Enjoy this first chapter from the book. I think you'll love this couple and maybe even love Dover more.
“Mommy, can we go home now? I’m tired of coloring.”
Lainie Hollings fought back the nausea churning in her stomach and gently stroked her youngest daughter’s hair. “Not yet, Chrissy. Why don’t you use the green crayon for a while?”
A weary sigh accompanied the nodding of the little head. Lainie watched her girls, six-year-old Natalie and four-year-old Christiana, as they scribbled on the pages the officer at the Dover Mississippi Police Station had given them to keep them entertained. They couldn’t go home because they had no home to go to. Her job as assistant to Mrs. Forsythe, a wealthy businesswoman in Memphis, Tennessee, had ended when her employer had moved away for health reasons. Thankfully, Lainie had quickly landed the position as head librarian for the Dover Public Library.
Today was their moving day. This morning, she had been filled with excitement and bursting with hope. This move marked the culmination of a dream she and her husband had once shared. They’d planned to leave Baton Rouge and its big city life behind and move to a small town where they could grow their family in a friendly, nurturing environment. They’d been saving for a house, but she had been forced to use the money for Craig’s funeral instead. Alone and pregnant with their second child, she’d moved to Jackson, Tennessee to live with her mother and gone back to school at night to get her degree.
The past five years had been difficult, moving from place to place, job to job. The librarian position was her chance to find a permanent home.
So, they’d come to Dover a few days early to find a place to live and check into child care. It was supposed to be a fun trip discovering their new home. Instead, they were sitting in a police station, the victims of a crime. As they had been leaving a local restaurant, a man had shoved Lainie against her car, waved a gun in her face, then yanked her purse from her arm and fled. Thankfully, she’d already put the girls in the car. But all she had left were the car keys she held in her hand, and eight dollars and thirty-four cents—change from lunch, which she’d shoved into the pocket of her cotton slacks.
The moment replayed in her mind like a scene from a horror film, tightening the vise of fear around her chest. She lowered her head into her hands, fighting to keep the rising panic at bay. How was she going to take care of her girls? Where would they stay? She’d set aside money for a motel, but now, without a credit card or cash, that was impossible. Tears welled in her eyes and she brushed them away quickly, not wanting the children to see her upset. But she was barely holding it together.
“Look, Mommy, I colored it purple.” Chrissy’s blue eyes sparkled from behind her glasses.
“Good job, sweetie.”
Looking at her precious girls, her throat constricted again. What if the thief had taken the car with the girls inside? What if he’d killed her? Lainie forced the terrifying thoughts aside. She couldn’t give in to the fear. They were all fine, but destitute. She had no phone, no ID and no money. The only person she knew in town, Mr. Bill Ogden, mayor and president of the library board who’d hired her, was out of town for the weekend. They were on their own.
Unless Shaw McKinney showed up.
The knot in her chest grew. She clasped her hands together, squeezing tightly. While paying her bill at the restaurant, she’d noticed several business cards on display. One had a familiar name printed on it. Goudchaux McKinney Construction. Shaw McKinney, contractor. She’d picked up the card, the name unearthing anger and resentment she’d thought long buried. If it weren’t for him, Craig would still be alive and her daughters would have a father. She’d shoved the card into her pocket along with the change. Shaw was the last person on earth she wanted to ask for help, but he was her only option. She’d given the card to the officer and asked him to call.
“Mommy, I have to go.” Natalie wiggled in her chair.
Chrissy looked up, pushing her tiny glasses up on her little nose. “Me, too.”
Lainie stood and looked around for her purse, wincing when she remembered it was gone. “Come on, girls.” Lainie took their hands and walked down the hall to the restrooms. She tried to quell the nervousness swirling in her stomach as she helped Chrissy wash her hands. Maybe when she returned to the lobby, Shaw would be here. She didn’t want to think about what they would do if he didn’t come. Worse yet, what if he did? Turning for help to the man responsible for her husband’s death was repugnant.
Settling into the molded plastic chair again, she glanced toward the lobby entrance as yet another stranger walked in. She’d repeated this motion so often she now recognized the distinct squeak and swoosh of the door when it opened and closed. This time, it ushered in a gray-haired man carrying a large envelope.
“Mommy, can you draw me a rainbow?”
Lainie took one of the crayons and drew arched lines across the paper. “What’s Shaw doing here in Dover, Mississippi, anyway?”
“Nothing, sweetie. I’m just talking to myself.” The last time she’d seen Shaw was in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Craig had hired on with Beaumont Construction, determined to learn carpentry so he could eventually start his own contracting firm. Shaw had been his instructor, the one assigned to show him the ropes and keep him safe as he navigated the dangers of the job. But he hadn’t, and Craig had died.
Lainie pressed her lips together. They’d been sitting in the police station for two hours filling out forms, answering questions. She had to face the possibility that Shaw might not come. He probably didn’t remember her. She’d have to find another way to survive until she started her job next week. Maybe there was a homeless shelter in town. The idea made her sick. She’d worked hard the past five years to take care of her girls, and she’d done a decent job so far. But this wasn’t the time to let pride stand in her way. Perhaps there was a church in town that could help. Their last resort would be to spend a few nights in the car until the mayor returned. Hopefully, he’d let her start work early or give her an advance to tide her over.
Closing her eyes, she clasped her hands in front of her mouth.
Shaw McKinney ended the call and jammed his cell phone into his back pocket, grinding his teeth in exasperation. The drywall crew that was supposed to start today wasn’t coming. Any more setbacks and this project might never be completed. He was already three weeks behind due to a series of unexpected delays. Thankfully, he’d obtained an extension, but the next deadline was set in concrete. Slowly, he walked through the old mansion. The 1885 house was one of the oldest in Dover and had been empty for the past dozen years. Thanks to an anonymous benefactor, the building, along with money for restoration, books and staff, had been donated to the town to replace the library, which had burned down five years ago.
Shaw had won the contract. It had meant not only a financial boon to his new construction business, but a huge boost to his reputation. After leaving LC Construction a year ago and starting his own company, McKinney Construction, he’d made the classic newbie mistake of overscheduling his projects. With the library job behind, he’d had to pull back on his other jobs because if this one wasn’t done on time, he’d have to pay a hefty fine to the benefactor's foundation, one that could mean the end of his fledgling business. Shaw had factored in time for unexpected problems, but the old house had coughed up more than he’d bargained for.
“So, are they coming or not?”
“Not.” Shaw faced his foreman and longtime mentor, Russ Franklin. The older man was the biggest asset to Shaw’s start-up construction company. Skilled, experienced and dedicated, Russ had owned his own company in Alabama for years. When he had sold it, Shaw had convinced him to move to Dover to work with him. “Our drywall crew took another job. They couldn’t wait on us any longer.”
“That’s going to put us further behind.”
“How long would it take for you and me to do the work?” It was his last resort.
Russ frowned. “Too long. We’re way too close to the deadline as it is. You want me to find us another crew?”
The knot in Shaw’s chest, which had formed over the past few weeks, tightened. “Yeah. Call Laura Holbrook and see if she has a few guys we could use. Or maybe she knows of another contractor we can call. I’ve used up all my contacts.”
Russ moved off to make the calls, and Shaw planted his hands on his tool belt and scanned the large room that would be the fiction section of the new Dover Library. It would take several days to put up drywall, then tape, float and sand before they could paint. Days lost when other crews couldn’t work.
When Russ returned, his expression was grim. “Laura doesn’t have anyone to spare at the moment, and she doesn’t know any other crews that are available.”
Shaw rubbed his jaw. He couldn’t handle another delay. Dover had been without a library for a long time, unable to afford a new one. The donation had been a blessing to the small town and generated huge excitement from the residents. The people here had given him a home and a fresh start. He wasn’t about to let them down. Even if he had to work around the clock to get the job done.
His cell rang and he yanked it out of his pocket, frowning when he saw the name on the screen. Dover police. “Hello.” He listened as the officer explained the situation. Shaw rubbed his forehead and nodded. “Yeah. I know her. I’ll be right there.” He hung up, his chest constricted so tightly he had trouble breathing. The last thing he needed was another complication in his life. And Lainie Hollings was a giant one.
Hearing her name had unleashed a landslide of painful memories and a heavy dose of guilt. He’d started to deny knowing her. It would do neither one of them any good to meet again. But when the officer had told him she’d been robbed, Shaw couldn’t ignore her plight. Lainie was a widow because of his carelessness.
A death he could have prevented. He’d double- and triple-checked her husband’s safety harness on the roof that day, only to find he'd loosened the straps again. Irritated with Hollings’s cavalier attitude, Shaw had failed to check again, and Hollings had fallen from the roof.. Lainie blamed him for her husband’s death. Shaw accepted his part in the accident. He should have checked again. A dozen times if necessary. But he hadn’t.
“Everything okay, boss?”
Shaw looked at his foreman. Right now, nothing was okay. “I’ve got to leave. I might not be back today. Keep looking for a crew and check on the remodel on Corey Road. If we can get that job done, we can list it.”
Russ nodded. “And what about the Hanson remodel?”
Another problem to add to the pile. “I’ll have to push them back again.” Russ frowned and Shaw held up a hand to halt the comment he knew was coming. The Hansons were beyond irritated. If he didn’t find a way to soothe their ruffled feathers, it could get ugly. But that was the least of his worries now.
Shaw climbed into his truck and cranked the engine, trying to figure out how he’d face Lainie Hollings. What did you say to the wife of the man you killed?
The moment he stepped inside the police station, his attention was drawn to the dark-haired woman seated in the waiting area. His stopped in his tracks, his heart racing, the blood roaring through his ears. She was even lovelier than she’d been when he’d first seen her. That moment was indelibly etched in his mind. She’d come to the job site to bring her husband his lunch. They’d laughed and talked and shared little touches, and Shaw’s heart had grown envious.
Lainie had caught him watching her, and he’d felt a jolt like an electrical charge through his system. She was the prettiest woman he’d ever seen. She’d looked away and that’s when the shame had tightened his throat. What was wrong with him? Admiring the wife of the man he was training was detestable. Shaw had gone back to work and vowed to keep his attraction in check.
Realizing he was still standing in the doorway, Shaw squared his shoulders and stepped forward. Lainie was hunched in her seat watching two little girls as they scribbled on paper. Her dark brown hair was shorter now, falling in a sleek line to her shoulders. She glanced at him. In that moment, he noticed the sparkle was missing from her big brown eyes. Instead, he saw fear and anxiety. She looked fragile and alone. He was hit with a strong desire to pull her close and comfort her, but he didn’t have the right. All he could do was offer his help. His attraction had no place in this situation.
The door to the police station swooshed open again, but Lainie didn’t bother to look.
Shaw wasn’t coming. She’d have to find help someplace else. Heavy footsteps on the floor drew her attention, and she looked up to see a tall, dark-haired man. He was dressed in faded jeans and a dark T-shirt with a company logo that hugged his torso in an interesting way. His sturdy, tan work boots thumped the floor as he strode toward them with a confident swagger. She started to look away only to realize who the man was. Shaw McKinney.
She didn’t remember him looking like this. He was taller, more imposing than she remembered. His shoulders were wide enough to carry the world. Her inspection moved to his ruggedly handsome face. Navy blue eyes. Deep lines in his cheeks. His sharply angled jaw was softened by firm lips and a dimple in the center of his chin. A flicker of appreciation darted along her nerves, squelched instantly with humiliation. How Shaw McKinney looked had nothing to do with the kind of man he was. His actions had cost her everything.
His eyes bored into her as he came closer, and there was a grim set to his jaw. Her hopes faded. He wasn’t any happier to see her than she was to see him. She shouldn’t have called him. Asking for his help was a betrayal of her husband’s memory. Natalie looked up at her with a sweet little smile, reminding her that she had to think of the girls first. She forced the nausea aside and raised her chin, clasping her trembling hands in her lap.
“Lainie, are you all right?” He glanced at her then down at the girls, his forehead creasing in a deep frown.
Stupid question. No, she wasn’t all right. She stood. “I’m fine. Thank you for coming. I’m sorry to bother you, but there was no one else to call.”
“You did the right thing.” He motioned her to be seated.
Shaw stared at the girls, a shadow seeming to pass behind his eyes. Was he feeling guilty? Good.
Her conscience pricked, but she ignored it, sinking into the chair as her knees began to fail.
Natalie had been two years old when Craig died. Chrissy not yet born. “Shaw, this is Natalie and Chrissy. Girls, this is Mr. McKinney. He—” What did she say? He’s the reason you don’t have a daddy? “Is someone we knew a long time ago.”
Shaw sat, leaving an empty chair between them. “Tell me what happened. The officer who called said you’d been robbed.”
She nodded. “We were leaving the restaurant and as I was getting into the car a man waved a gun at me, grabbed my purse and ran off. It all happened so fast I couldn’t even react.”
His gaze landed briefly on both the girls and he set his jaw. “How did you know I was here?”
Lainie set Chrissy on her lap, taking strength from the little body. “I saw your business card at the diner. It had your partner’s name on it so I wasn’t certain it was you.”
“Yes. Someone named Gawdchalks?”
Shaw shook his head. “Goudchaux is my first name. It’s pronounced God-shaw. My mother was Cajun French. When I started my business, I thought it sounded more professional, but all it did was confuse people so I went back to Shaw.” He met her eyes. “I’m sorry this had to happen to you.”
She ran her hand along Chrissy’s ponytail. Tears welled behind her eyes, but she refused to let them fall in front of this man. “He took everything. My phone, my credit cards. Everything important was in my purse.” She gulped in a breath of air. The thought of replacing all her information was overwhelming. “I have to close my accounts, contact my bank, but I don’t have a phone, I don’t know the numbers.”
A warm hand rested upon hers, helping her focus and draining away the panic that was building in her chest. She took a deep breath, then remembered whose hand was touching her. She pulled away.
“It’s okay. We’ll get it all taken care of.” Shaw rested his arms on his thighs. “What are you doing here in Dover?”
Lainie glanced away. It felt wrong confiding in him, telling him about her life. “I’m the new librarian. I’m supposed to start work this Thursday. We came to look for a place to live.”
Shaw’s eyes narrowed and a deep crease folded his forehead. He glanced around the room as a group of police officers strode through talking loudly. “Do you have a place to stay?”
“No. I was going to find a hotel after lunch.”
Shaw touched his jaw. “The hotel has been closed for years. There are only two places here in Dover. The Dixiana Motor Lodge is nice, but they have very small rooms. I doubt the three of you would be comfortable. The Lady Banks Inn is a bed-and-breakfast, but it’s pricey and filled with antiques.”
Lainie sighed. Visions of trying to keep two energetic little girls from breaking a house full of priceless furniture and knickknacks made her head ache.
“Come on.” Shaw stood. “You can stay at my place until you get things sorted out.”
“Your place?” The thought sent a jolt of anxiety along her nerves. She was not going anywhere with this man. “Absolutely not.”
Shaw’s eyes darkened. “Then tell me what you want me to do. If it’s money you need, tell me how much.”
Embarrassment heated her cheeks. “No. That’s not why I called you.” Taking money from this man was out of the question. Not to mention demeaning. Clearly, she hadn’t thought things through. How had this happened? Now she was committed to taking help from Shaw. She searched frantically for an alternative only to come to the realization there was no other choice. She and the girls would stay with him. She nodded, unable to find her voice.
“My truck is right outside.”
She stood. “I’d better take my car. It’ll be easier than trying to move the car seats. I can drive. The police gave me a temporary driver’s license.” She looked around on the nearby seats for her purse. Her heart sank. No purse. No things. The shoulder on which she always draped her bulky purse felt empty. Shoving the coloring pages into her pocket, she took the girls’ hands and started walking, acutely aware of Shaw right behind her.
The early June sun had sent the temperature into the midnineties, creating waves of heat that rose from the pavement in the parking lot. Lainie swallowed and wiped her brow. Shaw stood nearby as she helped the girls into the car and buckled them in. She stepped to the driver’s door and reached for the handle. A wave of asphalt-heated air rose up and engulfed her, weakening her knees causing her to sag against the side of the car.
Strong arms slipped around her waist, holding her upright. They turned her around and into a wall of warm strength and safety. No longer able to contain her emotions, she gave in to tears, sobbing against Shaw’s chest. She wanted to stay here forever. It felt good to have someone to lean on. The weight of single parenthood grew heavy at times. But then, like a cold wave on the shore, reality crashed over her. She pushed back, horrified to see she’d clutched his shirt in her fist. She avoided his eyes. “Sorry.” She reached for the car door, but Shaw stopped her before she could open it.
“You’re in no condition to drive.”
“I’m fine. I can take care of myself.” She shot him a withering glance. “I’ve been doing it for a long time now.” She sensed Shaw recoil.
“I’m well aware of that. But right now I’m taking care of things.” He walked her around to the other side of the car and eased her inside. “Give me your keys.”
“What about your truck?”
“I’ll get it later.”
Lainie leaned back in the passenger seat, too tired and weak to resist. She hated feeling helpless, but there was nothing she could do for the time being. Turning her head away from Shaw, she tried to ignore him. It wasn’t easy. He took up a lot of space in her small car. She stole a quick glance as he adjusted the seat farther back to accommodate his long legs. He looked uncomfortable in her compact car, but she could easily see him in the cab of a sturdy pickup.
“Are we going home, Mommy?”
“No, Natalie. We're going to Mr. Shaw's house. It won’t take long to get there.”
Turning her attention to the window again, she allowed the sights outside to temporarily distract her. Dover was a charming town. With its Courthouse Park and streets lined with picturesque buildings, it was the kind of place she’d dreamed of raising her children. A community of love and support with friendly neighbors, and people who took care of one another. She was going to like it here once she got past the unpleasant welcome.
A few blocks beyond the square, Shaw turned onto a street in an older neighborhood. Large Victorian homes with manicured lawns and full grown trees brought a small smile to Lainie’s lips. She’d always had a fondness for gingerbread houses. To her, they represented home, family, permanence—all the things she wanted for her girls and never had herself.
Shaw slowed the car and pulled into a driveway. Lainie scanned the facade, disappointed at what she saw. Unlike the other lovely homes on the street, this house was in need of love and attention. The paint on the Queen Anne Victorian was faded. The turret rising up on the left side of the house was elegant, but the finial at the top was bent in half. The roof was missing several tiles. Many of the spindles on the front porch railing were gone.
Shaw shut off the engine and handed her back her keys. “It’s not much, but it’s home.”
The word sent a cold splash of reality over her nerves. She could under any circumstances stay in this man’s house. What had she been thinking? “Maybe you’d better take us back to town. Is there a homeless shelter here?”
Shaw shifted in his seat to look at her. “Do you really want to do that? This house is a duplex, Lainie. The former owner had divided it up years ago. You’ll have your own space. The yard is fenced so it’s safe for your kids. It’s temporary. Until you can get your documents replaced. Please. I can’t let you go to a shelter.”
He was right. She was here for only a short while. Until she could replace her stolen bank cards. Then she could find a place to live. Faraway from Shaw and the past. In a way, this was all his fault. He owed her that much. And she was far too tired and upset to fight another battle right now.
Lainie reached for her purse. How many times would she do that before she remembered she didn’t have it any longer? She climbed from the car, then opened the back door to help the girls. Natalie jumped out and stared at the house. Chrissy unfastened the buckles over her chest and joined her sister.
“Mommy, is this a castle?”
“No, just an old house.” Aesthetically, the home was lovely. A stately two story, with wraparound porch and dripping with gingerbread. With some work, it could be the most beautiful home on the street.
She steered the girls to the front steps, noting the spacious porch was perfect for wicker furniture. Large ferns stood in corners. A weather-beaten swing hung at the far end, beckoning her to sit and relax.
Lainie followed Shaw into the spacious main hall, her gaze taking in the high ceilings and the stately staircase rising to the second floor. The inlaid wood floors were dark from years of neglect, making it hard to discern the pattern. The wide center hall stretched to the rear of the home. To the right were two large pocket doors partially open to reveal an empty room, probably the original parlor. On the other side of the entrance, was a thick, unattractive door with a sturdy lock.
“I’ll be right back.” Shaw disappeared behind the staircase.
“I want to climb the stairs.” Natalie pointed to the elegant stairway with stately newel post and carved spindles below a wide smooth banister.
“Not right now, sweetie.”
Lainie’s gaze drifted from the exquisitely carved stairs on one side of the hall to the wall on the other. Two crudely constructed sections stood out like an ugly patch on a pretty face. She guessed the additions had something to do with covering up old doors and sealing off that side of the home. The house had an odd, schizophrenic feel to it. One side grand and stately, the other run-down and hopeless.
“Mommy are we going to live in this castle?”
“For a little bit. Mr. Shaw is going to help us until-” How did she explain to young children the predicament she was in without alarming them? And how did she keep her own fears under control? “Until I can get a new purse.”
A loud bark shattered the silence. A black-and-white blur darted from behind the stairs and charged at them. Natalie screamed. Chrissy stood still, clenching her little hands into fists at her side. Lainie’s heart pounded violently as a large dog barreled down on the children. She pulled her girls close shielding them with her arms.
“Beaux. Heel.” Instantly, the Dalmatian slid to a halt, then trotted to Shaw’s side.
Lainie glared at the man as he approached. Natalie pulled out of her arms. Lainie grabbed the back of her shirt to hold her back.
“I want to pet the doggie.”
“It’s all right.” Shaw commanded the dog to sit then stooped and gestured to the girls. “Want to meet my dog?” They nodded and took small steps forward. Shaw extended his palm. “Hold your hand like this and let him sniff you.”
With the animal under control, Lainie relaxed her hold on her children. Both girls followed Shaw’s instruction, giggling with delight when Beaux sniffed their fingers.
“Now pet his head and he’ll be your friend forever.”
Natalie scratched the dog’s head and ears vigorously, while Chrissy moved to the dog’s side and stroked his black-and-white fur. She smiled at her mother. “He has polka spots.”
Lainie’s heart still pounded, but at a more normal rate now that it looked as if the animal wasn’t going to eat her children.
Shaw rose and joined her. “He’s a very gentle animal, but rambunctious.”
“You should have told me you had a dog.”
“Would it have made a difference?”
“Yes.” She crossed her arms and glared at him.
Shaw raised an eyebrow, challenging her statement.
Lainie turned away. She wasn’t in a position to turn down his help. Dog. Horse. Dragon. It wouldn’t have made a difference because she had nowhere else to go.
For the time being, she and her daughters were at the mercy of Shaw McKinney. It was Friday afternoon. It would be Monday before she could sort out her financial situation and meet with the mayor. Time in which she’d have to rely on Shaw. Not a comforting thought.