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Authors: Dianne Venetta

hotel ladd

 

 

 

 

HOTEL

LADD

by

Dianne Venetta

 

 

 

SMASHWORDS EDITION

 

 

 

*****

 

 

PUBLISHED BY:

 

BloominThyme Press

 

 

Hotel Ladd

Copyright 2013 by Dianne
Venetta

 

 

 

License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your
personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be resold or given away
to other people. If you would like to share this book with another
person, please purchase an additional copy for each person you
share it with. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it,
or it was not purchased for your use only, then you should return
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respecting the author’s work.

 

 

 

 

 

HOTEL LADD

 

Ladd Springs Series:

 

LADD SPRINGS ~ #1

LADD FORTUNE ~ #2

HOTEL LADD ~ #3

 

LADD HAVEN ~ #4

Available October 2013

 

 

Other novels by Dianne
Venetta

 

Romantic Women’s Fiction
series:

JENNIFER’S GARDEN

LUST ON THE ROCKS

WHISPER PRIVILEGES

 

Women’s Fiction:

CONDEMN ME NOT

 

 

 

 

 

Hotel Ladd

Copyright 2013 by Dianne
Venetta

ISBN: 978-0-9884871-6-1

Publisher: BloominThyme
Press

Editor: Best Foot Forward

Cover Design: Jaxadora
Design

 

 

This book is a work of fiction. Any
references to historical events, real people, or real locales are
used fictitiously. Other names, characters, places, and incidents
are the product of the author’s imagination, and any resemblance to
actual events or persons, living or dead, is coincidental. This
ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. All rights
reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved
above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or
introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or
by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or
otherwise) without prior written permission from the copyright
owner.

 

 

 

 

Acknowledgements

 

Tennessee has some of the most
beautiful horse country in the world. In fact, Shelby County is
said to boast more horses per capita than any other county in the
United States. If you’ve ever been to Tennessee, you’d understand
why. Not only are there pastures galore, but Tennesseans know their
horses. From Memphis to Knoxville, Nashville to Chattanooga,
equestrian lovers are alive and well and flourishing in the
state.

 

I discovered this interesting fact,
among others, during my Facebook Release Party for Ladd Springs. As
part of the fun, readers were asked to supply names for an upcoming
horse in the series. Selections were put up for a vote and I’m
proud to announce that Martha Schlegel won with her submission of
“Vegas” -- a beauty you’ll get to know in this book and continue to
love throughout the duration of the series. Congratulations,
Martha!

 

Many thanks to Martha—one of my
Bloomin’ Warriors—and to all who participated in the week long
release party filled with Tennessee trivia, giveaways and fun. Best
of all, it was a great way to connect with my readers. Can’t wait
for the next one!

 

 

 

 

 

Dedication

 

This book is dedicated to my street
team.

Bloomin’ Warriors rock!

 

 

 

 

 

 

HOTEL LADD

Book #3

 

After years of battling the Ladd
family, Annie Owens has finally procured her daughter’s legacy,
title to Ladd Springs, a mecca of streams and springs in the
eastern Tennessee mountains—only she can’t afford to keep it. Cal
Foster’s father owns the biggest bank in town and has devised a way
to help Annie retain the property, but when hotel developer Jillian
Devane offers to buy the land outright, Annie is torn. She’s
tempted by the huge sum of money—money that will secure her
daughter Casey’s future, something Cal cannot guarantee.

 

According to Annie’s sister, Lacy Ward,
an insider with the Ladd family, Jillian’s proposal is tainted by
revenge—the depth of which Annie has no idea. She only knows the
woman is out to compete with the upcoming Ladd hotel making any
deal with Jillian Devane tantamount to betrayal. When Cal is
offered a position with Hotel Ladd, Annie is backed against a wall.
Selling to Jillian will end any hope for a future together with
Cal, a man she has come to love. But it isn’t until Casey’s romance
with Troy Parker blows apart that Annie’s decision is
made.

 

Will “selling out” exile
Annie from the Ladd family, including any chance for happiness with
Cal Foster? Or can she find a way to make amends, ending a
long-standing feud once and for all?
Find
out in this episode of Ladd Springs
...

 

 

Meet the cast of characters of Hotel
Ladd...

 

Ernie & Albert
Ladd
– Brothers of Ladd Springs

 

Susannah Ladd Wilkins
– Sister to Ernie & Albert

 

Jeremiah Ladd
- Ernie’s forsaken son

 

Annie and Casey Owens
- Jeremiah’s ex and her daughter

 

Calvin Foster
– Home from Arizona, son of town banker

 

Candi Sweeney
- Annie’s best friend

 

Jillian Devane
– Hotel developer, competitor to Nick
Harris

 

Malcolm Ward
– Hotel developer, partner to Nick
Harris

 

Lacy Owens Ward
– Wife to Malcolm, sister to Annie

 

Delaney Wilkins
– Ernie’s niece

 

Felicity Wilkins
- Delaney’s daughter

 

Nick Harris
– Founder, Harris Hotels

 

Travis and Troy
Parker
– Neighbors & friends of
Felicity

 

Fran Jones
- Owner of Fran’s Diner, aunt to Annie &
Lacy

 

Jack Foster
– Brother to Cal, Delaney’s ex-husband

 

Beau and Clint
Foster
– Cal’s brothers

 

Gerald Foster
– Cal’s father

 

Hank Dakota
– Town lawyer working with Annie

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter One

 

Annie Owens fiddled with the
business card in hand, the matte finished paper growing worn from
her constant handling. Colored green and tan with flecks of natural
fiber, the earth-friendly tone of the company card was clearly
communicated.
Eco-Domani
. Annie’s gaze slid down to the name embossed in the lower
right corner. Jillian Devane, President and CEO.


What are you gonna do?”
Candi Sweeney asked, a nervous edge creeping into her
voice.


I don’t know,” Annie
murmured.


She seemed real intent on
talking to you.”

Annie nodded, dropping her
gaze to two half-eaten sub sandwiches on the coffee table before
them, food Candi had graciously picked up on her way over after
work. Her friend understood this was a significant development.
Annie had to do
something
.

Six months ago Delaney Wilkins had
signed over half of Ladd Springs to Annie’s daughter, Casey. Ladd
Springs, the mecca of rivers and streams, mountains and trails and
springs—natural springs that were unique to the property—had been
held by the Ladd family for generations. Delaney’s uncle, Ernie
Ladd, had recently passed away, willing the entire tract to
Delaney’s daughter, Felicity. Because she was blood kin.

Well, so was Casey. Ernie’s son,
Jeremiah Ladd, was Casey’s father, making her equally entitled to
the land. The logic was simple. It was Ladd land and she was a
Ladd. Unfortunately, Annie had to prove the fact first, a process
Jeremiah fought her every step of the way. But after battling him
for years, she finally won when he showed up in town six months ago
looking for his piece of the land. Ernie had refused him outright.
He was willing it to Felicity and no one else. In the end, Jeremiah
landed himself in jail for an unpaid gambling debt, Ernie died and
Felicity received title to the property. Annie had secured her
paternity test and proved once and for all, Casey was Jeremiah’s
daughter making it impossible for Delaney to ignore her rights.
Eighteen long years and a paternity test had proven it beyond a
shadow of a doubt. Annie’s daughter was a Ladd. It was the reason
Delaney acquiesced and signed over half of the property to
Casey.

But the property consisted of hundreds
of acres. If she were to keep the property, Annie had to think,
plan, strategize—but it was the details regarding what to do that
were tripping her up. This was out of her league. She didn’t do
financial calculations. She did fingernails! A flurry of angst
peppered her chest. Flipping her gaze out through the back windows
of her apartment, Annie latched onto a range of mountains.
Saturated by a late afternoon sun, the Blue Ridge Mountains were
ablaze with orange, red and gold, clumps of green tucked here and
there in between. Beyond, the sky had cooled to a bluish-lavender.
Fall was upon them, dropping temperatures into the upper thirties
for the third day in a row. There was even talk of snow.

Seated on the couch in the living room
of the two-bedroom apartment she and her daughter called home,
Annie looked to Candi. Concern scored her dark brown eyes, her
heart-shaped face framed by stick-straight hair that fell in
flat-ironed points across her shoulders. Naturally brown,
highlighted by chunks of blonde, her hair was perfection. Candi was
a hairstylist, her best friend, the only one who understood what
was at stake. “Annie? Are you listening?”

Caught by a sudden chill, a
shiver raced through Annie. What was she going to do? She knew what
she
wanted
to do.
She wanted to call Ms. Devane. She wanted to speak with her about
the financial potential of her share of Ladd Springs. Casey’s
share, Annie corrected. Over six hundred acres of pristine forest
snaked with rivers and streams and loaded with springs she now
owned. Trouble was, now that Casey retained title to half the
property, Annie had to figure a way to afford it. That part wasn’t
as simple.


Do you think this woman can
help?” Candi pressed, hanging on the edge of her seat. She’d been
Annie’s closest ally throughout and truth be known, the reason
Annie and Casey held title to the property. If Candi hadn’t called
Jeremiah back home from Atlanta, none of this would have happened.
Casey would not have title to the property and Annie would not be
in a position to earn money from it.


Maybe.”


She seemed real eager to
talk to you when she gave me that card.” Upon receiving it, Candi
had immediately rushed to Trendz, the salon where Annie worked as a
nail tech and delivered both business card and message.
Please have Ms. Owens call me at her earliest
convenience. I will make it financially worth her
time
.

Seems Jillian Devane had a proposition
for her.

Staring at the card in hand, Annie
wasn’t stupid. She’d heard the woman was in town to get revenge on
Nick Harris, boyfriend to Delaney Wilkins and the owner of Harris
Hotels. His company was currently transforming Ladd Springs—the
other half of Ladd Springs that belonged to Delaney’s daughter,
Felicity—into an upscale hotel and spa resort for the very wealthy.
Nick had signed a 99-year lease to use the land, land that old man
Ernie Ladd had refused to sell, instead willing it to Felicity as a
life estate. When Ernie died, the land became free and clear to be
developed.


Do you think Jillian Devane
wants to build a hotel like Nick?”

Visions of an exclusive wooded retreat
for elite guests swam through Annie’s mind, guests who would pay
top dollar to lose themselves in the mountains of Tennessee, the
forests, the natural beauty of the Appalachians. Felicity was
barely eighteen and stood to earn a fortune from her deal with Nick
Harris while Annie and Casey had nothing but bills as a result of
owning their share of the property.


I don’t know. Maybe,” she
hemmed. Annie knew full well Ms. Devane was interested in building
a hotel. In fact, according to Annie’s sister Lacy—her direct
conduit to all things Ladd Springs—Ms. Devane had looked into
purchasing land an hour north of here for that very reason. She
wanted to ruin Nick’s new hotel by building one of her own. Married
to Nick’s partner Malcolm Ward, Lacy had the inside scoop and
dished it out readily to Annie—because Annie had forgiven the past
problems between them.

Leaning forward, Candi grabbed a
cheddar-coated chip from a shiny blue plastic bag. “Have you asked
Cal about it?”

Annie looked at her friend, ignoring
the loud crunching from her mouth. “I don’t want to bother him with
it.”


Why not? He helped you get
the loan to pay the back taxes, didn’t he?”


He did,” she acknowledged.
Which was easy. His father, Gerald Foster, owned a bank in town and
pulled the strings. Not that Cal didn’t mean well, he did. Calvin
Foster helped, because he was a decent man. As part of the Foster
clan, he was a man of means, a man who’d been calling on her ever
since his return from Arizona six months ago.

Annie grew up with the Foster brothers.
They were four good-looking boys, wild and crazy and always out for
a good time with the ladies, although Cal had been the most tame
among them. His brother Jack married Delaney, and for a while, they
seemed like the perfect couple. It wasn’t until Delaney up and left
him that everyone in town learned the truth. Jack was abusive. He
was a drinker. A mean drunk, at that. After Delaney moved back home
with Felicity, Jack left town and Annie hadn’t heard a word about
him since. Brothers Beau and Clint had remained in town, married,
had children, held rank as respectable men in the community. Beau
ran the Foster family ranch, acres upon acres of premiere pasture
and mountains while Clint worked with his father at the bank, the
biggest and most prestigious for miles around. Despite the rowdy
reputation forged by the sons, the Fosters were a respectable
bunch. They had looks, money, smarts...

Victoria Foster would accept nothing
less. A socialite from Chattanooga, Cal’s mother came from money
and would not allow her move to the small town alter a single
aspect of her lifestyle. The Foster estate was grand, the land was
beautiful, the four sons were unruly—a fact Mrs. Foster refused to
permit injure her standing in the community. It was one of the
reasons Gerald Foster was so anti-drinking today. Zero tolerance
was his motto, for his boys and his staff.

Although Annie had grown up with Cal,
knew him from high school, knew his family through church, she had
never thought of him romantically. He was nice-looking enough, but
back then she’d only had eyes for Jeremiah. A year after she became
pregnant with Casey, Cal had moved to Arizona and she hadn’t seen
or heard from him until her godmother’s big Memorial Day party this
past summer. When Ashley Fulmer through a party, everyone attended,
giving Cal the perfect opportunity to reacclimate himself back into
the community. Annie had definitely noticed him at the barbecue,
the two dancing and chatting, erasing the passage of time between
them as they began a new path forward together.

Candi pulled a sip from her coke, her
cheeks hollowing. “I bet he could come up with an idea to help you
earn some money with this woman. Cal is smart that way.”

That’s where Annie begged to differ.
Yes, he was smart, but Cal had become friendly with Malcolm, a man
equally invested in Nick’s hotel development. If Cal let on to
Malcolm or Nick that Annie was even considering a discussion with
Ms. Devane, Annie had no doubt the men would be angry. Lacy had
given Annie a blow by blow on the history between Nick and Jillian,
how Harris Hotels and Eco-Domani were in constant competition and
how six months ago Jillian Devane had paid a visit to Fran’s Diner,
putting Nick on notice she intended to build in Tennessee as well.
If Annie worked with Ms. Devane in any way, it would be seen as
crossing enemy lines, something you didn’t do around here unless
you packed two barrels and were prepared to fire them. “Why don’t
you ask him?” Candi asked.


I think Lacy and Malcolm
would have something to say about it,” Annie replied. “Any
involvement with this Devane woman will be seen as a
betrayal.”


Well, Lacy and Malcolm
don’t have a say in what you do. They’re not helping you make ends
meet, are they?” Candi vehemently shook her head and said, “No,
ma’am. It’s your decision. Yours and Casey’s, I mean.”

Yes, Casey. Casey was the named owner,
but Annie was the designated trustee. When Delaney had Felicity
sign over half of the land, she’d stipulated Casey was not to
receive control over the property until she turned thirty years of
age, or she wouldn’t receive the first acre. Because Casey was too
young and not ready for that kind of responsibility. Because Casey
had a history of instability.

But Annie was ready. Seemed
responsibility was all she knew, like it was her whole life.
Expelling a sigh, she smacked the business card onto the table. “I
don’t know what to do, Candi. I only know I wish it wasn’t so
damned hard.”

Annie had finally won the battle—Ladd
family recognition for her daughter and the procurement of her
rightful inheritance—yet she had no way to keep it. Sure, Cal had
helped her secure a loan to pay the back taxes but there would be a
new tax bill this fall. In another month, she’d be facing the same
dilemma all over again. Her eyes went quickly to the hills out the
window. A panicky need to escape weaved through her soul. As it
was, she was stretching her last dollar bill to pay the current
loan for the taxes. How was she ever going to afford another
payment?

Candi scooted close and wrapped an arm
around Annie’s shoulders. She hugged her close and Annie was
grateful for the connection. It was warm, reassuring. Solid. “I
know it’s hard, honey, but you’ll think of something. You always
do,” she added, eyes shining with encouragement. “You got that
paternity test out of Jeremiah, didn’t you?”


I did.”


And the property out of
Delaney.”


Yes.”


Well, you can get some
money going, too.” Candi hugged Annie to her side, a draft of her
perfume rising between them. “I know you can.”

Leave it to Candi to see the
positive in her situation. It was her nature, always had been.
Candi was the one who’d encouraged Annie in high school, convinced
her to try out for the lead role in a school play, acted as
cheerleader when Annie earned straight A’s two semesters in a row,
even encouraged her to chase after the boy she dreamed impossible
to get. Her stomach tightened. Well, she couldn’t hold that against
her. Annie couldn’t see past Jeremiah at the time and he was all
she wanted. Now she wanted money. Income. As trustee, it was her
job to not only pay the taxes but to ensure her daughter’s future.
She was entitled to a percentage of earnings for her time and
trouble, but they were earnings Annie had to
earn
first. If she couldn’t, all she’d
be handing over to her thirty-year-old daughter would be a big fat
tax bill.


I’ll talk to Cal,” Annie
said. “He’s looking into some logging possibilities for me. We’ll
see what he’s come up with.”


Logging? You mean to tell
me you’re going to cut down all the trees?”

Mildly amused by the look of horror
pasted on Candi’s face, Annie shook her head. “No, only a hundred
acres or so. According to Cal, it might be all we need, until I can
figure something else out, that is.”


Like how to rent the land
to a hotel developer, same as Delaney?”

Annie suppressed a grin.
Candi knew her better than anyone. Whether Lacy and Malcolm and
Delaney and Nick cared or not, Annie was a survivor first, a group
player second. She had to look out for Casey’s future, same way
Delaney had looked after Felicity’s. Now in college, Felicity was
set, her future carved in stone.
Gold
stone, Annie mused, a tinge of
resentment curling her heart. Delaney included the section with the
gold find in Felicity’s half, enabling her daughter to not only
earn income from Nick’s hotel deal but from selling the gold
discovered in a rock, deep in the forest.

Gold. On Ladd Springs. So far, the vein
had yielded more than anyone expected and Nick and Delaney were
taking full advantage. They were having a local jeweler design a
pendant in the shape of a wishing well, a pendant they intended to
sell in a hotel boutique store. It was supposed to represent the
natural springs on the property, a symbol of eternal hope and
spiritual fulfillment. To Annie it represented yet again how she
and her daughter were left to fend for themselves.

Annie snatched the business card and
glared at the telephone number. “I’m going to call her.”


You are?”


Yes. There’s no reason I
shouldn’t explore my options.”


That’s right,” Candi
agreed, faithfully manning her imaginary pom-poms as she encouraged
her friend. “No reason at all.”


Why can’t I lease our
property to Jillian? How would that hurt anything?”


Exactly.”


I mean, if Nick and Malcolm
are afraid of a little competition, how good can they
be?”


Now you’re talking!” Candi
bounced on the cushion beside her. “Why should they have all the
profits from a hotel business and not you?”

While Annie couldn’t quite share
Candi’s level of exuberance, a tinge of misgiving squiggling
through her belly, she did share her viewpoint. Why shouldn’t she
be able to use her property any way she saw fit? Would they rather
she destroy acres and acres of trees? After all, Nick’s claim to
fame was his sensitivity to the environment. Wouldn’t that make him
a hypocrite if he advised someone to log the land instead of build
something in tune with Mother Nature?

Gaining steam, Annie decided it was the
right thing to do. Casey was stuck in a dead-end job waiting tables
at Fran’s Diner, and if Annie could give her daughter something
better to look forward to, wasn’t that what she should do? Her Aunt
Fran was sweet to give Casey a job, but that didn’t mean she had to
keep it for the rest of her life.


When are you going to call
her?” Candi asked.


Tomorrow.” Annie twisted
the card in hand. “I’m going to call her tomorrow.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Two

 

A prickle of concern irritated Calvin
Foster’s calm as he took in the woman before him. Annie was
agitated. Pensive, impatient but more, she was cagey, her pretty
blue eyes dodging him at every turn. In Cal’s experience, the
combination spelled trouble. When a woman withheld information, it
was because she planned to use it against you, or planned to use it
without you. Either way, it was a lesson he’d learned the hard way
but learned it just the same. Cal rolled his shoulders to ease the
tension from them. She had invited him over to discuss logging
options for the property, but as they discussed the issue, it felt
like she was stonewalling. Did she want his help or not?


Are you alright, Annie?” he
asked softly, knowing it was best not to push. Corner a woman and
she’s likely to strike with an aim to kill.

Sitting on the opposite end of the
couch, Annie stiffened. “I’d be better if I had a surefire plan, if
I was certain this logging could work.”

She gave a quick shake to her glossy
black hair, hair that fell straight and thick to her shoulders.
Despite the late hour and a full day’s work behind her, Annie’s
skin was ivory perfection against the black turtleneck she wore,
her makeup masterfully applied, black eye-liner underscoring the
allure of her big blue eyes. Visibly trim in snug-fitting jeans,
Annie was the kind of woman you wouldn’t miss walking down a
sidewalk. She was a striking beauty, one he was coming to
adore.

If only she’d let him help her. “You
can be as certain as you’re willing to be.”

She paused, taken aback by the blunt
comment. “This isn’t easy for me, Cal.”


Never said it was. But
you’re fightin’ harder than a cat pawin’ molasses and I’m not sure
why.”


Why?” She looked at him
with a thinly veiled anger—or was it desperation? “How about I’m
financially strapped? How about we’re not even sure if we can find
a forester interested in logging the property? And if we do,
Delaney will most certainly have something to say about it,
probably fight me every branch of the way.”


Naw, she won’t.”

Annie stared at him, her big blue eyes
dismissive. “You don’t know Delaney anymore. She’s not the same
girl from high school. She’s changed. Hardened.”


Now, Annie. She gave Casey
half the property, didn’t she? She can’t be all bad.”

Annie thrust her shoulders back.
“Because I forced her hand.”


Annie.” Cal eased forward
but didn’t seek her hand. “I’ve known Delaney a long time, and
while it’s true I’ve been away in Arizona the past fifteen-odd
years, it doesn’t mean I don’t understand where she’s coming from.
She’s a woman, a mother same as you, and she wants what’s best for
her daughter. I’m sure she’ll be amenable to whatever we want to
do. It’s your land.”

Annie glanced away and Cal chuckled.
She was spirited but about as unsure of herself as a new born foal.
He understood she was struggling financially which is why he
offered to help her secure a loan to pay the property taxes. Money
matters were easy for him. Back in Arizona, he’d made more money by
investing in the stock market in two months than he’d made earning
salary in a year’s time from the retirement golfing community. It
wasn’t for everyone but for him, investing was a simple matter of
numbers—ratios, costs, earnings—plus a healthy dose of risk.
Keeping Annie’s confidence afloat going forward was proving to be
the bigger challenge.

But Cal Foster never walked away from a
challenge. Challenges were what fired life into his blood, gave him
a reason to wake up every morning and keep his eye on the prize.
Currently, he was in a battle for the prize of his life and it had
nothing to do with Annie. When Cal left Tennessee for Arizona, he
had expanded more than his horizons. He met a woman, married and
had a child—all of which he lost. Much like Annie, his struggle
stemmed from poor decisions made before he realized the weight of
those decisions. But he’d since learned choices had consequences.
Hard consequences, lasting consequences. It wasn’t until six months
ago he understood fully what those entailed. Annie had a child with
a man who wasn’t her husband, a man probably not fit to be one,
either. Cal had a child, but with the actions of one night, lost
all ties to the girl. Regret weighed heavily on his
heart.

Reaching for Annie’s hand,
Cal was thankful she didn’t pull away. It seemed they were
venturing onto some rocky ground and he had to be careful not to
slip due to moving too fast.
Slow and easy
wins the race
. That was his new motto.
“Listen,” Cal said, “a professional forester will take care of the
land, not destroy it. He’ll cut only what he needs, cut only from
land you agree to log. Delaney won’t be able to complain on that
count, and depending on which section you choose, you stand to earn
near a quarter of a million dollars.”

The statement sucked the
breath from her. “Quarter of a
million
?”

He squeezed her hand, her very warm and
slender hand. He and Annie had been officially dating for the last
couple of months and Cal was ready to take it a step further. Annie
was rock solid. She was a good woman, a beautiful woman. If he
could help Annie realize a substantial gain from her land, then by
God he would. Hopefully, her future was his future. “Yes ma’am,
quarter of a million, and I daresay that’s enough to pay off your
loan, cover the taxes for a few years to come and provide you and
Casey with a comfortable lifestyle—until you decide what you really
want to do.”

Cal believed that’s what was driving
Annie’s insecurities. She was floundering, floatin’ like a duckling
without its momma. It was a sentiment that Cal understood. He, too,
was ready for change, a new road to travel. He’d come home to
Tennessee for that very reason, and while he hadn’t found it yet,
it didn’t mean he’d given up looking. Same went for Annie.
Patience. That’s all she needed.

She spewed a sigh. “A quarter of a
million dollars... The things we could do with that
money.”

Struck by the sheer intensity of her
gaze, Cal laughed. “My God, woman, you look like thoughts are
ricocheting off the walls of your brain!” She flashed those
gorgeous blue eyes of hers his way and he roped them in, best he
could. “That’s a compliment, darlin’.” Chuckling to himself, Cal
thought yes, Annie Owens definitely reminded him of his
horse-training days. She was a feisty mare that needed coaxing by a
cool head and a soft touch. Luckily, it was Cal’s
specialty.


Is it really worth that
much?” she asked.

Cal leaned near. “Depending on the
grade of timber, your profit might even go higher. It all depends
on which trees they cut and who they sell them to. You might even
ask they set aside a few logs for you and Casey to
build.”


Build?”

He smiled, darting a glance to her
lips, her very lush lips. Lips that were full and glossed with a
hint of pink, lips he could kiss right this minute. “You want to
live on the property, don’t you?” Cal assumed that’s why Annie had
fought so hard to acquire the title. Casey was a Ladd. She was part
of the family. It made sense she’d want to live on the land of her
ancestors, even if her kin weren’t right friendly. It didn’t
matter. Family was family. Blood ran deep through the heart of the
South. One only need ask his brothers how cantankerous relations
could be, between stealin’ kisses from the sweetest girls in school
to bar room brawls with the toughest thugs in town, the Foster boys
were known for their turbulent relations with one another and the
community at large. Folks called it a “reputation.” Cal and his
brothers used to call it “plain fun.” The boys had their disputes,
but never once did they question their loyalty to
family.

At Annie’s reticence, Cal repeated,
“Isn’t that what you’re after?”

She slumped back against the cushion
and placed a palm to her forehead. “I don’t know.”

The tortured quality to her voice
pulled at him. A mix of want and need tangled with a mess of doubt
Cal didn’t quite understand. “What’s holding you back,
Annie?”

From across the sofa, she looked at
him, and that’s when he caught it. A sliver of reluctance passed
behind her eyes. She was holding back. There was more to her story
than she was saying. Cal could recognize a holdout when he saw one.
There was always a clue, a shift in the eyes, a slant in the gaze.
A hiccup, a blink, but the guilt was there just the same. “Talk to
me, Annie. Tell me what’s going on.”

As though balancing a fine line between
truth and evasion, Annie hesitated. “Everything is happening so
fast. Nick and Malcolm have been staking those orange flags
everywhere, marking their territory like two dogs on a Saturday
night. Did you know they’ve already drawn up plans for the hotel,
restaurant—everything? According to Lacy, all they need now is
approval from the county and they begin building.
Building!”

Cal leaned back, extending an arm the
length of the sofa. “Well, it’s not their first rodeo. Why, I’ve
seen entire communities pop up out of thin air in the desert and
they were nothin’ to scoff at. Mighty nice homes, too, so I know it
can be done. All you need is money and experience.”


And they have
both.”


They have both,” Cal
agreed. Was this the crux of her displeasure? Money? Delaney and
Lacy had it and she didn’t?

Well, he could tell her a thing or two
about money. It didn’t fix everything and he had an ex-wife and a
police record to prove it. But if money is what Annie needed, then
money is what he was going to see that she received. “Why don’t you
let me talk to Delaney and discuss matters right calmly? Then I’ll
call a forester friend of mine. He’s been in the business twenty
years and is the best of the best. Why, you give him the okay and
you could have your money by Christmas time.”

Annie’s eyes widened. “That
soon?”

Cal nodded.


Wow.” She allowed her gaze
to drift. “I guess I have something to think about.”


Do you need to discuss it
with Casey?” Cal wasn’t exactly sure how the trustee agreement had
been written. Did Annie have sole control over what she could do
with the land or did she have to consult her daughter?


I can’t sell it without her
approval, but I can decide what happens with it until she’s of age
to receive it in full.”

Cal slapped hands to knees. “Alrighty,
then. Sounds like we have a plan.”

Annie slid him a sharp glance. “Thank
you. Thank you for all your help with the property. I think I’d be
lost on my own.”

The abrupt change pleased Cal. While he
liked Annie’s strong and spirited side, he liked her sweet and soft
side even better. “You don’t have to thank me, Annie, I’m glad to
help.” At her quick smile, he relaxed back into the cushion and
sidled up next to her, pulling her close. “Now how about you tell
me what else is on your mind?”

A small smile crept onto her lips. “Am
I that transparent?”

Cal grinned, relishing the ejection of
tension from her deep blue eyes, he replied, “You are to me.”
Breathing in the scent of her, he picked up hints of a faded
perfume. Leaning close, he brushed a sweep of silky hair behind an
ear punctuated by a large silver hoop. He traced a finger around it
and she sighed. Staring out into the sea of night, he wondered what
was going through her mind. Cal interlaced his fingers through hers
and her gaze mellowed, her pupils swallowed whole by the luminous
glow of a nearby lamp.


I want something to do,
Cal. I want something exciting, challenging.”


More challenging than
paintin’ all those pretty nails?” he teased. Annie clamped her
lips, but he gently shook her. “Aw, c’mon Annie. You know I’m just
having fun. I think you’re the best in the business, but I
understand what you’re saying. The same goes for me. I need a new
direction. I’ve been helping my Daddy out at the ranch but all he
keeps trying to do is lasso me into the bank. It’s not what I want
to do.”


Did you not like working in
Arizona?”


Arizona was real fine, but
once you sold one house, you sold them all.”


I thought you managed the
community.”


I did, eventually, but even
then it was all the same. Selling, or managing the selling, all
began to feel the same. It made me itch for something new.” He
paused, allowing a swell of regret to pass through him. He might
have been bored with his work life, but not his personal. At home,
he’d been happy. He loved his wife, loved his daughter.
Unfortunately, it was they who got their fill of him. He tamped
back a swell of regret. “I want to try my hand at something
different. Ever since I gave up the drink, I’ve been
driftin’.”


Is it hard for you to be
back home?” she asked. “You know, with all the memories? Your
brothers?”

Cal shook his head. “Not really. Not
when you’ve changed your heart, it isn’t. Now if I was still
struggling with it, sure. But I’m not.” He couldn’t afford to
struggle with the bottle. He had too much riding on his sobriety
back in Arizona, and he was determined to make things right. Moving
back to Tennessee was his chance to prove himself, prove he could
remain sober, hold down a job, and be the man his daughter needed
him to be.


What do you think you want
to do?” Annie asked.


Not sure.” And that was the
hardest part of all. Cal had no burning desire to do anything. He
loved working with horses, but he was getting too old to spend
every day in dusty corrals and pens with wild stallions. He liked
investing money. Found he had a knack for it, but he didn’t want to
invest other people’s money, only his own. Cal didn’t know what he
wanted to do and that was his problem. A problem he needed to
solve. Proving he could walk the straight and narrow meant getting
his life back—the most important piece, anyway. His wife was
through with him. She’d moved on and Cal didn’t blame her. But his
daughter was a different matter.

Emily needed him and he needed
her.


Seems we both have a lot to
think about,” Annie murmured.

Cal nodded. “Agreed.” Why Annie had to
withdraw her hand from his was perplexing. Did she want those
thoughts of hers to include him?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Three

 

Annie walked her last client of the day
to the receptionist’s desk and caught a glimpse of a dark-haired
woman walking in the front door. Long black hair fell in a
straight, sleek line behind her back, her very narrow back. She was
almost a stick of a figure, draped in gold jewelry and expensive
leather jacket. As she neared, Annie noted her lips were glossed a
tawny brown, a sheer tone that melted into her brown skin. But it
was her eyes that leapt out at you. Cat eyes, turned up at the
ends, or maybe it was the heavy black makeup that created the
effect. Annie guessed her identity in a heartbeat. Jillian Devane.
She had to hand it to Lacy. Her sister had described the woman
perfectly. Wealthy, stylish, she looked right at home amidst the
ultra-modern interior of the Trendz salon with its minimalist black
and white design and cool blue ceramic lamps hanging overhead in
the way of lighting.

Annie turned to her client. “Bobbi Jo
will get you scheduled for next time, okay?” The woman smiled and
the two hugged. “See you then.”