|Book cover for DEVIN'S SECOND CHANCE|
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Length: 84,000 words
Publication Date: June 2013
Series: A Morning Lake Novel: Book 1
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Cowboy Devin Trent’s life has been stuck for years, unchanged since his faithless wife died, and he is determined to keep it that way - an ever-present reminder of why he doesn’t deserve a second chance at love. Claire Best, by contrast, is in turmoil – she is renting her house to summer folk, she is planning a big fundraiser, and her doctor has discovered something that needs to be investigated.
Pulled together by the fundraiser, Claire’s teenage renter, and Devin’s matchmaking mom, their immediate attraction quickly escalates to more, but Claire fears her own health worries will only resurrect Devin’s pain and grief over his wife’s final days and she is willing to sacrifice her own happiness to protect him.
Can they overcome their pasts and listen to their hearts before their happily-ever-after slips away?
Summer in Morning Lake was disgusting—too many damn tourists, screaming children and shit hawks. As one of the largest and warmest lakes in landlocked Alberta, the town had become something of a destination to a certain type of people, and that type wasn’t him. God, he hated going downtown this time of year. He avoided it whenever possible.
Today, it wasn’t possible.
Devin Trent drove through the town’s crowded streets for ten minutes, circling, looking for an empty parking stall, which was about a rare as pasty white skin in this town. The only open space was five blocks from the pub. Shirley, his wife’s—his dead wife’s— mother had chosen the place, so she shouldn’t be surprised to have to wait.
The early July day was thick with the kind of heat that made you wonder how people survived before having an air-conditioned truck—the sky was clear, the air was still, and the sun blistered. Main Street snaked along Morning Lake’s wide beach, so the whole town core was littered with half-naked sun worshippers. His scuffed leather boots, worn jeans and cowboy hat made him stick out like a bull in a chicken coop.
Not that he cared about fitting in, but their curious gazes still made him itch at the collar. By the time the pub’s patio came into view, his temples throbbed.
God, Shirley was sitting in the sun in front of the Shining Whistle. Didn’t she feel the heat? Perspiration rolled down the side of his face. He wiped his forehead. Mistaking his movement for a wave, Shirley lifted her hand, then dropped it to her lap again. He greeted her with a nod, knowing full well he was scowling.
Shirley smiled, seemingly unaware. How much had she had to drink already?
When Devin opened the gate to the outdoor patio, Shirley stood to hug him.
A moment later, they were seated at a table that could double as one of his living room’s TV tables. His shirt was now stuck to his damp back from when she’d embraced him.
“I hope you don’t mind, dear.” Shirley motioned to the drinks on the table. “When I saw your truck pass a few minutes ago, I ordered you a lager. I don’t remember which kind—something domestic.”
Livy had never called a beer a beer either.
“Thanks.” Damn, he wished Shirley hadn’t dragged him here. He took a long draw from his beer, and the cool draught swished through his body. The throb in his head shifted down to a dull ache. When he set down his frosted glass, he watched Shirley poke at the ice cubes in her glass with a straw. The clear liquid was undoubtedly a double G and T. She was seldom without one clutched in her long thin fingers. Judging by the cluster of used straws beside the salt- and pepper-shakers, Shirley’d had a few before he’d arrived.
Under Devin’s gaze, she pulled out the straw and set it on the table. She attempted a smile. He waited for her to speak, but she took a small sip instead. She seemed hesitant, which was odd for Shirley. She reached out to cover his hand with hers.
“What’s going on?” he said.
“You say that like something’s wrong.” Shirley smiled as if to reassure. “I had a voicemail the other day.” She paused again, before clearing her throat and looking up at him. “It was from the gallery here in town, The Red Door.”
“Yeah, so?” Devin narrowed his eyes.
She slipped her other hand beneath his, so she was cradling his in both hers. “They phoned to ask about Olivia’s art.”
“I already said no.” He withdrew his hand.
“They told me.”
“Then it’s done. They shouldn’t be bothering you.” The last thing Shirley needed was someone pestering her about Livy. The woman didn’t need the constant reminders. She was a wreck as it was.
Shirley’s gaze was soft and glassy. Was it caused by the booze or the talk of Livy? “It’s been nearly three years—”
“I know exactly how long it’s been.” Devin shifted in his chair, trying to stretch his legs under the child-sized table. He patted his breast pocket looking for a pack of gum. He’d given up chew ages ago, but sometimes he still needed to gnaw on something. This was one of those times. He pulled out the pack. Damn, it was empty. He’d finished his last piece on his drive into town. He clenched his teeth. His foul mood was getting as heavy as the heat. Tossing the useless pack on the table, he looked out at the street.
“Devin,” Shirley said, waiting for him to look at her again before she continued speaking. “It’s hard. More than anyone else, I know how hard. But it’s…it’s been time for a while now.” Her voice broke, drawing his attention again. She dabbed at a trickle of tears. He was an ass for making her cry, but, damn it, they’d been down this road before and it wasn’t time until he decided it was.
And it wasn’t now.
“Put those stained glass pieces in a gallery and they’ll be gone. For good. Livy isn’t making any more.”
Shirley cleared her throat again. “I know that, too. But you can’t keep living how you have been, with all her work just sitting around you.”
Devin picked up Shirley’s straw and started chewing on the end of it. He’d heard it all before. Sweat slid down his neck. The woofer of a beat-up old hatchback thumped as the car rolled down the street.
He didn’t respond.
“Let’s go talk to the gallery owner. Maybe he’d be interested in highlighting local artisans, and he could show a few, without selling them.”
Devin shook his head. “It isn’t a museum. They work on commission. I’m not selling her stuff for the sole reason of getting it out of my space. I will not peddle her work as if we’re holding some high-end garage sale.” He hadn’t sold them when he was hard up after Livy’s death, so with his finances finally landing in the black, he wasn’t about to hawk them now.
“That’s not what I want either,” Shirley snapped. Then she took a deep breath. “But Olivia was preparing for an event in Toronto when she got sick.” Her voice was softer now. He used the same tone on spirited horses when they were being stubborn. “She was able to complete so many exquisite pieces. It would be a shame not to share it. She really was at her artistic peak.”
Devin didn’t know about that. It seemed to him no one much cared about Livy’s art when she was alive, regardless of that supposed art show she had scheduled in Toronto.
“I often wonder if her illness gave her a special insight…”
They sat in silence for a few minutes. He didn’t want to talk about this, but he did want another drink. Where was the waiter?
Shirley slapped the table, perhaps slamming down the memories with the gesture. “Olivia made the pieces with the expectation of selling them.”
He leaned forward. “She hoped to make a living at her art. There is no need to do that now.” He knew he was being a jerk, but she just wasn’t getting it. How blunt did he need to be?
“I’m not suggesting you get rid of everything, but she didn’t create those lovely pieces so they could collect dust in your house.”
She’d called it his house. Not Livy’s house. Not Livy’s studio. Damn, he wished he had gum—the straw wasn’t cutting it.
“Fine.” He wasn’t changing his mind, but he knew the gallery would not show without selling. That was how they made their money. Everything was about money.
Devin threw a few bills on the table. He was itching to leave town anyway. The sooner the gallery guy said no, the better. The instant he stood, Shirley had hold of him, gripping the crook of his arm, guiding him along the street toward the gallery. Her bony fingers bit into his flesh.
The gallery was along that same mobbed road he’d just walked and it was beside Livy’s favorite trendy gift store. Neither of those things improved Devin’s outlook.
To all outward appearances, they were two people out for a walk, taking in the tourist atmosphere. In reality, her hand on his arm felt more akin to a noose around his neck. He hated being told what to do. He’d usually do the opposite to prove he could, or he’d lose everything trying. That’s what had gotten him on the rodeo circuit more than ten years ago—and that decision had almost cost him everything.
Shirley slowed as they approached the old wood building that housed the gallery. Its door had been freshened with a coat of red paint, making it stand out among its beige and white stucco neighbors. The gallery folk probably thought it was all chic and modern. It reminded him he still needed to paint the barn and the other outbuildings this summer.
She squeezed his arm—as encouragement, no doubt.
Devin glanced in the window. “What the—”
A life-sized image of Livy stared out at him from a poster in the gallery window. The photographer had captured the look Livy had “after” - after she had found out she had cancer, after she had confronted him about cheating and he hadn’t denied it, after she realized she was dying…
His heart stopped. He couldn’t move. He’d been sucker punched a few times in his life—this was worse. Then, in a rush, his blood blasted through his veins. “What the hell is going on?”
He motioned to the window. Shirley pivoted and her face paled at what she saw. “Olivia.”
“What did you do?”
“I didn’t know, I swear.”
Devin shook her off before charging to the gallery. The door rattled on its hinges when he yanked it open. There were only three people inside the quiet, cavernous room. Their mouths all widened with surprise when he burst in. Devin glanced from one to another.
“Who’s in charge here?”
The young couple closest to him shrugged. The man stepped between Devin and his companion and wrapped his arm over the girl’s shoulders to guide her out of the gallery. Another woman averted her eyes and followed the couple. Then the place was empty.
Devin growled and marched to the back of the display room. Ahead, a door was ajar. A female voice carried from the room. Devin’s boots rapped angrily against the polished hardwood. Shirley scurried behind him.
“Devin, it’s a wonderful picture of Olivia. Did you see it? She is beautiful. They remember her, don’t they? Everyone in town can see her. Remember her.”
He ignored her.
When he arrived at the door, he pushed it open. It swung smoothly. A woman with very dark, very straight brown hair had her back to him and was murmuring into a telephone receiver. She had a nice voice, the kind you could imagine would be perfect for soothing a newborn with a lullaby.
Jesus, that beer must have gone straight to his head.
“Is there anything…anything I need to do ahead of time?” Her voice stumbled over the words.
When the doorknob banged against the wall, she jumped in her chair, then swiveled to face him.
“Excuse me a moment,” she said into the phone. Then she covered the receiver and said, “I will only be a moment.”
“Are you in charge?” Devin asked, crossing his arms.
“I said I will be with you in a moment. If you could wait in the gallery…”Her words trailed off when he leaned against the threshold.
“Fine, I’ll wait.” He stared at her. Shirley tugged on his shirt, trying to yank him into the gallery. He didn’t move.
The woman let out a loud sigh. Devin expected her to hang up the phone, but she didn’t. Behind him, Shirley was raving about some picture on the far wall, trying to lure him from the office. He stayed.
“I’m sorry,” the woman said, turning her attention to the caller. Her words were barely more than a whisper. “What did you say again? The doctor needs me to—” She paused and scribbled on a notepad. “When is there an opening?”
She peeked at Devin, perhaps to confirm if he was still there. A faint blush had stolen over her pale cheeks. She scowled at him over her black-rimmed glasses, the artsy kind that Livy’d bought in three different colors. Other than the glasses, she didn’t match his vision of a gallery person. And he’d had his share of gallery folk through Livy. This girl’s clothes seemed more business and less art, but what the hell did he know?
“I…I would guess…” Her cheeks were bright red now. She traced her finger over a calendar on the desk. “Um…maybe fifteen days ago?”
Good God, was she making a woman’s appointment? Why did his brain kick into calculating her ovulation cycle? Maybe he had spent too much time thinking about his mares’ breeding schedules.
The woman was still trying to ignore him. She nodded as she listened to the speaker on the other end of the line.
“Yes.” She turned from Devin then, and faced the far corner of the office. “All right, I’ll be there. Thank you.” She nodded. “I have your number if I have any questions.”
She trembled when she replaced the receiver on its base. She took a deep breath. When she did turn to Devin, the blush that had crept over her white cheeks a few moments earlier was fading. Was she going to be ill? She looked as if she’d had a hell of a day, and he wasn’t about to make it any easier. Then she met his gaze. Her eyes were the color of a clear blue sky in the morning. There was probably some fancy name to describe that color, but it all came down to the fact that they were stunning.
No, not stunning. He didn’t find women stunning. Not any more.
“Is there a problem?” The woman circled the desk and walked toward him.
Now that he saw her move, he had the sense he had met her before. A long time ago.
“Devin Trent, correct?” She held out her hand to shake his. He kept his arms crossed. Realizing he wasn’t going to shake, she frowned and withdrew.
“I want that poster removed.” He pointed with his thumb toward the window where Livy’s image faced the street. A billboard along the highway would be less visible.
“It’s an advertisement for an upcoming event. Perhaps if you return then, you could purchase the original.”
“No, I don’t want to buy it. I don’t want it. I don’t want it hanging there.”
The woman pushed her glasses up her nose. “I don’t understand.”
“That’s my wife. I never gave anyone permission to—” Devin swallowed. “Take it down.”
The red stain on her cheeks was returning. She was more attractive with a bit of flush on her skin. What the hell was the matter with him today? Devin shook his head. Maybe it was the heat that had gotten to him.
She straightened. Her lips pressed together. Her gaze took him in with a quick up and down. She didn’t look pleased with what she saw. “I have the paperwork. Olivia Trent signed a model release form.”
“Hi, dear.” Shirley stepped between them. “Is this your work?” She motioned to the oil painting she’d been admiring. It was as if she’d forgotten the poster in the window. How long had she been drinking at the patio before he’d arrived?
The woman’s gaze moved from Devin to Shirley. “No, this isn’t my work, but I’ll be having a show in a few weeks.” Then she looked directly at Devin again. “The poster in the front is advertising it.”
“Oh?” Shirley swayed toward the window. “That’s yours? You’ve done an amazing job capturing my daughter’s image. She really is beautiful.” Her forehead creased. She pursed her lips for a moment and shook her head. “Was. She was beautiful. Right to the end. Wasn’t she, Devin?” Her voice sounded more wistful than grieving, but the last thing he’d want was for Shirley to start sobbing, so maybe it was better she’d numbed herself with drink. “So beautiful.”
“Thank you,” the girl said.
“You look familiar,” Shirley said. “Have we met?”
“I knew Olivia. Actually, the show is a cancer fundraiser, in memory of people in our community, like Olivia, who’ve…” Her voice faltered. She cleared her throat. “People who’ve had to confront cancer. I had hoped to display some of your daughter’s pieces with her portrait, but when there was no response to the letter or the phone messages I left for Mr. Trent…” The woman tilted her head, as if with her short stature she could pull off peering down her nose at him.
He had at least a foot on her.
Devin shrugged when Shirley shot a questioning look his way. There may have been a letter, he didn’t remember. The minute anything came in with the word “gallery” on it, he’d tossed it. Voicemails were erased. Sooner or later people got the idea. Evidently, this woman wasn’t overly bright.
“What a lovely idea. My daughter’s name will be out in the public again. Her talent was so great, I knew she wouldn’t be forgotten. Devin, dear, we were just discussing that very idea, weren’t we? I knew when I heard your message I had to bring Devin here today, and I was right.” Shirley clapped in a short and rare burst of enthusiasm. “What is your name, dear?”
“Claire Best.” She shook the older woman’s hand. She didn’t offer her hand to Devin again.
“Was that why you called the other day? That was you, yes?” Shirley was focused on Claire.
“What a lovely idea,” Shirley repeated. “Devin, don’t you agree?”
“I want the poster down,” he said.
“Devin, dear.” Shirley touched his forearm. “It’s to raise money for cancer.”
“Perhaps in this instance…”
Devin gritted his teeth. The last thing he wanted was to have the world remember Livy that way, with that look on her face. It was the one he’d put there and couldn’t erase. It’d haunted him, and now it was on display for everyone in God’s creation to see.
“Devin, dear, perhaps you need some fresh air?”
“No?” Shirley shrugged. “Okay, let’s chat about how to proceed. I’m sure the gallery will be very accommodating with Olivia’s work and whatever concessions you might want. Right, Claire?”
Claire raised her eyebrows.
“Go on now, Devin. We’ll talk about this tomorrow. I’m sure we can work it out.” Shirley’s eyes pleaded with him silently as she spoke. They begged him to let this be.
Devin pivoted toward the poster. The display area wasn’t obviously accessible, or he’d have ripped the damn thing out himself. “There is nothing to talk about, except getting rid of that picture.”
“Devin, perhaps you should leave. We can talk about this again once you are calmer.”
He fought the urge to hit something. Maybe it’d be better if he left. An instant later, he was walking down the street to the convenience store. A bell jingled when he entered.
He didn’t like being sideswiped. And if Shirley thought just because he felt sorry for her he’d give in to this gallery girl’s demands, well, perhaps even Shirley couldn’t push him that far. Sure, she could manipulate him into going to the gallery, but this was a whole other situation.
He grabbed six packs of cinnamon flavored gum on his way to the checkout counter.