This was her favorite kind of Haven Point evening.
McKenzie Shaw locked the front door of her shop, Point Made Flowers and Gifts. The day had been long and hectic, filled with customers and orders, which was wonderful, but also plenty of unavoidable mayoral business.
She was tired and wanted to stretch out on the terrace or her beloved swing, with her feet up and something cool at her elbow. The image beckoned but the sweetness of the view in front of her made her pause.
“Hold on,” she said to Paprika, her cinnamon standard poodle. The dog gave her a long-suffering look but settled next to the bench in front of the store.
McKenzie sat and reached a hand down to pet Rika’s curly fur. A few sailboats cut through the stunning blue waters of Lake Haven, silvery and bright in the fading light, with the rugged, snow-capped mountains as a backdrop.
She didn’t stop nearly often enough to soak in the beautiful view or enjoy the June evening air, tart and clean from the mighty fir and pines growing in abundance around the lake.
A tourist couple walked past holding hands and eating gelato cones from Carmela’s, their hair backlit into golden halos by the setting sun. From a short distance away, she could hear children laughing and shrieking as they played on the beach at the city park and the alluring scent of grilling steak somewhere close by made her stomach grumble.
She loved every season here on the lake but the magnificent Haven Point summers were her favorite — especially lazy summer evenings filled with long shadows and spectacular sunsets.
Kayaking on the lake, watching children swim out to the floating docks, seeing old-timers in ancient boats casting gossamer lines out across the water. It was all part of the magic of Haven Point’s short summer season.
The town heavily depended on the influx of tourists during the summer, though it didn’t come close to the crowds enjoyed by their larger city to the north, Shelter Springs — especially since the Haven Point Inn burned down just before Christmas and had yet to be rebuilt.
Shelter Springs had more available lodging, more restaurants, more shopping — as well as more problems with parking, traffic congestion and crime, she reminded herself.
“Evening, Mayor,” Mike Bailey called, waving as he rumbled past the store in the gorgeous old blue ‘57 Chevy pickup he’d restored.
She waved back, then nodded to Luis Ayala, locking up his insurance agency across the street.
A soft, warm feeling of contentment seeped through her. This was her town, these were her people. She was part of it, just like the Redemption Mountains across the lake. She had fought to earn that sense of belonging since the day she showed up, a lost, grieving, bewildered girl.
She had worked hard to earn the respect of her friends and neighbors. The chance to serve as the mayor had never been something she sought but she had accepted the challenge willingly. It wasn’t about power or influence — not that one could find much of either in a small town like Haven Point. She simply wanted to do anything she could to make a difference in her community. She wanted to think she was serving with honor and dignity, but she was fully aware there were plenty in town who might disagree.
Her stomach growled, louder this time. That steak smelled like it was charred to perfection. Too bad she didn’t know who was grilling it or she might just stop by to say hello. McKenzie was briefly tempted to stop in at Serrano’s or even grab a gelato of her own at Carmela’s — stracciatella, her particular favorite — but she decided she would be better off taking Rika home.
“Come on, girl. Let’s go.”
The dog jumped to her feet, all eager, lanky grace, and McKenzie gripped the leash and headed off.
She lived not quite a mile from her shop downtown and she and Rika both looked forward all day to this evening walk along the trail that circled the lake.
As she walked, she waved at people walking, biking, driving, even boating past when the shoreline came into view. It was quite a workout for her arm but she didn’t mind. Each wave was another reminder that this was her town and she loved it.
“Let’s grill some chicken when we get home,” she said aloud to Rika, whose tongue lolled out with appropriate enthusiasm.
Talking to her dog again. Not a good sign but she decided it was too beautiful an evening to worry about her decided lack of any social life to speak of. Town council meetings absolutely didn’t count.
Her warm mood lasted until a few houses from her own, when an older gentlemen out clipping the tall hedge in front of his trim brick home whirled to face her, almost as if he had been lying in wait for her — probably exactly what he had been doing.
“I need a word with you, missy.”
Her stomach dropped. Darwin Twitchell — the bane of her existence and the three previous mayors before her.
“Mr. Twitchell. How are you this lovely evening?”
“Terrible,” he growled. He wore a perpetual frown, much like his English bulldog Petunia, who adored him. Of the two, Petunia clearly had the more appealing personality.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” she answered, trying to be polite.
“Oh, I doubt that. I really do.”
She tried so hard to be nice to Darwin. It was almost a point of honor with her, but he was one of those perpetually unhappy people who twisted everything around and made it so difficult to be kind.
As both a natural-born and determined optimist, she struggled every time she had dealings with the man — which was at least two or three times a week when he came to her with some kind of beef about the city.
A Korean War combat vet, Darwin had recently become a widower. In the months since, he had become even more sour, if possible. Though arthritis gnarled his fingers and he relied on a cane for balance and support, he still somehow managed to keep his yard and house exquisite, without a stray leaf or overgrown branch.
She considered it one of life’s great mysteries that a man who seemed to be a festering pile of frustration could expend so much effort and energy into making his property into a restful oasis of blooms and trailing vines and sturdy, beautifully placed trees.
A mystery she would try to puzzle out another day, she told herself. She had a chicken breast to grill — after she dealt with whatever stick he had up his hindquarters today. Dealing with irate citizens was part of her description as mayor, like it or not.
“How can I make things better for you this evening?” she asked politely.
“How long have you had your name on the door at the mayor’s office in city hall?” he demanded.
“Six months, Mr. Twitchell.” Six difficult, stress-filled months. Why, again, had she ever thought this whole mayoral gig was a good idea? Oh yes. Because she loved this town. Perhaps not every single inhabitant, though.
“Six months.” Darwin scowled. Or maybe he was beaming with happiness and glee. It was hard to tell, since all his facial expressions looked the same. “And how long have I been warning you about that bridge over the Hell’s Fury?”
The expression was a scowl, then. Not really a surprise.
She forced a smile. “Just about every week for the past six months, Mr. Twitchell.”
“I don’t know why I waste my breath. You obviously don’t care, since you haven’t done a damn thing about it since you’ve been in office.”
She tried not to let that sting, especially considering all the things she had accomplished in six short months. He was a lifelong resident of this town, one of her constituents, and she owed it to him to try to address his concern. As much as she wanted to hug his adorably grumpy-faced dog and walk away.
“The public works director is aware of the problem. We’ve talked to the state about it. It’s on the list. We’re waiting on a couple of grants and appropriations to come through. When that happens, it will be at the top of our list, I promise you.”
“When will that be?”
“I’m afraid I can’t tell you exactly. As I’m sure you’re aware, it costs a great deal of money for that kind of project. Right now the city cupboard is a little bare for a major infrastructure repair.”
“If this were Shelter Springs, we would have had a dozen new bridges by now. My nephew the mayor would never let things go this long.”
She had heard the same argument plenty of times over the last six months. According to Darwin, Mayor Martin of Shelter Springs could walk the entire length of Lake Haven without getting the cuffs of his tailored slacks damp.
“Now, Mr. Twitchell. We have our challenges, yes. But the people of Shelter Springs have their own.”
She would like at least one of their problems — more tax revenue than they knew what to do with.
Instead, her downtown was dead and most of the available property had been tied up for years by one man.
Just the thought of him made her grind her back teeth and grip Rika’s leash a little more tightly.
“You’d better do something about that bridge or there’s going to be trouble, mark my words,” Darwin grunted.
“I appreciate the advice, Mr. Twitchell,” she lied.
“And another thing. Garbage collection. That darn truck knocked over my can again for the third week in a row! Does that fool driver even know how to operate the thing?”
Apparently the mayor, by virtue of the office, was responsible for every single thing that went on within the city limits. Garbage collection was run by the county, as Mr. Twitchell fully knew.
“It might have something to do with the slope at the end of your driveway. It’s a little tricky to set the can down just so.”
“I don’t know why we ever had to switch over to those stupid automated trucks. Who can even pull those big cans out to the street, unless they’re a super hero or something. More trouble than it’s worth, you ask me. ”
Who would ever be dim enough to ask Darwin Twitchell anything, unless he or she wanted to spend the rest of the day listening to his lengthy litany of complaints?
She drew in a deep breath, focusing on the scent of pine and lake instead of acrimony. Darwin was an object of pity. He had little to do but sit around and stew about everything wrong in his world, both globally and locally. The challenge of righting a tipped-over can probably represented all the things he could no longer do because of his age and physical limitations.
McKenzie forced a smile, trying her best to inject a little genuine compassion in it. “Next time the truck tips over your can when it’s done taking your garbage, please leave it. I’ll be happy to pick it up for you and roll it back to the house.”
He harrumphed at that and she knew he would never consider leaving his can tipped over all day, waiting until she could get to it. He was so particular, he raked the gravel out on his parking strip if anybody so much as left a bike tire trail through it.
“Just find a damn garbage truck driver who knows what the Sam Hill he’s doing. That’s all I ask. Nobody cares any more about doing a good job. They’re all so busy on their computers, sending out nekked pictures of their whatsit.”
She almost laughed aloud — why didn’t anybody send her nekked pictures of their whatsit? — but she managed to contain it. “I’ll talk to the county public works supervisor and ask him to remind the garbage collectors to be a little more careful.”
“You do that. And take care of that bridge, too!”
He gripped his cane and made a sharp gesture to Petunia, who had the effrontery to be fraternizing with the enemy — or at least the enemy’s cinnamon poodle — then shuffled back up his driveway with the dog trotting behind him.
She sighed and continued on her way. She wouldn’t let one cranky old man ruin her enjoyment of this beautiful summer evening.
When she reached her lakeside house, however, she forgot all about Darwin and his perpetual complaints when she discovered a luxury SUV with California plates in the driveway of the house next to hers, with boat trailer and gleaming wooden boat attached.
Apparently someone had rented the Sloane house.
Normally she would be excited about new neighbors but in this case, she knew the tenants would only be temporary. Since moving to Shelter Springs, Carole Sloane-Hall had been renting out the house she received as a settlement in her divorce for a furnished vacation rental. Sometimes people stayed for a week or two, sometimes only a few days.
It was a lovely home, probably one of the most luxurious lakefront rentals within the city limits. Though not large, it had huge windows overlooking the lake, a wide flagstone terrace and a semiprivate boat dock — which, unfortunately, was shared between McKenzie’s own property and Carole’s rental house.
She wouldn’t let it spoil her evening, she told herself. Usually the renters were very nice people, quiet and polite. She generally tried to act as friendly and welcoming as possible.
It wouldn’t bother her at all except the two properties had virtually an open backyard because both needed access to the shared dock, with only some landscaping between the houses that ended several yards from the high water mark. Sometimes she found the lack of privacy a little disconcerting, with strangers temporarily living next door, but Carole assured her she planned to put the house on the market at the end of the summer. With everything else McKenzie had to worry about, she had relegated the vacation rental situation next door to a distant corner of her brain.
New neighbors or not, though, she still adored her own house. She had purchased it two years earlier and still felt a little rush of excitement when she unlocked the front door and walked over the threshold.
Over those two years, she had worked hard to make it her own, sprucing it up with new paint, taking down a few walls, and adding one in a better spot. The biggest expense had been for the renovated master bath, which now contained a huge claw-foot tub, and the new kitchen with warm travertine countertops and the intricately tiled backsplash she had done herself.
This was hers and she loved every inch of it, almost more than she loved her little store downtown.
She walked through to the back door and let Rika off her leash. Though the yard was only fenced on one side, just as the Sloane house was fenced on the corresponding outer property edge, Rika was well trained and never left the yard.
Her cell phone rang as she was throwing together a quick lemon-tarragon marinade for the chicken.
Some days, she wanted to grab her kayak, paddle out to the middle of Lake Haven — where it was rumored to be so deep, the bottom had never been truly charted — and toss the stupid thing overboard.
This time when she saw the caller ID, she smiled, wiped her hands on a dish towel and quickly answered. “Hey, Devin.”
“Hey, sis. I can’t believe you’re holding out on me! Come on. Doesn’t your favorite sister get to be among the first to hear?”
She tucked the phone in her shoulder and returned to cutting the lemon for the marinade as she mentally reviewed her day for anything spill-worthy to her sister.
The store had been busy enough. She had busted the doddering and not-quite-right Mrs. Anglesey for trying to walk out of the store without paying for the pretty hand-beaded bracelet she tried on when she came into the store with her daughter.
But that sort of thing was a fairly regular occurrence whenever Beth and her mother came into the store and was handled easily enough, with flustered apologies from Beth and that baffled “what-did-I-do-wrong?” look from poor Mrs. Anglesey.
She didn’t think Devin would be particularly interested in that or the great commission she earned by selling one of the beautiful carved horses an artist friend made in the woodshop behind his house to a tourist from Maine.
And then there was the pleasant encounter with Mr. Twitchell, but she doubted that was what her sister meant.
“Sorry. You lost me somewhere. I can’t think of any news I have worth sharing.”
“Seriously? You didn’t think I would want to know that Ben Kilpatrick is back in town?”
The knife slipped from her hands and she narrowly avoided chopping the tip of her finger off. A greasy, angry ball formed in her stomach.
Ben Kilpatrick. The only person on earth she could honestly say she despised. She picked up the knife and stabbed it through the lemon, wishing it was his cold, black heart.
“You’re joking,” she said, though she couldn’t imagine what her sister would find remotely funny about making up something so outlandish and horrible.
“True story,” Devin assured her. “I heard it from Betty Orton while I was getting gas. Apparently he strolled into the grocery store a few hours ago, casual as a Sunday morning, and bought what looked to be at least a week’s worth of groceries. She said he didn’t look very happy to be back. He just frowned when she welcomed him back.”
“It’s a mistake. That’s all. She mistook him for someone else.”
“That’s what I said, but Betty assured me she’s known him all his life and taught him in Sunday school three years in a row and she’s not likely to mistake him for someone else.”
“I won’t believe it until I see him,” she said. “He hates Haven Point. That’s fairly obvious, since he’s done his best to drive our town into the ground.”
“Not actively,” Devin, who tended to see the good in just about everyone, was quick to point out.
“What’s the difference? By completely ignoring the property he inherited after his father died, he accomplished the same thing as if he’d walked up and down Lake Street, setting a torch to the whole downtown.”
She picked up the knife and started chopping the fresh tarragon with quick, angry movements. “You know how hard it’s been the last five years since he inherited to keep tenants in the downtown businesses. Haven Point is dying because of one person. Ben Kilpatrick.”
If she had only one goal for her next four years as mayor, she dreamed of revitalizing a town whose lifeblood was seeping away, business by business.
When she was a girl, downtown Haven Point had been bustling with activity, a magnet for everyone in town, with several gift and clothing boutiques for both men and women, restaurants and cafes, even a downtown movie theater.
She still ached when she thought of it, when she looked around at all the empty storefronts and the ramshackle buildings with peeling paint and broken shutters.
“It’s his fault we’ve lost so many businesses and nothing has moved in to replace them. I mean, why go to all the trouble to open a business,” she demanded, “if the landlord is going to be completely unresponsive and won’t fix even the most basic problems?”
“You don’t have to sell it to me, Kenz. I know. I went to your campaign rallies, remember?”
“Right. Sorry.” It was definitely one of her hot buttons. She loved Haven Point and hated seeing its decline — much like old Mrs. Anglesey, who had once been an elegant, respected, contributing member of the community and now could barely get around even with her daughter’s help and didn’t remember whether she had paid for items in the store.
“It wasn’t really his fault, anyway. He hired an incompetent crook of a property manager who was supposed to taking care of things. It wasn’t Ben’s fault the man embezzled from him and didn’t do the necessary upkeep to maintain the buildings.”
“Oh, come on. Ben Kilpatrick is the chief operating officer for one of the most successful, fastest-growing companies in the world. You think he didn’t know what was going on? If he had bothered to care, he would have paid more attention.”
This was an argument she and Devin had had before. “At some point, you’re going to have to let go,” her sister said calmly. “Ben doesn’t own any part of Haven Point now. He sold everything to Aidan Caine last year — which makes his presence in town even more puzzling. Why would he come back now, after all these years? It would seem to me, he has even less reason to show his face in town now.”
McKenzie still wasn’t buying the rumor that Ben had actually returned. He had been gone since he was seventeen years old. He didn’t even come back for Joe Kilpatrick’s funeral five years earlier — though she, for one, wasn’t super surprised about that since Joe had been a bastard to everyone in town and especially to his only surviving child.
“It doesn’t make any sense. What possible reason would he have to come back now?”
“I don’t know. Maybe he’s here to make amends. Did you ever think of that?”
How could he ever make amends for what he had done to Haven Point — not to mention shattering all her girlish illusions?
Of course, she didn’t mention that to Devin as she tossed the tarragon into the lemon juice while her sister continued speculating about Ben’s motives for coming back to town.
Her sister probably had no idea about McKenzie’s ridiculous crush on Ben, that when she was younger, she had foolishly considered him her ideal guy. Just thinking about it now made her cringe.
Yes, he had been gorgeous enough. Vivid blue eyes, long sooty eyelashes, the old clichéd chiseled jaw — not to mention that lock of sun-streaked brown hair that always seemed to be falling into his eyes, just begging for the right girl to push it back, like Belle did to the Prince after the Beast in her arms suddenly materialized into him.
Throw in that edge of pain she always sensed in him and his unending kindness and concern for his sickly younger sister and it was no wonder her thirteen-year-old self — best friends with that same sister — used to pine for him to notice her, despite the four-year difference in their ages.
It was so stupid, she didn’t like admitting it, even to herself. All that had been an illusion, obviously. He might have been sweet and solicitous to Lily but that was his only redeeming quality. His actions these last five years had proved that, over and over.
Through the open kitchen window, she heard Rika start barking fiercely, probably at some poor hapless chipmunk or squirrel that dared venture into her territory.
“I’d better go,” she said to Devin. “Rika’s mad at something.”
“Yeah, I’ve got to go too. Looks like the Shelter Springs ambulance is on its way with a cardiac patient.”
“Okay. Good luck. Go save a life.”
Her sister was a dedicated, caring doctor at Lake Haven Hospital, as passionate about her patients as McKenzie was about their town.
“Let me know if you hear anything down at city hall about why Ben Kilpatrick has come back to our fair city after all these years.”
“Sure. And then maybe you can tell me why you’re so curious.”
She could almost hear the shrug in Devin’s voice. “Are you kidding me? It’s not every day a gorgeous playboy billionaire comes to town.”
And that was the crux of the matter. Somehow it seemed wholly unfair, a serious Karmic calamity, that he had done so well for himself after he left town. If she had her way, he would be living in the proverbial van down by the river — or at least in one of his own dilapidated buildings.
Rika barked again and McKenzie hurried to the back door that led onto her terrace. She really hoped it wasn’t a skunk. They weren’t uncommon in the area, especially not this time of year. Her dog had encountered one the week before on their morning run on a favorite mountain trail and it had taken her three baths in the magic solution she found on the internet before she could allow Rika back into the house.
Her dog wasn’t in the yard, she saw immediately. Now that she was outside, she realized the barking was more excited and playful than upset. All the more reason to hope she wasn’t trying to make nice with some odiferous little friend.
“Come,” she called again. “Inside.”
The dog bounded through a break in the bushes between the house next door, followed instantly by another dog — a beautiful German shepherd with classic markings.
She had been right. Rika had been making friends. She and the German shepherd looked tight as ticks, tails wagging as they raced exuberantly around the yard.
The dog must belong to the new renters of the Sloane house. Carol would pitch a royal fit if she knew they had a dog over there. McKenzie knew it was strictly prohibited.
Now what was she supposed to do?
A man suddenly walked through the gap in landscaping. He had brown hair, but a sudden piercing ray of the setting sun obscured his features more than that.
She really didn’t want a confrontation with the man, especially not on a Friday night when she had been so looking forward to a relaxing night at home. She supposed she could just call Carole or the property management company and let them deal with the situation.
That seemed a cop-out since Carole had asked her to keep an eye on the place.
She forced a smile and approached the dog’s owner. “Hi. Good evening. You must be renting the place from Carole. I’m McKenzie Shaw. I live next door. Rika, that dog you’re playing catch with, is mine.”
The man turned around and the pleasant evening around her seemed to go dark and still as she took in brown sun-streaked hair, steely blue eyes, chiseled jaw.
Her stomach dropped as if somebody had just picked her up and tossed her into the cold lake.
Ben Kilpatrick. Here. Staying in the house next door.
So much for her lovely evening at home.