A Time for Home: A Snowberry Creek Novel (19 page)

“I’ve been working on my inventory of Spence’s house again. I started off on the first floor, but today I moved upstairs. Once I finished two of the bedrooms, I headed up to the third floor.”

“And,” he prompted when she fell silent.

“As soon as I walked into the front bedroom, I noticed marks in the dust.” She paused for a long drink, her throat as dry as that dust. “I know this sounds crazy, but it looks as if something has been taken or maybe moved. But here’s the problem: it’s been years since I spent much time in Spence’s house. Even then, I didn’t go up to the third floor much at all.”

He’d started to fill out a form but stopped and laid down his pen. “So you don’t know what belonged in those rooms.”

Good, he did understand. “That’s right, I don’t, which is why I started the inventory in the first place. I can’t even tell you when the last time was that anyone cleaned those rooms. The dust was pretty thick, so I’m thinking it was at least sometime before Spence was deployed, maybe a year or even longer. That’s why the marks were so clear.”

She pulled out her digital camera and brought up the snapshot she’d taken of the marks. “This is what I saw.”

Gage studied the picture for several seconds before handing the camera back. He leaned back in his chair, its springs creaking in protest. “Well, obviously we can’t do much with what you’ve told me or that picture. Even so, I don’t like the idea that someone has been in and out of that house on multiple occasions.”

He linked his hands behind his head and stared at a spot over Callie’s head. “It could have been teenagers making use of an empty house. That’s what I told Nick when he came to talk to me last week after the night he and that dog of his thought someone was prowling out in the woods.”

Then he looked straight at her. “But my gut doesn’t buy that, and neither does his. For one thing, kids leave more in the way of evidence. Beer cans, trash, stuff like that. No, I think it’s much more likely that someone was looking to make a quick score off stuff no one will miss.”

He paused, maybe waiting for her to respond. At the moment, it was all she could do to get her head around the idea that Nick had been talking to Gage about prowlers on her property without telling her. The idea had her fuming. What was he thinking? He should have come to her first, or at the very least told her what he’d done. Nick would get an earful when she got back home.

After several seconds, Gage sat up straight. “Here’s what I’m going to do. First, I’ll check with the neighboring towns to see if they’ve had anything similar reported. If it’s a pro working the area, there’s bound to be other similar instances. Right after that, I’m going to track down Spence’s uncle or his son and have a talk with him.”

At least Gage was taking her seriously and even had an immediate plan of action. “I appreciate this, Gage. It may turn out to be nothing, and I have to admit that wouldn’t upset me. But after the incident with the rock and Leif getting hurt, I thought it best to let you know.”

She wished she felt better about it, though.

“You did the right thing by coming to see me, Callie. I know you’re hoping that it wasn’t Vince or his son. However, they seem to me to be the most likely culprits. When the news hit town about Spence, they both made it abundantly clear they thought they should’ve been entitled to a little something from the estate or, better yet, all of it. Considering what I’ve heard about the way Vince treated Spence, though, it came as no surprise that he cut them out of not just his will but also his life.”

Memories of how truly bad it had been for Spence had her wanting to kick his uncle even after all these years. “Austin was just a kid when Spence’s folks died, but Vince was already a mean drunk. He hated everything about Spence. It’s hard to imagine how he and Spence’s mom came out of the same family. She was so warm and loving. The only thing Vince has ever loved is a bottle of cheap booze.”

Her eyes burned, but she blinked until the sting of tears faded. “Sorry, Gage. Guess I’m still not dealing with losing Spence all that well.”

“Not a problem, Callie. His death should be hard to deal with, not just for you but for all of us. He wasn’t only your friend. He was a real hero.”

The sincerity in Gage’s voice eased Callie’s pain enough that she could breathe. It was time to go.

“Thanks again for listening. I’ve taken up enough of your time, and I still have errands to run.”

Gage walked her to the front door of the police department. “I like your friends, Callie. They’ve been dealt a tough hand, but they’re both good men. The town could use a few more just like them.”

“That’s true.”

And if the thought of Nick settling down in Snowberry Creek caused her pulse to race, well, that was her own little secret.

C
hapter 23

C
allie was glad Bridey arrived before the guys came over. Nick had called to say he and Leif were making a beer run and to see if she needed anything from the store. Then he’d lowered his voice to admit that it was really his way to save wear and tear on Leif’s leg by driving him over to Callie’s.

She was still aggravated about him keeping secrets from her, but it was hard to stay mad at a man who went out of his way to protect his friend’s pride.

Bridey helped set the picnic table. “Are you sure the guys won’t mind me being here? Especially Leif?”

Callie had been checking the coals in the grill. “Why Leif?”

Her friend looked a little uncomfortable. “I didn’t think about it until after I’d already agreed to come, but it feels kind of like a fix-up. You’ve made it clear that you have your sights set on Nick, so that leaves Leif and me unattached. I wouldn’t want him to think I was expecting to be paired up with him.”

Callie hadn’t thought that far ahead. “To be honest, I’m not sure what’s going on between me and Nick these days. I wasn’t thinking about this like a date night for any of us.”

Bridey looked only marginally happier as she pointed toward the top of the driveway, where Nick had just pulled in behind her car. “Well, either way, it’s too late now.”

Callie’s pulse sped up as the two men made their way to where she and Bridey were putting the finishing touches on the table. She was glad she’d taken a little more care with her appearance since both Nick and Leif were wearing something other than their usual T-shirts and jeans. She wasn’t sure brightly colored Hawaiian shirts could be considered dressing up, but both guys looked good in them.

“Love the shirts, guys.”

Leif looked down at the splash of red and white flowers on his. “They were Nick’s idea. What do you think?”

Bridey answered before Callie had a chance. “I think they look great.”

She stepped forward holding out her hand. “I’m Bridey, by the way.”

Leif shifted his cane to his other hand to shake hers. “It’s nice to meet you. I’m Leif Brevik. And if my boy Nick here told you anything about me, I swear it was all lies.”

Then he winked at her. “Unless he said something good, of course. It would still be all lies, but I’ll stand by whatever he said.”

The exchange set the tone for most of the evening. Nick and Leif took turns entertaining them with hilarious stories about their exploits in the army. They included Spence’s contributions to the scrapes they’d gotten into, but for once the mention of his name brought more smiles than sorrow. Callie suspected they all needed a bit of that.

In return, she and Bridey shared a few memories from high school. One of her favorites was when Spence and the rest of the football team were ordered to perform a musical number in the high school talent show. The coach hadn’t been too happy when they’d dutifully shown up, all wearing dresses, makeup, and heels.

She smiled. “I’m sure I’ve got a picture somewhere. You’ve got to wonder where they found so many pairs of high heels for size thirteen feet.”

Nick laughed and shook his head. “Wish I could have been there. If we’d known such a picture existed, we would have given Wheels all kinds of grief over it.”

Nick looked more relaxed than he had in days. So did Leif, for that matter. Unfortunately, Bridey had started checking her watch.

“I hate to break up such a great party, but morning comes early for me. Nick, can you move your truck for me?”

“Sure thing.”

But when he started to get up, Leif stopped him. “Why don’t you give me the keys? I should be getting back to the house.”

Nick tossed him the key ring. “I’ll catch up with you soon.”

“See you in a few minutes, Sarge. Don’t keep me waiting too long. It’s past our bedtime.” Leif was already in motion. “Callie, thanks for dinner. The salmon was great.”

He fell into step with Bridey. “And that cheesecake was flat-out amazing. If I keep eating like this, I’m going to need bigger uniforms.”

Bridey paused. “Oh, that’s too bad. I left the rest of the cheesecake with Callie. Maybe I should take it back home with me.”

Leif caught Bridey by the hand before she could act on the threat. “No way, lady. I promise to share the leftovers with my man Nick and maybe Callie.”

“If you’re sure, Leif.”

The two of them kept up the discussion all the way to her car.

Nick watched as his friend climbed into the truck and then backed out of the driveway. “It’s good to see Leif acting more like himself.”

Callie sat down on the swing, careful to leave some space between her and Nick. “I think Bridey had a good time, too. The coffee shop keeps her pretty busy.”

Nick set the swing in motion, rocking it slowly back and forth. “That’s true for anyone who owns their own business.”

“I know.”

But that’s not what she wanted to talk about right now. “Nick, Gage told me today that you’d talked to him last week about someone prowling in the woods. Why didn’t you tell me about it yourself?”

He went rock still. “I guess I should have, especially once I mentioned it to Gage.”

“Why didn’t you tell me? That seems like something I should have known about.” She fought to sound more curious than accusatory.

After several more seconds of silence, Nick finally turned in her direction. “Because all I heard was a vehicle starting up a couple of times. Because I searched the woods and couldn’t find evidence that anybody had really been there. And because sometimes I don’t know if I’m in Snowberry Creek or back in Afghanistan.”

He pushed himself up off the swing. “I’d rather not worry you needlessly if it turned out that I’m jumping at shadows that don’t exist.”

He stared out at the surrounding trees. “Thanks again for dinner, Callie. I had a great time.”

Right up until she’d ruined it all with all her questions. Even in the darkness, the pain and embarrassment he was feeling was all too clear. Rather than let him walk away, she started after him.

“Nick, wait.”

He kept going for another few steps before he finally stopped. “Did I forget to apologize? If so, I’m sorry I didn’t keep you in the loop, Callie. Now, I’d better get back to Leif in case he needs anything.”

“Damn it, Nick. I’m not mad, and I wasn’t fishing for an apology. Next time just tell me what’s going on even if it turns out to be a false alarm. That’s all I’m asking.”

She thought maybe he jerked his head in a quick nod, but she couldn’t be sure. “I had a great time, too, Nick. Thanks for sharing your memories of Spence with me.”

“Anytime.”

Then he was gone.

•   •   •

It had been two days since that awkward discussion in the dark. In the intervening time, Callie had acted as if it had been no big deal, so maybe she’d meant it when she said she wasn’t mad. At least he hadn’t totally freaked her out with his confession that sometimes he wasn’t sure which world he was in at any given moment.

Even so, it was taking all the courage he could muster to hunt down Callie to give her the estimate he’d been working on in secret. Right now he was running on little sleep and a whole lot of nerves. He’d started off the day taking Mooch for a long run, but now it was time. No more delays or excuses.

After banging on her parents’ back door for ten minutes, he’d headed back to Spence’s place. Leif hadn’t seen her in a while, but she’d told him she was going to be working on the inventory again. Nick finally located her sitting on the window seat in a room tucked up under the eaves on the third floor.

He thrust the papers toward her and stepped back after she took them from him. “This is for you.”

“What is it?”

Damn, he hadn’t been this nervous since he’d been given his own patrol to lead the first time he’d been deployed to Iraq. How stupid was that? No one’s life was at risk if he’d misjudged this particular situation. Well, maybe that wasn’t exactly true. If Callie turned him down, he’d have no choice but to pack up and leave.

So, yeah, waiting for her to read over his proposal had a lot in common with waiting to see if that promotion was coming through.

“It’s my detailed evaluation of what needs to be done to Spence’s house to bring it up to code for a bed-and-breakfast. I went to the city planner’s office and got their specs. You’d still need the variance in the zoning, but the man I talked to didn’t think that would be a problem. He said the mayor was pushing everybody to encourage folks to bring new business to town.”

He watched as she quickly scanned the pages, her eyebrows drawn down in a frown. Then she started over at the top, this time reading more slowly.

“Wow, Nick, I’m impressed. This is way more thorough than I expected. You must have spent hours on it. This will really help me when I talk to contractors.”

He shifted restlessly, wondering what was the best approach to use. Might as well just lay it all out there.

“Well, about that. You should talk to several contractors. It’s important to get more than one opinion on what needs to be done. However, what I’d really like is if you’d give me a chance to bid on the job.”

Okay, wide-eyed shock wasn’t exactly the response he was hoping for, although he didn’t really blame her. Watching him assemble a gazebo from someone else’s plans was no proof that he could handle a project as big as refurbishing an old house.

“Are you sure, Nick? Don’t you have to report back to duty soon?”

Not exactly. With the muscle damage to his arm from the shrapnel, he wasn’t even sure the army would want him back long term. He hedged his bets.

“I’d like to do the work.”

When she didn’t immediately respond, he told her a little of the same thing he’d told Leif. “I’m only good at two things, Callie: fighting a war and remodeling. I’ve had enough of the former to last me a lifetime.”

Not that he wanted her pity. He walked away, retreating as far as the small room would allow. “So call the other contractors you have in mind. If you don’t know any, your buddy Clarence would be able to suggest some. See what they have to say, figure out how much you can afford to spend, and go from there. I’m not asking for favors, Callie, only that you let me stand in line with the others.”

He’d either made his case or he hadn’t. “I’ll leave that with you. Think about it, and then let me know if anything is unclear. If nothing else, it should give you some guidance as to what any bids should include. I also prioritized each item according to what has to be done versus what can either wait or is strictly cosmetic.”

Before he made it out the door, she stopped him. “Nick, wait.”

She crossed the small distance between them and gave him a quick hug, the kind two friends might exchange. Not that his body responded to it like that. No, his reaction to her touch was intense and painful. Nick wanted far more than a quick embrace but had no right to ask, not when they were limiting their relationship to being friends and not lovers.

His rules and his regret.

“Thank you for doing this for me, Nick. I’ve been feeling a little overwhelmed by the prospect of figuring out what all needs to be done.”

“You’re welcome. Now I’d better get back to work. That lawn won’t mow itself.”

She followed him out of the room, still studying the paper he’d given her. “Nick, I appreciate that you’re willing to do all this work for me, but—”

He knew what she was going to say and didn’t really blame her. She had no way of knowing if he’d stick around to make sure the job got done. It was hard to remember that the two of them had known each other for only days, not months. To her, he’d been someone Spence talked about, but his name had been only one of many.

Callie had been so much more than a name to Nick. He’d heard dozens of stories of her childhood with Spence living right next door. He’d heard her laughter when she and Spence connected over the Internet. Her goodie boxes had helped all of them get through the hellish days and long nights of their deployment.

He held his hand up to stop her. Obviously it was time to cut bait and start packing. “That’s okay, Callie. I understand.”

She crowded closer to him. “Understand what exactly?”

“That you’d rather go with someone local, someone who already has roots here in Snowberry Creek.”

Callie shot him a look of pure disgust. “No, Nick, that wasn’t what I was going to say at all. When you’re done putting words in my mouth, let me know. I’d like to finish what I was about to say.”

He fought the urge to grin. For some reason, at that moment she reminded him of one of the first sergeants he’d served under, a tough old bastard with twenty years under his belt. The man had no use for idiots and showed little mercy when he encountered one.

Nick snapped to attention and executed a salute. “I’m sorry, ma’am. I won’t interrupt again.”

Her mood didn’t improve. Yep, just like the sergeant, minus the cuss words.

“What I was wondering about is if you’d have to get a business license and all of that stuff if you’re going to work in this state. Maybe a permanent address?”

He’d already thought about that. “I can hold off doing anything about it until you decide which direction you’re going to go. If you decide to step off the cliff and let me do the work, I could maybe list Spence’s house for my address since I was sort of hoping you’d let me stay in the house for the duration. However, if you’d rather I rented a place in town, I will.”

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