Daredevil photographer Jake Hollister has never stayed in one place. But after an injury, he has no choice. No more photographing polar bears in the Arctic or documenting the wonders of the worldhe's in small-town Washington State for at least a year. A year with his wholesome, beautiful landlady, Hannah Nolan, and her young son.
The longer Jake stays, the more he's drawn to Hannah. She's passionate about her community and her family, things Jake has never experienced. And suddenly, because of her, these things are starting to appeal to him. Jake has always been a risk-takermaybe now it's time to take a risk on love.
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Hannah Nolan raced into the real estate office. She was running late, but she wanted to touch base with the leasing agent for the house she'd inherited from her great-aunt. She would have loved to live in Huckleberry Lodge, but the upkeep and utilities were too expensive. It was more practical to live with her son in Silver Cottagethe guesthouse located over the detached garageand rent out the main building.
"Hey, Lillian," she called.
"Hannah, I was just going to phone you. I have a fabulous offer you're going to flip over."
"I'm not selling my great-aunt's property," Hannah returned.
Lillian routinely tried to convince her to sell rather than rent, and she wasn't interested. Great-Aunt Elkie had been devoted to the lodge; it was the home her husband had built when they were first married and hoping for a large family. And despite Hannah's attempts to be practical, deep in her heart, she was desperately sentimental. If she'd had her druthers, she would be living in the lodge with a man she loved as much as Great-Aunt Elkie had loved Great-Uncle Larry.
The real estate agent waved her hand dismissively. "I'm not talking about selling. You have an offer to lease Huckleberry Lodge on a monthly basis, with utilities paid on top of the rent. It will mean ten times the income you've been getting with those short-term winter rentals. The first three months are guaranteed, but it'll probably be for a full year or longer."
A full year ?
Hannah's knees wobbled as she mentally added up the amount she'd receive. She grabbed a chair and sat down. It was a fabulous offer, but it also meant the lodge would "belong" to someone else the whole time. There wouldn't be any going over and using the hot tub when the house was vacant, and she'd have to collect her favorite movies from the large DVD collection in the library, along with other favorite items.
Still, what a break. Her renters were primarily wealthy skiers who came up over the winter from either Portland or Seattle. Summer was beautiful in the Washington Cascade Mountains, and the town was located on a picturesque lake, but the town's biggest tourist draw remained skiing, both downhill and cross-country.
"What's the catch?" she asked.
"No catch. It's a photographerthat guy whose plane crashed in Alaska when the pilot had a heart attack. It was big news because he won a Pulitzer for his war photos a few years ago. Imagine having that kind of recognition at his age. He can't even be thirty-five."
Hannah frowned thoughtfully. "Why does he need the lodge for so long? We aren't in a combat zone, and the nearest polar bear is in a zoo."
"I've only spoken to Mr. Hollister's agent, Andy Bedard. You know Andyhe rents the lodge two or three times every winter. Tall, lanky and a whiz on skis?"
Hannah nodded, picturing the nerdy guy in her mind. Andy could be socially awkward, but when he strapped on his skis, he was unrivaled. She'd had so many people in and out of Huckleberry Lodge it was hard to recall them all, but he was one of her best tenants. Although he always brought a large group of clients with him, they never caused problems.
"Anyhow," Lillian continued, "apparently Mr. Hollister's injuries were more severe than the news reports made it sound. It will take at least a year for him to recover and get back to the kind of photography he's known for, so he's doing a book on the Cascade Mountains while he recuperates. Andy calls it The Cascades Across Four Seasons. Kind of dull, but it's just a working title. Anyhow, I can fax the lease over tonight if you agree. I already told his business manager there's a large damage and cleaning deposit."
"Go ahead. It's too good to turn down."
"That's what I thought. There's just one other thing Mr. Hollister wants someone to do a bit of light housekeeping twice a week, for a couple of hours. But only when he isn't off working, and he'll pay extra for the service. You could hire somebody else, but I'd hate to see you lose the income. He shouldn't be around that often with the book to photograph."
Hannah hesitated. She was accustomed to cleaning the lodge after weekend skiers, but the prospect of having a regular tenant had given her a brief, appealing vision of spending more time with her son over the winter.
"Do it," Lillian urged. "He's offering an obscene amount of money per hour. If nothing else, you can put it toward Danny's college fund."
It was an argument that could convince Hannah to do a lot of things. Her ex-husband never sent child supportshe wasn't even sure where he was most of the timeand her salary as an elementary schoolteacher didn't allow her to save much.
"All right." At least this way she could keep an eye on the house and make sure Mr. Hollister wasn't doing any damage. Not that being a daredevil photographer meant he'd be a bad tenant, but he took chances with his life that no sane person would consider.
"Excellent. When the lease comes back, I'll call and you can sign, as well. Mr. Hollister wants to move in next week, so I'm sure he'll return the paperwork quickly. It's going to be fun having someone famous staying in Mahalaton Lake, even if he has a reputation for being a loner. You'll have to convince him to come to some of the town events so we can all get to know him."
Hannah wasn't sure about fun, but it would be a relief not having people constantly in and out of the lodge. Just cleaning up after each group had taken two or three evenings following a long day of teaching, so it wouldn't be bad getting paid for light housekeeping on top of the rent. She'd probably still have more time with Danny.
"It's great news, Lillian. Just let me know when the lease is ready. Talk to you later."
Hannah headed to her mother's house to pick up her son. The school year had ended earlier in June than usual, and she'd needed to clear out her classroom. Normally they had more snow days to make up for missed classroom hours, but the weather had cooperated this winter, so they'd had fewer than usual. Unfortunately Mahalaton Lake wasn't offering a summer session because the budget was too tight; having Huckleberry Lodge leased full-time was an unexpected boon to her finances.
"Mommy, Mommy!" Daniel yelled, running down the porch steps when he saw her.
She returned his hug. "Have a good time with Grandma?"
"Yup. Can we eat our pizza at Luigi's instead of at home? Grandma gave me quarters to play the games."
"Okay. Say goodbye and get in the car."
Danny dashed up the porch steps to give his grandmother a kiss, and just as precipitously, ran to their car and climbed inside.
"Thanks for watching him, Mom."
"I enjoy it, though I admit he tires me out," Carrie Nolan said with a laugh. "He hardly ever stops moving, and I'm not as young as I used to be."
"None of us are," Hannah replied drily. "What's this business about giving him money for video games?" When she was a kid her mother had claimed the same games would rot her brain.
"I'm a grandmother now. I don't have to be sensible."
"Ha." Yet Hannah smiled. "By the way, I have good news from Lillian. A photographer is doing a book on the area and wants to rent Huckleberry Lodge. It's month to month, but he'll probably stay for a year or longer."
"That's wonderful, dear, though if you ever need help well, you know we're here, and " Carrie's voice trailed off.
"I'm fine," Hannah said firmly. She was determined not to ask her parents for anything more than babysitting. She'd married the wrong man and it was up to her to deal with the fallout; the hardest part was knowing that Danny didn't have the father he deserved. But at least his grandfather was his male role model instead of a chronically unemployed dad with restless feet and a wandering eye.
On the other hand, her parents were all the family she had left, and it bothered her that Danny didn't have a larger support structure. Maybe if she knew her ex-husband's parents Hannah shook her head as soon as the thought formed. Steven had refused to talk about his family whenever she'd asked. Apparently the relationship was so bad, he hadn't even wanted them at the wedding. As far as she knew, they were unaware their son had even gotten married. Just because Steven had turned out to be a jerk it didn't mean his folks were the same, but she'd rather not open that can of worms.
She said goodbye and they headed to Luigi's. Aside from the supermarket freezer case, it was the only place to get pizza in Mahalaton Lake, since large restaurant chains hadn't discovered their small corner of Washington. Aside from Luigi's, they had Elizabeth's Tea Parlor, the Lakeside Bar and Grill, McKenzie's BBQ, Pat's Burger Hut, three cafés, a bakery, a deli and the Full Moon Bistro for natural-food fans. If you were looking for anything exotic, you were out of luck. Of course, in winter there was both a coffee cart and restaurant at the ski resort, but few people in town went up there to eat.
"Hello, Danny," called Barbi Paulson, Luigi's delivery driver, as they came through the restaurant's double doors. It was before five and the place was still empty. "Didn't you want me coming out to the house with your Friday-night pizza?"
"I was at Grandma's," he explained, "so we're having pizza on the way home."
"Glad to hear it." Barbi gave him a wink. "I don't want to lose my best boyfriend."
Danny skipped to the arcade tucked into a side room of the restaurant. It was a bright, cheerful place that was scrupulously clean and maintained. Hannah had played those same games as a girl, her mother's objections notwithstanding. Luigi hadn't bought anything new for the arcade in years, saying a classic was a classic.
"You sure got a great kid," Barbi said.
"I'm pretty fond of him."
"And he's real smart." The other woman grinned, but her smile faded and she leaned on the counter, the bangles on her arms clattering on the polished wood. "I've been thinking about you being a teacher and all. You know I never finished high school."
Hannah nodded, recalling that Barbi had dropped out of school to get a job. Though only thirty-two, she'd already had a rough life between a hard-drinking father and a mother who'd died when she was nine. People in Mahalaton Lake weren't always comfortable with the way Barbi dressed, but they admired her honesty and how diligently she worked.
"Anyhow, Luigi keeps bugging me," Barbi continued. "He says I got to get a high school diploma because you can't get anywhere without one. Luigi treats me great, but it sure would be nice to have one job, instead of these part-time gigs all over town."
"You might earn more with a general equivalency diploma," Hannah agreed diplomatically. It was hard to say what would make a difference in Mahalaton Lake, but statistically, graduates did better financially than dropouts. "I can check when the next exam will be."
"I already got the schedule." Barbi fidgeted with the bangles on her arms, looking embarrassed. "But right now there aren't any night classes to help study for the damned thingthat is, the test. And I wondered I know you do tutoring and stuff. I'd pay, of course," she added hastily.
"I'd be happy to help you study," Hannah assured her. "But as a friend. I wouldn't want to be paid."
"That isn't right," Barbi protested. "You got a kid to support."
"What isn't right is the school board failing to offer enough adult courses." It was something that deeply irritated Hannah. "But I have access to the study materials and we can go from there."
Barbi chewed her lower lip so hard that most of her bright red lipstick disappeared. "I don't know."
"I do," Hannah said. She'd been lucky to have parents who'd encouraged her to get an education and were there to help if she needed it. Offering the same support to a friend was the least she could do. "I'll call when I have everything together. We'll have fun."
"Barbara," Luigi hollered as he came out of the kitchen. "That pizza is ready for delivery."
Barbi left with the insulated pizza bag and Luigi came to the counter with a broad smile. "Ciao. I'll take care of you, Hannah. Your usual pizza?"
"You bet." Hannah thought about the lucrative lease she'd been offered and decided to splurge. "But add a garden salad and an order of garlic chicken wings."
"Excellent. I heard Barbara speak to you about tutoring," Luigi said as he took the money. "I'm glad she's finally doing this."
"She mentioned you've been urging her to get a GED."
"I was sixteen when we came to America from Sicily. My mama told me to study hard, not just to get ahead, but because learning is how to stay young." He thumped his chest. "My heart is not sixty-eight years oldit is strong like I'm still a boy."
Hannah's lips curved into a smile. "How is your mother, Luigi?"
"Ah, she goes to the church every day. She tells the priest when he makes a mistake in Mass and then works in the kitchen, making gnocchi to raise money for another stained glass window. She will not be happy until every window in the sanctuary is done. And she is reading War and Peace. So far, she likes Tolstoy better than Hemingway."
"War and Peace is a good book. Say hello to her for me."
She paid the bill and went into the arcade to watch Danny play as she waited for the food. He was an exceptionally bright kid, a year ahead of children his own age and curious about everything, including his deadbeat dad.
But whenever she started to feel bad for Danny or got upset with her poor judgment, she should remember Barbi Paulson. An absentee father was surely better than one who was drunk all the time. God knew what Barbi's childhood had been like, and Hannah suspected Vic Paulson still came around now and then to make life difficult for her.
Driving his new Jeep Wrangler, Jake followed his agent's car to Mahalaton Lake, Washington, grateful to be away from doctors and the hospital.
Andy Bedard, his agent, had offered to stay and help for a few days, but Jake would have none of it. That was why he'd insisted they bring two vehicles; if Andy had his own transportation, he'd have less excuse to become an unwanted houseguest.
It would have been worse if Jake had let his half brother drive him. Matt had been the one who'd arranged for Jake's transfer to a hospital in Seattle and gotten top specialists to treat him including Matt's own father-in-law, Walter McGraw. Matt wasn't a bad sort, and he'd chartered a flight and flown to Alaska as soon as news had come of the accident.
Still, Matt had become depressingly domestic since giving up his carefree party days and getting married. At least he'd traveled extensively before; now he wore a suit every day and handed out money for a charitable organization.
His wife was nice, though, full of energy. And while Layne worked as a researcher for a weekly regional news magazine, she hadn't asked him to do an interview.
Jake shifted his aching leg as they drove through the little town and out onto a road lined with tall evergreens, before turning right onto an even smaller road. It opened to a clearing where a two-story structure sat overlooking the lake.