“Who are you and where is my brother?” Summer said, meeting his gaze now. “Not this mean man . . . person, but my real one, the nice guy you used to be.” She stared into his eyes like she was seriously searching for something. “Is this how it’s going to . . . how you’re going to be while you here?”
“We all grow up sometime, so I guess you’ll just have to get used to the new me.”
“I don’t like this you.”
“I do,” he said.
Like that was to be end of the discussion, Summer thought. And no, it was not the end of anything.
“Clarke’s nice, really, and you will have to apologize. You should not have taken your anger with your wife out on her. That’s what that was about, wasn’t it?” she said. He looked away.
“She’s not my wife.”
“Your future ex-wife then.”
“I’m not taking my anger out on anyone. I just don’t like incompetence, especially when it costs us,” he said, staring at her, his anger reduced to visible irritation.
“It’s not her fault. I hired him first and had her run the background check second. You owe her an apology.”
He blew out a breath, which meant he agreed but wasn’t ready to say so yet.
She wasn’t going to push. She didn’t mind giving him a little space. He had been through a bunch in a short span of time. “So Willis is gone?” she asked.
“Yes, he is,” he said, sitting back in his chair. And yes, he owed Clarke an apology. He sighed and rubbed his hand over his face.
“That’s good,” she said, sitting in the blue beanbag chair in front of his desk. Maybe it was because of her height advantage, but she didn’t have the same problem sitting in it as her friend Ms. Kensington had had. “Clarke’s more than a private investigator, you should know, and that’s another reason you’ll need to apologize, and the sooner the better too. She’s also my partner in a residential business venture.”
“What residential business venture?” he asked.
“I’m moving into houses, flipping them. I know you’ve seen all the TV shows, where everyone’s flipping this house or that. That’s what I want to do, have always wanted to do, what I asked Dad to allow at first, but he wasn’t hearing it. I only accepted this job because Dad wanted me to, as a pre-requisite to starting on my own, to prove that I was serious this time,” she said, smiling at his expression. Disbelief. His eyebrow was lifted in that way of his that said he wasn’t buying it.
“That’s what you’d like to do now,” he said.
“Yes. It is what I’d like to do now and I know what you’re thinking.”
“What am I thinking?”
“The restaurant, the bake shop, the coffee shop . . . I was serious those times too. I was young, and it’s not me anymore, but thanks for bringing up my many failings”
“You brought it up,” he said, and his voice had lost the last bit of its edge, she thought.
“Anyway, I should have believed in myself and gone for it, instead of working here, trying to earn his support.”
“You have always had Dad’s support.”
“You know what I mean.”
“You wanted to impress him, to prove something to him,” he said.
“Yep, I did. You probably wouldn’t understand. He was always impressed with you.”
“Not always,” he said, and sighed. “I’m not that different from you. Without as many failings maybe, but the same need to be what he would approve of.”
“In some ways,” he said, and that was all he was going to say on that subject. Summer had just told some stranger his story in one fell swoop, so yes, he was going to keep the rest to himself.
“Wow. I knew your leaving Karen was impactful, but wow, this I didn’t expect.”
He didn’t reply beyond the lift of his eyebrows again.
“Anyway, that’s why I hired a superintendent to fill in for me. So I could work on getting my business started. I have my own money that I’ve saved, and the money left to us from Grandfather Novak. I still have most of that. And I have Clarke, who believes in me, enough to put her money behind me, and I’m not disappointing her or me. She’s grounded in a way that I’m learning to be. “I’m searching for homes for us to flip,” she said, still meeting his eyes. “Give me time, that’s all I’m asking for.” She faced him, as if reading his mind. “You’ll see I’m different.”
He was quiet, looking at her still.
“You being here is a gift for the both of us. I know it probably doesn’t seem like one now, but it is. No more of that terrible wife for you, no more of that terrible superintendent job for me, and you can help me . . . us, too.”
“Help you how?” he asked, a little bit impressed by this new Summer and somewhat different Summer, standing up to him, stating her case like an adult. And was that strength he heard in her voice, staring back at him? When had that happened, he wondered.
“You could help check out the houses with Clarke and me. I’ve started searching already, as a matter of fact. I’m close to having three picked out for us already. Clarke knows next to nothing about residential construction, less than I do. She mostly just wants out of being a private investigator at some point, so if we can get our business off the ground, maybe it could be sooner. You can help me . . . us. You have experience, since Dad put you to work when you were a kid, and all your knowledge of constructing things. That’s why you will have to apologize. I can’t have the two people I love most in the world at odds with each other. Nope, can’t have that. You’ll be super busy this way, no time at all to think about the woman whose name I will no longer speak.”
“Commercial construction is very different from residential,” he said. He’d forgotten how many words Summer could put into a sentence. Talking had never been her problem.
“I know,” she said.
“Maybe,” he said.
“What’s this ‘maybe’? It’s a huge plate you’ll have. You’ll be helping Dad until the new superintendent comes, unless you’re going to stick around and do it long term.”
“No. My days of being superintendent are behind me. I’m only filling in until I can find a replacement. Two weeks at least, three tops.”
“That’s fine then. You can help me until you can’t. I won’t pay you, of course, as you now owe me a favor.”
“Hello. I just told you. Aren’t you listening? The favor of providing you with a distraction, distractions.”
“Maybe,” he said, and smiled. It wasn’t a huge smile, not like the Henri smiles of old, before Karen had arrived on the scene, when he’d been free and unencumbered.
“So, one last thing and then I’m out of here. This is Clarke’s telephone number. Feel free to give her a call anytime,” she said, reaching for a sticky note from what was now his desk to write Clarke’s name and number on it.
“Maybe,” he said.
“Again with the maybe?” she said, standing up and looking around his desk.
“What are you looking for?”
“Your phone, so you won’t miss it.”
He handed it to her and she placed the sticky with Clarke’s information on top of it.
“I will apologize, you have my word. You don’t have to worry.”
“I know. I know,” she said, smiling. “I’m really glad you’re here.” She smiled more.
“We’ll see,” he said, smiling back, and this one was a lot closer to his old smile.
It was a start, Summer thought, at the door now. She waved and then she was gone.
Summer made her way to her car, thinking about her brother and what him being here meant to her, and all the good that was coming their way. She could feel it; things were finally working out for her, and whether Henri knew it or not, they were working out for him too. She’d watched him, sitting alone this morning, staring out the window, a large mass of angry and wounded male.
He was her favorite and only brother, the golden child for whom things had not turned out so golden, and she hated to see him like this. He was a nice guy, the kind the right woman would have appreciated, except he hadn’t found the right one. He’d gotten mixed up with a different kind, and was here licking his wounds while he tried to recover.
No matter, she was happy he was here. He needed to be here, for all the reasons she’d told him, but for others as well. A break in his nice-guy life, a getaway from Dallas and her parents. Nice as they were, the little circle of parents and their friends had this predetermined path picked out for their children to follow, her included. It was enough to suffocate the sturdiest, which he was.
He was nice-looking, her brother. Okay, more than a little. She’d recognized it early, along with all the things women did to get close to him, not all of it positive. Karen the ex was a perfect example of that. He had always been into women. He and his pal Stephen—who was married now, which meant anyone could be tamed—had never suffered from lack of female attention growing up. Ever.
And both of them were sort of rule-following men, who had found the women they loved and settled down to the married life, although she’d bet good money that her brother’s love for Karen had skidded to a halt at the start.
He needed a replacement, a good one this time, and she had just the person in mind. They had already met, this morning to be exact. The good that was coming for Henri had arrived. Clarke and Henri, a clash of two strong-willed people she loved, that had more than a little potential. Clarke had stood up to him, an excellent start for any woman dealing with a strong man. Yes, the two of them locked in combat early had been a thing of beauty to witness, lots of chemistry working between them, and neither one of them had a clue. No worries, lucky for them, she was here to the rescue. It wasn’t too soon either, for either of them, in her opinion.
Now how to go about it was the tricky question, it being so soon for Henri. Not so soon for Clarke, but she wasn’t over hers either. It would take some skill on her part, but she felt uniquely qualified, up to the task of getting the two of them together.
Yes sir, Clarke as a member of her family as well as a business partner would be an awesome addition. She’d be proud to call her sister. She was skipping the in-law part. She’d always wanted a sister.
As soon as the door closed behind Summer, Henri pulled out the scrap of paper with Clarke’s name written out in his sister’s script. No way around apologizing, as according to his sister, he would be seeing her often.
His future proximity to Clarke was not the only reason he was calling to apologize. He’d been wrong and rude, and she hadn’t deserved his ire. He could see that, now that he had blown through the heat of his anger.
He dialed her number, listening as it rang, once, twice, upward to four times, before it rolled over to her voice mail.
“Hello, Ms. Kensington. This is Henri Novak, Summer’s brother, the one you unfortunately ran into this morning. I owe you an apology. I’d like to make that apology in person if I could, and I’d also like to discuss the continued use of your private investigative services as I move forward to find a replacement superintendent.
“So if you would, please give me a call or stop by the office at your earliest convenience. I’m here as early as five in the a.m., until about six in the evening. I look forward to speaking with you again,” he said and disconnected. He turned his attention to work, the reason he was here, pushing everything but that into the deal-with-it-later category.
Clarke sat outside the Fergusons’ home, watching as their fourteen-year-old girl child allowed another equally fourteen-year-old child, male, into her parents’ home. Of course her parents were at work, with no knowledge of her exploits. They had suspicions, which is why she was sitting here now, watching.
This wasn’t the first time for Baby Girl. It was the fourth time, actually, in a three-week time span, and it was growing progressively worse. Baby Girl was skipping school too—not the entire day, too smart for that, just a class here or there, and never enough that it couldn’t be explained away. The bad part, the dangerous part was that Baby Girl was starting into drugs, depending on whom she was with. Not this kid—he was sex—but the desire to fit in, at least as far as Clarke could tell, was the biggest of Baby Girl’s struggles.
Clarke checked her watch. It was a little before lunch. Baby Girl had been here at this particular time before and if she stayed true to form, or Baby Boy stayed true to form, ten minutes and they would be out and on their way back to school, just in time for lunch.
Her cell rang, and she checked the number. She didn’t recognize it so she let it roll to her voice mail. She returned calls usually after assignments, and this wouldn’t be over until she retrieved the disk from the camera she’d installed in Baby Girl’s room at the request of her parents. They wanted information but didn’t have the heart to actually see it themselves. So they’d hired her, willing to take her word on it after she reviewed the footage. She only shared enough to give them a general idea of what occurred. Actually she already had the general idea, didn’t need a camera, but the parents thought she and the boy might be listening to music or some other such nonsense.
True to form, ten minutes passed and Baby Girl was locking the front door, holding Baby Boy’s hand. One small quick kiss and they were walking down the street, headed back to school. She’d wait for a bit, just to make sure the lovebirds had ample enough time to make it to school, and then it was in to retrieve the disk.
Might as well listen to her messages as she waited. Her mother was the first caller. “Baby, your Aunt Glenn called me today. I gave her your number. So answer any calls from numbers you don’t recognize. It’s probably her. She wants you to go out and talk to your Aunt Veda as soon as you can. Her daughter’s missing.”
Again, Clarke thought. She’d call her mother back this evening, and the other . . . maybe later on in the week, she decided, not really worried about Aunt Veda’s baby. An eighteen-year-old woman, with a newborn baby of her own, was way too old to be babied in her opinion. Plus, Amber sort of came and went as she pleased, usually after some argument with her mother. Amber and Aunt Veda had been arguing since forever, and were hard to take seriously now. Clarke moved on to the next message.
“Hello, Ms. Kensington, this is Henri Novak, Summer’s brother, the one you unfortunately ran into this morning. I owe you an apology. I’d like to make that apology in person if I could and I’d also like to discuss the continued use of your private investigative services as I move forward to find a replacement superintendent.” Clarke hit the button to delete the rest of his message, not in the least bit interested in whatever he had to say. She certainly had no desire to work for him. Asshole, she thought uncharitably.
The next call was from Summer, apologizing for her brother again. She’d only had to deal with Summer. She was only the business partner to Summer. Actually, she thought of herself as mostly an investor, as much as Summer disagreed. What she knew of construction wouldn’t fill up one of her mom’s sewing thimbles. Her participation was nothing other than her desire for options, something other than being a private Investigator, which could be tough on family life. Summer’s business was for later, something she could turn to actively when investigating folk was no longer viable.
She checked her schedule. She had two hours to review the tape, grab some lunch, and then it was on to a meeting with the Fergusons to discuss her findings.
Henri was here to meet an old friend of his, Stephen Stuart, who he’d grown up with from grade school through college,with loads of stories—scandalous and not—between them. They had remained friends, not in touch as much as they used to be, but aware of the major things that went on in each other’s lives.
Keeping in touch was not an easy thing, as Stephen had made Austin his home. After one hell of a choppy start, he had married the love of his life, Reye. Henri had texted Stephen last night telling him of his arrival, and Stephen had suggested they meet for lunch.
He entered the small eatery they’d agreed to, located east of downtown. An old house converted to a sandwich shop, it offered both outside and inside dining. He passed the outside patio, scanning it for Stephen. Not out here, he thought, and moved inside to the hostess desk, the gateway to seating.
It was pleasant enough, Henri thought, looking around the two dining rooms that were inside the old home.
He spotted Stephen at a table near the back of the room on the right.
“I see my friend,” he said to the hostess, leaving as soon as the words left his mouth, or maybe even before. He was not in the mood for talking or smiling.
“Dude,” Stephen said, chuckling, falling back in years to their primary form of communication when they had scoped out women, lived together, generally navigated their way to adulthood. He stood when Henri reached the table, to exchange the man-hug thing with his buddy.
“What the hell are you doing here? How’s the baby? I’d thought you’d be knee-deep in diapers by now, one of those tired parents of newborns,” Stephen said, chuckling.
“I filed for divorce this morning,” Henri said, meeting Stephen’s gaze, smiling as best he could, given the circumstances. He took a seat across the table from his friend.
“What?” Stephen said, falling into his chair. “What happened?”
“Where to start?” Henri said.
“Is there a baby?”
“Yep. She arrived into the world two days ago. Six pounds, seven ounces, and not mine.”
“Oh,” Stephen said. He clearly hadn’t expected that answer.
“Yep. I felt the same way, shocked and angry still, if I think about it too long. I showed up to the hospital to make a very unpleasant discovery. Did not see that coming. Had no idea.”
“I’m sorry, dude,” Stephen said.
Henri shrugged, brushed it aside with a wave of his hand, and proceeded to tell Stephen his sad story in detail.
The hostess from the receptionist desk appeared beside them then, wearing an apron around her waist and a sunny smile on her face, interrupting his tale. Maybe it was good thing, this interruption, as Henri could feel himself growing angry again.
“Hi, Shelly,” Stephen said.
“So you’ve brought me another customer. Thank you again,” she said, smiling brightly at Henri. “Stephen is one of my biggest fans, always bringing people over, spreading the word. Any more referrals and I’ll have to start paying him for advertising.” She nodded her head in Stephen’s direction. “I’m Shelly, by the way, the owner, receptionist, and today your waitress.”
Henri smiled, albeit disinterested or distracted. Either one was possible, Shelly thought, watching him. She’d seen both men enter separately, admiring the handsomeness that was the two of them. They were both a little older than her twenty-three years, but she was a mature twenty-three, had grown up fast as the owner of this, her first restaurant by age twenty-one. She preferred older men anyway. Stephen was married, she knew that from the start, as she had flirted at first. She always flirted, but he didn’t flirt back, so apparently he was happily married, she had concluded.
“What can I get you two to drink? Or more if you’re ready to order.”
“Water for me,” Stephen said, smiling back at her, darting his eyes over to Henri, whose head was bent, scanning the menu.
“Water for me too,” he said, meeting her gaze, his smile disinterested.
“I’d be happy to make a suggestion if you’d like,” she said, smiling again.
“I can read a menu,” Henri said before he could stop himself. “I’m sorry.” He met Shelly’s eyes. “It’s been a tough few days.” He pulled together his best smile, which didn’t quite reach his eyes, Shelly thought, but was enough to cover the hurt his words may have caused.
“No worries. I’ll give you a few minutes more,” she said.
“Thanks,” Henri said.
“I didn’t realize things were that bad. Shelly didn’t mean anything. She flirts with everyone,” Stephen said, sitting back in his chair.
“Shelly is?” Henri asked.
“The waitress, the one that was just here. It doesn’t matter. I thought things were better between the two of you,” he said, moving back to their conversation about Henri’s marriage.
“I did too,” Henri said, sitting back in his chair. He sighed. “As dumb as it sounds, I thought the baby would make things better, or at least that it would make the disappointment I felt with my marriage more tolerable. Dumb, huh?”
“Who knows, it could have,” Stephen said, watching the anger—mostly hurt, he thought—in Henri’s expression. “It’s probably too early to hear this, let alone say it, but we’ve always been honest with each other, so I mean what I’m about to say with the best possible intentions. Maybe it’s for the best. You didn’t love her the way—”
“The way you love Reye,” Henri said, finishing his friend’s sentence.
“That wasn’t what I was going to say, but okay, that works too. You didn’t love her, not in the way you wanted.”
“Not everybody has what you have, the happily ever after,” Henri said.
“Right,” Stephen said, shifting his gaze to Shelly, who had returned and stood smiling beside them now, apparently not one to hold a grudge.
“Are we ready now?” she asked.
“We are,” Henri said, and smiled. It wasn’t one of his finest from the old days, the one that worked so effectively on women, but it wasn’t the growl from earlier either, Stephen thought.
“I’ll take the lunch special,” Henri said.
“The same for me, Shelly,” Stephen said.
Henri looked up again, watching Shelly walk away from the table. Pretty and young, and that probably meant talking and energy, none of which he was interested in at the moment. Two days separated from his wife, not long enough to consider moving on to someone else. He hadn’t considered women, other than his wife, in years.
“So what’s the plan? Rest and relaxation, hanging out with your sister?” Stephen asked, deciding a change of topic was a good idea.
“I’m here on business actually. Would have been down here sooner, had it not been for the baby,” Henri said.
“Novak Construction is serious about expanding into Austin then?”
“We are. Summer was hired to be the acting superintendent on the construction site. As it turns out, she hired some dude without the necessary background checks to do the job. He’s been stealing and basically not doing any work.”
“I had no idea. She told me she was into something residential, I think? She’s grown up a bit, or so I thought. Still hyper . . . scatterbrained, but less so it seems. You know what I mean, a little more serious, and who thought that was possible. She used to dog our heels something fierce growing up.” Stephen said.
“I know, saving money to invest, it’s a surprise to me, too and I have to agree with you. She does seem different. More serious, I think,” Henri said.
“Having a business partner helps. Clarke is pretty sharp and grounded,” Stephen said.
“You know Clarke?” Henri asked.
“I do,” Stephen said, watching his buddy closely now. Something about the way he’d looked when he’d asked that question. It was a curious thing, Stephen thought. “Summer asked me to help out a friend, over a month ago now, I think. The friend was Clarke. She’s a private investigator, new to Austin. Summer wanted me to introduce her to people that might need an investigator. So I made a few calls, first to check her references, you know. I have a reputation too, but anyways, it was all good from her clients, really from everyone. Didn’t hear one negative thing about her. They loved working with her, hated to see her go. Said she’s particularly good at family stuff. So you met her?”
“I did, although it wasn’t a good meeting. More collision than meeting. She had the misfortune of being the first person I talked to after my phone call with Karen this morning, the first time I’d spoken to her since I left Dallas, since seeing the baby that wasn’t mine. It was all on me . . . my fault. I was angry and spoiling for a fight, tried to take it out on her, and she wasn’t having it.”
“You had an eventful morning,” Stephen said, chuckling.
“I had an eventful week,” Henri said, filling in the details of his argument with Clarke, along with Summer’s intervention, including his sister sharing the specifics of his divorce story. “Told her all of it. You know my sister.” He chuckled. “I can even see the humor in it now.”
“Summer,” Stephen said, shaking his head and chuckling too.
“I do owe Clarke an apology, which I will give,” Henri said, growing serious. “I’m already on it actually. I called and left a message on her phone this morning. I even offered to give her some work and it’s good to know she’s good, since I’ve made the offer.”
“It wouldn’t be all that difficult to bring her around if you put your mind to it, not for the Henri I know. You and your charm could make it all nice when you wanted. She is divorced, same as you will be soon, and also like you, hers was a bad one. A cheating husband was what I learned from one of her more chatty references.”
“I know. Summer told me that too, after Clarke stormed out of the office.”
“So maybe you two could commiserate together while you’re in town. She’s easy on the eyes,” he said, smiling.
“She is at that, I wasn’t that angry. I did notice that. She’s shorter than I like them to be, but everything else was really nice,” Henri said, smiling. He was quiet for a few after. Considering, Stephen guessed.
“I should say no to the commiserating with somebody idea, right? It’s way too soon for that, isn’t it? Except I’ve been without for a while now,” Henri said.
“Things were that bad?”
“Yeah, they were. I had serious thoughts of bailing before Karen conceived and why we were trying makes no sense to me now, but we were. Once the news of the baby came . . . I was going to stay.”
“Me too. So Clarke, huh,” Henri said, smiling, wanting to focus on something other than his depressing problems.
“Think she might be interested?” Henri asked.
“I don’t know. All I see is her professional side. I don’t know if she’s seeing anyone. Summer would have a better idea.”
“I won’t be asking her,” he said, chuckling. “She would never let it rest. Hell, who knows what Summer would do if she knew I was interested.” He chuckled, and then he was quiet again. “Now that I think about it, I’m not as opposed to it as I thought I would be. It could only be sex, though. I can’t imagine being up for much else. It’s way too soon for that.”
“Sex is good,” Stephen said, smiling.
Henri laughed, feeling better than he had felt in a while. He’d felt alone in this before now. “Well, whomever this imaginary sex I’m having is with, they would have agree . . . promise really, not to talk to me before, during or after, especially after. Not one word. So if you think your Ms. Kensington would be interested in that, height challenged or not, then maybe I would be too.”
“I could call her, put in a good word for you, help you get back into her good graces, maybe even set something up.”
“Maybe. Give me a day or two to think about it. Maybe she’s not the best candidate with her so close to Summer and all. I’ll let you know,” Henri said.
“Okay. I’ll wait to hear from you. So you’re going to be here working, hiring a new superintendent and living with your sister?” Stephen asked, changing the subject. And yes, he understood the anger that Henri felt, and the hurt that was behind the anger. He’d done the mindless screwing thing once upon a time in his life too, so he got it.
“Doesn’t sound all that spectacular when you say it, but yep, that’s me for at least the next two to three weeks,” he said.
Shelly was back, delivering their food. Henri remembered to smile this time. He found himself watching her move away again. She was an attractive woman, and yet he was still unmoved. Too much work and he wasn’t up for it, not yet. He couldn’t imagine having to make small talk and do all the other things women required. He’d rather be drawn and quartered, he decided, turning his attention to his food. “Smells good.”
“It is good,” Stephen said, biting into his.
“So enough about me. How’s Reye?” Henri said. He’d been the best man at Stephen and Reye’s wedding, just as Stephen had been his.
“Reye is fine, pregnant, starting into her fourth month. It’s been all morning sickness up until now,” Stephen said, smiling.
“It’s not nice that you’re smiling, you know this,” Henri said, willing himself to be happy for his friend.
“I know, but I am. Reye’s good, working to sell her business or shut it down. We’re headed to Dallas after the baby comes, before if we can swing it. We haven’t decided if we want to rent out her old home, our home, or put it up for sale. But to answer your question, we’re all good, and who would have thought that?” Stephen said.
“Not you, at least not at first, while I liked her from the start,” Henri said.
“I know. I remember, you’re one of the few that thought it would work, including me,” Stephen said.
“Yep. So much work it took to get you and Reye together, turned out be the one that lasted, while mine was easy and not good at all.”
“Right,” Stephen said, and it was quiet between them for a bit, and they made short work of finishing their lunch. The conversation turned to other things after that, like work and old friends, both from college and back home. Another hour passed, and they were winding down and preparing to leave and Stephen was handing his card to Shelly, to take care of the bill. “Basketball this Saturday morning. You’ve been drafted,” he said, while they waited for Shelly to return with his credit card. “We play over at the old rec, on campus. A few friends and I play in a league, so plan on joining us while you’re in town. You can meet me there nine, Saturday”
“I guess I can do that,” Henri said, smiling and standing up. He had missed his friend and although they’d stayed in touch, they both had gotten lost in their lives too.
“I will. No complaining if I’m too good,” Stephen said, smiling.
“I’m sure your game hasn’t changed that much,” Henri said, chuckling.
“We’ll see Saturday.”
“Saturday.” Henri smiled, glad to have the distraction of basketball, and of course Stephen’s friendship.