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“Thanks for the job, Mari. Glad we’ve got it settled and ready to go at last. You’re going to be very happy with the finished product. I’ll send the boys around in the morning to start work. Don’t be surprised if Ethan looks in later today to see what he’s up against but, don’t worry, he’s an expert in old retrofits like this. Any problems, give me a call.”
“Thanks, Christian. I can’t wait for them to start. I’ve been looking forward to getting the ballrooms upgraded.” She hung up the phone and it hit her hard. It was all about to happen just as she’d planned and now she was terrified.
How stupid she’d been ignoring the reason she was here. Easy to do when she’d found out Ethan Benson was working away from Cherry Lake. It’d given her a false sense of security being able to put off the inevitable battle looming ahead. Of course he was going to be angry. Furious with her; she could hardly blame him even if she wanted to. As soon as she’d scheduled the remodeling job with the company he part owned, the clock had started ticking. Call it a stupid move to choose him as a builder but it was her failsafe system to ensure they finally connected. Then she’d have no choice but to tell him everything.
“Someone looks pensive.” Her half-sister Bella Moore wandered into the upstairs apartment with a cake box in her hands.
“You could say that. The builder is finally starting work tomorrow. After all the planning and changing designs, we’re finally ready to knock out walls and make her look pretty. I thought they’d never finish that job in Poulson and come back to deal with local work in Cherry Lake.” She sighed hating that talking like that made her sound as if she was looking forward to the confrontation.
“Oh. That builder! Now I get the frantic face you’re sporting.” Bella reached out and rubbed her hand over Mari’s back. “Honey, you came here to see him, let him know about Noah. You’re doing the right thing. I know you are.”
“But I’m so scared. What if he hates me or what if he doesn’t believe Noah is his and I’m trying to trap him? What if he never forgives me for marrying Rake and is hanging onto the old theory that I’m a thief? This could go wrong in so many ways, Bella. How can I guarantee they won’t still want to press charges and have me thrown in jail? What’s going to happen to Noah if that happens?” She closed her eyes and sucked down a sob of frustration. “Maybe I made a mistake thinking I could come back and fix things. Maybe, for once, Rake got it wrong.”
“I doubt that would happen after all this time. Statute of limitations and all that. Have you thought that maybe Ethan was the one who made the mistake dumping you and then ignoring your phone calls when you tried to tell him about Noah, to say nothing about not backing you up with his father?”
“Yes, no. Different answer, different day. No matter how much I argue with myself, this has the potential to come back and bite me in the butt. I know it’s morally right to make sure Ethan knows but I’m so scared he’s going to make Noah’s life miserable because of what we did.”
“Noah isn’t a tiny child anymore. He’s very capable of making his own decisions about people so if this man isn’t nice about it, he won’t hold back.”
“But he’s only ten years old.”
“And, if I recall, I was pretty mouthy at that age. I knew what I wanted and, believe me, I could see through people. I bet you could too.”
“So long as Noah isn’t hurt. That’s been the biggest motivator here. Losing Rake was hard for both of us. If finding out he still has a father makes him happy, that makes me happy too.”
“If Ethan isn’t kind to him, he’ll have me to deal with. Nobody hurts the child, nobody, and that includes Ethan and his father.” A smile replaced the grim look from seconds ago. “But, I know you’ll do the right thing, regardless. It’s in your makeup to fix things. Look at this old place.”
“Not sure if it’s the way I’d be looking at it.” But Bella was right. Mari loved to take something old, something broken and make it shine again, the same as her youngest half-sister did. When April, the baby in the family, had offered to take over the lease on the empty shop Mari owned next to the Lake Hotel beside the medical practice, and turn it into a decorating and florists business, things had come together for the both of them and Mari knew she’d done the right thing.
Ever since Rake had died just over two years ago, she’d been on “manage mode” to get through and make it as far as she had done. In the few months since she’d been back, the old drive was waking up and the familiar tingle of succeeding crept into her mindset. Not that she could compare her past relationship to the gorgeous old building.
She had the hotel to thank for it. Funny how Cherry Lake was the only place she wanted to be when she found herself widowed with a child to raise on her own. After coming to terms with Rake’s sudden suicide following a terminal prognosis, packing up and making the move had been the hardest part and that was mainly mental. Thank goodness she’d gotten past that.
“I’ve been looking forward to doing this ever since Rake bought the place despite my apprehension about seeing Ethan again. The moment I walked in and saw the ballrooms, I knew it was something special and would be perfect for my business. It’s going to be amazing when it’s all finished, maybe even better than the wedding business I left behind.”
Bella put the pretty pink cake box she carried in on the kitchen table. “I’m pleased for you. You’ve worked so hard, but then you always did. It’ll all come together. I know it will.” She took the lid off and looked at her creation, her lips turning down. “Drat. I’ve messed up the icing.”
Mari stared at the gorgeous pink cake, dipped her finger into the frosting around the base where it was already smudged and took a sample. “Oops, me too.” She sucked her finger and giggled. “I gather that’s for us? I’d hate to have ruined it if you’re delivering it somewhere else but you know the risks you take bringing cake in here.”
“Nope. It’s for you and Noah. Jake’s complaining his pants are getting too tight. I’m overfeeding him apparently and I had to try this recipe out for my portfolio.” She rolled her eyes and they shared a giggle. It was well known that Jake was a health nut but with the love of his life being a famous chef, he struggled more some days than others.
“Fabulous. I love cake and so does Noah. You know it won’t go to waste here.”
“That’s what I thought and you’re the one person I know who never puts any fat on no matter what you eat.” She smiled, pushed the cake closer to her sister. “This is one of the recipes I want to put in the wedding cake book. I want to call it ‘Pink Perfection.’ A hint of rosewater in the frosting kind of takes it to a whole new level.”
“Wonderful, I think it’s very pretty with a side of whimsical. And, for your information, I’m too busy to put on weight, that’s why.” Mari swiped her finger along the other side of the cake, taking another generous dose of pink frosting. She stuck her finger in her mouth and closed her eyes to get the full benefit of the ingredients, her preferred way of tasting anything. The rosewater was there but not enough to be overpowering. A hint of something sweet and fruity hovered in the background. So did the romance and the love that went into her sister’s baking. “You’ve nailed it. That is so yummy. I can’t wait to taste the cake itself. Noah will be thrilled to bits. He’s rather partial to your baking and lucky for me because I don’t have a creative bone in my body when it comes to sweet treats.”
Bella grinned as if to agree with her. “It’s very pink I’m afraid but I couldn’t help myself. It all goes together nicely even if I say so myself. Raspberry cream between layers and a hint of rose essence in the butter cake. I think you’ll like it. If it makes it into the cake selection, I’ll make each layer a darker shade of pink so when it’s cut into, it’ll be stunning.”
“All your creations are anyway, but I love that visual.”
“Right, enjoy. I’m off to pick up Cory from practice.” She ran down the stairs and Mari eyed the cake. It was tempting to cut herself a big slice now. A sugar hit might go a long way to helping her take the step she’d been dreading ever since she found out her foster parents, Pearl and Jeff Benson were home from their big trip away. Going over to see them, begging forgiveness and following up with Rake’s plan for her to fit back in was scaring her half to death.
“Hello.” A voice she recognized rang out from down in the hotel foyer, jolting her out of her mental fog and sent her stomach rushing to her feet. Caught out again, Mari had thought she had until tonight to bolster up her nerves before she came face-to-face with Ethan. A cold sweat broke out over her skin, sending a chill down her back and making her hands clammy.
“Anyone up there, or anywhere? Hello.”
The thump of footsteps came up the carpeted stairs and Mari went to the door and peered down. “Ethan.” She stepped out onto the landing and stared at the man running up toward her.
The days she’d tried to talk herself into going out to the cherry farm and letting them know she was back in town seemed like a distant memory now. It was easy to ignore the job she kept putting off at first because they were away on a long cruise overseas and it gave her leeway to get used to being in Cherry Lake before she saw them again. Also a chance to explain to Noah the real story about his family and why he didn’t know about them yet.
When she heard they were home, Mari psyched herself up to go and see them but nerves got the better of her and she put it off for another day, and that crept into another. The guilt she felt at being such a wimp when she had to face them almost swamped her. It was the right thing to do for many reasons. Even though Rake had made her promise to get in contact and mend the fences between them before he died, the shame of falling back on her promise to him was all encompassing. She still couldn’t face the Bensons. And now it’d come back to bite her in the ass just as she knew it would.
Ethan Benson stopped at the landing and smiled at her a second before the greeting faltered.
He tilted his head and blinked. “Mari?”
The boy she first fell in love with had turned into a man while she was gone. He’d filled out, grown taller and had an air of casual grace about him. It was hard not to compare him to his older brother but they were nothing alike. Rake was his own man; honest to a fault with those he loved. She had to remember the reason she ran away was because Ethan sided with his father against her, destroyed her faith in Ethan and his ability to love her as much as she loved him. Faced with his betrayal, he’d left her with little choice.
His face went through a myriad of changes before he stepped closer and wrapped her in a big, warm hug that brought a sudden rush of tears to her eyes. She’d been expecting anger, hatred even, for what she’d done when they finally crossed paths. But not this. Not from the man she’d deserted without a word. The man she’d sworn to love until her dying day. Planned a family with and talked about growing old with until he’d announced she was hemming him in, making decisions for him that he didn’t want to be part of any longer. The man who’d eventually let her down when she needed him the most and left her feeling adrift without a paddle in an ocean of doubt.
Mari tensed moments before she pulled away from him. “Sorry. That wasn’t part of the plan.” She pulled a tissue from her pocket, blew her nose and tried to pull herself together.
Despite the puffy eyes and tear streaked cheeks, she looked fabulous. Much like he would have expected. Time had been kind to her in that regard.
“Come in, Ethan.” She walked into the apartment and reached for another tissue, blowing her nose again and dabbing at her eyes. He waited while she poured herself a glass of water and downed it, all the while watching him.
“I didn’t mean to blubber all over you.”
He hated to see the red in her eyes. Tears did that to her and heaven knew he’d seen enough of them when they were younger. Her mother had a lot to answer for but so did he. He’d caused her more than her fair share but, in his mind, he’d had a right to.
“It’s okay. Bit of a shock seeing you too so I guess it went both ways.” He looked around the apartment. “I didn’t know you were the new owner. You are, aren’t you?”
“Yes. I am.” She leaned against the kitchen counter and stared at him, heat high on her cheeks.
“Christian said he mentioned to you that I’d be dropping in before I start work tomorrow,” Ethan said, eyeing her steadily. “We’re partners in the business. I’m in charge of your renovation work.”
Mari nodded. And an expression chased across her face too fast for him to catch. “He said you’d be calling in later today,” she said softly. “I wasn’t prepared to see you this early.”
“I had a break between appointments. Is this inconvenient for you?”
“No.” The look on her face said otherwise. “I’m so pleased you managed to realize your dream of being a carpenter.” She pulled at her bottom lip with her top teeth and frowned. “Knowing I’m the owner of the hotel won’t make any difference will it?”
“Honestly, I don’t know. Things didn’t end well with us, did they?” Because you ran away with my brother. I’m an adult now and I got over you, years ago.
At least, that was what he told himself. Even though his reaction at seeing her seemed cool and calm, inwardly his heart raced and all he could think of was the pain she’d caused him. The note he’d found under his pillow didn’t give many details. All she’d said was she was moving on and not to bother looking for her. What they’d had had been fun but Ethan had made his decision about their future clear and she wasn’t going to try and change his mind. It’d be better for everyone concerned if she left.
Not knowing where she’d gone was the worst experience. Worrying if she was okay or needed him. Even hearing from a reliable witness who claimed she’d left with Rake didn’t make him feel any better. The following months when guilt wouldn’t let him sleep at night and the realization he’d made a gigantic mistake. He still loved her but it was too late to take back the horrible words he’d said to her.
But, until he found out what her life consisted of until now, Ethan was prepared to keep it all locked up inside. Once he had all the facts he could make a better informed decision. That was if he could contain himself that long. He still needed answers and she was the only one that could provide them. And to top it off, she’d gone and married his brother. That was going to take some getting over. If ever. But he’d always tried to push the bitterness and anger aside. He didn’t want to be his father even though growing up he could see the similarities in their mannerisms. Treating Mari the way he had back then wasn’t in his character.
“I know. But, honestly, was I the only one to blame, Ethan?”
Anyone would think with the look of astonishment on her face, it was her credibility being called into question. She couldn’t be further from the truth.
“I thought I meant something to you.” The old pain hit him in the gut.
“For God’s sake, Ethan. You dumped me, remember?”
Sure he had but it was in the past. “We were kids, Mari. You were asking me for more than I could give. What did you expect from me?”
She rolled her eyes and he seethed. It hadn’t taken her long to get over him and take up with his brother. That was the part that hurt the most.
“Don’t forget you weren’t there for me, Ethan.”
The bitterness swirled around his mind, sour memories coating the back of his tongue. But Rake had been there for her, was what she really meant. He could understand his brother leaving home to pursue his dream of being a boxer against their parents’ wishes but to take her with him – that was the kicker. Neither of them had bothered to keep in touch. So many lost opportunities. Ethan didn’t want to let himself believe it was something he’d done but he knew better. They were tight, or so he thought. But Mari was a different matter. They’d fallen out and he’d made mistakes. Stupid immature mistakes that cost him his girlfriend. Would she ever forgive him for the way he treated her? He suddenly found himself really wanting to find out.
“To be honest, I’m not sure you did anything wrong looking back on it. My father might not agree but I know you better than he does and I had my doubts that you would have stolen anything like he claimed. Especially not from him.” He stepped closer to her and reached out a hand to wipe away the frown on her face. “I’m sorry I didn’t support you at the time. I was confused and angry. Immature. I think I wanted to hurt you and I did by not being there for you.”
“Little bit late sticking up for me now isn’t it?”
He’d had years to think about it. Years to observe and understand his father and the way he saw the worst in everything. And years to understand how ignorant Ethan had been by following along blindly when deep down in his heart he wasn’t the kind of man his father was. And he wanted to be different. Proving that to others had been a hurdle as he’d found out with Rake. “We did a lot of things we probably regret now. We were both young and stupid, trying to act all grown-up when we should have been concentrating on college. We can’t get those years back.”
“No we can’t. But it would be nice to clear the air between us.”
Mentally he agreed but wasn’t prepared to offer her an olive branch quite yet. Sure, he’d let her down but he’d felt cornered, trapped by her demands and youthful exuberance regarding their future. He wasn’t ready then and Mari wasn’t prepared to give him any leeway. She had to wear some of the blame. Seeing her brought it all up to the surface. “I was hurt when you ran away but not entirely surprised. I could’ve handled it better and been kinder and talked about why I wanted us to take a break instead of just dumping you like that, but at the time I did what I thought was right. I’d handle things differently now.” He rubbed his hand down her arm, trying to soothe her. “Besides, your mom had you almost at the breaking point before that happened. I would’ve been more surprised if you hadn’t cracked in some form or other. But still, you didn’t need me not defending you when you got blamed for the break-in.” He didn’t know how she’d done it, turning the other cheek every time her drug-addicted mother showed up causing Mari more heartache and embarrassment.
She shook her head and tears welled up in her eyes again. “Thank you, Ethan. That means a lot to me.”
“Mari, you don’t have to thank me. We were friends before lovers remember?” Hopefully they could at least be friends again.
Maybe even good friends so he could resolve the hurt that still lingered after so many years. He didn’t want to hold grudges like his father. Strike out like his father. He could be her friend. Forgive that she’d jumped from him to his brother.
Ethan still wanted answers, but he was willing to bide his time to get them.
“I really should be looking at the job but if you have the time, I’d love to catch up over a cup of coffee. What do you say?”
“Oh, um, do you mind if we do that another day?” She looked at her watch but not before he saw the panic flicker in her eyes. “I have to be somewhere, Ethan. I’m sorry.”
“Of course. I don’t mean to hold you up. We can catch up later. I’m going to be here on site for weeks to come. That’s if your husband wouldn’t mind me spending time over a coffee with you. He’s not likely to come storming through the door, is he, and take my head off?”
Mari shook her head. “Even though Rake died over two years ago, I haven’t remarried if that’s what you’re asking. The reason I came back home’s quite simple. I wanted to belong again and Cherry Lake is the only place I ever felt that. And…and I wanted to clear up the past.”
He thought he heard her mutter something like “make amends.” If so, she wouldn’t be the only one making them.
Figured he’d put his foot in his mouth. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t assume.”
“We never caught up when I came to scatter Rake’s ashes.” Mari shrugged and stared at the ground. “I regret that but I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to talk to anyone. You were with someone else when I drove past you in the street.”
He was confused. “With someone else?”
“Yes. Blonde, tall, and very pretty. I didn’t think it was my place to intrude.”
“I wish you had.” It took him a moment to remember the woman’s name. “As a family, we wanted to be there for Rake. Hearing about it after the fact devastated my parents and me. I doubt they’ll ever get over it, to be perfectly honest.”
“One more problem,” Mari said and a hint of bitterness bled through. “I’m sorry. I was only carrying out Rake’s final wishes.” She glanced down the stairs and her gaze flickered to his face. “Look, I have to go. I’m more than prepared for you to bawl me out over this another day but not right now.”
Why did he feel as though he was being brushed aside again? He supposed he deserved it. After all, he’d blamed himself when she ran away because he’d treated her terribly. But when he’d learned she’d married his brother, he still couldn’t define the emotions that had battered him. He’d lost his brother and Mari. Rake, Ethan could never repair the past with. But with Mari maybe he had a chance. He needed to find out what happened so he could deal with it, apologize, but she wasn’t really giving him the chance.
But he wasn’t just going to let it go this time. Today, yes. But there would be a tomorrow and Mari wasn’t going to find it so easy to disappear without answers this time.
“Fine.” He forced himself to back down. Give her space. “I need to call into the yard for supplies after my next appointment anyway so I’m pushed for time. We’ve waited years to hash out the past. One more day won’t hurt. I’ll see you bright and early in the morning.” He turned and left her standing on the stairs.
End of Excerpt