Chapter 1“You should be careful, Miss Baker. A shopkeeper could take advantage of a statement like that.”Celia turned to Mr. Peterson and laughed. “A disreputable shopkeeper maybe. Not you.”“Well, come on in then and we’ll see what we can do. A boy brought the guitar in. I didn’t want to take it, but he had a birthday card proving the gift was his own. I only took it on commission, figuring his mom or dad would show up and reclaim it.” The old man shrugged. “Guess he had the right of it, though. I held the guitar in the back for a full week with no inquiries.”Celia’s eyes narrowed, old instincts rising to the surface.“How did he look?” she asked. “Hungry? And his clothes?”“Miss Baker, this isn’t like where you came from.” Mr. Peterson gave her shoulder a gentle pat. “He looked just fine. Healthy and well dressed. If he needs the money, it isn’t for food or drugs, not around here.”She stared at him for a moment, then laughed, pushing her worries away. No, Foster’s Way wasn’t like her old home. It wasn’t perfect, no matter what Mr. Peterson wanted to believe. But neither were there runaways begging for handouts on every street or kids trapped in a system that drove them to dangerous occupations. Just because she’d lived where every child had been at risk before didn’t mean she should go looking for them here.Especially not with the doctor’s warning. A coworker had forced her to get an appointment, never guessing it would end Celia’s old life altogether.“You’re right. And I’m retired.”“Miss Baker, you’re much too young to be retiring from anything.” He tucked the broom in its corner and placed both hands on the counter to level his best stare in her direction. “What you need is a man in your life to remind you it’s not all doom and gloom. When you told me what you did in the city, I couldn’t believe a pretty young thing like you would be mixed up with crime and drugs and all.”This time Celia’s laugh came out full and robust. “Why Mr. Peterson, I do believe you’re a little too old for me,” she said in her best imitation of a Southern belle.He caught her hand and pressed a dry kiss to the back, the contrast in their skin tone making her look all too fragile. “I fear you’re right, Miss Baker, but if I could turn back the clock…”She tugged her hand away with a smile. “Could you turn it back to the point where you were going to sell me the guitar?”“Of course I can. Let me get it out of the window. I’m no player myself, but it sure had a sweet tone when I tried. I’ve even got one of those how-to books around here somewhere if you’d like me to find it.”“Thanks,” Celia said, her fingers itching to touch the strings. She just needed a hobby, something to fill those lonely hours, especially with the weekend stretching before her. She’d never had quiet hours before. And she certainly didn’t need a boyfriend no matter what Mr. Peterson believed. She’d seen how men treat their women often enough, even the good ones, and she didn’t need that kind of complication.Brian Lakes tore the skin on his third finger of the day and cursed under his breath. The wallpaper knife fell to the floor, whispering against the few strips he’d managed to remove. Brian stared at the section of wall he’d planned to clear today and wished for the feel of steel strings beneath his fingertips instead. Those calluses did him no good in this task.“Nick, can you bring me a soda?” Brian called to his son. He used a sweat-stained bandana to wipe his forehead then stretched both hands over his head, listening to the crackle and pop of his spine while he waited.“Nick?” he called again after a moment of silence.His son came from deeper in the house, feet dragging and sandy blond head sunk on his shoulders.Brian held back a sigh. “Why don’t you get one for yourself, too, then come here and help.”“Whatever.”Even Nick’s sour attitude made Brian’s heart clench with lost moments.He watched his son vanish, wishing he could have been there more, to have seen Nick grow from a baby to the twelve-year-old before him. Brian wiped at his face again, swearing the move was reflex and had nothing to do with the moisture gathering in his eyes.Nick had it rough.Brian wished he hadn’t made it harder, but he couldn’t stay in Nick’s house. He couldn’t live where Kaitlin’s fear and hatred had torn them apart.“Here.”While he’d sat there staring into space, Nick had already returned with a cola—one bottle.“You didn’t want one?” Brian asked, trying to keep his voice steady.“No.”Nick stayed there, but only because Brian had made it a requirement in one of their early clashes. He wouldn’t volunteer any information, and he wouldn’t offer to help, but he would stand there because Brian said he had to.This time Brian’s sigh refused to be suppressed.“Go on back to whatever you were doing,” he told his son, the exhalation of air still heavy between them.The boy started walking in a smooth motion as if he’d never had to stop at all.It seemed as though Brian was always watching Nick disappear. He wished he could do something to connect with his son, to bring them past the years Kaitlin had kept them apart. He’d thought restoring this rambling Victorian would give them shared experiences, but for that to work, Nick had to be involved.Brian lifted the knife to the wall once more and shoved. The wallpaper split with the force of his push, but so did the plaster behind it, sending up a cloud of dust.He coughed hard and slugged a gulp of cola, but the carbonation only made him cough harder. He glared at the latest divot to join a growing number and wanted to throw it all away. The house, this town, even his belated attempt at parenthood.Brian pushed to his feet and crossed the room, the glass bottle still in his hand. Curtains. They had to get curtains, something not too frilly for two men on their own, but cloth to make this house more of a home and less of a naked, abandoned building.He’d seen the neighbors peering in his windows, curious. They’d smiled and waved when he caught them at it. All except the old lady in the house to the left.Brian shook his head and laughed. Every neighborhood had its gossip. He’d lucked out in choosing a house right next door.He looked out the bare window onto a street much like the one where he’d grown up, even if the town itself wasn’t.Small roads, houses spaced so you didn’t look out into your neighbor’s bedroom, and good-sized yards. A calm, peaceful place with none of the frantic energy of Nick’s—and his—hometown. Foster’s Way had seemed like the perfect place to heal and reconnect when he’d researched relocation, and nothing would change his mind. Nick just needed time.The echo of a line about lonely hearts and friendly neighbors teased him. His free hand curled around an invisible fretboard, but Brian forced his fingers to straighten and pushed the thought away.He was a responsible father now. He might have screwed up his marriage with all the time on the road, but he wouldn’t screw up Nick’s life. The boy had no one since his mother and stepfather died in an accident, no one but a father he barely remembered.If Brian had one thing to do over, he would never have let Kaitlin’s bitterness keep him from his son.His mouth twisted into a humorless smile.Maybe someday he’d hold to that vow. Even dead, she still pushed him around, pushed him away from his hometown.If he’d been able to force down the memories, the bitter fragments of his past, maybe Nick wouldn’t be so withdrawn. Brian had taken him from his friends, from everything his son had known, all because he couldn’t handle the haunting.Moving had seemed like a good idea when he’d come up with it. A new start for both of them, away from the taint of Kaitlin’s death—and life—in a place where they could just be average folks, a place to begin again without the weight of past mistakes.Brian let out a sour laugh.If he wanted to, he could get a whole new album out of his own misery. No looking for material. He embodied the country music spirit.My girl done torn my heart out and left me for dead with an infant in my arms.Except Nick wasn’t an infant, and Brian wasn’t the one who’d passed on.He lowered the now-empty soda bottle to the windowsill and left it there, knowing he’d been only seconds away from chucking it through the window. He could afford to replace the glass, but he didn’t want the reputation that kind of behavior would bring about, or the questions it might raise.No, he just needed to keep his hands busy and his mind on figuring Nick out. He’d bought the neglected house so he’d have something to keep him sane, but he’d imagined the two of them bringing it to life, restoring it, together.It had been a pretty dream.The section of wall called to him. It would never get done if he didn’t put knife to paper. Nick would come around. He just needed time to grieve, time to realize this stranger was a permanent part of his life now. Nick needed to accept his father wouldn’t up and disappear no matter what.
For the Rest of the Story: