Her Very Own Family
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“Yeah. He said you’ve been spending a lot of time out here.”
“It passes the days.”
There might be hints of his dad’s normal self resurfacing, but it was going to be a long time, if ever, before the soul-deep sorrow went away.
“So, you’re helping the lady with a little work?” Brady nodded at the wood chips and dust coating his dad’s shirt and jeans.
“Yeah, doing some odds and ends now, but she’s going to have me make the tables and chairs for the restaurant eventually.”
Brady eyed the exterior of the old mill. “She really thinks people will come out here to eat?”
“They’ll come. Audrey’s smart, got a business plan, lots of great ideas.”
Brady didn’t know what he thought of his father’s glowing report. On the one hand, it was great that he had a project, something to keep him occupied. On the other, well, he just needed to meet this Audrey for himself to make sure nothing was fishy, that she wasn’t a gold digger looking for someone to bankroll her pet project.
His dad nodded toward the gravel lane leading back to the main road. “She’s gone into town to get some paint. Should be back soon.”
“Well, let’s see what you’re working on,” Brady said as he walked toward the porch.
His dad showed him the benches extending along one wall that he’d reinforced. The railing he’d built around the mill’s large gears to keep anyone from stepping too close and getting hurt. And how he was cutting out a section of wall next to the waterwheel so that a large window could be installed, affording a view of the wheel and the creek beyond.
“Sounds like Audrey’s kept you busy. I hope she’s paying you well.”
His dad made a dismissive wave. “We’ll get to that. It’s just good to have something to do, get away from the house.”
So this Audrey was enjoying the fruits of his dad’s labors without paying him. That wasn’t exactly a point in her favor.
He only half listened as his dad kept talking about Audrey’s plans for the place, all of which seemed expensive and quite possibly ill-conceived. Yes, Willow Glen got a bit of tourist traffic because of the surrounding mountains, but an out-of-the-way caf? seemed a risky proposition. He just hoped that a bit of carpentry help was all she’d talked his dad into. He’d hate to be put in the position of questioning his dad’s financial decisions. That would go over like firecrackers during a church sermon.
The sound of a car coming up the lane drew their attention at the same time.
“That sounds like Audrey now,” his dad said. “Come on. I think you’re going to like her.”
That remained to be seen.
When they stepped outside, the mysterious Audrey was hidden by the open trunk lid on her car. He followed his dad as he headed toward the vehicle, a nice blue Jetta not more than a couple of years old. It wasn’t what he’d expected.
“We’ve got some more company we can put to work,” his dad called to her.
“That right?” came the muffled voice from the back just before she closed the trunk.
The world seemed to slip into slow motion as each detail in front of him came into supersharp focus, none of them what he’d expected.Brady stared, at a loss for words and vaguely aware that his mouth might be hanging open. Instead of a woman more his father’s age, a tall, leggy blonde stared back at him, surprise written across her lovely face.
Looked like today was going to be full of surprises.
The buckets of paint nearly slipped from Audrey’s hands, but her brain reengaged in time for her to adjust her grip.
“Audrey York, this is my son, Brady.”
Good heavens, if Brady Witt did indeed look like his father had at the same age, the recently departed Betty had been a very lucky woman. Tall, nicely toned, natural tan, angular features. His sandy-brown hair was a touch long and a bit messy, like he didn’t have the time for a haircut or just didn’t care.
“Nice to meet you,” she said.
“Let me take those,” Brady said as he reached for the paint cans.
“I’ve got them, thanks. But there are a couple of bags in the backseat with dinner in them.” Thankfully, she had extra.
As she turned away and started toward the mill, she exhaled slowly, trying to get her hammering pulse under control. It wasn’t the first time she’d seen a good-looking man, far from it. So why did this one in particular cause her pulse rate to go supersonic?
Long days and little sleep, that’s why. Not to mention the stress of wanting to get the caf? up and running and lots of work standing between her and opening day. Of course, the fact that Brady Witt was drop-dead gorgeous could have something to do with the fact that her brain synapses were misfiring.
She told herself not to care how she looked in her sweaty tank top, cargo shorts and work boots, but she couldn’t help smoothing her hair once she’d placed the paint cans inside. Then she shook her head at her silliness. She didn’t have to look polished and professional anymore, and that’s the way she’d wanted it. Willow Glen was the antidote to all the disappointments in her old life.
“You can just set those over there.” She indicated the table as Brady and Nelson came in with the bags.
“Dad’s been telling me all about your plans for the place,” Brady said. “Seems like quite a job for one woman.”
“Well, your dad has been a big help.”
“So I hear.”
She glanced up at Brady as she pulled the sub sandwiches and chips from the bags. Was that suspicion in his voice?
No, it couldn’t be. He had no reason to suspect her of anything. She’d be glad when she stopped hearing and seeing accusations and suspicion everywhere she looked.
But even after they all sat down to eat, she couldn’t shake the feeling that he was watching her for some misstep, some clue that would shine a bright spotlight on everything she wanted to leave behind.
“So, what gave you the idea for this little venture?” Brady asked.
It didn’t take a top investigator to figure out that he didn’t think it would work. But that was okay. She had enough belief in the project to counter any naysayers.
“I came up here last year, did some hiking along the Willow Trail, canoed along the creek. That’s when I saw this old mill, and my imagination just started leaping with ideas.”
She didn’t much believe in fate or destiny anymore, except what you made for yourself, but something about the sight of this old mill when she’d floated by that day had spoken to her, called her name, begged her to save it. At the time, she’d taken photos of it to preserve the piece of history. Only later did actual preservation of the building occur to her as a way of guiding her life in a new direction.
“How do you plan to get people out here?”
“Advertise in tourist publications, build a spur trail from here to the Willow Trail, construct a take-in/takeout point for canoeists on the creek here, maybe even rent canoes at some point. Trust me, I thought about this a long time and didn’t jump into it lightly.”
She detected surprise in the widening of Brady’s greenish-gold eyes, and satisfaction bloomed inside her.
“Dad said you had a business plan. Looks like he was right. Well, good luck with everything.” He broke eye contact and glanced down at the crumbs of his meal.
He might mean it, but it sounded more like a throw-away comment, something you say to someone you don’t know and don’t plan on getting to know. The detachment irritated her.
“Thank you.” She stood and gathered all the sandwich wrappers, chip bags, napkins and paper plates from the table then deposited them in the trash can. “Well, I need to get to some paperwork.”
The chairs scraped the rough wooden floor behind her.
“We’ll see you bright and early in the morning,” Nelson said, as he did every afternoon when he left for the day.
“Actually, Dad, I thought we might go fishing tomorrow.”
“Fishing?” Nelson looked at his son as if the suggestion made no sense. “I’m in the middle of a job here.”
“I’m sure Ms. York can spare you for a few days,” Brady said.
“Certainly,” she said with forced brightness as she turned to face them. “Spend some time with Brady.”
“I can spend time with Brady here,” Nelson said. “I’ve got to get that window area finished then start work on the tables. And with one more set of experienced hands, the work will go faster.”
Brady shifted his stance like he wanted to argue, but he kept quiet. She’d give just about anything to peek inside his brain for two minutes.
“Seriously, I’m fine,” she said to Nelson. “You’ve been a dear so far, but—”
Nelson shook his head and waved off her objection. “No. Once I start something, I finish it. I’ll see you in the morning.” With that, he patted her on the shoulder and headed outside, leaving her and Brady to stare after him.
She didn’t meet Brady’s eyes, but she felt his gaze on her.
“Thanks for dinner,” he said. “Guess I’ll see you in the morning.”
She uttered a “good night” and watched as he disappeared out the door, too.
So he was coming back with his dad. Fantastic, an entire day, maybe days, of him watching, suspecting. Oh, yeah, this was going to be all kinds of fun.
WHEN BRADY WALKED into the house, his dad wandered out of the kitchen holding a glass of milk.
“Care to tell me what that was all about?” his dad asked.
“How you acted with Audrey. You were nearly rude.”
“I wasn’t rude.”
“You know I’ve been helping her out, and right in front of her you say you want me to go fishing instead.”
“I thought it’d be nice, that’s all.”
Nelson raised one eyebrow. “You do remember I’ve been catching you in lies since you were able to talk, right?”
“It’s nothing, okay? I was just surprised you’d been spending so much time with her and hadn’t mentioned it.” Brady tossed his bag on the couch.
“I’m thankful she’s given me something to do. It’s not like I’m dating the girl. She’s young enough to be my daughter.”
Brady didn’t respond, didn’t know how.
His dad caught his eye just as he took a drink of his milk. Nelson lowered the glass. “That’s what you thought, isn’t it? That I’d taken up with someone already?”
Brady waved away the accusation. “No, of course not.” The lie gnawed at his gut.
Anger replaced the sadness in his dad’s eyes. “Don’t you ever doubt how much I loved your mother. She was my one and only.”
Brady shoved his hands in his pants pockets. “I know that, Dad.”
“Well, if you know that, why the suspicion?”
“It’s not your actions I’m worried about.”
“What, you think a pretty young girl like Audrey would be after an old codger like me?” He gave Brady a raised-eyebrow look that said the very idea was the height of unlikely.
“You have a TV. You know it happens. Young women hooking up with older men for their money.”
His dad actually snorted, the closest thing to a laugh Brady had heard from him in a long time, since before his mom’s stroke.
“I’m old, not stupid.”
“What do you really know about her, anyway?”
“I know she moved here from Nashville because she wanted to get out of the city. That she’s excited about this project, is enthusiastic, a very hard worker, is addicted to the Food Network and is missing it. And she was a friend to an old man when he needed one.” His dad shook his head. “I even joked with her that I was going to try to fix the two of you up. Looks like she was right.”
Brady tilted his head slightly. “About what?”
“That it’s a bad idea.” With that, Nelson sat his empty glass on the end of the kitchen counter and headed down the hallway toward his bedroom.
Brady stood in the middle of the living room, wondering how he’d managed to handle this whole situation so badly. All he wanted to do was make sure his father was okay, that he wasn’t duped. But somehow he’d turned into the bad guy. Just great. That should make the next two weeks freaking wonderful.
AFTER YET ANOTHER dreadful night of sleep, Audrey was on the steep, A-shaped roof, nailing down new pieces of silver tin roofing by six the next morning. The gentle breeze in the surrounding forest and the trickling of the creek next to the mill should have soothed her, but even they couldn’t smooth her ragged edges. By the time Nelson and Brady showed up, her mood still hadn’t improved.
“Lord, girl, what are you doing up there?” Nelson asked as he looked at her with his eyes shaded by his hand.
“Roofing. I’ve got to get this done before the electrician shows up in case it rains.”
“How in the world do you know how to roof a building?”
She hesitated as she wiped the sweat from her forehead. How to answer? “I volunteered for Habitat for Humanity after Katrina.” True. No need to mention the missionary trips to developing countries when she’d helped build homes for the poorest of the poor.
Nelson pointed toward where she kneeled. “Brady, get up there and help her.”
“No, really, I’m fine.” The last thing she needed while perched on a roof was Mr. I’m Watching You by her side, no matter how good-looking he was.
As if to spite her determination to work alone, however, she moved her foot and accidentally sent her hammer sliding down and off the edge of the roof onto the ground below. She bit down on the expletive, not wanting to utter it in front of Nelson.
She glanced at Brady to determine his reaction. His face was hidden from her, however, as he bent to retrieve the hammer. Nelson shook his head as he headed indoors.
Audrey directed her gaze at the tree canopy above and took a few deep breaths, told herself that everything would be fine. All she needed to do was let Brady get to know her a little so the suspicion she’d seen in his eyes the day before disappeared. Maybe it was just a small-town suspicion of newcomers and nothing more. She’d have to overcome that to make her caf? successful, so she might as well start tackling it now.
Brady appeared at the top of the ladder, hammer in hand.
“Thank you,” she said as he handed it to her.
Without asking, he stepped onto the roof and slid one piece of tin after another into place while she hammered.
“I can do that for a while if you like,” he offered.
“Thanks, but I’ve got it.” Actually, physical labor felt good, cathartic even.
A couple of minutes went by before he spoke again. “Did the tin do something to tick you off?” he asked, a touch of teasing in his question.
She stopped, realized thoughts of the past had caused her to start hammering harder. She leaned against the roof and wiped the sweat off her forehead again. “I just want to get done.”
“Won’t do you any good if you beat a hole through the roof.”
Audrey stared down at her boots, frustrated that the past still had the ability to make anger pulse through her. She didn’t want to be that angry, disappointed person anymore. She took several seconds to cool off and catch her breath then went back to hammering, though less violently this time.
“So, how’d you and my dad meet?” Brady asked.
She swallowed her instinctive aversion to questioning and replied in an even tone, “At the grocery store. I helped him find something he was looking for.”
“And that led to him working out here every day?”
Audrey glanced at Brady. “You’re the inquisitive sort, aren’t you?” she asked, keeping her question light, not accusatory.
Brady sat back and propped one forearm on his upturned knee. “I’m just looking out for my dad.”
“That’s what I’ve been doing.”
“Because he seemed like he needed it.” One glance at Brady told her that he had, indeed, simply been concerned for his recently widowed father’s welfare. She remembered how lost Nelson had looked in the grocery store and understood Brady’s concern. Just because the concept of a close relationship with a parent wasn’t within her current realm of possibility didn’t mean they didn’t exist anymore. Even she had once enjoyed such a relationship.
Nelson wandered outside to dump some wood scraps into the burning barrel. Neither she nor Brady spoke until the older man stepped back inside.
“Listen, I’m not sure what you were thinking, but I’m not out to get anything from your dad. He’s a nice man, and I’ve liked having him around. And he appears to like coming out here.”
Brady stretched his legs out and leaned back on his palms. He stared toward the gentle flow of the creek. “I’m sorry. He was just acting so different from the last time I saw him.”
“But that’s a good thing.”
Brady looked at her, questions written all over his handsome face.
“When I met your dad, he was standing in front of the cherry pie filling in the grocery store, totally overwhelmed by which one to buy. He was on the verge of tears. It made my heart break. He looked so relieved when I helped him pick a can for cobbler.”
Brady lowered his head, as if he were trying to see his dad through the tin of the roof. “Mom’s cobbler. It’s his favorite dessert.”
“I didn’t know about your mom then. I thought your mom had sent him to the store to do the shopping she normally did.” She told him about her conversation with Meg the cashier and her subsequent encounter with his dad in the parking lot. “I was only trying to help him in that moment. But once he came out here with those picture frames, he seemed to want to talk. The more we talked and I told him about my ideas, the more of his sadness drifted away. I mean, I still see it sometimes, but I honestly think it’s good for him to stay busy. It keeps his mind on something other than how much he misses your mom.”
And Audrey was the expert on staying busy to keep other thoughts at bay.
“I know. That’s part of the reason I came up here. I was worried about him. He hasn’t been the same person since Mom died.”
“That’s understandable. They were married for a long time. This isn’t something you get past in a few days.” She remembered the deep sorrow that had cloaked her own mother in the weeks following the unexpected death of Audrey’s father.
Brady glanced up at her. “You say that like you know from experience.”
She swallowed and shook away the unwanted memory. “Just common sense.” She lifted the hammer and moved toward the top of the roofline. “We should try to finish this before it gets too hot. I’m already sweating like I’ve been jogging across Death Valley.”
The old keeping-busy philosophy at work. If she filled her mind with roofing and painting and electrical wiring, she didn’t have to remember the father she’d lost. Or the mother she’d walked away from.
AUDREY YORK MIGHT NOT be after his father’s money, but she was definitely hiding something. Call it gut instinct, but he’d seen something in her eyes, almost a touch of fear. Fear that he’d find out something she wanted to keep hidden? He shook his head, realized yet again that he was comparing her to a bad memory. His brain knew all women weren’t like Ginny, but his gut kept missing the memo.
But he had to give credit where credit was due. She was indeed a hard worker. She was slicked with sweat, cuts and scrapes covered her hands and knees, her hair was coming loose from her ponytail, and she didn’t pay any of it a moment of attention. Her single-minded focus stayed on getting this roof completed in record time.
He paused for a moment to watch her hammer. Even disheveled, she was a beauty. And she acted like she was either unaware of that fact or didn’t care. Before his work pants became uncomfortable, he pulled another piece of tin into place.
“Dad said you moved from Nashville. Did you run a restaurant there?”
Audrey made one last strike of the hammer before shifting to the right and the next piece of tin. “No.” She paused to lift her sweaty face to what little breeze was stirring the air. She seemed to hesitate before continuing. “I was a fund-raiser.”
Fund-raiser to restaurant owner—odd transition. So was Nashville to Willow Glen.
“What about you?” she asked. “I hear you have a construction company or something.”
Brady noticed how she deflected the focus back to him, how she seemed unaware of how big Witt Construction was. Maybe he’d just acknowledge the small Kingsport location and see how she reacted. “Half of one. My partner, Craig, owns the other half.” He caught the quick, questioning glance she tossed his way. “That’s business partner, not partner partner.”
She laughed. “You guys are so overly sensitive about that topic.”
“Just clarifying.” Wow, she should definitely smile more often. It rocketed her from beautiful to stunning.
The questioning look on her face told him he’d been staring again. She had that effect on him. “Nothing. I was thinking you seem to be in a safer mood now that you’re not trying to murder the tin with that hammer.”
She held up the tool in question and stared at it. “Guess I worked out most of the frustration I was feeling.”
He held up a hand, palm out. “Remind me to never frustrate you.”
Damn, he was flirting. He wasn’t here to get a date. He’d left a pile of his own work behind to make sure his dad was okay. But he’d done that and yet here he still was, working for no pay. Seemed his dad was no longer the only person on his mind.
Audrey shook the hammer at him in mock threat, then went back to her task.
Just because he wasn’t looking to hook up didn’t mean he couldn’t enjoy the view while he worked.
They were putting the last piece of tin on one side of the roof in place when a racket and then a string of curses came from inside the mill. They nearly tripped over each other getting to and down the ladder. When they rushed inside, Nelson was holding his hand and still uttering a few choice words.
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