A Kiss to Build a Dream On

BOOK: A Kiss to Build a Dream On
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In accordance with the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, the scanning, uploading, and electronic sharing of any part of this book without the permission of the publisher constitute unlawful piracy and theft of the author's intellectual property. If you would like to use material from the book (other than for review purposes), prior written permission must be obtained by contacting the publisher at [email protected] Thank you for your support of the author's rights.

For Ellen Baker, who dragged this one out of the recycling bin, too.

White Pine, Minnesota, has been a place in my mind for years now. And Willa—well, she's been there a long time, too. Many drafts of her story have come and gone, and I'm grateful to the amazing people who helped her find her way into Burk's arms.

My agent, Susanna Einstein, has tirelessly read drafts and taken calls and believed in not only this book, but me as a storyteller. I owe her my sanity, which I think some days comes at the price of
. Susanna's encouragement helped this book find a wonderful editor, Michele Bidelspach, who gave White Pine and its residents charm and depth and life. I am deeply grateful for all Michele's incredible, insightful work.

I owe a giant thank-you to friends who read drafts of this book early and often. Diana Rose, you not only inspired the character of Betty, but you didn't give up on the White Pine story, even when it was really clunky and bad. Thanks for reading some of those first (awful!) pages years ago. Kristy Demas, Rhonda Stapleton, and Ellen Baker, thanks, too, for your eyes on drafts of this book. And Margaret Yang, your friendship and beta reads have changed the whole landscape of my writing life. I owe you at least six key lime pies.

Colleen Newvine and Katie Vloet, you helped bring a little bit of the Axis to White Pine, for which I'm so grateful and so happy.

And finally, I wouldn't be writing many love stories at all if it weren't for my husband, Rob. You're the cheese in my hot dish, tying everything together.

illa Masterson shifted her shopping bags from one hand to the other as she rode the elevator up to her sixtieth-floor apartment.
The highest you can go in this building
, she often thought to herself—but not today.

This afternoon, each additional second she spent ascending in the elevator's cramped, square space fostered a growing sensation that she was starving. Not literally, of course—she
just eaten a divine spice-crusted salmon with a ginger yogurt sauce for lunch—but instead feeling like she was hungry for affection. For intimacy.

Frankly, Willa knew, she needed to get

The elevator stopped and the doors swooshed open. She stepped out, head up, determined to give her boyfriend, Lance, her brightest, happiest smile when she entered the apartment. It might not lead to sex, but at least it would stop her brain from pickling itself in lust-filled thoughts.

The long, carpeted hallway stretched before her. Somewhere, she could hear raised voices and slamming doors. Probably someone getting work done by noisy contractors. It happened all the time in the building.

Thinking about how much she needed a good romp between the sheets wasn't fair, she knew. Sex with Lance had never been melt-your-panties hot. It had never really even been that good. But it had, at one time, at least been
. Sort of.

She clutched her bags, knowing she had countless female friends who longed for their husbands and partners to back off the bedroom antics a bit. Why couldn't she be one of them? Lance had been so persistent and convincing early on in their relationship that she'd agreed to moving in together and combining their lives after a few weeks. She'd done it, had kept taking her birth control pills dutifully, even though that one critical, physical piece between them was…broken. Or soft and limp, depending on your take.

Not that it was just the sex. Willa swallowed, knowing that whatever was—or wasn't—happening in the bedroom was actually a symptom of something else. Of she and Lance shopping too much and not talking enough perhaps. Of them traveling to exotic locations but never venturing beyond the hotel. Willa pictured the first edition book of poetry they'd bought for their coffee table, a lovely piece from the late 1800s with Moroccan leather and gilded pages. They'd spent thousands on the volume, but neither of them had ever read its contents.

Willa walked underneath the hallway's sparkling chandelier thinking that she and Lance weren't opening each other, either. A year into their relationship, and they were like that dusty book: untouched and unexplored. In mind and body both.

Perhaps it was time to acknowledge they weren't museum pieces—that they both needed handling. Maybe even by other people.

The thought didn't sting as much as bring her relief.

She exhaled and continued on—white crown molding above her and plush Berber carpet underneath her. The voices grew louder as Willa rounded the corner. She paused when she saw men in embroidered shirts swarming about. These weren't contractors; they were too clean for that. And they weren't police.

Had something happened to one of her neighbors? She wondered if Mrs. Faizon had finally passed away. The woman was at least a hundred.

Just then, a tall man with a buzz cut marched down the hallway toward her. He was carrying a finely framed work of art, and she was able to read the embroidering on his polo shirt.

Midtown Repossession.

Willa understood immediately that one of her wealthy neighbors had fallen on hard times. Her heart sank with compassion. Her corner of New York City might be wholly focused on status and wealth, and someone's loss often meant another's gain. But it never felt good to see people bumped out of the game entirely.

And then her eyes fell on the art, and her blood turned to ice.

The painting was
: a sparse Andrew Wyeth watercolor she'd fallen in love with a few months ago. It had been hanging above the fireplace.

Dumbly, she cut through the cluster of repo men—one of them swept past with her jewelry box, another with an original Eames chair she'd purchased at an estate sale—and stumbled into the apartment.

Her heels echoed on the polished wood floor. Her Persian carpets had been rolled up and carried out. Straight in front of her, sitting with his head in his hands on the single couch that remained, was Lance. Standing next to him was a police officer.

“What is happening?” Willa asked. She'd meant to shout it, she'd meant for her indignation to be loud enough to bounce off the now-empty white walls and startle everyone, but she'd barely been able to whisper. Lance looked up. His dark eyes were bloodshot. His face was puffy, as if he'd been crying.

“I lost it,” he groaned. “I lost everything.”

Willa blinked. This wasn't possible. Lance was an
investor. They were so far in the black, he often said, that she could buy whatever she wanted every day for a hundred years and still not put a dent in their wealth.

“There's been some mistake,” she replied. A distant part of her realized she was still holding on to her shopping bags. She set them down on the bare floor.

“I'm afraid not,” the police officer replied. He glanced through wire-rim glasses at the notebook resting in his thick hands. “Charges are being filed, and I need you to come down to the station.”

Fuzzy spots dimmed the edges of Willa's vision. “Charges?” How was losing your own money a criminal offense?

“We'd like you to give a statement,” the officer said to Willa.

A statement about what?
Dimly, she realized the officer's uniform was the same rich navy blue as the crisp edges of their bathroom towels. She wondered if those had been taken away, too.

“If you'll just come this way,” the officer said. When Lance stood, Willa saw his hands didn't fall to his sides. He was
, for crying out loud.

Sudden fear made her jaw tremble.
What had he done?

The officer led them to the freight elevator near the stairwell, where their things were being loaded. Cramped between her dining room chairs and a postmodern sculpture, Willa stared at Lance.

?” she asked him.

He only shook his head and repeated the same phrase he'd used in the apartment: “I lost it.”

Her fear switched to frustration, which in turn kindled sparks of anger. It sharpened her thoughts to a razor's edge. She wanted to reach out and shake Lance, to insist he tell her everything, but the police officer was right there. Best to wait until the station, she reasoned. She wasn't about to add to the mess he'd created by forcing Lance to explain everything right this second.

Instead, she tried to calm her ragged breathing and her churning insides.

Not ten minutes ago she thought she needed to get laid.

Now she understood she needed to figure out what had been going on in her life—what had
been going on, that is—while she'd been running around Manhattan thinking everything was fine.

The elevator doors opened in a matter of moments. The ride to the bottom, she thought numbly, always seemed so much faster than going up.


Two months later
Wednesday, September 19, 11:21 a.m.

illa Masterson tilted her head back and moaned. Underneath the table, her toes curled in her shoes. Her spine was on fire.

With a hot buttered biscuit in one hand and a steaming forkful of casserole in the other, Willa was as close to pleasure as she'd been in—well, months, really.

Opening her eyes and taking a deep breath, she tried to regain some of her composure. Customers in this crowded, wood-paneled space might begin staring if she didn't stop with the sounds already. Never mind that the food at the Paul Bunyan Diner could make
insides heat up with a shivery, goose-bumpy thrill. At least the hot dish could anyway, which was what Minnesotans called a casserole—in this case, a spinach, mushroom, and sausage concoction that had her wanting a second bite before she'd finished swallowing the first.

Willa chewed slowly, trying to savor every moment of her hot dish bliss. It was all she'd been eating since she'd arrived in White Pine two days ago. Part of it was out of necessity—there just weren't that many restaurants in town, and God knows she herself couldn't cook—but the truth was that Willa had yet to get her fill of the stuff. It was a wonder, really, considering that in Manhattan, there were five-star restaurants that could barely hold her attention for a single meal.

Lucky that the food is so good
, Willa thought, taking in her surroundings. The décor was straight out of a pioneer exhibit she'd seen once at the New York Historical Society. The lace-edged curtains were yellowed with age, the fabric fraying. Peeling birch logs leaned into some of the corners, the wood tired and dusty. And the tin plates and lumberjack saws nailed to the walls were more primitive than rustic.

Willa stared over her gingham placemat and imagined ripping out the old booths—wood splintering and nails creaking—and replacing them with shiny chrome tables, the tops so reflective you could see your own face. She imagined painting the scuffed wooden floor a velvety black, and swapping out the sawed-off stump of a hostess station with a sleek podium. It would be the kind of place she could imagine in Manhattan, where all her friends would be angling for a dinner seat.

All her
friends, that is, since these days they'd probably rather sue her than have lunch with her.

Willa stared at her chipped coffee mug and wondered what they'd say if they could see her now, shoveling her face full of food at a two-bit diner in her hometown. They'd no doubt purse their perfect lips in barely contained laughter. Their wrinkle-free faces would stretch with mirth at the ramshackle house where she was staying, their manicured hands clapping together at the debacle her life had become.

She knew exactly how they'd react because she'd done it to others herself. She grimaced, remembering how Mercedes Whittaker's husband had dumped her for a much-younger woman. He'd left poor Mercedes nearly penniless in a brutal divorce, and when Mercedes had to move to Brooklyn, Willa had simply deleted the woman's phone number, as if they'd never been acquainted at all.

Willa swallowed a lump in her throat, regretting how awful she'd been and thinking of what a field day these women had—and were no doubt still having—with
wreck of an existence.

Not that her life was a mess exactly. She straightened in her seat, reminding herself that things could always be worse. Her dad had once told her that she had a solid brain for business, and a knack for getting things done. So what if she was back in Minnesota? She had a foolproof plan for her life here, and it was
to work.

But her gut clenched nonetheless. Part of her was beginning to wonder if she was navigating a new path to success as much as clinging to her only means of survival. Was she here because she wanted to be, or because she
to be?

The cowbell over the diner door clunked, and she set down her fork and biscuit, glad for the distraction. She'd expected the contractor twenty minutes ago, and she didn't like being made to wait. She was also miffed that they weren't meeting at her house. Didn't a contractor need to
at a project to assess what needed to be done?

Willa knew firsthand how exhaustive the to-do list was since she'd been staying in her childhood home for the past forty-eight hours. By day, she'd pull white sheets off old furniture and try to sweep up years of dust and dirt; by night, she'd lie awake in her childhood bed, breathing in the house's old air and listening for the scrabble of animal feet in the walls or, worse, close by her head. In the quiet darkness with the vermin closing in, she'd battle back tears—sometimes winning and sometimes sobbing until her ratty pillow was soaked with snot, wishing she felt more
already. She'd left Lance, after all. She'd started over. She was still standing, even if her former friends were rooting for her to fall on her face.

Instead, she'd stare at the ceiling, memorizing every crack and chip, thinking that her own life was cracked, too. She'd go red-faced with the realization of what a fool's life she'd been living in New York. Her friends had been fake, her relationship had been a joke, and her whole life had been covered with a veneer she was too frightened to shed. Until it shattered into pieces before she could stop it, and she was left with raw reality staring her in the face.

In those moments, her only comfort would be the house's persistent quiet. At least there was no one around to see her shame.

Because she'd been pacing the floorboards and staring at the walls in her misery for the past two days, Willa understood precisely what improvements needed to happen with her place. Even so, the contractor had insisted on meeting at the diner. By way of explanation, he said he knew he was up for the job—he'd been caring for the house since it had been abandoned nearly twelve years ago, after all—but he said he wanted to see Willa face-to-face, to determine if working together was going to be a good fit.

The New York Willa never would have put up with that kind of attitude. She would have snapped off her cell phone and found someone who would do exactly what she wanted, precisely when she wanted it. Spoiled New Yorkers could get away with so much. Like stealing their girlfriend's money to make bad investments, for example, not to mention screwing up the finances of every single one of their friends.

Willa was just turning to see if the contractor was, in fact, there, when a man slid into the booth across from her.

“Willa?” he asked.

She couldn't even reply. The air had gone from her lungs. The clinking, bustling sounds of the diner had receded to the edges of the earth. The world had gone still and silent as she stared into the eyes of Burk Olmstead. She'd know that stormy dark blue color anywhere.

B.C.'s Contracting was
business. In a million years, she never would have guessed or expected it. But now that he was here, it made perfect sense. No wonder he wanted to meet face-to-face: He wanted to ensure it wouldn't be awkward for the two of them to work together.

Willa continued to stare, speechless, until the lines around Burk's eyes deepened in a confused crinkle. She realized he was waiting for her to confirm her identity.

It had been more than a decade, after all.

Willa forced herself to smile and hold out her hand. “Hello, Burk.”

He grasped her fingers in a short, rough shake. The feel of his skin against hers sent an electric tingle through her body—a hundred times stronger than any pleasure the food had given her. She blinked, surprised at how easily it all came back. How her body could remember the touch of him, even all these years later.

He nodded at her. For an awkward moment, neither of them spoke. Willa waited for him to say something—anything—in a greeting: “It's nice to see you” or “it's been a while” or “what are you doing back?” But he remained stonily silent, the hard line of his jaw unmoving. His wide, muscular forearms rested on the table, perfectly still. His dark blue eyes never left her face. Nor did they betray any emotions. They were as hard and fixed as diamonds in a setting.

She hoped her own eyes were the same, but she doubted it. She was alarmed at how undone she felt at the sight of him—just like when they were teens.

Not that she was about to let herself get swept up in old memories.

“Would you like some coffee?” she asked finally. “Or some lunch? Sorry I started without you, but I'd been waiting a bit.”

Burk shook his head, instead pulling a small, battered notebook from the front of his plaid shirt. “I'm running behind. We'd better get started.”

Willa couldn't remember Burk ever being this gruff. Or this handsome, she thought, taking in the tumble of dark hair, thicker than she recalled, and the edge of his cheekbones, sharper than when they'd dated in high school. The shadow of stubble across his face made her pulse quicken.

Willa, by contrast, knew her recent past hadn't done her any favors. She'd put on weight from all the financial strain and legal battles related to Lance's botched finances. She tried not to think about how her newfound curves must look next to a plate of decimated hot dish.

Not that Burk appeared to notice. He tapped a pen against the notepad's spirals. “So you're finally going to fix the old place up, eh?”

His vowels were incredibly round. “So” and “going” sounded drawn out, as if he was adding extra O's to the words. Willa wondered if she'd talked like that at some point. She must have, but now it sounded like a foreign language.

“Yes, it's stood empty for a long time, as you know. It needs a lot of work.”

“What do you want to start with?”

The brusque question was no doubt the result of Burk being time-strapped, but disappointment needled her nonetheless. Did he have to be so curt? She couldn't expect Burk to treat her any differently just because they had a past. But she suddenly felt as if a long-buried part of her
him to.

Absolutely not. She stared at his mouth, fighting off the memory of his lips against hers all those years ago. The warm, tender brush of them. The sweet touch of skin on skin.

Forget it.
She was not going to allow her emotions to sidetrack her. She knew firsthand how disastrous it could be to want something that just wasn't there.

Besides, Burk was being terse, not to mention inefficient. If he'd met her at the house, they could have covered all his questions already. They could have walked around and talked about the things that needed taking care of first. If the purpose of the meeting was for them to figure out if they could work together, why was he asking about project priorities?

“As you know, there's a lot to be done,” Willa answered carefully, reining in her emotions. “In addition to fixing up the obvious things—the roof, the floors, the windows—I also need to knock down some walls. And reroute some plumbing. Probably also put some additional appliances in the kitchen. A second stove maybe.”

For a moment, Burk didn't answer. Willa wondered if his face had paled slightly, or if she was imagining it.

“That's quite an overhaul,” he said finally.

“It needs to be. My goal is to turn it into a bed-and-breakfast. It's about time, don't you think? I'm positive this town is ready for a first-class place to stay.” Willa didn't know why she sounded like she was trying to talk the entire diner into liking her idea.

Something dark flashed in the depths of Burk's stormy eyes. There was a time when Willa would have been able to read it—to know exactly what every expression or gesture meant—but that was long ago.

“We already have the Great Lakes Inn on the other side of town,” Burk said. “And I'm not sure they're exactly bursting with customers. You sure you want to open a second motel when the first one can barely break even?”

Willa's insides flamed with frustration. “It's not a
, it's a bed-and-breakfast. There's a huge difference. And I'm not going to have rotting bedspreads with lighthouses on them like that dump. I'm going to have down comforters and roaring fires and five-star food. Comfy couches and beautiful grounds and freshly baked cookies in the afternoon. Plus fresh juices and teas anytime you want them. Not to mention first-rate wines. All the things they have in B and B's out East.”

Burk arched a dark eyebrow. For some reason, the motion sent a shiver through her.

“Sounds expensive,” he said.

Willa squared her shoulders. “It will be elegant.

“Suit yourself,” he said, his eyes returning to his notebook.

Willa had the distinct impression he wasn't convinced. Which was fine, she supposed. She needed a contractor, not a consultant.

“There are a few outdoor issues as well as indoor,” she said, pressing forward with her project list. “Some rotted wood on the front porch, though I'm not sure—”

Burk held up his hand. “No need to go into any of that yet.”

Willa blinked. She wasn't used to being shut down like this by anyone, much less Burk. In high school, he had once driven to the next town over for ice cream when it turned out that White Pine's own Lumberjack Grocery was out of rocky road, her favorite. She would have settled for vanilla, but Burk told her she deserved to have what she really wanted. When he came back with the rocky road, she kissed him so hard that they wound up entwined together for hours, and the ice cream had melted into a puddle on the counter.

“You under a deadline?” he asked, jarring her back to the here and now.

“Not strictly. Certainly the sooner the bett—”

“Well, I'm always on deadline. And I like to finish projects quickly. If I take this on, I'll be at the site often. No screwing around. If I'm in your way, that's just part of it. I aim to get it done fast. And right. Will that be a problem?”

BOOK: A Kiss to Build a Dream On
4.13Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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