracted him from the void that retiring from pro football had left in his life. As a professional athlete, time had never been on his side. As he got older, he’d received more and more injuries, some requiring surgery, the worst being to his right shoulder. Finally not even another operation could repair the damage to his shoulder and his professional football career had come to an end.
“Just the set up?” Jerry asked. “You’re not planning to stick around and run it?”
“Oh, I plan to settle here. It’s my hometown and I’ve missed it and the people.” Two people in particular, but so far, Sarah hadn’t returned his calls. All he wanted to do was say hello and see Jeffy. Was that so strange? And okay, he wanted to see her, too, but that was going to be a bit trickier given their history.
“What made you decide to go into the hotel business?” Jerry asked.
“I happened to be in town last May when Angus Adams and Sweetheart Log Homes decided to build an eco-resort on spec.” Daniel spread his hands. “I was looking for a business to buy. Right place, right time.”
“Angus has done an amazing job,” Jerry said. “And Brianna’s design of the green technology systems for the lodge is a great example to the community. Once she’s through there, I want her to upgrade some of the local government buildings.”
“The eco-resort is pretty special,” Daniel agreed. “People will be able to experience the wilderness and enjoy outdoor activities in luxury accommodation without harming the environment. I really want to create a unique and memorable experience for my guests.”
“Well, it’s the biggest thing that’s happened to Sweetheart in years, if not ever,” Jerry said. “You’ll be creating a lot of jobs.”
“I plan to hire locals as much as possible,” Daniel assured him.
“Good policy,” Jerry said. “I try to do that, too.” He frowned and shrugged his suit-clad shoulders. “Doesn’t always work out though. I had to disappoint someone a couple of days ago who’d been acting in her position for the past six months.”
“What happened?” Daniel inquired. Could Jerry be talking about Sarah? Brianna had mentioned that Sarah expected to be confirmed as tourism director soon. He hadn’t heard anything more from Brianna and Sarah wasn’t talking to him. Some of Len’s resentment of him must have rubbed off on her over the years. And okay, he’d blown it with her all by himself. But he wanted to mend his relationship with her, too, and build on the one he he’d begun with Jeff when he’d been here in May. What a great kid. Just thinking about him brought a smile to Daniel’s face.
“The council members thought the other guy looked better on paper,” Jerry said. “I felt badly because she’s worked so hard and she was really good, plus she’s a single mom and very deserving.” He shrugged. “Taxpayers’ money. What can you do?”
“I don’t have that problem,” Daniel said, certain now that Jerry was talking about Sarah. Maybe he could find her a position at the eco-resort. “I can hire who I want. Only the best candidates though, of course.”
The success of the business was paramount. Not only had the design and construction been a labor of love for Angus and Brianna and he wanted to do them proud, but as one of the largest employers in the area he had an obligation to the people who worked for him to make it a success. Plus, his own self-esteem was at stake. He didn’t want to be one of those athletes who merely lent their name to a restaurant or hotel chain. Unless he played an active role in the business, what was the point?
“How’s the hiring going?” Jerry asked, buttering a piece of raisin toast. “You’ve got a lot on your plate.”
“You’re telling me,” Daniel said. “I’ve got an HR person but she can’t start right away so I’m going through the applications myself, hoping to hire a few key positions—manager, head chef, head of maintenance and so on.”
Jerry tilted his head. “That’s one way to do it.”
Maybe his methods were unorthodox, Daniel didn’t know and didn’t particularly care. He needed staff quickly and he wanted a say in who he was hiring. Since he planned to play an active role in running the business, he wanted to know the people who worked for him and be confident he could trust them.
An hour later, he entered his office at the resort to the sounds of construction all around him. His floor was still bare concrete, and the only furniture was a basic desk and chair and a single filing cabinet. Stacks of resumes and job applications covered his desk.
First things first. He needed a manager. Seating himself, he pulled the appropriate folder toward him and started reviewing applications. He discarded four, put one in his short-list pile, then reached for the next application.
The name caught his attention first—Sarah Hunter—but it was the attached photo that hit him like a punch to the solar plexus. Those wide, slightly tilted eyes that were a mysterious shade between amber and green, and clear as a forest stream, stared at him from the page, as if daring him to reject her application. Hadn’t she rejected him, first? Although, he did acknowledge she might not see it that way.
Sarah. Somehow, he’d let her slip through his fingers. They’d dated in high school when he was a senior and she was a sophomore. He’d thought they had something really special, but when he’d been drafted to a farm team right out of high school she’d said they should make a clean break. He’d had to concede that they were too young to get serious and so he’d gone off to Texas to train, promising he’d come back for her when she graduated. Instead, the exciting world of professional football had taken over his life, they’d lost touch, and before he knew it, he was living in Dallas and in the starting lineup for the Cowboys.
Then she’d gone off to community college and goodness knew where for a few years. He’d tried once to reconnect but that had failed when he’d learned his little brother had started dating her. Knowing the pair, Daniel hadn’t thought the relationship would last long. He’d always thought he and Sarah would get back together one day, that they were still young and there was plenty of time. Then one day he’d received the wedding invitation—she was going to marry Len.
Talk about a punch to the gut. His brother had always been competitive and resentful of the attention Daniel received as a professional athlete. Now he’d ‘won’ by getting Daniel’s girl. On the eve of their wedding, Daniel had tried to tell Sarah she was making a mistake, that Len wasn’t right for her, but she hadn’t taken kindly to interference. He had to admit, she was right to be angry. His input had been too little, too late, too arrogant. He hadn’t even had the guts to say he still loved her because what was that worth after years of radio silence? After that, he’d stayed away because seeing her with someone else was just too hard, especially when the other guy was his brother.
Now Len was gone and Sarah was single again, a widow. No longer off limits.
He glanced back at her photo. The curl at the outer edges of her full lips echoed the uptilt of the eyes at the corners, making her look as if she were smiling secretly to herself. God, how he’d missed her.
One corner of his mouth curled dryly. He bet that if he called her now, she would answer. And if he saw her, hopefully he would get to see Jeff, too.
End of Excerpt