When Thomas Wolfe said you can't go home again, Cat Latimer wondered if he knew he was full of crap. She stood at the turret window looking out on her backyard in Aspen Hills, Colorado. During her marriage, she'd made this circular room into her office. The wall to ceiling built-in bookshelves were now bare, waiting to be refilled with the rare and not-so-rare books she'd collected during her two years as an English professor over at Covington College. She brushed her fingers over the cool window glass, not quite believing she was back.
“So you're just standing around, staring out the window? You realize we'll have guests arriving in less than two weeks.” Shauna walked into the room and put her arm around Cat. “You aren't thinking about Michael, are you?”
Shauna Mary Clodagh had been her best friend since the minute Cat met the tiny, redheaded bartender at the local pub near the apartment she'd rented in Los Angeles. It hadn't been the best job, but Cat had jumped at the first teaching position that took her away from Aspen Hills.
Into the frying pan, her mother would have said. But she didn't regret her years in California. She'd learned how to surf, or at least how not to drown. She hoped that skill would keep her above water now.
“I love this office. I always wanted to write here. Not grade papers, not work on lesson plans, just write the stories in my head.”
“Now you can. But, first, I need to talk to you about the breakfast menus. I've baked a few batches of different muffins and breads to try. Oh, and the handyman called back, and he'll be here first thing tomorrow morning.” Shauna looked out the window. “You really lucked out on this deal. Good thing Michael was too busy dating all those co-eds to remarry or change his will.”
“Brutal. Good thing you're my friend.” Cat picked up a notebook and a pen. “Let's go walk through the guest rooms on the second floor and make a list of what needs to be finished so the guy can get right to work.”
As she shut the door to the office, she thought about Shauna's words. Why
Michael left the house and his estate to someone in his family? She vaguely remembered him talking about a cousin somewhere in eastern Washington. She sighed. There was no use trying to figure out what Michael had been thinking, the house was hers again.
would make her own decisions.
* * *
Aspen Hill's largest employer and claim to fame was Covington College. The small liberal arts school was located just a few blocks away from 700 Warm Springs, her new-slash-old home. Cat made her way to the Abigail Smith building, home of the English Department and her former employer.
Behind the front desk was a large trophy case with a lighted sealed section for the Covington English Department Cup. Each year, the professors voted on the student with the most potential to make a mark in his or her career. When Cat had been a professor, she'd taken the voting seriously, nominating several of her exceptional students. One, a budding poet, got shortlisted, but mostly she noticed the final nominations looked like a popularity contest rather than true talent. She squinted to see who had won the cup this year and paused. Sara Laine. She pulled out the list Shauna had given her. Yep, it was the same. She had a cup winner attending her retreat.
A student sat at the reception desk, reading. She looked up as Cat stopped at the desk.
“You need help?” She put her finger on the line to mark her place and waited for Cat's response.
“I've got an appointment with Dean Vargas. Can I just go to his office?” Cat nodded down the hall. Some things never changed, especially the fact that the dean of the department always had the biggest office.
“Whatever.” The girl went back to her reading. Work-study jobs on campus tended to be more “make work” positions, so Cat didn't blame the girl for being bored out of her skull.
Cat knocked on the door, and a muffled voice answered, “Come in, it's not locked.”
She peeked around the door, making sure the man was alone. Michael wasn't the only professor with a history of enjoying time with the female students. “Dean Vargas? Do you have a minute?”
“Well, if it isn't the prodigal daughter come home. So good to see you, Catherine.” Dean Vargas stood and stepped around his desk. He looked the same as he had when she'd put in her resignation letter two years ago. Hair gently graying, he stood tall and trim. She'd never been able to pinpoint his exact age and several times when she was teaching
The Picture of Dorian Gray
, Dean Vargas's image had come to mind. “So how are sales of that
Tales of a Teenage Vampire
Cat thought about correcting him on the title, but knew he wouldn't remember anyway. “Very well, thank you for asking. The book is getting great reviews from the major players.” She pulled out a list of next week's retreat guests from her tote and handed it to him. “I'm glad we could settle on the contract terms for the retreat customers. My first group is arriving next week. These are the five people who will need library passes.”
Dean Vargas took the list and without looking at it, set it in a tray on his desk. “I'm happy we could be of assistance. I understand Professor Turner is doing a short presentation on the Hemingway papers as part of the retreat.”
“He is. Hemingway is just such a large part of the American writer mystique; I'm sure all of my guests will enjoy his session.” Cat looked around the office. On a side table, a pile of the university's latest literary journal sat on display. “I've loved the last few editions of
. I miss working with the journal staff.”
“The new professor we hired to replace you is enjoying the task just as much as you did.” He paused at the desk before returning to sit in his chair, choosing an appropriate look of concern or gravity for his facial expression. “We were shocked to hear about Michael's passing. He was a vital part of this college. The Economics Department is finding it very hard to replace him with a candidate of his stature.”
Cat didn't know the etiquette regarding accepting condolences about a divorced, deceased spouse, but she decided it didn't do anyone any good to be rude or point out the obvious. “Michael will be missed by many people.” She wondered if Dean Vargas had guessed her husband's extracurricular activities had been the reason behind the split, but decided to take the high road anyway. She adjusted her tote. “Anyway, lots to do. Thank you again.”
Dean Vargas nodded and focused on his monitor. “You are most welcome. However, in the future, there's no need for you to bring this over in person. Just drop the list in the mail. Good day, Catherine.”
Dismissed from His Excellency's presence, she hurried out of the building, hoping not to meet anyone else from her past. Dean Vargas had been a jerk to work for back then, and he was still a jerk today. Hell, he probably was born a jerk. With that thought lifting her spirits, she strolled through the commons to the street. Walking back to the house, she soaked in the warm autumn sunlight.
, her mother would have called the warm October day. School had been in session for a few weeks, so students were hanging around the grounds as she walked by, enjoying the summer's last hurrah of warmth.
A police car pulled up next to her; two short blasts of the siren made her jump and brought her back to reality. The passenger window eased down and an officer leaned across toward her. “You know there's no loitering in town. I may have to arrest you.”
“I'd like to see you explain that at the family reunion next summer.” She squatted down by the car, her arms resting on the open window. “How are you, Uncle Pete? I was planning on stopping by the house as soon as I got settled.”
“Old and crotchety, just like always. How're the house renovations going? You going to be up and ready for that group coming in next week?” He took off his baseball cap and rubbed his head with his free hand. “If you need me, I can come over and help this weekend. I'm knee-deep in paperwork from the college opening, but I could spare a few hours.”
Cat shook her head. “You don't worry about it. Shauna has found a handyman who works at a reasonable rate.” She checked her watch. “In fact, he should be there right now.”
Her uncle frowned. “The only handyman around these parts isâ” The radio in his car blared and he paused, turning his attention to the dash.
“Chief? They need you over at campus security. Some kid brought his stash of pot.” The dispatcher sounded like she was in another town, on the other side of the mountain and in a well.
“Sounds like you're busy. I'll let you go.” Cat tapped the car. “You stop in for coffee and a treat some morning. I'd love for you to meet Shauna.”
Her uncle peered at her for a second before the radio blared again. “Chief?”
He pulled out the microphone. “I heard you.” Putting it back on the holder, he smiled. “I'll drop by soon. We might have something to talk about.”
Chief Pete Edmond gunned the engine in his black Dodge Charger and pulled away from the curb.
Cat watched him as the car made its way up the road to the administration building. “The guy gets weirder every year.” She loved her uncle, but sometimesâlike nowâhe could be cryptic about the silliest things. She returned to her stroll and was walking up the stone path to her front porch when someone barreled through the front door and down the porch steps, a sheet of plywood in large rough hands.
Jumping off the sidewalk to avoid being smashed by the wood or its carrier, she waited for the guy to slap the sheet on the sawhorses set up in the middle of her front lawn. This must be the repairperson Shauna hired. Something about the guy, and his short brown hair, seemed familiar. In tighter-than-normal jeans and a faded T-shirt, at least from the back he was easy on the eyes.
“You need to watch where you're going with that,” she muttered and turned toward the front door. Her day had been filled with bulldozing men, but this was the first one who actually could have run her over.
“Kitty Cat? Is that you?”
. Cat stood frozen to the ground, not wanting to turn around. There was only one person who called her by that nickname. No one had dared since she beat up most of the fifth-grade class and put them straight that she was not a feline. Seth Howard had just laughed when she'd wrestled him to the ground. When he'd flipped her over, trapping her instead, he'd whispered in her ear, “You'll always be âKitty Cat' to me.” Then he'd let her up and shrugged for the class to see.
Slowly she turned around, banishing the memory from her mind and bringing herself back to the here and now. “Seth? You're the handyman?”
He laughed that easy laugh she remembered from too many weekend trips with the gang, camping, fishing, and drinking around the campfire. He had been her first and last boyfriend before she met Michael. The two men couldn't have been more different. Seth was Colorado born and raised. He could fish, hunt, and build a small shack in the woods to live off the land. Michael preferred his fish gently poached and served with a little Riesling. Or had.
“I didn't realize you were back in town.” He reached out and touched her brown hair, cut short into a pixie. “You look good; I like the new do.”
She should have melted on the spot, but there was just enough ice left in her veins to cause her to nod like one of those Hawaiian dolls Uncle Pete had on his old truck's dashboard. She licked her lips, suddenly feeling her mouth dry up like the Salt Lake Desert. She should start carrying bottled water when she walked. Yeah, that was the problem, her drinking habits. She gave in, trying not to be rude. “Thanks. You look good yourself.”
“You buy this?” He nodded to the weathered blue Victorian behind her.
Cat squirmed a little. Seth hadn't approved of her dating Michael. And when they got married in the little church on campus, he'd snuck in the back, standing in front of the closed doors, his hands crossed in front of him as the vows were read. Then he disappeared. A total Benjamin Braddock moment, only Seth hadn't said a word. This was the first time she'd seen him since her wedding day. “Actually, Michael left it to me.” She paused. “He died earlier this year.”
Seth nodded and walked closer, putting a hand on her arm. “I'm sorry to hear that. But weren't you divorced?”
So he had kept up on the gossip about her.
For some reason, this made her gut tighten, just a bit. “Three years now. Believe me, I never thought he'd keep me in the will. I hadn't even talked to him since the day the papers were signed.”
He searched her face, looking for somethingâwhat, she didn't know. He lowered his voice when he responded. “I am sorry.”
She wondered exactly what he was sorry about, but didn't want to ask. They'd gone their separate ways and now she was back and single. That didn't mean that he was available. For all she knew, he had a wife and six kids stashed somewhere in the woods. She dropped her gaze to his hand still on her arm. His left hand with no ring. He noticed her look and dropped his arm back to his side.
“So, the house. Shauna tells me you're opening some kind of hotel?” He took a step back, increasing the distance between them.
Cat wanted to step forward, close the space back up. Hell, if she was honest with herself, she wanted to step into his arms, kiss him and drag him up to her bedroom. But no ring didn't mean no attachments. She'd learned that early in her LA dating years. Besides, how clichÃ© was it to fall back in bed with your high school love? She banished the thoughts of what they could be doing and turned toward the house so she wouldn't have to look into those dark brown eyes.