Built with Love

by Melody Carlson

For a young widow, the stone mansion she once dreamed of owning, offers the promise of a new beginning.

After the death of her husband, Kestra returns to her hometown of Port Star. With the purchase of her childhood dream house—a stone mansion along the rocky Oregon coast—it appears she has found a way to rebuild her life.

Kestra begins to transform the old house into an elegant, yet charming restaurant. But as the renovations begin, a mysterious stranger moves into her caretaker’s cottage—and eventually into her heart.

Suddenly life is full of promise and new opportunities, until a contractor’s jealousy threatens Kestra’s new romance.

Chapter 1

Prologue

“Hey, what are you doing?”

A deep voice almost blended with the sea as she whipped around. And then she felt herself slipping off the wet stone. In that same instant a firm hand grabbed her roughly by the arm and jerked her from the wall.

“You trying to get yourself killed?” His face loomed just inches from her own. She stared in silent shock at the penetrating eyes under thick brows. “Don’t you know this is private property?” He gave her a slight shake, as if she were a small child caught stealing candy. She quickly studied him without answering. She could see he was a handsome man—almost frighteningly so!

She was trembling now. Mostly from cold. Still he gripped her arm as if he had no intention of letting go. What right did he have to detain her like this?

“Let go of me!”

***

Kestra McKenzie barely remembered driving from Portland to the coast. She pulled off the road and stared blankly at the old iron gate at the top of the hill. She could faintly make out the curved lettering across the top—Port Star Cemetery. She stepped out of the car and was met by cold, damp air. Now she remembered. She had come to talk to her mother.

She walked through the neatly kept graveyard and over the edge of the hill to where the grass was overgrown and weedy and the markers were small and insignificant. She knew this was crazy. What possible good could come from talking to her mother’s grave? Lately, even her prayers sounded empty and pointless.

She pushed the weeds aside to reveal the smooth marble marker. She’d never seen the actual stone. Several years ago Jack had selected it from a design book in the monument store back in Seattle. They’d had it sent down to replace the small metal plate that had tarnished after a dozen years in Oregon’s coastal weather. The marker was still nice and white. She traced her finger over the cold engraved lily. Kestra had never cared for lilies, but she’d kept this to herself. Jack was usually right about these things. And then when Jack died the following year, she’d requested that same lily for his stone. Now she wondered if he might have preferred something more masculine, like an oak tree or an elk. She stood and sighed. She was getting nowhere on this mission.

She stepped away from the grave and willed her mouth to open and pour out all the pent-up words, all the questions. But nothing came. She couldn’t even formulate them in her mind. For the longest time she stood there blankly staring, waiting for something. But nothing happened, nothing changed.

She drove away slowly, almost dazed. She followed the curving coastal highway, focusing on the yellow lines, following one after the next. A horn blasted behind her. She was going too slowly. The truck honked again, long and loud this time. She should speed up, but she just couldn’t. Finally she crept her car onto the shoulder and stopped as the trucker whooshed past and vanished into the fog.

She turned off the engine and leaned back, wishing she, too, could vanish. She imagined herself disappearing, swallowed up by the gray until she could see herself no more. Instead, she stared out into the fog and wondered when living had become so empty and pointless. Here she was, only twenty-eight years old, widowed for almost three years, and yet she was still stuck in Jack McKenzie’s life. Day after day she went through the motions of what Jack would want her to do. Even later today in Portland, helping with the grand opening of another McKenzie’s restaurant. And all for what?

She leaned her head against the steering wheel. If only she had someone to talk to. Someone older and wiser… “Please, God…” she whispered, not knowing what to ask, not knowing if God would want to listen. Maybe she was getting what she deserved.

She lifted her head and sighed.

“Grow up, Kestra McKenzie,” she said as she turned on the engine and cranked up the window defogger. As the steamed windows slowly cleared, she noticed a familiar silhouette looming across the road. She’d almost forgotten it. It was the same old house, seated high on the bluff, that she and her mother used to pass on their way to and from church each Sunday. She used to pretend it was a castle, and of course, she was the beautiful princess who lived inside. Yet in all those years, she’d never ventured any closer than this to see it.

She put the car into drive and shot across the road, spinning gravel as she went. Today she would see it up close. She followed the long driveway clear up to the house and climbed out. The tall, steep-roofed three-story house looked dark and abandoned, and a few of its arched leaded windows were broken. The fog hung behind like an eerie backdrop, adding drama to its already forlorn appearance, but it did not frighten her. She had always thought this house was beautiful. At least three, maybe four, chimneys reached up to the dark sky like fingers of a hand pleading for help. She walked slowly around the sad old house, examining each sturdy stone wall. Built back before the turn of the century, it must have taken years to construct. Through various arched walkways she spied massive old doors hanging on crusty iron hinges. And in the back of the house, facing west, she spotted what appeared to be a beautiful, round stained-glass window up high, probably on the second floor. It seemed to be in one piece; in fact, most of the windows in back looked unbroken. She came around to the southwest corner to find an enclosed patio area. On a sunny afternoon it would be a delight. Too bad this wonderful old place had fallen into such neglect.

Finally she stopped by a low wall bordering the edge of what was probably once a garden, now overgrown with blackberries and ivy. She leaned over the wall to see what lay below. A rocky cliff fell steeply to the ocean. She looked out to where the horizon of the sea must lie, but only saw a thick blanket of fog. Perhaps on a clear day… She sat upon a smooth, wide stone atop the wall, pulling her knees up to her chin and gazing down at the surf below. It smacked again and again into the black jagged rocks. Soon she grew mesmerized by the repetitious white foam, lulling her with its soothing rhythm as it pulled away, only to crash back again onto those immovable rocks. An occasional plume of spray shot straight over her head.

 “Hey, what are you doing?” A deep voice almost blended with the sea as she whipped around. And then she felt herself slipping off the wet stone. In that same instant a firm hand grabbed her roughly by the arm and jerked her from the wall.

“You trying to get yourself killed?” His face loomed just inches from her own. She stared in silent shock at the penetrating eyes under thick brows. “Don’t you know this is private property?” He gave her a slight shake, as if she were a small child caught stealing candy. She quickly studied him without answering. He was well over six feet tall, and she guessed him to be about thirty. His dark brown hair curled around his face attractively, and even behind his well-trimmed beard she could see he was a handsome man. Almost frighteningly so!

She was trembling now—mostly from cold. He gripped her arm as if he had no intention of letting go. Then instantly and unexpectedly, she grew hotly indignant. What right did he have to detain her like this?

“Let go of me!” She shrieked, looking him straight in the eyes. She watched closely as his face registered surprise and his hand released her. He quickly stepped back, and she assessed her situation. Actually the man didn’t seem dangerous. And yet she still felt her adrenaline rushing and her heart pounding as if it had a volume button turned up too high.

“I’m sorry I frightened you.” His voice grew calm and quiet, almost soothing, as if she were a wild animal about to scratch his eyes out. Then she remembered what Jack used to say: “When Kestra’s mad her hair gets redder and her eyes get greener.” This thought, combined with the perplexed look on this handsome man’s face, almost made her smile. Almost. She hadn’t smiled in ages.

“I am truly sorry,” he said again. “I thought you were one of those crazy high school kids. They hang around here and throw rocks through the windows and…” He shoved his hands into the pockets of his denim jacket and hunched his shoulders, turning his face toward the ocean, then back to her. “Actually, I thought you might fall. You probably didn’t realize how these rocks can be slick when they’re wet.”

She nodded, appreciation sinking in. “I’m the one who should be sorry. I guess I’m trespassing. I didn’t know anyone lived here. You see, I grew up in Port Star, and I’ve always wanted to come up to see this house, but I never did… until now. I’m really sorry to disturb you like this. Are you the owner?”

“No, I lease the caretaker’s cottage. At least I did until—” He stopped and she looked at him. Of course, it was none of her business.

He continued. “Last fall some folks from Arizona bought the entire estate. They gave me notice last month. They plan to turn it into an inn or something.”

“Oh, that’ll be nice.” She noticed his frown. “Well, not nice for you, I suppose…” She shivered.

“If you want, I just put on a pot of coffee. It might warm you up some.” He tipped his head toward the small stone cottage. She hadn’t noticed the tiny house before, but now she saw the windows glowing with yellow light and smoke curling from the chimney. She looked at his face again. It was a face like Michelangelo might have sculpted. Strong cheekbones, straight nose, smooth mouth. His eyes were dark brown, but now she noticed the warmth of gold flecks, and the tiny fine lines along the edges revealed that maybe he actually smiled upon occasion. Something about him made her trust him.

“Sure, I’d like a cup of coffee.”

She followed him up the brick path that led to the cottage, and he opened the door and she stepped inside. It was really quite charming in a messy sort of way. He shoved aside a pile of papers to clear a spot on the worn pine table. She noticed some seascape pencil sketches on top of the stack and wondered if he might be an artist. He looked like an artist. She could imagine him with an easel standing on a cliff painting the sea. She was curious, yet she felt she shouldn’t ask, shouldn’t intrude. Jack had always told her that a lady never asks too many personal questions of a new acquaintance.

Instead she talked about the weather. “Usually there’s a brief warm spell in February,” she said. “Sort of a false spring. I remember as a kid, just when I’d get my hopes up that it was time to wear shorts and go play on the beach, the old winter winds and rain would return with a vengeance.”

He smiled. And it was one of those genuine smiles that made its observer feel warm and good. He refilled her coffee mug and replied. “We haven’t had a false spring yet, but it would be a nice little change. Although I don’t really mind the weather. I go out no matter what it’s like. The wind and I get along real well.” Again the smile.

“Have you seen any whales migrating yet?” She forced her eyes not to stare at his face, looking out the window, as if she were enjoying the view, only to be met by a blanket of fog. “Of course, it must be too early for whales…”

“Yes, not for a few more weeks at least. I guess I’ll miss that when I leave. I sure will miss this place.” He set down his mug and leaned forward.

“It’s too bad,” she said looking around self-consciously. “This must be a wonderful spot to live.”

“It has been.” He sighed. “It’s been just what I’ve needed. But then it must be time to move on.”

She wondered if that was a subtle clue for her. She looked at her cold, empty coffee cup. Her clothes were almost dry. She had no excuse to stay.

Rising, she said, “I’d better go.” He stood and looked at her as if to say something, but no words came out. Then she glanced at her watch and remembered she had promised that she’d be back at the grand opening by seven tonight.

“Oh, my gosh! I’ve got to go. I didn’t realize it was so late. I have to make it back to Portland in an hour!”

“Well, it looks like you’ve got just enough time.”

Her hand flew to her hair, and she knew by touch that her curls had gone wild in the damp sea air. “I guess I’ll make it, but I’ll sure look like a mess!”

“You don’t look like a mess to me,” he said quietly, and his eyes crinkled a little at the corners—just the way she knew they would. She thanked him for the coffee, then reached for the doorknob, suppressing the desire to explain everything. If only she had more time. She felt like Cinderella, or maybe it was the White Rabbit. Mostly she felt silly.

 She dashed through the fog toward her car, wishing for a reason to stay. Halfway to Portland, she realized she didn’t even know his name.

Chapter 2

As Gwen drove back to the office, she thought about how this job was not turning out to be anything like she had expected. Perhaps it was all a big mistake after all. But as dismal as it seemed, there was still something inside her that didn’t want to give up. She wasn’t sure if she wanted to prove something to Candice or to herself. But no matter how difficult it was, Gwen was determined to give it everything she had.

“Kestra McKenzie, your condo is fantastic!” Holly dropped her overnight bag and ran her fingers through her short-cropped brown hair. “If I wasn’t such a small-town girl, I’d be green with envy! I don’t know why I never came to visit sooner. I swear, this is like something right out of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.”

Kestra forced a smile, longing to recapture that kind of enthusiasm.

“I’m so glad you came to visit, Holly. I’ve missed you so much. I meant to stop by last week when I was in Port Star. I really wanted to see your new shop. It’s so great how you’ve started your own business. But then everything was so hectic with the restaurant grand opening in Portland and all…” She had no desire to tell Holly the real reason—about her stop at the old mansion. Something was so strange about her encounter by the sea that she felt to mention it would make it become common or trivial, erasing the mystique.

Holly pulled up the blinds in the living room and gasped. “I just knew it! Look at this view, it’s amazing! How can you stand to leave your blinds closed?”

Kestra stared in surprise at the scene laid out before her living room window. There had been times when the Seattle lights had reminded her of glittering diamonds spilled across a length of dark blue velvet. Now they only looked cold and artificial. Yet for Holly’s sake she nodded and smiled.

Holly kicked off her shoes and curled her toes into the lush, white carpet. Kestra remembered doing that same thing when she and Jack had first moved in, shortly after their wedding. Suddenly Holly turned and looked at her. “Kestra, you’ve changed,” she said in an almost accusatory tone, then softened. “What’s wrong? You seem so serious.”

“Well, Holly, we all change. Just think, it’s been almost ten years since I left Port Star and nearly three years since I last saw you.” Actually, it felt like a lifetime ago.

“Yeah, and we’ve got tons of catching up to do. I’m only here till Sunday.” Holly flopped down on the sofa. “This is nice, Kestra. I love the smell of leather.”

Kestra nodded as she poured them tall glasses of clear soda over ice, laying a neat slice of lime on top just the way Jack had always done. “Thanks. Jack picked out most of the furnishings. Of course, I always liked his choices. Jack McKenzie had excellent taste. In furniture, food, clothes—well you name it—the man just plain had good taste. That’s why his restaurants did so well. While he was alive, that is.” Kestra took a long sip and leaned back.

“Meaning they’re not doing so well now? How about that grand opening in Portland last week?”

Kestra shook her head. “Disaster. I think I wrote to you about how Jack left half the business to me and half to his son, Greg.”

“Oh, yes—the bitter stepson, blames his wicked stepmother for all of his problems.” Holly sounded like she was narrating a soap opera.

Kestra swirled the ice, watching it go slowly round and round the glass. She’d done everything she could to try to work with Greg, and yet preserve the integrity of Jack’s business. She would have liked Greg’s approval—if only for Jack’s sake, but it seemed hopeless. Even when she let him handle the Portland grand opening his way and it flopped, he still blamed her.

“Come on, Kestra, help me out a little, I feel like I’m carrying this conversation all by myself. I don’t get it—you used to be such a chatterbox. What’s going on? It’s almost like you’re on sedatives. You’re not are you?”

Kestra shook her head. Her doctor had prescribed something for the first few weeks after Jack’s death. But the drugs had made her feel as if she had a thick gunny sack over her head, and she either slept too long, or not at all, and after a week she gave them up.

“And it’s been nearly three years since Jack passed away. I know these things take a long time to get over, but—I’m sorry, Kestra, I shouldn’t be so nosy…” Holly’s words dwindled, as if she, too, had reached a dead end.

Kestra stared down at the massive oak coffee table, an antique she and Jack had unearthed in a little shop in Victoria B.C. She’d wanted it for their dining room, but instead Jack had gotten it cut down to use for a coffee table, and as usual he’d been right, it was perfect. She tried to think of the answer to Holly’s question.

“I’m sorry, Kestra. Me and my big mouth. What do I know about grieving. It’s just that you’re only twenty-eight, and you live up here like a hermit. Do you go to church anymore? Do you ever date or anything? You act like you’re an old woman, like your life is completely over.” Holly leaned toward her, eyes wide with concern.

“Oh, Holly! I’m the one who should be sorry. Here, you’ve come for a fun weekend in the city, and I’m acting like a total mental case.” Kestra forced herself to smile.

“I just want to see you happy, Kestra. But I really don’t know what you need—”

“Maybe I just need you around to prod me, Holly. It’s like I’m stuck or something. It’s not so much Jack’s death. Of course, that was difficult. But I think I’m mostly over it. But I just can’t shake this gloomy cloud—do you know what I mean?”

Holly’s brow wrinkled. Holly, the perennial optimist. How could she begin to understand what it was like to feel trapped or hopeless?

“And you know why I went to Port Star that day. I wanted to talk to my mother. Pretty crazy, huh? I drove like a maniac from Portland just to talk to her grave. And then I couldn’t even do that.”

“Well, that’s not so crazy. But if you needed to talk to someone, you could’ve come to me…” Holly’s voice faltered.

“I know I could, Holly.” Kestra looked into her friend’s eyes. “You know, you’ve been the closest friend I’ve ever had. And yet even you don’t know everything about me.”

“Kestra, I know everything I need—”

Kestra cut her off. “Did you know the reason my dad left us was because he was a drunk and my mom threw him out? Did you know that the only way we survived was by living on tomato soup and macaroni? Did you know—?”

Holly cut her off. “Oh, Kestra, you’d be surprised what I know. Remember Port Star’s a small town. If you sneezed on Tuesday, Dr. Mitchell would hear you had pneumonia by Wednesday.”

Kestra attempted a laugh, “Of course, what was I thinking? Everyone knew everything! Maybe that’s why I worked so hard trying to prove something. Typical over-achiever trying to compensate for her diseased family tree.”

“Come on, you sound like a self-help book! Over-achiever—ha! And all this time, I thought you were just plain smart and talented, although it never seemed fair you got the great looks, too!”

“Oh, Holly, you’re too sweet.”

Holly turned serious. “You know, Kestra, your mom would be proud of you.”

Ever since that trip to the cemetery, Kestra had been trying to picture her mother’s face. “Do you remember my mom, Holly? Do you remember how she looked?”

“Sure, I can still remember her behind the counter at Hartley’s. I always thought she was real pretty. I hardly knew you back then, but I thought you were lucky to have such a nice-looking mom. Actually, she looked a lot like you, Kestra, only wasn’t her hair brown? Yours is more auburn.”

Kestra smiled at the description. “Honestly, you thought I was lucky?”

“Sure. Your mom seemed sort of glamorous to me. I mean, think about it, my mom was home in her housedress baking pies with curlers in her hair.”

“I like your mom. And I used to envy you!”

“Kestra, you and your mom did the best you could.”

“I know. But what do I do with this guilt?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, right before my mom died, I promised that I’d make something of myself—”

“And just look at you, Kestra. You’re half owner of an upscale restaurant chain, and you live like a queen!”

“True. But I didn’t do that myself. I never worked hard—I just got lucky! None of this has anything to do with me.”

Holly frowned for a long moment. Kestra had seldom seen her at such a loss for words, and suddenly she was sorry for dumping on her like this.

 “Kestra, sometimes you’ve got to let the past go.”

“I know, and I thought I had. But after Jack died, it all seemed to seep back into my life. Sometimes I think about what Mom would want me to do—then I think about what Jack would want me to do. I feel like I’m beating my head against the wall trying to make sense—”

“You’ll never make sense of everything, Kestra. I don’t mean to preach, but maybe you should ask God what you should do with your life.” Holly held up her hands apologetically. “And on that happy note, how about if I go get freshened up. Aren’t we going to McKenzie’s for dinner?”

While Holly got ready for dinner, Kestra paced back and forth through her spacious living room, replaying parts of her life through her mind. What had she ever done that mattered? What had she accomplished? Sure she had finished flight attendant school. But why? Wasn’t it only to snag a rich husband? Someone to take care of her and give her everything she’d always wanted? What would Holly think if she knew that? Was it even true? Hadn’t she loved Jack?

Kestra sank into the big club chair—Jack’s chair. He used to settle into it late in the evening and read his Wall Street Journal. She ran her arms over the smooth leather, tracing the piping with her fingertips. Of course, she loved him, she told herself, why else would she stay here and work so hard to keep these crazy restaurants going? Day after day, week after week, she fought against Greg to preserve Jack’s business. It seemed her primary purpose in life was to keep everything just the way Jack liked it. Wasn’t that love? Didn’t that count for something?

Finally, Holly was ready and Kestra drove them to the restaurant, trying hard to make small talk along the way. She carefully steered the conversation away from the heavier topics. She didn’t want to frighten Holly away. Holly was a friend worth keeping.

“This car is nice, Kestra. But how will you ever find a parking place? I haven’t seen an empty spot since we left. Would it have been better to take a cab?”

Kestra laughed as she turned into the full parking lot at McKenzie’s. “Not to worry, my dear.” She drove through the lot to the back and pulled into a place marked ‘Reserved for Jack McKenzie.’

They were warmly greeted at the door by Marcus, and he ushered them directly to a conspicuously empty table. The best table. People glanced up from their dinners as the two ladies were seated in their chairs. Within seconds, candles were lit, and a waiter appeared with a bottle of sparkling cider and graciously filled their glasses.

“I feel like a celebrity,” laughed Holly. “I take it you told them you were coming?”

“Is everything all right, Mrs. McKenzie?” asked Marcus.

“Perfect, as usual.” Kestra smiled up at the good man. He had been with Jack for many years before Kestra came along. Sometimes she wondered if he felt Jack’s absence even more keenly than she. He bowed ever so slightly and slipped away.

“He treats you like a princess,” whispered Holly.

Kestra lifted her glass and studied the bubbles. “I didn’t order this, but I did tell them I’d be joined by an old friend tonight. I wonder if they thought it would be a man.” To her surprise, thoughts of her mysterious stranger flashed through her mind. It had happened many times during the past week. She could remember every feature of his face and even the golden flecks in his eyes. It was a pleasant memory, although a little unnerving.

“Well, here’s to old friends, anyway,” said Holly as she clinked her glass to Kestra’s. “Sorry I couldn’t be some old flame for you.”

Kestra laughed. “Glad that you’re not. Right now I just need a friend.”

“That’s why I’m here.” Holly smiled hopefully.

Kestra nodded and tried to pull herself back into the flow of conversation, shoving the unexpected memory aside for now.

“Speaking of old flames, did you know that Dan and Melinda Hackett got divorced last year?” asked Holly. The waiter carefully placed a tempting selection of seafood appetizers between them and Kestra thanked him.

“These were Jack’s favorites,” said Kestra. “Try the smoked salmon pâté. That’s too bad about Dan and Melinda. Don’t they have kids?”

“Just one. A real brat actually. She takes after her mom.” Holly tilted her nose up in a snobbish way.

Kestra forced a smile. “Melinda always had a certain air about her, didn’t she?”

“I never did like her. And for the life of me, I never could figure what a nice guy like Dan saw in her.”

Kestra lifted her brows. “Well, she was very pretty. And you just never can tell, she might have a good side.”

 “Okay, Kestra. But once and for all, I want the truth. If you don’t want to talk about it, I’ll shut up. But I have to ask.”

“Go ahead, Holly, I’m an open book.” Kestra stared evenly across the table. She had nothing to hide when it came to Dan Hackett.

 “Okay then, when you left Port Star almost ten years back, were you hiding a broken heart? I mean you and Dan had gone together for a long time. I’ve never asked, but as your friend, I’d like to know.”

“Well, to be perfectly honest, I was hurt. Think about it. Dan and I had only been apart for a couple of months. And even though I was the one who broke it off, I didn’t expect him to get over me quite so quickly. And they were so young. Dan was barely twenty, and Melinda was only nineteen.”

“Funny how that happens in small towns.” Holly shook her head.

 “I realize sometimes that it could’ve been me, and it’s a very sobering thought. You know Dan had talked of marriage, but he always said he wanted to wait until he was around twenty-five. And then, of course, his parents never thought I was good enough…”

“Oh, brother!” Holly rolled her eyes. “I wish they could see you now.”

“But honestly, Holly, looking back I wouldn’t call it heartbroken. Even then I knew Dan wasn’t the ultimate. I had this sneaking suspicion there was a whole ’nother world out there.”

Holly looked around the restaurant. “You’re right about that! Dan’s pretty small potatoes compared to all this.”

“Yes, but back then I wasn’t totally sure. And when I left town, I did feel a little hurt and humiliated. I even wondered if Melinda might have been pregnant. She’d always had kind of a reputation. And we all knew she’d been after Dan for ages.”

“Everyone in town thought so, too, but it turned out we were wrong.” Holly spread some more pâté on bread. “It really was odd. I think maybe the parents arranged it all one night at the country club.” She chuckled. “You know, Mrs. Hackett clears her throat and says, ‘Dawling Mrs. Jennings, don’t you think my wonderfully handsome Danny Boy would be a fine catch for your poor little Melinda?’ And that’s it, signed, sealed, and delivered right over martinis.”

Kestra laughed over Holly’s affected speech. It was perfect. “Holly, you’re bad! Aren’t you the one that’s always preaching about how we’re supposed to love our enemies?”

“Oh, I love them all right. I just can’t stand how some people act. But now seriously, what would you think about Dan now? He still seems to be pretty nice. Melinda hasn’t affected him too badly. Rumor has it, she’s already moved on and is supposed to be pretty involved with her tennis instructor. But would you ever consider Dan—”

“Holly, for Pete’s sake! I got over Dan Hackett ages ago.”

“Okay, okay. I’m just trying to help. I thought maybe you needed a little romance to help snap you out of this blue funk, but I was probably wrong. Sorry, Kestra.”

“I know you’re just trying to help. Actually, I think I’m starting to see what my problem might be.”

Holly leaned forward. “What?”

“Well, look around you.” Kestra gestured to the restaurant. “See, these restaurants meant the world to Jack, and for the past couple of years, I’ve tried and tried to keep them going the way he wanted. But here I am partnered with his son. And Greg definitely has his own ideas. He wants to change everything.”

Holly nodded. “What a lousy arrangement! It almost makes you wonder what Jack had in mind. Isn’t Greg about your age, do you suppose—”

Kestra laughed. “Greg has had a girlfriend for some time. And I like her. I would like Greg, too, under different circumstances, although not romantically.”

“Hmm, then I guess it’s just a lousy arrangement.”

“That pretty much sums it up.” Kestra lowered her voice, carefully glancing around to make sure no one could hear. “And I have this guilty sense of responsibility that makes me feel like I must preserve everything for Jack. Like I don’t really have my own life. I spend all my time asking myself, what would Jack want? What would Jack do? Of course, then I end up in huge fights with Greg because he wants everything different. But Jack always kept it all just like this—perfect.”

“And why not, the food’s amazing.” Holly picked up a fork. “Beautiful silver, white linen, flowers, candles, the works. I love it.”

“Right. And I say if it’s not broken, why fix it? But Greg wants it to become less upscale—more of a regular place. Not only that, he wants to open more restaurants! He took some marketing class, and I honestly think he wants to start a new chain or something. You know, one at every freeway exit. We constantly butt heads, and I’m—” She cut herself off as the waiter reappeared with their salad. He carefully arranged them on the table, ground pepper, refilled glasses, and politely asked if everything was satisfactory. Kestra smiled and nodded.

“So why not just sell out?” asked Holly. “What’s to stop you from just leaving?”

Kestra stared at Holly in amazement. How could she possibly think it would be so simple? “I can’t just leave. How can I abandon everything that Jack worked so hard for?”

“Why not? After all, Greg is Jack’s son, and Jack left him half the business. He must have thought Greg had some business sense. Besides, do you really want to live the rest of your life like this? And do you think Jack wanted you to be this miserable?”

Kestra shook her head. Jack had loved her, maybe even more than she’d loved him. He had tried to make up for her lousy childhood. She hated to admit it, but in many ways he’d been the father she’d never had. She swallowed a bite of salad over the lump in her throat. She did miss him.

“Look, Kestra, anyone can see you’re unhappy. In fact, I’d say you’re pretty close to being clinically depressed. There’s hardly any life left in you. Where’s that spunky little redhead with the flashing eyes, the one who was going to conquer the world? That’s the woman Jack McKenzie fell in love with. Do you think he would want to see you like this?”

Kestra stared at the sputtering candle and the lovely long-stemmed rose, just the faintest shade of pink. She replayed Holly’s words over and over—why not sell out? Why not?

Kestra looked up. “You’re right, Holly. You’re absolutely right.”

Holly blinked in surprise. “Really?”

“Yes.” Kestra laughed. “I can sell out. I don’t have to stay here.”

“And just think, Kestra, if you sell out your share of McKenzie’s you could even start your own business.” Holly’s eyes lit up. “Hey, I just thought of something! Remember that old estate, you know that huge turn-of-the-century rock house you always liked—”

“You mean the old stone mansion on the bluff?”

“Yeah, that’s it. Anyway, I just heard it’s back on the market again. A couple wanted to make it into an inn or something, then suddenly changed their minds. You could—”

“Buy it!” Kestra dropped her fork and didn’t even bother to look around to see if people were watching. “Do you think I could? Do you really think so?”

“Of course,” laughed Holly. “I mean I don’t see why not. I don’t know how much money you have or anything—”

“Maybe I could make it into my own business. Maybe an inn, or a bed and breakfast, or maybe my own restaurant!”

“I suppose so—”

“You know, I have learned a lot about the restaurant business over the years. And I do like it. Let’s see, Port Star is only an hour from Portland. That’s good. I know I’d have to renovate. And of course, I’d have to sell my share of McKenzie’s…” Already her mind was churning ahead. She tried not to think about the handsome stranger that might fit into this wild new dream. No, that was too much to consider right now. But in time, she would think about it. In time…

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