Life on the road meant freedom. It had its challenges, like long stretches between cities where the only sound was the road and the satellite radio to keep me company. Lou’s Lakeside Bar and Grill came into view like an oasis. I rechecked the GPS, to be sure, Hart Valley. This was the town.
The picturesque, tree-lined lake was filled with rows of boats lining the marina and could be a huge tourist attraction. A restaurant overlooking the water provided the perfect place for an evening meal. But, across the street sat five old houses with dingy, peeling paint. And that was the property my client wanted. Why? God only knew.
My hands tight around the steering wheel, I parked my Maserati Levante on the far side of Lou’s Lakeside and Hart Lake Marina parking lot and exited. The smoke of grilling meat floated in the breeze. The sidewalk led to an unattended hostess stand, even though the place had opened minutes ago, according to the posted sign. I pulled out my phone and double-checked the bar’s info online before walking past.
Inside the low wooden fence sat a seating area with umbrella-covered tables, and a small cedar-shingled bar called The Tiki Hut sat separate from the main building. A skinny teen wearing a black Lou’s Lakeside T-shirt and jeans with a canvas apron around his waist stocked glasses behind the bar.
“Hey,” I said, approaching, “Where’s Lou?”
He stared for a beat. I shifted between my feet. Would a new face in town raise suspicion? I shook off the paranoia.
“The owner’s inside.” The kid nodded across a short bridge to a structure with a low-pitched roof and bay doors along the side overlooking the water. Rows of boats sat docked in slips on the lake.
The restaurant sat on top of the water with three access bridges from the land. The building was enormous, covered in dark shingles, and a Lou’s sign in orange lettering over the open bay doors. Inside, a mixture of low and high-top tables with tan wicker chairs dotted the dark wood floors, and there was the occasional potted green plant. The water remained the focal point through open bay doors instead of walls along two sides of the building.
Behind the horseshoe-shaped mahogany bar stood a grizzly bear of a man with a mass of wavy brown hair and a large bushy brown beard. The barrel-chested man wore a long-sleeved plaid flannel over a black T-shirt with the Lou’s logo on the front. He frowned at a clipboard in his hand.
“You, Lou?” I asked, sidling up to the bar.
He paused, attention on the clipboard, scowl deepening. “Depends on who’s asking.”
Shit. So much for small-town friendliness.
“I’m just visiting and checking out the boats.” I hold my hands up in surrender.
“Lou’s retired. I’m Adrian.”
“Camden,” I said, holding out my hand.
“You’re looking at buying a boat,” he said, shaking my hand.
“Yeah,” the lie rolled off my tongue. I hadn’t planned on what I would say. But I’m not ready to clue anyone in on the reason I’m here. “I just looked at one.”
“What’d you think?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Don’t make any snap decisions on a boat,” he said.
“I bet you talk to a lot of boat owners.”
“The understatement of the century. Can I get you a menu or a drink?”
“Sure, your recommended beer and a menu.”
People trickled in as I sat at the bar with my drink, and it turned out that Adrian could pick a tasty beer. I perused the menu and took in the crowd. A framed photograph fastened to the wall at the end of the bar beside a chalkboard boasting the specials caught my attention. It was an old photograph of six teenagers wearing graduation regalia and holding diplomas. They smiled at the camera. Was one of those kids Lou Moran?
A dark-haired woman balancing several large white boxes struggled to open the door. I slid from my seat and made it halfway across the room when she got the door open and used her hip to push it wide enough to slide through. But she didn’t notice the chair pulled out of place and in her path.
“Watch out…” I said before her foot collided with the chair.
Everything happened in slow motion. The woman stumbled forward, twisting as I grabbed for her and the boxes. But I didn’t have enough arms to save everything. The top box flew off, hitting the ground with a splat. The woman collided with my chest, a jolt reverberating through me. Her breath was coming out at a pace near hyperventilation.
“Are you okay?” I asked once she’d regained her balance. Her long dark brown hair pulled into a bun, revealing her delicate features and a long slender nose. Not classically beautiful, but something was intriguing about her.
Her chocolate brown eyes went wide and stared up at me for a beat, and she stepped back.
“Can I take those for you?” I indicated the boxes.
“Oh my god, Lauren. What happened?” A server appeared with Adrian close behind her, concern creasing his face.
Lauren stood there, dazed. “I’m fine,” she breathed. “I almost fell, and this guy caught me.”
“Here,” I took the two remaining boxes from her and sat them on a table. The overwhelming scent of vanilla and sugar hit my nose. A sticker on the top box read, From the Hart Bakery. Kitschy name. I didn’t care for it.
Only bits of unidentifiable pastries remained of the third box now scattered across the floor.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” I asked.
Her breathing had slowed to a normal rhythm, and she nodded. She wore a black t-shirt with a screen print of an outline of a cupcake in pink, yellow, blue, and green pastel colors.
“Tell me the cupcakes are okay,” Adrian said, a sly smile slipping over his face.
A snorty laugh escaped Lauren, and she shook her head. “I see where your priorities are.”
“What’s with all the cupcakes?” I asked.
“Oh, I bring them over from the bakery across the street at the end of my day so that Adrian can sell the rest.”
“You work at the bakery?”
“I own it,” she said.
She owned From the Hart Bakery? The woman who’d fallen into my arms owned a business on the land I’m working to buy for a client. Terrific. Well, she didn’t need to know about that for now.
“Oh cool,” I said, feigning ignorance. “Do you own the Victorian house?”
Lauren frowned and folded her arms across her chest. “Rental,” she sighed. “I wish I owned it. It’s a spectacular piece of history.”
Spectacular? She had to be joking.
“Tragically, there were casualties,” Adrian said, drawing attention to the busted box and scattered bits on the floor.
“I’ll grab the broom,” the server said. Turning, she darted behind the bar.
“No, I’ll take care of it,” Lauren called after her. “I’m so sorry and just so embarrassed,” she whispered to Adrian loud enough for me to overhear.
“There’s no need for embarrassment. Let Annie get it,” Adrian said, “You look like you need to sit down.”
She no longer appeared all that dazed. But I wasn’t about to contradict him.
“Yeah, let’s get you a seat,” I said. The town might be a waste, but that was no reason to discount the idea that a pretty little woman wouldn’t make my time in Hart Valley better.
Annie returned to the scene of the splatter with a broom, dustpan, and a large trashcan on wheels. She began sweeping the remnants into the dustpan.
Lauren paused, frowning and staring back and forth between the broom in Annie’s hand and the mess on the floor, but she relented and let Adrian lead her to a seat at the bar.
“It was an accident,” he said. “And it could have been so much worse if it wasn’t for Camden.”
“Him,” Adrian nodded toward me.
“Oh,” she turned to me, “Oh my gosh. I’m all sorts of scattered right now. Forgive my lack of manners. I’m Lauren Hart.” She offered her hand and a weak smile that didn’t meet her eyes.
Lauren Hart. From the Hart Bakery. Hart Valley. Was the Hart last name a coincidence? Could this unassuming little woman throw a wrench into my plan? There was something off about the whole thing, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I should have never signed a contract with a client I’d never even met.