Also by Inés Saint
Published by Kensington Publishing Corp.
Needs a Little TLC
A Spinning Hills Romance
Kensington Publishing Corp.
All copyrighted material within is Attributor Protected.
Table of Contents
Also by Inés Saint
To my Dayton girls: Thank you for the coffees, the breakfasts, the brunches, the lunches, the dinners, the GNOs, the drinks, the inspiration and the laughs, but most of all thank you for being real.
As always, thank you to my husband and my two boys for their love, patience, and support.
So much gratitude to Maria M. for being a
inspiration, and to Tracey W. for sharing the story that inspired the Barbie and Ken episode that almost gave Cassie’s mom a heart attack . . . and for letting me borrow it!
An enormous, heartfelt thank-you to everyone who has worked on my books at Kensington Publishing for showing me how much you care!
am slammed the ledger shut and hit the
key on his laptop. Numbers didn’t lie, whether they were typed up or written down. He scrubbed his face, as if the action could erase his worries.
The blinking light on his office phone caught his eye and he leaned over to scroll down the list of missed calls, eager for any distraction. His hand froze in midair when he saw the last caller was registered as
Resentment intermingled with hope. Both were unexpected. The past was past and Sam wasn’t one to open the door on its more painful episodes when they wanted to stop by for a visit.
But this wasn’t an old memory stopping by to visit an unwilling mind. This was real and this was now. His current circumstances explained the call and meant she’d be calling again.
He sat back and steepled his fingers, feeling like the cat who’d caught the canary. Except the canary was more like a cardinal and he’d stopped chasing it ten years before. And now here it was, flying back into his life because he had something she wanted.
“What’re you thinking so hard about?” his older brother, Dan, asked.
Sam snapped his eyes up. His two brothers were standing in front of him and he hadn’t even heard them come in.
“Yeah, you look evil.” Johnny, his younger brother, smiled in approval.
Dan crossed his arms and pretended to study him. “It’s actually a good look on you.”
“Yeah, you don’t usually do evil, but it brings out the flames in your eyes.” Johnny was at his desk, poking his nose into Sam’s papers, in two strides.
Sam discreetly pushed the ledger he’d been studying under some blueprints. “I can be evil when the mood strikes me.” He reached for a flyswatter and slapped Johnny’s hand when his brother reached for one of the blueprints.
“What the hell?” Johnny’s hand shot back.
“I keep it around just for you.”
“He’ll find out what you’re up to sooner or later,” Dan warned.
Sam felt the smile slide off his face. Dan was right. They would both find out. Everybody would find out.
Because Spinning Hills was that kind of town.
“Thirty-four highly promising fixer-uppers that will take you to the top,” Jessica repeated in a dutiful tone.
Cassie nodded and tapped her pencil on the one empty spot on her desk, hoping she looked like it was business as usual. But her leg was knocking the bottom of the desk in beat with the pencil, making the top wobble. She reached down and stilled her leg. “Yes. Twelve he’ll be listing soon and twenty-two in the pipeline, so to speak. My sources tell me he tried to list four in January, but winter was way too brutal this year. Now that spring is around the corner, he’ll be moving quickly.”
“Well, he didn’t answer. I’ll try again in a few minutes.” Jessica kept punching numbers into her calculator.
“You should try again now. We need to move fast.”
Jessica finally looked up. “Your energy is usually contagious, but today it’s draining mine. Why do you want
to call and meet with the owner if these thirty-four listings will take you to the top? You’re the insightful real estate broker, I’m the efficient office manager, remember?”
Cassie uncrossed her legs to keep her right leg from swinging again. “Here’s the thing,” she said, folding her hands on top of her desk.
“Uh-oh. Nothing good ever comes after ‘here’s the thing.’”
“It’s nothing bad. I just have a disclosure to make—a difficult one—so please hear me out.” She took in a quick puff of air and just as quickly blew it out. “The owner of the thirty-four properties I absolutely must list is Sam Amador. He was my best friend growing up and my first, well, love, I guess you could say. My sources tell me he’s interviewing Realtors this week and I need you to really focus when you call him again. We can go over the foolproof spiel I wrote down for you one more time if you think it’ll help.” Cassie got up and began to pace. “And you can call him on speakerphone this time, that way I can write down anything you need to know that might come up as we go along. I don’t know why I didn’t think of that before.”
Jessica’s expression had gone from sympathetic and understanding to concerned. “Is this the guy you never want to talk about? The wound that still hurts?”
“That’s him.” Cassie drew to a halt in front of Jessica. “Remember, the goal of the call is for you to set up a meeting. Our sales numbers are impressive, so it shouldn’t be hard. The houses he’s renovating are in Spinning Hills, a fun little town and an inner ring suburb of Dayton. Listing his properties will get my foot firmly in the door of the Dayton market and will skyrocket me straight to the top of our niche.” She pretended her hand was a rocket shooting up into the sky and whistled a jetting sound for effect.
Jessica remained uneasy. “Are you sure this is the best way to get your foot in the door? I mean, if the wound still hurts it means it hasn’t healed and—”
Cassie placed both hands on the glass top of her friend’s tidy, formerly smudge-free desk. “Selling six of his properties would make us the number-one historic property brokerage in the state, Jess. Twelve would give us a nice lead. Thirty-four would leave everyone else in the dust. I want those houses. I want them bad. I just don’t want him to know it’s me who wants them.”
“He doesn’t know you own Red Realty?”
“We’re a small niche brokerage, we’re not in the Dayton market, and I use my mom’s maiden name professionally. I doubt he knows.” Cassie had told Jessica from the very start how important it was for her to keep her success her own and not get by on her father’s widely known, unmistakable last name.
“You know you’ll have to meet him sooner or later, though. Or are you planning on hiring someone else to list and prep the houses?”
“I’m listing them. I know that market inside out. But there’s no reason to think that far ahead so I’m blocking those thoughts.” Cassie pointed at the legal pad she’d handed to Jessica. “Read it again and call, but don’t overthink it.”
“But don’t you want to talk about it a bit—”
“Nope. I can’t. I’m this close to unblocking those thoughts.” She gestured with her fingers just how close she was. “I have to keep on moving. That’s the key.”
“I won’t call if you won’t talk about it.”
“Then I guess I’ll just have to get Kate from our Columbus office to do it.”
“Sounds like a plan.” Jessica crossed her arms and sat back.
Cassie plunked back down on her chair and sighed. Her Columbus area office was an hour and a half away from Spinning Hills and superbusy. It wouldn’t work. “Fine. I’ll tell you all about it if you get the meeting. Deal?”
Seconds later, Jessica’s phone was on speaker and the number to Amador Construction and Preservation was ringing. The more it rang, the tighter Cassie squeezed her hands together. It took her a moment to notice she’d stopped breathing.
A click sounded. Someone had picked up. “Amador Construction, this is Sam speaking.” The familiar voice was deeper and more purposeful than she remembered. Cassie’s heart began pumping so hard, she could hear its pounding rhythm in her ears. Her hands shook and she narrowed her eyes at them. She shouldn’t feel this way.
Sam Amador was an integral part of childhood memories she treasured. But a hidden place in her heart still harbored pain and resentment over how badly their relationship had ended.
Jessica cleared her throat and held the yellow legal pad up to her face. “Good morning, Mr. Amador. My name is Jessica Carter and I’m with Red Realty, a specialized brokerage focused on matching special historic properties with their perfect future owners.”
Cassie zeroed in on her friend’s voice, focused on the number one, which was underlined, highlighted, and circled in red on the back of the legal pad she was holding, and tried to bring herself back from the land of the stupid.
“I’m calling because I understand you have a number of historic houses on your hands, and I’d love the opportunity to meet with you and discuss your goals and how we can help you meet them.”
Cassie beamed at Jessica. She sounded professional yet warm, confident, and grateful for his time.
“Red Realty,” Sam repeated, a little too slowly. A little too . . . knowingly?
Nah. She no longer knew him well enough to read that much into two words. It was all in her head.
“Yes.” Jessica nodded, as if he could see her. “Red Realty. Perhaps you’ve heard of us? We’ve had great successes and built wonderful partnerships in the Cleveland, Toledo, Columbus, and Cincinnati markets and we’d love to do the same in Spinning Hills and the Dayton region. I’d like to set up a meeting.”
“Sure,” Sam answered. Cassie and Jessica stared at each other, eyes wide, in a moment of shared triumph. Katy Perry’s “Firework” began playing so loudly in her head, she wondered if her friend could hear it. Jessica began doing a little dance in her chair.
“Put your owner on the line, and I’ll be happy to set up a meeting with her,” he finished.
The song in Cassie’s head stopped with a loud screech. Her eyes flew to Jessica’s, who dropped the legal pad. Cassie dove toward it and scribbled,
before looking up at Jessica.
“Her?” Jessica squeaked into the phone. Cassie flailed her hands and mouthed
. She hadn’t meant for her to repeat that. She bent over the pad again.
” Sam repeated
“The owner of Red Realty.”
,” Jessica said, throwing a hand up in frustration while she waited for Cassie to finish her mad scribble.
Owner not available or needed!!!
“I’m sorry, the owner isn’t available right now, but I can assure you a meeting with her won’t be necessary. She’s . . . a silent partner.” Her voice faltered. “But I assure you our Cincinnati office is well-equipped to handle your properties, Mr. Amador. We’ll outline a sales plan you can be enthusiastic about.”
partner? Right.” A soft chuckle came over the phone, and Cassie paused to stare at the air above it, half-expecting to see Sam’s head floating over it, looking right at her.
Cassie shook her head before finishing her scribble,
Set up meeting!
“What is a good day and time for us to meet, Mr. Amador?” Jessica asked.
“She’s listening, isn’t she?” Sam asked. Cassie’s eyes widened and then narrowed. Was that a smile in his voice?
Jessica snapped her pencil in two. “Excuse me?”
“Tell Cassie I never took her for a coward,” Sam replied.
Angry, red-hot sparks went off in Cassie’s head and traveled throughout her body. He knew. And he was being a big fat brat about it. She took two quick steps and grabbed the phone out of her friend’s hand, but as she did so, her dead therapist’s advice echoed in her mind.
She counted to ten,
, and considered her actions,
. “This is Cassidy Morgan,” she said. “My associate tells me you’d like to speak with me?”
“I knew you were listening, and I knew you didn’t have it in you to be a silent anything. Why are you using your mom’s last name? Hiding from someone?”
Cassie closed her eyes and counted to ten, again. The words,
we’re both professionals, Mr. Amador, let’s begin by treating each other as such
, were at the tip of her tongue
True words. A perfect comeback.
But she and Sam had been the best of childhood friends, and Sam’s words were just as true. After all, he had somehow known she was listening. If they were both going to be truly professional in their dealings, she’d have to acknowledge the old relationship while setting the tone for their possible future business relationship. He didn’t have to know that if she could crawl through the airwaves, come out the other side, and hit him with his phone, she would.
Sam leaned back in his chair and tried to think above the many feelings coursing through him. Part of him had gone back to a time when he’d known Cassie like the back of his hand, and he couldn’t help but enjoy the situation. Ten years might have passed, but there was no doubt in his mind she’d hit him over the head with his own phone at that moment if she could.
“Sam?” she finally spoke.
“I’m here.” It was a normal response, but something within him recognized a deeper truth. He’d always been
, a part of him waiting to see her again, while she’d left and never looked back. His smile flattened.
“Life is funny, right? It looks like our old shared interests have brought about the possibility of a business partnership. I can guarantee Red Realty is right for the job, and I’d like my associate to meet with you soon to discuss it. When would be a good time for you?”
All business. He’d never heard her like that. They weren’t the same people they’d once been. Maybe she didn’t even want to hit him over the head with his phone.
Cassie Morgan, aka Cassie McGillicuddy, the one person who had consistently made him lose his steadfast outward cool. She was always full of both brilliant and harebrained ideas coupled with an impulsive nature, and being around her had made him feel more alive. There’d been no way to tamp down emotions around her. It was why she’d been his best friend.
Until her biggest harebrained idea of them all. Asking him to teach her how to be a good kisser. He’d never forgotten that kiss. Nothing had ever felt so sweet. So thrilling. So moving. They’d fallen in love.
Soon after, they’d broken each other’s hearts.
Sam stifled a sigh. Cassie had started the call out at a disadvantage and was now trying to take control of the situation. Would he let her get away with it?
“Funny you mention old interests. The revitalization of Spinning Hills and Dayton and supporting local businesses are still top priorities for me. I’d be happy to meet with your associate and explain how I do business as long as you, the owner of Red Realty, are also present at that meeting. But don’t worry, you can be as silent as you like.”
A long pause ensued. Sam sat back, noting how hard his heart was beating against his chest.
“Understood,” she said, her voice sounding forced, as if her teeth were clenched. He felt the corner of his mouth curl up. How much could she have changed if he could still predict her reactions? “When?” she asked.
The pulse at the base of his throat began to throb. It had to be soon. He needed to get those properties moving. “I’m free tomorrow at nine in the morning. We can meet at my office. It’s my dad’s old office—you know where it is.”
The moment those last words were out of his mouth he regretted them. He hadn’t meant it as an innuendo, but the suggestion was there and it couldn’t be helped. It was where they’d first made love.
Another sweet, thrilling, and moving memory neither of them could forget or ignore.
“Jessica and I will be there. Thank you for the opportunity. Good-bye.”
Sam stared at the phone. Apparently, one of them
Cassie stared at the phone.
You know where it is ...
Jessica cleared her throat. “So, how are we feeling about that meeting tomorrow?”
Cassie shifted her eyes away from the phone and tried to clear her head. “I don’t know. The adrenaline is pumping, but my stomach feels funny.”
“Cautious but optimistic?” Jessica put in.
“Unsure, but determined.”
Jessica broke into a smile. “That’s how I feel about my parenting skills most of the time and I think I’m doing okay.”
Cassie considered that. “I think I did well. I paused and thought before speaking. My therapist would be so proud.”
“I didn’t know you were in therapy.”
“Hello? Have you met my parents? Of course I need therapy. But my therapist died before she could help me fix me. It’s why I’m still a tad messed up.” Cassie grinned.
“Honey, we’re all a degree of messed up. At least you’re trying. You’re down to a ‘tad.’”
“I know. It’s just that space between trying hard and getting there can be tough for those of us of a more impulsive, easily distracted nature.”
“Speaking of being easily distracted . . . have you forgotten we had a deal?”
“I’d call if you spilled.” Jessica pushed her chair back from her desk, crossed her legs, and folded her hands on top of her knees. Much like a therapist. “I swear it’s for your own good, Cassie. It looks like you need to unload.”
Cassie took in a deep breath and exhaled slowly. If Red Realty was to become the premier brokerage for historic properties before the year was out, old wounds had to be poked and prodded. There was no getting around it. Fear of pain should never trump ambition. But what could she say? She couldn’t reveal how it all started. That was her parents’ secret, one that would ruin her father’s career. She’d never shared it with anyone.
She loved Jessica, though, and she trusted her enough to say, “The people closest to me all betrayed me, in entirely different ways, at almost exactly the same time. That includes Sam.” She closed her eyes and swallowed past an old lump, one that never seemed to go away for good. Being betrayed by those she’d loved and trusted most had cut deep. The center of the wound would remain fresh forever, it seemed, even when the outer edges had puckered and grayed.
When she straightened, she noticed Jessica had come to kneel beside her. “I’m sorry, hon. You don’t have to tell me and you don’t have to do this, you know. You don’t have to deal with Sam. You’re already a success.”
“It’s not enough, Jess. I have to be number one.
because Sam Amador happens to be involved. I can’t let the same people who slowed me down ten years ago keep me down again. My parents still harp about how embarrassing it was for them that I dropped out of college just as my dad was hawking higher education in the Senate.” Never mind that their secret had been the catalyst of her downward spiral. She grabbed Jessica’s hands. “I have to show them I can be a success in my own way. Ruby said it’s fate that I might get to prove myself in my dad’s old hometown.”
“One of the owners of the Gypsy Fortune Café and Bakery. She’s a direct descendant of the gypsies that founded Spinning Hills, and lately she’s gotten it into her head that she’s coming into her gypsy powers. She and the other owners are the ones who called and told me about the thirty-four properties. Ruby thinks the Amador curse finally has a chance of being broken and that the properties will play a part.”
Jessica sat back on her heels and smirked. “A curse?”
Cassie grinned. The thought of seeing her old friends again brightened her mood, making some of the darkness that had crept in tolerable. “A curse, haunted streets, pies with special meanings, and storybook houses. Some of the houses are run-down and scary-looking in a fantastical sort of way, but they tell me many more are beautifully restored. It’s all very picturesque. The town is a renovator’s dream.”
Jessica was quiet for a moment. “Do you think the owners of that gypsy café are the ones who told Sam you were the owner of Red Realty?”
She hadn’t thought of it, but it made perfect sense. “Of course it was them.” She sighed. “I expressly told them not to.”
ow’s the property on McPherson coming along?” Sam asked Dan, without looking up. “Is it interfering with your day job?” The last thing he wanted was his brothers falling behind on their own dreams in order to help him with his. He hadn’t asked for their help, and he knew they stood to make good money once the properties they worked on sold, but the idea that their main motivation was to help him always nagged.
“It’s coming along. No worries.”
“Are you guys planning on sticking around all morning?” he asked next.
“It’s only eight thirty.” Dan frowned and looked out the window. “Are you expecting someone?” he asked.
Sam knew who Dan meant by
. Dan was their half brother by their father, and he didn’t get along with his and Johnny’s mom. It wasn’t Dan’s fault, but Sam was tired of tiptoeing around it. Lately, his insides felt as if they were on a constant, low-simmering boil. “If you want to know if Mom’s coming by, just ask.”
Dan shot him a sharp look.
“What the hell’s eating you?” Johnny looked up from some blueprints.
“Is that how you’re going to open your sessions with future clients or patients or whatever you call them?” Sam quirked an eyebrow. Johnny was finishing up a PhD in school psychology, and Dan and Sam’s way of showing him they were proud of him was teasing him about it whenever they could.
“Aw, what’s wrong? Does Sammy Boy need a little TLC?” Johnny teased. He got up and Franken-walked toward Sam, arms wide.
Sam pushed Johnny’s arms away and tried not to laugh. “Get to work already. If you want to finish paying for that doctorate, you’ll need to finish up a few more houses.”
“For future reference, I prefer the
what the hell’s eating you?
approach,” Dan said.
“Is that your way of asking for a hug, too?” Johnny asked in the same ridiculous voice.
Johnny hooked his arms around their necks and hauled their heads together before they could react. It was more of a chokehold than a brotherly embrace.
Spinning Hills was a fifty-five-minute drive away from Cassie’s office in Loveland, a suburb of Cincinnati. Jessica lived midway between both places, and they had agreed Cassie would pick her up early the next day and have her home in time to pick up her kids from their after-school activities.
They were a few miles into the drive and Cassie’s knuckles were gripping the steering wheel so hard they hurt. She tried to loosen their grip and calm the butterflies in her stomach.
“Would you like me to drive?” Jessica asked.
“No. I’m fine.”
“Are you sure?”
Cassie stole a quick look at her friend. The problems of her youth seemed so insignificant next to everything Jessica had been through.
“I feel ridiculous. It’s only a stupid meeting.” Cassie reached over to squeeze her friend’s hand. “You’re a good friend, Jess. You’ve been through so much, yet you never act like other people’s made-up problems are silly, even when they are.”
“I spent last night and this morning worried senseless about Billy getting teased over a bad haircut.” Jessica leaned back. “I’ve never felt that losing my husband gives me the right to belittle other kinds of pain.”
“What happened to Billy’s hair?”
Jessica blew out a breath. “Billy decided to cut his own hair this morning and it was a disaster of epic proportions, even by Billy’s standards. It was unfixable. Sarah lent him her phone so he could text me and let me know how it goes at school because he was afraid other kids would make fun of him.” She eyed her phone. “He hasn’t texted yet, but he should be in his classroom by now.”
Cassie’s heart fell. “Oh, poor thing, do you have a picture? Maybe it isn’t that bad.” Jessica’s eight-year-old always managed to pull at her heartstrings. The boy was energetic, full of ideas, and impulsive.
“No pictures. He didn’t want evidence. It’s that bad. Anyway, it’s nine a.m. The bell has rung, class has begun, he can’t text me till lunch.” Jessica placed her phone in the cup holder. “Sometimes I think it’s because I named him Billy. Billys are always getting themselves into trouble. I should’ve named him Rick. Ricks seem to think things through before they act. And they always seem to be a successful CEO of something.”
“No. He’s no Rick. He’s a Billy through and through. You had no choice. At least you didn’t name him Tommy—they tend to be impulsive
highly imaginative. You don’t have the nerves for that kind of a ride.” Cassie noted how her friend’s corn-yellow hair was smooth, straight, and perfectly even. Not one loose or out-of-place strand.
“I bet you’ll end up with a Tommy. You could handle it. Just like you can handle this meeting with Sam Amador.”
The confidence those words instilled lasted until she drew to a stop at the first red light heading into Spinning Hills. She’d taken a longer route, wanting to see the downtown area first. Her nerves tingled as she looked around and her stomach fluttered so hard she could taste her breakfast. Ten years she’d been away. Everything was old. Everything was new. Including her feelings. A few deep breaths allowed her to focus on the world outside.
Wood and metal garden benches had been placed in between the mature oaks, maples, and catalpas that lined the stone-paved streets. The backrest of each bench had the words
scrolled onto it in curvy wrought-iron letters. It made her smile.
The green light flashed and Cassie drove on. The north part of the downtown area was flat and laid out in a grid pattern. Six streets crossed Lower Hillside, and there were only two F
signs to be seen. Last time she’d driven past, F
signs had lined the streets like billboards on I-75.
The rusty, peeling antique lampposts of her memory were now smooth and black. The bridges crossing the numerous streams and creeks had been painted red and they stood out like cardinals in a pine tree. The many evergreens seemed taller than she remembered, towering over the small downtown structures.
Lazy sunlight beamed down through light gray clouds on Spinning Hills. It looked like it was getting a second wind. She could relate.
“Cassie? Wow. This place looks like it came out of the pages of a children’s book. A modern Dickensian village or something.” Jessica buzzed the window down and nearly hung out of the car in a very un-Jessica-like fashion to gawk at everything. The air was wet and smelled of damp grass and rain-sprinkled evergreens. “Look at the thatched roof on that one. And the pitched one over there. Oh and the stonework on that archway. Does it always smell like Christmas here?”
“Pretty much. It’s all the fragrant evergreens. Fifty years ago, they decided to break some sort of record about evergreens per square mile. I think they won. They’ve also got the third most haunted street in Ohio, and the second most limestone buildings.”
Jessica continued to point out the town’s many charms, and Cassie felt as if she were looking at it all through foreign eyes. The downtown area was truly reaching its potential.
She hadn’t been a part of it.
“Is this where you grew up?” Jessica asked, enthralled. “It looks like a place that would spawn someone like you.”
“What do you mean?” Cassie asked, hoping she didn’t sound subdued.
Jessica pointed to one of a few boarded-up buildings on one of the side streets. “That building right there is beautiful in its own way, and it tells a part of the town’s story, too. I hope it never loses the gritty parts that tell that sadder story. You’re the one who taught me to appreciate that.”
Cassie blinked. It was exactly what she needed to hear. She and her grandmother had loved this town. They’d seen the magic even when it had been in a steep and steady decline. Dan, Sam, and Johnny had seen it, too. She could still be a part of keeping the magic and the whole story alive. “Thanks for that,” she said, softly. “I guess I mostly grew up here. I spent almost every weekend and my entire summers here, with my grandmother, back when Dad was a state senator.”
Jessica turned to look at her. “That’s right. You went to school in Columbus. I can’t believe I’m always forgetting you’re Ohio royalty.”
“Ohio royalty? There’s an oxymoron.” Cassie snorted.
Jessica’s eyes danced. “I was so intimidated the first day I met you. Tim had let slip your real last name. But when you walked in, wearing whipped cream on your upper lip, and then snorted when Tim pointed it out, I forgot.”
“I did not snort. I never snort.” The light turned yellow and Cassie hit the brakes, even though she had time to cross. They’d reached Lower Hillside and Main. Amador Construction and Preservation was a block up on the left, in front of Star Springs Park.
Jessica stared ahead, thoughtfully. “I’ve always stuck to Cincinnati and didn’t come here much, but I remember spotting storybook architecture sprinkled throughout the region. I wish I’d known there was an entire storybook town . . .” Her voice died away, and she pointed to the huge wood-burned sign that read G
. “Did gypsies really live here?” she asked.
Cassie nodded distractedly. A quarter of a mile to the right was her grandmother’s old house, on a ravine that backed up to the park. She’d stop by after she visited the Gypsy Café, to see how it was holding up. Her gaze drifted; she spotted the water tower and did a double take. It had been painted in black-and-white spirals, like a barbershop pole, with the words W
printed in big red block letters. It was impossible to miss and could probably be seen for miles around.
Jessica followed her stunned gaze. “Wow. I want these listings for us, too, Cassie. Let’s do this.”
“Let’s do this!” Cassie echoed. The light turned green. They pumped their united hands in the air and let out a
. The sign of one of their major competitors caught their attention, though, and the
lost a little steam, but Cassie was grateful. It made her slightly apprehensive about her business, and she could turn that into fuel. The other nervousness roiling around in her stomach was personal and did her no good.
“You said you’d tell me your plan along the way and we’re almost there.”
Cassie beamed at her. “Good for you. I’m glad you want to know what you’ll be walking into. Assertiveness and preparedness will take you a long way.”
“I’m not getting out of this car until you tell me your plan.”
“What happened to being intimidated by me?” Cassie grumbled.
Jessica pointed to Cassie’s turquoise shirt. “You spilled coffee on yourself again.”
“Just button your blazer up to the top and tell me your plan already.”
Cassie pulled into Amador Construction and Preservation’s side parking lot. “I don’t have a plan. My business instincts tell me to wing it.” Her heart thundered hard in her throat, as if she’d swallowed it. Her breakfast joined it. Though she’d meant to ease into the parking space between two beat-up pickup trucks, she somehow ended up speeding in and braking to a hard stop. She and Jessica jolted forward before snapping back.
Jessica glanced over at her. “Honey, you look like you’re about to faint. Are you sure you’re ready to wing it?”
“Yes. I have this trick where I turn nervousness into assertiveness by making myself get mad at the other person for making me feel nervous. It works. You’ll see.” Determined now to get the meeting over with, Cassie climbed out of her ’74 Mustang, and marched up to the door, ready to sweep inside, quickly and without further ado.
But she made the mistake of pausing for a quick moment to look inside before opening the door.
In front of her, through the gold lettering that spelled
, were her three old friends. Johnny was standing over Sam, giving him a noogie, while Dan laughed hard. It was a scene from her youth. A sense of loss washed over her. God, how she’d missed them.
Suddenly, it wasn’t so easy to sweep back into their lives.
All three brothers looked up. Dan’s blue eyes widened and Johnny’s jaw dropped. Dan sprang into action, walking toward the door just as Cassie felt a gentle push from behind.
Knowing Jessica was there, someone from her present life, grounded her before she floated off to days past and forgot why she was there in the first place. Dan opened the door and she stepped in.
It took her one moment. One moment to see Sam had become a man. Hints of stubble surrounded his well-formed mouth, and crinkles lined the corners of light brown eyes so clear, they’d always looked as if sunlight was hitting them. His thick, wavy, and perpetually messed-up golden brown hair was streaked with a few white-blond strands. His natural tan had deepened. She’d always thought he looked like a golden boy.
Sam looked up from under Johnny’s armpit and there she was. Her wavy hair was slicked back into a bun and she was wearing a pristine white business suit. The girl he’d loved had wild hair and couldn’t wear white without having streaks or smudges on it within minutes. She’d once looked like a child out of an Irish lore, with her blazing hair; sweet, gutsy smile; innocent blue eyes; and sprinkling of freckles across her cheeks that matched the color of her hair.
The woman who’d just entered looked like she could dominate a corporate boardroom.
Johnny raced to the door. “Cassie, is that really you?” Dan said, reaching for her as if he’d just seen her yesterday.
“It’s her, alright!” Johnny exclaimed.
Within seconds, Cassie was engulfed in a double bear hug as Sam looked on. Her arms, at first stiff and motionless, began creeping up their backs to hug them back in earnest. Johnny swept her off her feet and spun her in a circle. The tight lips loosened, she snorted, and Sam’s heart clenched hard. He missed his old friend, but he couldn’t hug her the way his brothers were hugging her, because he’d screwed up. Cassie had messed up too, but she hadn’t stuck around long enough to find out how. And though part of him wished she’d let him explain, in his heart he knew it didn’t matter.
He looked down at his desk, grabbed a pencil, and held it over a notebook, trying to get a grip on what would happen next. He’d prepared for the meeting by inwardly gloating over how he’d surprised her yesterday. Any time regret snuck up on him, he’d kept it at bay by planning out how the meeting would go.
Now, with Cassie not looking at him at all and his brothers shooting him looks that promised a crapload of ribbing later on, he didn’t know where to begin. Didn’t even know how to greet her.
Johnny’s head bobbed up and pale blond hair caught his eye. There was a woman standing just inside the door and she looked as unsure of her place as he did. Yesterday’s conversation came back to him. The woman must be Jessica Carter, Cassie’s associate. He sprang up out of his chair to greet the woman, deciding that playful was really the only way to go. Anything else would feel wrong and forced. Sam couldn’t work that way.
And he wanted this to work.
He swept past his brothers and Cassie, forced a smile, and stuck his hand out. “Jessica Carter?” he asked. “I’m Sam Amador. We spoke on the phone yesterday.”
“Yes.” Jessica took his hand and began to shake it, a little too vigorously, while she sized him up, a little too obviously.
He cleared his throat. “If my brothers put our old friend here down, I’ll introduce you to them.”
“Aren’t you going to say hi to Cassie first?” Dan turned to look at him, all innocence.
“If you guys let her go, I can say hi,” Sam returned, kicking himself for not trying harder to get rid of them.
“Why do we have to let her go? Are you planning on hugging her hello, too?” Johnny asked. They were like ticks, those two.
With a calmness he didn’t feel, Sam looked down at Cassie. “I don’t know. She’s an old friend, but a potential business partner.” Feeling like a dork, he squeezed her arm. “Welcome back, Cassie.”
Cassie’s mind was a dizzying whirlwind of thoughts, and her heart felt like it would burst at the amount of emotions it was holding. The old ribbing and teasing hadn’t changed a bit, making her feel as if no time had passed. But the moment Sam touched her and she looked into his eyes, she was brought back to the present.
The boy she’d once known and the man she didn’t know at all were wrapped up in one still-magnetic package. Long before she’d known what attraction was or what it felt like, it had been a simple, innocent fact: Sam Amador was nice to look at. Even when she was six and thought he was the boring brother because he didn’t talk much, she’d liked looking at him. She’d once shoved a green Monopoly house up his nose just so she could get a closer look at him.
He’d always drawn the eye and made one wonder what was beneath the warm, soulful brown eyes and unassuming, engaging smile. One thing had always been clear. There was a lot below the surface.
Jessica cleared her throat and the sound was like a beacon, reminding Cassie of her presence and their reason for being there. She pulled her shoulders back and Sam’s smile quirked, reminding her that he knew her old habits. She’d always straightened her shoulders when she was about to go to war.
She turned to Johnny and Dan and said, “It’s great seeing you guys again and I’m hoping you’ll show me around and get me all caught up, but right now, Sam, Jessica, and I have business to discuss.”
Dan nodded and steered Johnny out. “We’ll be back in about a half an hour to take you around. Nice meeting you, Jessica.”
“Nice to meet you, too.”
“I promised I’d stop by the café, so meet me there instead,” Cassie called after them. Dan and Johnny each gave her one last, happy look before leaving. Johnny then cast his look toward Sam, as if he knew a lot was at stake.
Cassie vowed not to let it get awkward. She had to somehow strike a balance between old—but no longer close—friends, and potential business partners. She looked back at him as she walked toward the seats facing his desk and smiled brightly. “So, how’d you learn I was the owner of Red Realty?” But looking back and talking was a bad idea. She stubbed her foot on the chair and lost her balance for a moment.
Sam bit back a smile and motioned for her to have a seat as he walked around to sit at his old, worn leather chair. It was probably the same chair his father had used, and it reminded her that Sam had never been about showing off. He was about holding on to what was important.
Which meant that she hadn’t been important. Her smile threatened to collapse, but she held those corners of her mouth up.
“I’m guessing the same way you found out about the thirty-four houses.”
With that, Cassie’s smile became real. “How old are they? Seventy? And they still can’t keep a secret?”
Jessica leaned forward. “Who?”
“Ruby, Rosa, and Sherry. You’ll meet them next.” Cassie looked at her watch.
Sam caught the action and shot her a look. “So . . .” He leaned back expectantly.
Cassie took a piece of paper out of her briefcase and slid it across his desk. “This is where I usually make some small talk before I go into my spiel, but I know you’re not one for small talk and you’re definitely not one to enjoy a sales pitch, so I’ll just cut to the chase. This is our track record and, as you can see, it’s impressive. It’s all about matching the right home to the right buyer. We really care about what we do.” As professional as she was trying to be, she knew he saw past that when she spoke the last sentence. It was hard not to be completely open and earnest when saying she cared, because she really did.
“Do you really want to cut to the chase?” He glanced at her and Cassie nodded, focusing on his nose rather than his eyes. His eyes had always tested her melting point, and she’d hate herself if that were still true. As much as she’d changed and grown up, she shared a past with this man.
Sam leaned forward. “I’ve met with five firms, and two of them agreed to my terms.”
Cassie watched his Adam’s apple bob up and then down. His hands remained stiff. She schooled her features into a neutral look, not wanting him to see she’d noticed. Sam had never been the anxious type. “Nearly half the listings are yours if you agree to my terms. Like you said, I’m not just about the numbers and I already know yours are impressive. I also know no one will care about the town and the homes the way you will, and I appreciate that you’re the only one who specializes in historic homes. The other two firms will be getting ten listings each. You’d be getting fourteen. Four right away.”
Cassie and Jessica inadvertently exchanged a look. “What are your terms?” she asked, focusing on his nose again, even though it made her feel silly instead of professional.
“I’ll only support a business that supports this town. If you want the listings, you’ll have to open an office right here in Spinning Hills, and the person selling the properties will have to work full-time out of that office. It can’t just be a front, and I’d have to meet and approve of the person who’d be selling the properties.”
Cassie stared at him, at a loss for words. Not because of his terms, but because of how stupid she’d been not to anticipate them. His kind words were unexpected, too, but they shouldn’t have been. Of course Sam wouldn’t go with someone who didn’t have a local presence and of course he knew how much she’d care.
She looked over at Jessica, who rounded her eyes and shrugged one shoulder. Cassie knew exactly what her expression and gesture meant.
His terms make sense, but are you sure you want to do this?
Cassie swallowed. She always chose the right person for each market and she was the right person for this one. For the second time since walking in, she pulled back her shoulders. Sam caught the action once again.
Their eyes met and Cassie was unafraid this time because their looks held no warmth. They were hard and determined. She stood up and put one finger on his desk. A power move she’d learned from her dad. “I would be the one selling them. And I’ll agree to your terms, but I want them all, Sam. I want all thirty-four properties.”
“That would mean putting all my eggs in one basket and it’s a risk I won’t take. Dan, Johnny, and I have worked too hard. We’ve got twelve properties ready to go. I need more than one person on them, Cass.”
“It wouldn’t be a risk. You’re not putting them all up for sale at the same time. I can handle them all.”
He shook his head and she could tell he was trying to keep his famous cool temper in check. “I’d rather see how those first four properties go. You should know it won’t just be these thirty-four anyway. People here trust me, and they give me leads and call me first when they have a fixer-upper they want to sell fast. They know I’ll be fair and they know that I’ll take care of the homes they’ve loved. Sell the ones I’m giving you, fast, and you’ll be my go-to Realtor. And one of my properties is actually a four-in-one. I’m turning one house into four condos. It’s a trickier project and it’ll take a while, but—”
“The English Tudor on the corner of Manor Row and West Main,” he said, hesitantly, and Cassie knew why. Renovating any one of those mansions would cost more than it could ever be sold for. People had probably told him he was crazy for buying it.
But Cassie’s mind was whirling with the possibilities. Turning that particular mansion into condos was a genius plan that could potentially lead to a turnaround for the entire street. A whole new level of excitement began to build inside her. Their locked gazes took on a heightened intensity.
She wanted that listing. She wanted it bad. “It’s on the corner, so people will be less likely to mind the condition of the rest of the street, it faces the river and the bike path that leads to downtown Dayton . . .”
“It’s a five-minute walk from downtown Spinning Hills,” Sam added, eyes as ablaze as she felt.
“And it’s on the third most haunted street in Ohio,” she finished, out of breath over how much she wanted it. Sam looked spent, too.
“We have clients who put
at the top of their list!” Jessica exclaimed.
Cassie blinked. She’d forgotten Jessica was there. “That’s right,” she said, before clearing her throat. “You need to take a serious look at my numbers, Sam. I can and will deliver. I will be solely devoted to the Dayton market until your properties are all sold. In fact, I won’t even begin looking for other houses to list in the Dayton area until I’ve sold all of yours.”
“Sorry, but no. I have a son to think about and provide for, Cass. I can’t risk it.”
Cassie looked away. She knew he’d gotten married, had a son, and recently gotten divorced. She even knew he was still on friendly terms with his ex. The three elderly ladies at the Gypsy Fortune Café had never held back, knowing it would always be easier to hear it from them.
There was a time when it had all meant he’d moved on quickly. Another dagger to her battered heart. Years later, she’d grown used to it, and the only thing that stirred the long-ago sadness was that she still hadn’t been able to move on. Not because she was carrying a torch for him, but because she’d let him and her parents hurt her
badly. Because she’d once loved them all and been devoted to them
wholeheartedly. How could she ever love like that again when all thoughts of love were tied to pain and resentment? Sam had thrown her love away. Her dad had trampled all over it. Her mom had used and abused it.
But she was stronger for it and now had the chance to prove it. “Give me sixteen listings, six right away, plus the Tudor on Manor Row when it’s done, and I’ll lease an office today and get started on marketing tomorrow. I passed my competitors on the way here and they’re still dillydallying with signs and furniture. Your listings will be on my website by tonight. Their websites don’t get the targeted visitors and e-mail addresses I collect on mine. We have an extremely popular blog that draws a constant stream of visitors who are interested in the revitalization of older homes, towns, and cities.”
A long beat. “Why do you want this so badly?” he asked.
“No one else can give me sixteen listings. Selling them will take me to the top and keep me there with a strong lead. I want to be number one, Sam. Badly. Are any of the other Realtors as hungry as that?”
Sam stared at her, and she knew the wheels in his head were turning. Hard. He stood up, towering over her, his eyes never leaving hers. “Move your headquarters here, permanently, and you have a deal. I’ve read your blog and seen your ads. They’re good. They’re targeted. And Spinning Hills would show up in your marketing efforts all over the state. If you reach your goal, it means the town would be home to the premier historic realty firm in the state of Ohio. It’s a risk and potential payoff I could live with. You’re a smaller operation, I’m thinking you can handle the move.”