All I want for christmas... is big blue eyes
A chainsaw’s buzz brought Josh McDaniels’ head up with a snap. He gazed out his home office’s picture window at the turn of the century, Colonial mansion across the street as a one-hundred-year-old oak crashed to the ground. Three bulldozers, a backhoe, and a wrecking ball lined the gravel-packed, circular drive, their orange-yellow paint a harsh contrast to the surrounding, brilliant, white snow.
He let out a deep sigh. Some dreams were never meant to come true.
It was time. The old house finally couldn’t hold out any longer. After what must have been twenty years of sitting on the market with a four million dollar price tag, the California owners gave in to the pressure of hotel mogul, James Caverson, and signed the single-family estate over to development.
Kansas City would lose another historical landmark.
Never mind that others, like himself, had made reasonable offers on Warwick Manor with intentions to restore it. To return it to its heyday by recreating the Italian gardens complete with marble statues, polishing the oak floors, picking the weeds out of the cobblestone drive to reveal the inlaid Celtic cross. Repaint and refurnish. Move in. Let children run in the halls.
Not that he had plans for the children part. But the rest of it…The rest of it was all he had left of a summer he couldn’t forget.
Just like that summer, the house would crumble into faded memory.
He returned to his wide architectural pad and focused on the drawings. The columns needed a little more shade, the old iron lantern that hung over the porch wasn’t quite right.
He needed more time. Another day, and he’d finish the details. But as engines whirred to life, the crew outside told him loud and clear time had run out. What little more he could cram into the pages, he’d have to do quickly. Unless he wanted to recreate the picture with a wide hole in the middle of the old brick.
“Mr. McDaniels, you have a call on line two,” his secretary buzzed in on his phone.
Josh pushed a hand through his hair and inhaled. Now wasn’t the time for sentiment. He shouldn’t be working on fanciful blueprints anyway. He had more important things to do. Like finish the final details on the new, eight-level, Country Club Plaza parking garage. The developer intended to break ground with spring’s first thaw. For the last two weeks, the man had been all over Josh to finish the plans.
He pushed the intercom button. “Thanks, Nancy. I’ll take it.” Picking up the receiver, he looked out the window again. “This is Josh.”
“Josh!” a feminine voice he didn’t recognize cried. “I’m so glad I got a hold of you. This is Sandra Rodgers, you know, from Lexington High?”
He furrowed his brow. The name was familiar, but damned if he could place her face. He’d shoved high school to the far corners of his mind, along with the rest of Lexington’s six thousand residents.
“Sandy with the red hair?” he asked, searching for more detail.
“The same.” Her voice held a touch of pride, pleased with his recognition.
He chuckled. “Well, I’ll be damned. What’s it been now—ten years? What have you been up to?” Why in the world would someone from his hometown bother to call him after all this time?
“A little of this, a little of that. Yourself?”
“Work. That’s about all I have time for.”
“So I’ve heard. Your reputation is amazing, Josh. Which is, honestly, why I called.”
Reclining in his chair, he put his feet up on his desk and crossed his ankles. At least she wasn’t calling to invite him to another reunion he had no intention of attending. “What can I do for you?”
“Well, I’ve got a proposal to run past you. I need an architect for a new shopping complex. Think you might be up for it?”
“Shopping complex, huh? Strip Mall, or…?”
“Strip mall feel, but I want the exterior to be authentic. A representation of historic, Lexington, Missouri.”
His feet thudded to the floor as he sat up. “This is in Lexington?”
“Yes. I’ve got a couple hundred acres just sitting right outside town off Highway 13, and I want to do something with it. I’m a developer. I’ve run the figures, gotten some outside investors together, and now we just need to get the ball in motion.”
His frown deepened. He had property off Highway 13. Granted, it was run down, abandoned, and the weeds had probably all grown into the barbed wire fences, but he should have had the brilliant idea of putting a shopping mall in off the main access road. Damn, what a concept! She’d be rich beyond all means when this was said and done.
“That isn’t out by my dad’s old place, is it?”
“Sure is,” she cooed. “Butts up to it. I’m sure we could extend the idea if you wanted to do something with your property too.”
Sandra evidently had more between her ears than what he remembered of her. All his foggy memory could summon was a girl with a sinful body who was more than happy to offer it to virtually every one of his friends on the football team.
“You want me to design it?”
“Sure do. You’re the top-rated architect in Kansas City—I’m sure the residents here would be even more excited about the idea if a hometown boy put his heart into it. Give them something more to be proud about.”
Beyond the historic landmarks? He doubted Lexington’s pride could grow any more. The damn Civil War cannonball in the courthouse pillar was like a religious icon. But she had a point. And the prospect of getting in on the deal was too tempting to ignore. It would almost be worth a trip back home.
Another tree crashed to the ground outside, and the bulldozer claw raked it out of the wrecker’s way. With the racket, a pair of the deepest blue eyes Josh had ever seen flashed in his memory. Unforgettable, big, blue eyes.
Almost worth a trip back home. But not quite.
“I’m not sure, Sandy. My schedule is pretty full. I’ve got deadlines out the ass and clients on my back for things I’m already obligated to.”
“Oh, come on,” she cajoled. “Say yes. Give yourself a Christmas present. Come down here and visit us. Help me line up things, then go home to enjoy your profits. I’ve got all the documents in line. Come out for the weekend. I’ll sit down and go over everything with you.”
Outside, the four, twenty-foot tall columns careened sideways like a stack of dominos. The peeling, white porch roof sagged in the middle, hung tenaciously for a heartbeat, and then splintered into a pile of rubble.
Another image floated through his mind. Blond hair. A smile that made his heart trip. Light fingertips that trailed through his wet hair after an afternoon in the lake. Promises and dreams he’d refused to believe.
There was absolutely no way he could sit here and watch that beautiful piece of history crumble.
“No, I have a better idea. Why don’t you get everything together, and I’ll come down and work up the blueprints over the holidays. I’ve got about two weeks in my schedule. I think I can get most of something like that accomplished. Most of it’s pretty standard anymore.”
“Really?” Disbelief edged her question.
“You’ve got yourself an architect. Noon on Monday sound good to you?”
“Rodgers,” he repeated thoughtfully. “You marry Pete?”
“Okay, Sandy. I’ll see you on Monday.”
Josh dropped the phone back in the cradle and stared at it. Lexington. Blond hair, blue eyes, and kisses that turned his world upside down. Lord, he’d never thought he’d go back to the little Missouri town on the river. Not for any reason.
At the crunch of breaking wood, he glanced out the window.
Lexington was better than watching the last of his youth fall to pieces.
Picking up the phone once more, he moved across the room with the entire unit to sit in the corner where he couldn’t witness the destruction. He punched in the information number and waited on the operator.
“City and State please,” the computer-generated voice requested.
“One moment while I connect your call.”
Josh rolled his eyes. Such a stupid system. They always connected to a live person anyway. Why didn’t they start with one?
“This is Jennifer, how can I help you in Lexington, Missouri?”
“I need the number for Lucas Benning.” He spelled the last name.
On the other end of the line, fingertips tapped across a keyboard. “I have a Lucas Benning on Franklin Avenue.”
“That’s the one.”
“Would you like me to connect you?”
The phone rang in Josh’s ear. Not the high-pitched dial tone he was used to, but more of a buzz. Like an old switch system that needed to be updated. Just like the whole damn town.
“’Lo?” Lucas answered.
“Luc, it’s Josh.”
“Well, shit.” Lucas let out a sharp burst of deep laughter.
“How the hell are ya?”
“Pretty good. Happy Holidays. I got your mom’s card.”
“Merry Christmas, Josh. How you been?”
The sound of something heavy scraping across a wood floor brought a vivid picture of Lucas’ mother’s front room to Josh’s mind. Tall ceiling, plaster walls painted blue and edged with ornate, oak crown moldings—they’d gotten three kinds of hell for breaking her antique lamp when they practiced wrestling one afternoon.
It also brought to mind something Josh had spent eight years trying not to think about. An afternoon in Lucas’ backyard hammock, where those enchanting blond-framed, unforgettable blue eyes looked up at him with so much devotion he’d wanted to cry. And the girl…God, the girl.
Though Lucas left home and bought his own place years ago, Josh only had memories of a time far more distant.
“Good. Work’s going real good. I’m coming in town this weekend. You going to be around?”
Lucas didn’t immediately answer.
In the heavy silence, Josh shifted his weight.
“I should be. I’ve got some fence work to do. But I should be around.”
“Think you’d be up to a beer or two?”
Again the moment of silence. This time, Lucas’ voice held hesitation. “S’pose so. Ain’t coming back here to stir up trouble again, are you?”
Trouble. That’s what his former best friend now considered him. Well, he supposed he’d asked for it. Even best friends had a breaking point. Particularly when women got in the middle of things. But damn. One brief visit during his ten-year hiatus didn’t exactly warrant this degree of cold reception. It wasn’t like Lucas didn’t have his fair share of one-night stands under his belt. When in the hell had he decided Amanda was his concern?
“I’m coming in town for business,” he answered flatly.
“Well, ya better bring a suit and tie. Mom’s Christmas party’s tomorrow night. You know she’ll expect you, if you’re in town.”
Josh groaned inwardly. The last thing he wanted to do was go to a formal Christmas affair. This wasn’t supposed to be a social call. However, Mae Benning would hunt him down with her iron skillet if she found out he was in town and didn’t attend.
“All right. Will do. Just make sure you’ve got enough rum stashed in the kitchen cupboard to last the night.”
Lucas chuckled. “Always do. Only way to get through Mom’s parties.”
“Okay. I need to get some things done before I call it a day. I’ll be out later tonight.”
“Where you stayin’?”
“Thought I’d book a room at The Victorianne. Think they’ll have an opening?”
“This time of year—prob’ly. Though no guarantees. They’ve been busy this year.”
“I’ll call when I get in town and let you know.”
“’Kay. See ya then.”
“See you, Luc.”
Josh hung up and stared at his desk. The design book lay open, waiting for him to finish the front of Warwick Manor. When he did, it would join the other prints in his file room, waiting for the right builder to invest. Someone would. Some rich businessman’s wife would fall in love with the dream Josh had run from and make it hers.
He’d finish it later. When he was ready to turn it over to someone else and cut off those memories eternally.
Standing, he dropped the phone unit back onto his desk and left his office, entering the main floor of his bungalow home.
Nancy looked up from her computer with a smile.
“Why don’t you go on home, Nancy. Go ahead and give yourself some paid time off. Come back after New Year’s. I’m going to be working out of town for a while. Set the phone to forward calls to my cell.”
She blinked as her mouth dropped open a fraction.
He almost laughed aloud. Couldn’t say he didn’t blame her. In five years of working for him, he’d kept her on the job until the twenty-third of December and expected her back January second, bright and early. Even if he didn’t come downstairs until nearly noon.
“I know. Your kids won’t know what to do with you home.”
Laughing, she shook her head. “Adam won’t believe you didn’t fire me.”
Josh grinned. “Me, file my own things and answer the phones? Adam should know better. Hand me the checkbook, would you?”
She pulled open a drawer to her left and passed him the company checkbook. Flipping it open, he scribbled out a check for two thousand dollars, double what she’d make in the two weeks of work. With a fond smile, he passed the check to her. “Merry Christmas.”
Her eyes widened as she stared at the check. She shook her head. “Josh, I can’t.”
“You can, and you will. Go shopping. It’s the first time all week we’ve had three days without snow. Roads ought to be good by now. I’m going to go pack.”
As she fiddled with her computer’s mouse, closing windows and shutting down her system, she asked, “Where are you going?
Her hand paused. She cocked her head to the side. “You’re going home?”
He looked over her head and out the window behind her, catching the tail end of the wrecker’s ball before the heavy weight swung back out of his line of sight. He clenched his jaw. “No. This is home. I’m going to Lexington. There’s nothing homey about that.”
His laughter slipped out in a combination of a chuckle-snort. “They’d have to find diamonds floating in the river to make my sister go back.”
Nancy let out a soft chuckle. “I rather thought that’s how you felt about it.”
Grinning again, he winked. “Close. Not quite though. She hated it when we were kids. That’s the difference.”
“Gotcha.” She picked up her purse and slid it over her shoulder as she rounded her desk for the door. “Well, I’ll get out of here. Let you get to packing.”
Stopping to flip the open sign around to Closed, she looked back over her shoulder. “Merry Christmas, Josh,” she added with a fond smile.
“Go have fun.” He nodded at the door. “Get the kids something special from Santa.”
With a little wave, she exited.
As the door settled quietly into the frame, Josh’s smile faded. Olivia was going to think he’d lost his mind.
Maybe he had.
Heading up the wide, sweeping staircase that led to the residential part of the house, he called out, “Olivia? Get dressed, I’m coming up. I’ve got to talk to you before I leave town.”
She called back to him, her voice muffled behind her closed studio room. “Out of town? Over Christmas?”
Halfway up the stairs, he answered, “I’m going to Lexington.”
Something heavy crashed against the floorboards over his head, followed by her muffled curse. The paneled door rolled open and thudded into the wall stop. Her voice came louder, almost a screech, as she stepped into the hall.
“You’re going where?”
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