Romance

Hedging Your Bets by Jayne Denker (Excerpt)

Hedging Your Bets by Jayne Denker

CHAPTER 1 Nearly getting headbutted by a stranger in a tiny pharmacy foyer was the last thing anybody needed after a long day at work, but Gillian Pritchard took it in stride. Besides, it was partially her own fault. She’d been distracted by a text alert and wasn’t looking where she was going. A tall man, sneezing repeatedly into a large bandanna covering most of his face, hurtling into her and nearly breaking her nose, put Gillian back in pharmacist mode even though she was off the clock and on her way out the door. She didn’t mind. Gillian had been a pharmacist for years, and she was good at it. Nothing made her happier than being able to serve the citizens of the small town of Willow Cove. “Allergies?” she murmured sympathetically, and the man nodded as he pushed past her into the building. Gillian didn’t take offense at his brusqueness; he was obviously suffering. She would have followed him back inside to help him out if it weren’t for her text. A quick glance at her phone to see that it was from her elderly neighbor, Carol, and it only said Come quick, was enough to send a zing of alarm through her. Cursing the fact that the gorgeous spring weather had enticed her to walk to work that day, Gillian hurried through town and into her residential neighborhood as fast as she could, but it still took far too long to get home. She tried calling Carol back on the way, but there was no answer. Practically at a jog when she rounded the corner onto her own block, she nearly barreled into her three neighbors, Carol, Arnette, and Judy, clustered on the sidewalk. When they all turned to her en masse, their eyes wide, Gillian’s heart seized. “What’s wrong?” she gasped. “Are you all right? Carol, why didn’t you answer my—” “It’s Retha,” Arnette stage-whispered, clutching the sides of her cardigan and pulling them tighter around her. Gillian’s heart skipped a beat at the mention of the ladies’ fourth senior friend, her next-door neighbor. “Retha?” “She’s gone!” Carol burst out, breathless. “Wait … gone gone?” All the women nodded. Gillian felt sudden tears prick her eyes, shock and grief constricting her throat. “But … but I saw her yesterday. She was fine!” Her third neighbor, Judy, shrugged and said with venom, “And now she’s in Tampa.” “My God,” Gillian whispered, staring unseeing at the pavement. “I can’t believe she’s … wait.” Her head snapped up and she narrowed her eyes. “Tampa?” Carol nodded vigorously. “Took up with that Norman character she met the last time she was visiting her nephew’s family in February. Just up and moved in with him!” “For God’s sake!” Gillian burst out, trying to calm her rabbiting heart. “Don’t do that! I thought—” “That she’d kicked it?” Judy muttered. “Might as well have. I mean … Tampa?” “Some people like Tampa,” Arnette sniffed. “Some people take up with random widowers without thinking it through too,” Judy countered. “Just because you can’t be bothered to find true love in your twilight years doesn’t mean the rest of us have given up, you know,” Carol cut in, gently patting her white-blond, gravity-defying, blown-out bob that was equal parts hair, hair spray, and air. “I never said I was against it,” Judy said, pulling up an errant bra strap. “But I sure wouldn’t count on it being found with Norman in Tampa.” “Judy,” Arnette hissed, flicking a glance at Gillian. “Remember what we talked about. Positivity!” Gillian fought back a weary sigh. Subtlety was not their strong suit. “Cut it out, ladies.” Carol wheedled, “We just want to see you happy. Is that so wrong?” “Second chances happen all the time,” Arnette said. Gillian’s neighbors knew she was perfectly content with her home and her job and her friends, and that “finding a new man,” as they always urged her to do, would simply be a pleasant addition to her already happy life. Gillian actually had started dabbling in online dating, signing up with a couple of dating apps recently. She wasn’t averse to finding someone to care about, someone who cared about her, but five years of blessed solitude since her divorce had made her pretty darn comfortable with her life as it was. She’d gone on a few dates, but apparently she wasn’t working fast enough for the ladies’ liking. “If you’d only let me give my stepson your number—” Carol started, for the thousandth time. “Not right now, okay?” She gazed across the street and felt a pang of loss. She’d really liked Retha. “What’s going to happen to the house?” “We don’t know,” Carol said. “Retha didn’t say boo about anything, not even that she was leaving, until today. She said she was moving to Tampa, hopped in an Uber with nothing but two suitcases and the urn with her husband’s ashes, waved to us out the window, and off she went to the airport. Poof, she was gone.” “It must be true love if she paid for an Uber to drive her all the way to Syracuse to catch a flight. Must have cost a fortune,” Judy said. “Hey, if Norm’s loaded, that could explain a lot.” “Judy!” Carol and Arnette snapped. There was a lot of Judy’s name being snapped when the ladies were together. Judy had no filter. Gillian kind of liked that about her. “I guess the house will go on the market soon enough, to catch the summer crowd,” Gillian said. Sometimes visitors fell so deeply in love with the little town of Willow Cove, and the Thousand Islands region in general, that they couldn’t resist buying a summer home there. Gillian understood. The town, on the banks of the powerful St. Lawrence River in the North Country of New York State, with Canada to the north and the Adirondack Mountains to the southeast, was a charmer. Gillian had lived there more than half her life, and she absolutely loved it, even in the cold, blustery winter season. Which was finally over. The restaurants, wine bars, art galleries, and shops would throw open their doors soon, and the tourists and summer residents would arrive to enjoy life on the river. “It should sell pretty quick … ly…” Gillian’s words died in her throat just as Carol let out a little squeak. A large, dark pickup truck had barreled around the corner and pulled up to the house as they were talking. Now a tall, lean man jumped down from the cab and, hands on his hips, stared up at Retha’s former home. His well-worn jeans sagged a little at his waist; his bluish-green heathered T-shirt strained against his ample chest and then slouched above his belt. As he squinted upward, he casually scratched the back of his neck, where his light-brown hair faded to a close crop. He was surprisingly tan for early May. “Real estate agent?” Arnette speculated. “Not slick enough,” Judy countered. “Contractor, I’d bet. Retha mentioned she might need a new roof.” “Gillian,” Carol whispered eagerly, “go find out.” “Carol, stop.” “Gillian Pritchard,” Arnette said in her scoldy voice, which was no less effective at reduced volume, “I want you to take a good look at those shoulders. And if you don’t go over and introduce yourself right now, there’s no hope for you.” Gillian scanned her friends, who were all eagerly watching her. Arnette, her sharp eyes bright against her warm brown skin. Carol, sprightly and girlish, smiling hopefully. Judy, short and broad, cynicism oozing out of every pore. Gillian knew what they wanted of her. Even Judy, though she didn’t show it. So with a heavy, resigned sigh, she nodded wearily and started across the street. She heard a definite Carol-is-excited squeal behind her and only felt a little bad for deceiving them, swerving to the right at the last minute and marching into her own house without a second glance at the man in Retha’s front yard. A chorus of boos assaulted her from across the street. Gillian laughed to herself as she shut her front door. CHAPTER 2 Noah West tentatively entered his new house and looked around. Yep, it was a house. Not the kind he was used to—not the least of which because it was filled with someone else’s belongings—and not for the first time, he wondered what the hell he’d just done, buying a house sight unseen from thousands of miles away. But he didn’t have the energy to examine the motivations behind his life choices. Not right now. Later. When he was strong enough to face all that had happened. Now he preferred to take comfort in facts. He liked those. Those were easy to grab on to, analyze, fix. Assessing this house, for instance, and making a list of necessary repairs. That was safe. That was logical. Unlike other events in his life recently, which had ceased to make sense about five or six decisions ago. All he knew was one minute he was in the desert outside Palm Springs, and the next he was standing in the suffocating greenery of the far northern reaches of New York State in a picturesque town on the shore of a vast, heaving river. Not quite what he was used to. But maybe exactly what he needed. That also remained to be seen. He wandered through the rooms on the second floor, ending up in the master bedroom. The sight of his reflection in the scrollwork-framed mirror over a French provincial dresser was anomalous, to say the very least. It was as if he were a ghost passing through. Either he didn’t belong or the furniture didn’t. Well, here he was, so it was the furnishings that would have to be rethought. He was pretty sure he’d seen a thrift store on Main Street. It was about to get a huge donation. Noah sat on the edge of the mattress, bounced once or twice. Bed could stay. He crossed to one of the bedroom’s windows. The house next door was surprisingly close—he wasn’t sure he liked exactly how close—separated only by his driveway and the neighbor’s driveway, with a narrow strip of grass between the two stretches of blacktop. He opened the window to get rid of the cloying odor of floral-scented facial powder and started to drop the blinds but paused when there was a sudden flash of movement behind the glass across the way. That window was flung upward, and Billy Idol’s “To Be a Lover” hit him full in the face. He blinked. He hadn’t heard the song in years, maybe decades. He was impressed all over again with its throbbing energy … and the energy of his neighbor, who was dancing to the powerful beat. At that point Noah’s brain stuttered into glitch mode, only capable of registering random impressions. Pale skin. Blond hair. White tank top. Cleavage. And … good grief. Thighs. And the briefest flash of underwear. “Have mercy,” Noah chorused with Billy under his breath, even though he was alone. It was as if that was all his voice could muster, under the circumstances … the circumstances being that his neighbor had divested herself of any semblance of pants. Noah clapped his eyes shut. He hadn’t meant to see any of that. But he had. He didn’t dare move for … what was it … thirty seconds, a minute? Half an hour? He wasn’t sure. But the song couldn’t have been any longer than four minutes at most, and Billy was still snarling. So time stood still. That made as much sense as anything else in his life lately. Why not? He would have continued to let time stretch out indefinitely as Billy roared for all he was worth. But all good things must come to an end, sometimes rudely and abruptly. He sneezed. Stupid North Country. Noah had forgotten he had allergies. Living in the desert for years made it easy to forget. But here they were, and worse than he remembered. His sinuses tickled by the grass and tree pollen so foreign to his system, he let loose a second powerful explosion, and he cursed the local pharmacist who’d assured him the antihistamine she’d recommended would control his symptoms for hours. These pills didn’t seem to mute them one bit. Window open for two minutes, and his nose felt like it was full of feathers. A third window-rattling sneeze, and he cracked one eye to locate the sash to shut out the pollen. That was when he saw his neighbor at her own window, looking around for the source of the explosion. Her eyes met his. Again, time stood still. Noah was pinned by those eyes. Cat’s-eye–shaped, glittering. He found himself wondering what color they were instead of mustering up enough effort to retreat. She was going to scream, wasn’t she? Or at least run off and call the cops. That’d be about right. He’d deserve it. The woman’s eyes narrowed, just a bit. Then she smiled. And Noah’s stomach leapt. She spun around—giving him a generous view of her lush backside, clad in dark purple satin—and started dancing once more. No scream. No frantic rush to hide. Or to put on pants. Defiant, his neighbor dared him to keep watching. “Whoa,” he whispered. Noah was grateful the woman moved away from the window, farther into her room, because that finally broke the spell he was under. He was able to move as well, out of the bedroom, down the stairs, and out the front door, which he latched securely behind him. This was not what he had signed up for. Granted, it was just a random occurrence, but for some reason a heavy weight settled in his gut as his skittering brain attached some sort of ominous portent to the dancing woman. But that was all it was, Noah reminded himself—just a woman. Dancing in her house. Minding her own business. It did not, in fact, mean anything. It had no bearing on his life. As he made his way to his truck parked at the curb, he was relieved to see the street was empty. When he’d pulled up, he’d spotted a small cluster of women watching him, although he’d pointedly not made eye contact. Small towns, man. Every one had busybodies. Well, he was going to hightail it out of there and— Noah nearly clocked himself in the head with the corner of his truck’s door when the tiniest of the blue-hairs suddenly popped up from behind her wheeled garbage tote. Just great—stealth grannies. Completely unaware she’d practically given him a heart attack, she waved cheerfully, her small hand engulfed in an overlarge, rough gardening glove clutching a fistful of what appeared to be errant weeds. Where she found them in the golf-course-quality lawn of hers was a mystery, but not one he wanted to expend brainpower ruminating on. Instead, he waved back reluctantly and retreated to his truck cab, slamming the door. Because … there. Now she’d gotten that … that look in her eye. He knew that look. It meant she took his wave as an invitation to cross the street and chat, and … Before the woman—who looked harmless enough, he had to admit—could take the first step off the curb, he started his truck, threw it in gear, and sped off down the street. Not today, overly friendly future neighbor. Not today. * * * Noah sat in his truck outside the marina, immobile. For the past five minutes, he’d been unable to get out of the cab. “I can’t do it,” he muttered to himself. He scrubbed his face with his hands. The statement was simple enough, wasn’t it? He wouldn’t need to explain any further when he repeated just that to the attorney. Who wouldn’t care anyway. He was just an intermediary, the person who’d drawn up the papers, held out a pen, and waited patiently while Noah scribbled his name and initials a dozen times, officially making him the new owner of Spencer’s Marina. The attorney could do the same thing, in reverse, when Noah resold the place. Yes, he’d just bought it, but all these changes all at once … it was just too much. Not to say his current situation wasn’t of his own making. Well. It hadn’t been, at first. The first thunderbolt had been Corinne stating, quite matter-of-factly, that she believed she and Noah had come to the end of their “journey” together and now it was time to “respectfully continue onward apart.” Or something. A buzzing had started in the back of his brain right around the time his suddenly ex-girlfriend uttered the words “You need to move out,” and it hadn’t completely abated yet. What had happened after, however, had been all him. He’d indeed packed up and moved out, sleeping in his office at his small art gallery in Palm Springs until it sold. Then he found himself staring at a pile of money without quite knowing what to do with it. Until his uncle Manny, in one of his rare phone calls to his nephew, had mentioned in passing that Jerry Spencer, owner of the town marina and Noah’s former boss, had died. Noah wasn’t really a firm believer in serendipity or fate or any of that stuff, but he couldn’t deny the universe was taking a hand in his future this time. As in, he was looking for a new life that had nothing whatsoever to do with the one he was leaving behind. And here it was on a silver platter. It could have been hazy nostalgia for the marina, where he’d worked as a teenager, and for the charming town of Willow Cove in general, where he’d spent so many of his summers with his family, staying at Manny’s place—or maybe he was romanticizing the ruggedly independent single life Manny had cultivated over the years, and he wanted that for himself now—but suddenly Noah found himself turning over a giant chunk of cash in exchange for the keys to the marina. Copyright © 2023 by Jayne Denker

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