“Hey, can I borrow your stud finder?” Lincoln climbed up the last few steps, holding out his hand toward me. “Mine’s out of juice.”
I lifted one eyebrow. “What’s that you always tell us about keeping our tools charged up and in good working order?”
He shrugged, grinning. “Hey, I can’t help it. Every time I use the stud finder, it goes crazy and sticks to me. Can’t blame the thing for knowing a real stud when it sees one.”
“Oh, Jesus,” I groaned. “You didn’t really say that.”
“Sure did.” Linc had no compunction about making the corniest jokes ever, telling us that as a father of four, he held the ultimate dad joke title. It was a point of pride among the crew that none of us ever laughed when the boss unleashed a one-liner.
“Here.” I unsnapped the case that held my stud finder from my belt. “Take this and your lame humor and go downstairs. I’m busy here.”
“Yeah? Doing what?” Linc smirked, but we both knew that he was just yanking my chain. One of the things that I liked about working for this company was the way the bosses respected my skill. Other outfits didn’t realize that mutual respect was essential in order to hold onto talented workers. I’d had bosses who thought that sneering at what I did and how I did it made them big guys. I didn’t stick around long for that kind of treatment; I’d had enough experience with bullies to know when to cut my losses.
“Finishing up this trim.” I pointed to the elaborate woodwork beneath the waist-high railing at the top of the steps. “It’s got to be measured precisely, or—”
“The design is shit,” Linc finished my sentence. “Yeah, I know. I put in my time doing this kind of stuff. It can be tedious.” He paused, squinting at me. “If you need to take break, stretch your legs, get some air, go ahead.”
“We’re running behind on this part,” I reminded my boss. “I want to finish today so I can move on to the next tasks.”
“Yeah, but if you screw it up and have to re-do it, we’re that much further back. Work smart, not stupid.”
I nodded, the edges of my lips curling as I considered what a difference it was to partner with a guy like Linc. “I got it. Don’t worry, I know my limitations.”
“Okay, then.” He turned and descended two steps before pausing. “Speaking of limitations and knowing our own . . . Dr. Hudson texted earlier and let me know she’s stopping by for an update.”
My heart began to pound until it was too loud in my own ears, and suddenly, it was that much hotter up here. I kept my eyes on the cut pieces of wood in front of me. “Yeah?”
“Thought you should know since the last time she was here, she ran for the hills when she caught sight of you.”
“That’s not exactly—” I began and then expelled a long breath. “Okay, yeah. She did. She didn’t appreciate the surprise of seeing me again after all these years, I guess.”
“And you don’t want to tell me—” Linc broke off as we both heard the sound of the door opening below us. “Huh. Guess that’ll have to save. I’m going down to welcome her, so you can stay up here and keep working, but when we pass your way, play nice, all right?”
I raised my eyebrows. “I’m not the problem here. I’m always perfectly nice. She’s the one who . . .” I dropped my voice to a whisper. “Ran away.”
“Whatever. She’s the customer, so she automatically gets the benefit of the doubt.” Shooting me one more quelling glare, Linc started down the steps again. “Hey, doc! Is that you?”
I heard Sabrina’s voice waft up the stairwell. “Yes, it’s me. Wow, look at all the progress you’ve made! This is amazing.”
For the next ten minutes, I kept my eyes glued to my work, pretending that I could ignore the sounds of the conversation below. But every time Sabrina said something or laughed in response to whatever Linc was saying, my body tightened, and I got the same weird sense that I did just before a huge drop on a rollercoaster.
And then their voices were louder, and I knew they were approaching me. I had two conflicting urges: to run so that I didn’t have to see the raw hurt and cold fury in Sabrina’s eyes or to stay just so that I could look at her more, be close enough to examine all of the ways the last fourteen years had changed the girl who used to be my best friend.
I knew the minute she spotted me. I could almost hear her breath stutter, and then Linc said, “Ooopsie daisy, there. Don’t fall now. We’ve got insurance for our team, but I’m pretty sure you taking a tumble down the steps would be under your homeowner’s policy and could jack up your rates.”
“True.” Sabrina’s voice was thin and thready. “Thanks for the catch.”
“Can’t have the woman who pays the bills end up with a bump on the noggin that could lead to her forgetting that she hired us.” Linc sounded a little too hearty. “Well, here you can see one of our favorite artisans at work, restoring the second-level bricka-brack.” He cleared his throat. “Scoring Wesley for this job was a massive win. He’s the perfect storm: he does his own research, and with his masters in historical architecture, that’s not just hitting Google for colors and old photos, believe me. But add his incredible talent working wood, and he’s a truly rare dude.”
“I’m . . . sure.” Sabrina squared her shoulders as I rose from my knees to face her. “His work is definitely, ah, adequate.”
Adequate? I scowled and opened my mouth to respond, but before I could, Linc rushed to intercede.
“Ahahaha, doc, that’s the way to tell him.” He shot me a meaningful glance over Sabrina’s head. “We don’t want him getting a big head and leaving us to start his own company, right?”
“That’s definitely something I’d be concerned about.” Sabrina’s breathiness had turned brittle. “Leaving people without warning is his specialty.”
I stood in front of her, feeling as though I’d turned to stone, not knowing what to say. Linc’s eyes darted from the client to me, clearly not sure how to handle this tension.
A high-pitched tone trilled, the sound coming from the direction of Sabrina’s brown leather handbag. She fumbled with the snap and then whipped out her cell phone. Frowning at the screen, she gave her head a little shake.
“I’m sorry to cut short the tour, but I have to get into town. A friend . . . ah, it’s kind of an emergency.” She shoved the phone back into her purse. “Linc, if it’s okay, I’ll give you a call next week and set up a time to come by again.” She stepped backward, down another stair. “Sorry I have to keep . . . uh, I can’t seem to finish getting a good look, can I?” She affected a laugh that was undeniably fake. “The life of a doctor, right?”
Linc nodded, but his smile was forced, too. “Sure thing. This is your house, doc. Come whenever it works for you. And if I’m not here, just text or call with questions.”
“Of course.” Sabrina dipped her head. “What I see so far . . . it’s amazing. Fabulous. I can’t wait for it all to be finished.”
She spun on one heel and dashed down the steps, disappearing through the door seconds later.
“Well.” Linc crossed his arms over his chest and leaned against the unpainted wall behind us. “Once again, the lady seems to be in quite a hurry. And this time, Crane, I’m gonna need an explanation.”
“I guess I owe you that much.” I pulled a kerchief from my pocket and wiped off my forehead.
“Let’s go outside and sit down,” Linc suggested. “We can refill our HydroFlasks on the way.”
The company of Kent and Turner was serious about taking care of the environment, doing our part to cut down on the scourge of plastic pollution. That’s why we were each issued our own personalized reusable cold beverage thermos. Those damn things kept water icy all the day long, even in extreme heat.
The old house we were restoring was set back in the woods, and as I joined my boss on a roughed-out log bench, I took a moment to appreciate the quiet, with only birdsong and the occasional rustle in the underbrush disturbing the silence.
“Okay.” Linc gulped down some water. “Spill. Tell me why our client seems to have an allergic reaction to seeing you.”
I twisted the cap back onto my water and rested it on the ground between my feet. “I’ve known Sabrina since we were toddlers. We lived down the street from each other in Waukesha, Wisconsin, and we were in the same playgroup. We walked into kindergarten together on the first day . . . then a few months later, her mother died.”
“Oh, God.” Linc’s jaw tensed. “That’s so damn tough. Poor kid.”
I realized that this news probably hit home with my boss, who had lost his first wife and the mother of his two babies in a tragic accident. Although he’d since found new love and remarried, he’d completely empathize with the idea of a child losing her mama.
“It was breast cancer,” I went on. “I don’t remember much, but later, when I was older, my mother told me that Sabrina’s mom had been really sick for a long time.” I paused, thinking back over the years. “We were with all of the same kids through elementary, middle, and high school. Sabrina hated being known as the girl without a mom. So I always made sure I treated her like . . . you know, like a normal person.”
“You guys were pretty close, huh?”
“The closest.” I rubbed my lower lip. “We were best friends. We told each other everything.” I swallowed, staring at the ground. “Well, almost everything. The only thing I didn’t share with Sabrina was the worst part of my life . . . and that was the fact that my father routinely beat my mother.”
It was Linc’s turn to suck in a swift breath. “Fuck, Crane. Jesus. I’m sorry.”
“Yeah, well, the man who donated the sperm for my conception was a sick son-of-a-bitch. I don’t have a memory of him that doesn’t involve my mom getting hurt. He was cruel, sadistic . . . I hated him.”
“Did he ever—” Linc frowned. “You know—with you? Did he lay hands on his kid?”
“No, and that was almost worse. Once I got old enough to try and protect her, he took extra . . . glee, I guess, in hitting her in front of me. Or attacking her verbally, emotionally. Whatever might twist me up, knowing I couldn’t do anything to defend my mother. He was a huge guy.”
“Fucking prick.” Linc glowered. “I can’t stand that. I don’t understand men like that—and you can’t even call them men really, because they’re less than animals if they’re hitting the women they’re meant to love and protect. If they’re teaching their impressionable sons to be the same way.”
“Yeah.” I ran my hands over my jean-covered thighs. “Well, I almost confessed everything to Sabrina so many times, but she had so much sadness in her own life that I didn’t want to lay that on her, too. So I kept my mouth shut.”
“Hmmmm.” Linc’s response was non-committal. “And then what?”
“The older we got, the closer we got.” I closed my eyes, letting my mind wander back to those crazy days of my youth. “At the end of junior high, I knew I liked Sabrina—I wanted her as more than just a friend. Hanging out and watching movies at her house wasn’t enough anymore. I wanted to . . . you know. Hold her. Kiss her. I wanted Sabrina as my girlfriend. But at the same time, I was scared shitless to make a move. Partly because I couldn’t imagine being involved with her in that way and not sharing everything—the truth about my home life, I mean. And then a big part was this worry I had that maybe I could be like him. What if it was like some genetic thing, and I hadn’t realized it because I’d never had a girlfriend?”
“That’s a lot of heavy shit for . . . how old were you then?”
“Sixteen,” I replied. “It was heavy, you’re right. But finally, the way I felt for Sabrina outweighed all of my fears and hang-ups. We were walking home one night, and I worked up the nerve to tell her how I felt. We had this dance thing at our high school every Christmas time, and it was a big deal. So I asked her to go with me, as my date, and she said yes, and we kissed.” I could still feel everything I’d felt that night. “I left Sabrina at her door, and I’m pretty sure I floated down the block toward my house.”
“Uh-huh.” Linc’s eyes were steady on mine, as though he had a clue about what came next.
“Thing was, though, I didn’t get home. A few houses away from mine, a car I didn’t recognize pulled up alongside me. When the passenger window rolled down, my mom was there in the dark, and she whispered to me to get in.” I gripped the log on either side of me until the wood dug into my palms. “She hadn’t told me, but for months, she’d been working with an organization that helps women and kids escape abusive situations. They’d helped her get the car—it had been waiting at a safe spot for the first opportunity my mom had to sneak away. That night, my father’s car had broken down, holding him up at work, and so my mother snatched the chance. She’d been parked down a side street, just waiting for me to walk past.”
“Holy shit, Wesley.” Linc gaped at me. “What did you do?”
“I was sixteen, and my mother needed me. She’d found us a way out of a situation that probably would’ve ended in her death if we hadn’t escaped. But getting away—and getting away safely—meant cutting all ties to the people who knew us. That included Sabrina. I didn’t have any way to contact her. Mom and I both destroyed our phones and dumped them behind a grocery store on our way out of town.”
“Ah.” My boss nodded. “But you did get away?”
“We did. We took back roads all the way from Wisconsin up into Canada, and then this pilot flew us to Alaska on a prop plane—crazy stuff. We lived up there in a small town, changed our names, our birth dates . . . it was mind-blowing, but we lived. My mother finally got a second chance for a peaceful, safe life.”
“And so did you.” Linc grasped my shoulder. “But it came at the cost of your friendship with Sabrina, right?”
“It did.” I nodded. “I finished high school in Alaska and was in the middle of my first year at a community college there when we learned that my father was dead. Mom and I would check on him now and then, you know, online, and we found out he’d been killed in a barfight in California. Guess he finally picked on someone bigger than him, and it bit him in the ass.”
“What did you and your mom do after that?”
I stretched out my legs. “Mom stayed in Alaska. She’d been dancing around a relationship with a really great guy for a while, and with my dad gone, she was free to finally go for it with him. They’re married and very much in love. She ended up with happiness she deserved.”
“And what about you?”
“Well, I spent a summer working with a couple of brothers who restored buildings up there. I realized that I loved the work—and as you know, the fact that it dovetailed so well with my history major made it even more perfect. I finished another year of community college in Alaska, and then I got a scholarship to a school in New England.” I shrugged. “The rest of my resumé is exactly what it says on paper. After the asshole died, I changed my name back.”
“You didn’t ever try to find Sabrina?” Linc cocked his head.
I hesitated. “I thought about it, but when I made a trip back to Waukesha, her family had moved—I guess right after Sabrina finished high school. I looked her up on social media, but I never could find her. And what would I have said to her? I have no clue what she thought when I disappeared from her life. I figured she hated me.” My mouth twisted. “Guess I was right.”
“Okay, I follow you so far.” Linc’s head wagged. “But did you try to explain all of this to Sabrina when you two reconnected here?”
“She didn’t give me a chance.” I shrugged. “She had a shit load of assumptions about me and what had happened, and before I could say a word, she blew out of here again. Like a hurricane.”
“So you need to get her back here and lay out the truth. Tell her exactly what happened in the past and why you ghosted.” Linc said it as though it was simple. “You owe her that much. And you need to do it soon if she’s going to keep avoiding being here at her own house in order to keep from seeing you.”
“Great idea, boss.” I tossed up my hands. “Do you have any brilliant plan to make it happen?”
Linc was quiet for a moment, his eyes narrowing. And then a slow smile spread over his face.
“Leave it to me, buddy. Just leave it to me.”
Want to know what comes next?
Episode Five is coming next Friday!
And we’ll see exactly what Linc has in mind.
The tale of Coral’s movie premiere date
is coming in this month, too.
What about Celeste?
Her romance is revealed in
which is part of the holiday benefit anthology
Releasing October 5th
Preorder Tinsel and Tatas Today:
Did you know Linc Turner has his own book?
Welcome to Burton, a small town just west of Savannah where the men are sexy, the women are sassy
and happily-ever-afters are a specialty of the house.
I celebrated my twenty-first birthday by persuading Trent Wagner, the guy I’d been crushing on for months, to sleep with me. When he broke my heart and crushed my dreams by rejecting me afterward, I did the unthinkable. I tried to end my life.
Over two years later, I’m finally finding my balance again. My job at the county historical society is steady and predictable, two elements I appreciate right now. I’m living on my own, and my world is peaceful, if lonely.
That is, until Lincoln Turner comes to town.
When my wife was killed in a car accident, she left me with two small children and a bleak future. Six years later, I’m a recovering alcoholic who’s just gotten my kids back. I’m ready to tackle a new position as co-owner of a building restoration company.
I’m not looking for any attachments. But I’m also not ready for the irresistible attraction I feel for Jenna when a huge project brings us together.
The road to true love has more bumps than we could imagine. Making our way to a happy ending won’t be easy. But when two bruised souls find their way to each other . . . forever is possible.