Picture Perfect

Being an instant mother was hard enough.

But Abby Drake had never planned to live in a town so small it didn’t even appear on the map. She’d never expected to live in hiding, either, or to tell so many lies. But she’d do anything to keep her niece and nephew safe. Even if that meant pretending to be married—and losing her own chance at love.

Kurt Morgan thought being a single father with a nine-year-old son was tough. He didn’t need any more complications. Like falling in love with the woman he knew as Abby Harris. Mrs. Abby Harris. A woman who told a lot of lies. A woman with something to hide.…

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CHAPTER ONE

“Roll up the window, Michael.” Abby turned the steering wheel and brought the Toyota around a sharp curve in the unfamiliar road. Warm summer rain splattered into the open window and threatened to soak both the children and her cameras.

“Roll up the window, Michael,” Erin echoed softly, as if Abby needed an interpreter.

“I like the feel of the rain,” Michael protested. But at Abby’s warning glance into the back seat, he reluctantly complied.

Sighing, Abby returned her attention to the road. Had she made a mistake agreeing to this? Things hadn’t gone according to plan since they left Phoenix, and they were getting worse by the minute.

Lightning flashed, momentarily illuminating the road and the dense forest on one side. Though Abby knew the other side of the road dropped sharply away toward the Columbia River, she couldn’t see it through the storm.

“How much longer ‘til we get there?”

“I don’t know, Michael. I’m doing the best I can.”

“I’m tired of sitting here.”

“Have a cookie,” Erin suggested.

Good idea. Abby wished she’d remembered the cookies herself. But concentrating on the road for so long had obviously taken more out of her than she’d expected. At least eleven-year old Erin was old enough to help with her younger brother. And at almost nine, Michael didn’t require the kind of care a younger child would.

“I want to sit in the front seat,” Michael muttered.

If they didn’t find Pine Cove soon, Abby knew she would have to pull off the road to rest. The unfamiliar highway and four long days of travel had taken their toll.

She wanted only to reach Pine Cove and the house she’d rented for the summer. Then she’d get the kids in bed, take a hot bath, and go to sleep. Everything else could wait until tomorrow.

Straining to keep her eyes focused, she negotiated the wet road slowly until Erin lunged upward in her seat, her hand reaching over Abby’s shoulder. “There’s a sign!”

“Thank God.” Pine Cove, Washington. Population 800. Perfect. They should be safe here.

She found Water Street easily and followed it to number twelve, a weathered gray house facing the town square. Block lettering on the roadside mailbox spelled out “Z. Hutchings”. She’d found the right place.

Because it stayed light so late in the summer, Abby had expected to arrive before dark. But the narrow winding road had put them behind schedule and the sun had gone down well over an hour ago. Since she’d never spoken directly with their landlady, Abby could only hope Mrs. Hutchings would still be awake when they arrived.

She grabbed her sweater and looked back at the kids. “Are you ready?”

Erin frowned at the rain pouring down her window. “I don’t want to get wet. Can’t we wait here?”

“I’ll come.” Michael flung his door open, letting in the rain.

“Please, Erin. You know I can’t leave you here by yourself. Grab your sweater.” Abby pushed open her door and stepped out into the storm.

With a sigh, Erin followed.

Light shone from the front window, leading them easily up the walk. Mrs. Hutchings must still be awake, so this shouldn’t take long. The last time Abby had spoken to her friend Ted, he’d assured her everything was arranged. It should be easy to get the keys and directions to the house.

Searching in vain for a doorbell, she rapped her knuckles on the door and waited. And waited. With a sinking feeling, she knocked again. If anything else went wrong, she didn’t know what they would do. She hadn’t seen a motel in miles and she was too tired to go on. The kids couldn’t stay awake much longer, and neither could Abby. Mrs. Hutchings had to be awake.

Rain poured from the roof onto the unsheltered porch as Abby huddled deeper into her sweater in a vain attempt to stay dry. The kids looked as miserable as she felt, and Abby knew she had to get them settled—soon. At last, after what seemed an eternity, the door opened to reveal a round little woman, her wrinkled face beaming up at them from beneath a halo of wispy white hair, her hands clutching a walker.

“Mrs. Hutchings? I’m Abby Harris.”

“Oh. My dear. Weren’t you coming in tomorrow?”

Abby’s heart plummeted. Disaster. Surely Ted had explained that they’d get there as soon as they could, and no later than tomorrow—hadn’t he?

“Well, I can’t let you stand there all night. Come on in and we’ll figure out what to do.” Mrs. Hutchings backed away from the door to allow them room to enter.

Warmth wrapped itself around Abby’s shivering shoulders as she entered the house, and she melted into it. Mrs. Hutchings turned in the narrow corridor with some effort and shuffled toward a large living room. “Come in here and sit down. You’re probably wet through.”

Michael dropped onto the sofa and Erin followed, but Abby turned to the window and looked out on the storm. Since it was June, she’d imagined clear skies and hot sun. Instead she’d found gray, cloudy skies and pouring rain. She hoped it wasn’t an omen.

“Mrs. Hutchings—”

“Call me Zelda, my dear. We’re not formal around here.”

“Zelda. If I can just get the key to the house and some directions, we’ll get out of your way.”

“But I’m afraid the house isn’t quite ready. I wasn’t expecting you until tomorrow.”

After so long on the road, Abby needed the house—now. She’d pushed herself harder than she should have to get here, and she couldn’t stand another minute in that car. They’d been on the road since six-thirty that morning. Her back hurt, her neck ached, and her eyes burned. And she craved the comfort of a warm bed and the quiet of a place of her own.

Mrs. Hutchings fluttered her hands again. “I don’t even know if the house is fit for you to stay in it tonight. No, I can’t let you go over there by yourself. I’m going to call my nephew and you can wait here until he comes. He takes care of everything at the house for me, has done since my husband passed on. I’ll have him go with you and help you get settled.”

Kurt buttoned himself into his heavy rain gear, muttering under his breath. All week he’d promised Brody they’d watch the NBA playoff game. They’d gone to the FoodWay together and stocked up on chips and soft drinks, popcorn and beef jerky. Everything Brody wanted. And though Kurt hadn’t seen the boy really enthusiastic about anything since his mother left nearly two years ago, this had come closer than anything else.

Then Aunt Zelda had called.

And now Brody sat in front of the television looking sullen.

“I’ll hurry back. I won’t stay long, I promise.”

“It’s all right.”

“Look, I’m sorry about this. She said it was urgent and I need to make sure she isn’t sick, but anything else can wait until morning. I’ll be back before the first quarter is over.”

“Right.”

“Why don’t you come with me?”

Brody’s eyes flashed up from the television screen for a second, filled with scorn. “To Aunt Zelda’s? No thanks.”

“All right, but save me some popcorn.”

With a noncommittal shrug, Brody turned back and Kurt studied him for a long moment before pulling his collar up and heading into the storm. Of all the nights for Aunt Zelda to decide she needed something, why did she have to pick this one? And why did she have to call him? Couldn’t she call Jack—just this once?

Jamming the Jeep Cherokee into gear, Kurt pulled onto the highway as thunder rolled overhead. Zelda would never call Jack. The older of the two brothers, Jack had never had patience with their aunt and had used his other obligations, including taking over as editor of the Pine Cove Patriot after their father’s death five years ago, as an excuse to avoid Zelda’s demands. So Kurt always got the call.

He didn’t usually mind so much. His legal practice in Pine Cove couldn’t be described as demanding, and after Laura left he’d had too much empty time on his hands. He’d actually looked on Zelda’s demands as a blessing in disguise for the first several months after the divorce.

But lately he’d grown more used to life as a single parent and his practice had picked up. He didn’t need Zelda—or anyone else—to fill his days. He did need to spend time with Brody and help his son make the adjustments Kurt had managed to make himself.

He turned left onto Water Street and saw an unfamiliar car on the street in front of Zelda’s house. That must mean the summer renters had arrived. Kurt bit back an oath. He’d expected to have another day to get the place ready. So much for his promise to Brody. This would probably take longer than he’d thought.

He still couldn’t understand why Zelda had decided to rent his grandparents’ house at the last minute. She’d talked all spring about hiring a contractor to fix the place up, then out of nowhere she’d gotten this idea to rent it for the summer. And she expected Kurt to get everything ready single-handedly.

Well, he wouldn’t do it tonight. He’d hand the guy the key and show him the door. Anything more could wait until the morning.

He pounded up the walk and burst in without knocking. Water dripped from his coat onto the rug. He shook his head and watched droplets of water fall from his hair onto the floor. Behind him, he heard voices and the sound of Zelda’s walker.

“Here he is!” Zelda cried. “Take off your wet things and come in here for a minute, Kurt. I want you to meet Abby Harris and her children.”

Zelda had always been headstrong, and she’d grown stubborn in her old age. Arguing with her tonight wouldn’t get him anywhere. She’d never agree to send the renters another twenty miles to the Hi-Tide Inn, though it’s exactly what she should have done under the circumstances.

He hung his coat on a hook by the door and followed the sound of voices into the living room. Two children sat on the sofa drinking cocoa. The boy smiled. The girl didn’t shift her attention from the mug in her hand.

Across the room, Zelda fluttered around a small blonde woman like a mother hen. She’d pulled out one of her blankets and had it tucked around the woman’s legs. As he watched, she stuffed a corner of it into the space between the woman and the chair. The woman looked up and met his gaze with clear blue eyes, but agitation played across her face, as if Zelda’s ministrations weren’t exactly welcome. Her face looked pale and drawn, and the children had that hollow-eyed look Brody always got when he stayed up too late.

But Zelda didn’t seem to notice. She looked up and sent him one of her motherly smiles. “This is my nephew, Kurt Morgan. He lives just up the highway from where you’ll be. Kurt, this is Abby Harris. I imagine you two will get to know each other pretty well. This young man looks about the same age as Brody.”

Abby Harris shifted in her seat, pulled the blanket away from her legs, and tossed her damp hair with her hand the way Laura used to after a shower. She flashed him a glance loaded with impatience. “How far away is the house?”

At least she didn’t expect him to sit around while she warmed up. “It’s a couple of miles out of town. It’ll take us about ten minutes to get there. You can follow me, it’s on my way—” He stopped and looked around the room again, only now realizing that something felt wrong. “Did I misunderstand? Isn’t your husband here with you?”

The girl finally looked at him, her eyes darting up in surprise, but Abby Harris smiled easily. “My husband is working in Europe this summer. The kids and I are here on our own.”

Great. Now he’d have to get the house warmed up for her before he could go back home. From outside, sounds of the storm intruded. Rain poured in sheets from the darkened sky. It would take forever for that old mausoleum of a house to warm up. And common courtesy prevented him from leaving them alone to unpack their car in this storm. With a silent apology to Brody, Kurt knew he had no choice but to help them get settled.

Abby watched the emotions play across Kurt Morgan’s face.  He didn’t want to be here, she could tell that from the frown that knit his face and drew his brows together. He probably blamed her for making him come out in this storm.

She struggled out of the heavily-padded chair and faced him, though she had to crane her neck to do it. “Please don’t feel you have to help us.”

“The house is old and the heating system is pretty outdated. Unless you’re familiar with old wood-burning furnaces—”

“Of course she isn’t.” Zelda sniffed. “You’re not leaving them over there with no heat or hot water.”

No hot water? What kind of place had Ted found for them? Though Abby had lived on her own for the past several years, she’d always relied on her landlords to get the furnace working or the water heater going. As much as she wanted to be alone right now, she’d have to let Kurt Morgan come with them.

Once Zelda produced the key, it took them nearly fifteen minutes to reach the sprawling old Victorian house where Kurt Morgan finally turned off the road onto a gravel drive.

“It looks creepy,” Erin whispered from the back seat.

Though she secretly agreed, Abby put on a brave face. “It’ll look better in the light. Grab everything you can hold and let’s make a run for it.”

They didn’t have far to run from the drive to the wide porch that wrapped around the house and provided shelter from the storm. But by now, Abby was thoroughly soaked and a chill had seeped into her bones. The children must be just as miserable.

Mr. Morgan unlocked the door and held open the screen for them to pass into the house. It certainly was large. And old. And cold. Maybe having him there wasn’t such a bad thing after all. Still, she hoped he wouldn’t stay long. Exhaustion tugged at her eyelids and threatened to throw her off balance.

“Is your car locked?”

She struggled to focus on his face above hers. A pleasant enough face, even if he didn’t know how to smile. Tiredly, she shook her head. “The trunk is.”

“Tell me which bags you need first and I’ll bring them in. Then you can change into some dry clothes while I start the fire and check a few other things.”

“My black garment bag, I guess. My overnight bag. Erin’s suitcase is the blue one and Michael’s is brown.” She held out her keys to him.

Without another word, he ducked back into the storm and reappeared a few minutes later carrying the bags she’d requested.

“Your rooms are all upstairs.” He indicated they should follow him with a jerk of his head.

The climb tortured Abby’s weary limbs. Erin and Michael dragged themselves up the stairs behind her. Exhaustion had finally claimed Michael and stopped his complaints, but Erin’s mood never seemed to change.

At the top of the stairs, Mr. Morgan turned to the right. He placed Michael’s bag on the floor of the first room. Sheets and blankets lay folded on top of the bed. No doubt the other rooms were in the same condition. They couldn’t even lie down until they made the beds.

Abby blinked her eyes against the fatigue. “Do you know how to make the beds yourselves?”

Mr. Morgan looked back at her and Abby realized her mistake.

Michael shrugged but Erin nudged his shoulder. “Yes, we do.”

Mr. Morgan looked away, as if he’d lost interest in their conversation, but Abby knew she’d have to watch herself more carefully. Especially since she was so tired.

Erin’s suitcase went into the second room before Mr. Morgan led Abby down the hall. Opening onto the front of the house, her room would overlook the Columbia Gorge. Large French doors opened off one wall, and against the opposite wall a wide bed with an elegant carved headboard beckoned to her, promising her rest.

“This was my grandmother’s room. You’ll enjoy it, I’m sure.” He lowered her bags to the floor and flicked on a light switch by the outside doors, illuminating a large deck. “It’s not much to look at now, but in good weather it’s a beautiful view.”

“I’m sure it is.”

“Well,” he turned to face her again, an almost embarrassed look on his face. “I’d better go build that fire. Anything else you need?”

“Really, Mr. Morgan—”

“Kurt. Nobody uses last names in Pine Cove.”

“Kurt, then. I appreciate all your help, but I’m sure your family would like to have you home.”

Something flashed in his eyes before he turned away. “My son’s home alone and I’d like to get back to him fairly soon, but it’ll only take a few minutes to get the fire going.”

Abby watched him cross to the stairway and felt herself smile. There was something almost boyish about Kurt Morgan. Something she found appealing.

When he had disappeared down the stairs, she closed her door and changed quickly from her wet clothes into a pair of gray sweats. She pulled her hair into a ponytail high on her head and made the bed. Ignoring its invitation to her tired body, she crossed the hall to Erin’s room.

She pushed the door open, knocking softly. Erin had fallen asleep sprawled on the bed, covers pulled down, her wet clothes still on. Awake, she seemed so grown up, but she really was little more than a child. And she definitely showed the signs of everything she’d been through the last few years.

Abby roused Erin enough to get her into clean, dry pajamas and tucked into bed before going into Michael’s room. He’d been more successful, managing to strip out of his clothes and pull the covers over himself. Touching a kiss to her fingertips, Abby pressed them softly to his cheek before she tiptoed out of his room.

From far below, the sounds of tools clanging on metal floated up the stairs. Mr. Morgan. Kurt. Obviously still working on the furnace.

Padding down the stairs in her stocking feet, Abby took in more of the house this time. A large living room opened off to the left, under her bedroom. On the right, a wide doorway led into another large room; a parlor a hundred years ago, it looked like a family room now.

Kurt had brought in the rest of their bags and stacked them inside the front door. Her camera equipment, another suitcase each, miscellaneous duffel bags. Enough stuff to last through the summer. She hoped.

Behind the stairs she found the kitchen, a large, white room with old fashioned fixtures and a prehistoric range. Abby had certainly never seen anything like that before. No matter, she reassured herself, they wouldn’t use it much anyway. With her schedule she rarely cooked any more, and she didn’t plan to hone her skills this summer.

Putting the kitchen behind her, she looked into an enclosed porch at the back of the house. Beyond it, the wrap-around porch continued from the front of the house and beyond that, trees.

Somewhere close by, another clang sounded along with a muffled oath. Her lips curved in a smile before she pulled herself up sharply. She couldn’t deny Kurt Morgan was attractive, but she’d have to watch herself around him or she might give him the wrong impression.

She looked through an open door and found him stretched out on the floor, his head nearly concealed by a monstrous-looking thing. Thank goodness he’d stayed. She’d never even seen anything like that.

“Everything all right?” she asked.

Startled, Kurt brought his head up rapidly, ramming his forehead into the old stove. He fell back to the floor with a groan.

She’d knocked him out! Racing across the room, Abby knelt over him. What had she done?  She pressed her fingers to his forehead and his eyes fluttered open.

Green eyes. Incredible eyes. Words froze in her throat. Something inside her melted and her hand trembled as Kurt gazed at her for one long moment.

“Ouch,” he whispered at last.

Jerking her hand away, Abby broke eye contact. “Are you all right?”

“Fine.” He pulled himself to a sitting position.

Uncomfortably aware of him, Abby backed away. “You’re sure?”

“Yeah. You just surprised me. You shouldn’t sneak up on a man like that.”

As usual, when she became too tired, she grew emotional. Tears threatened to fill her eyes. “I’m sorry.” She turned away, but she knew he’d seen the tears.

“Don’t worry about it.” He pulled himself to his feet and reached a hand toward her. Reluctantly, she took it and allowed him to help her up. He touched his forehead, winced and grinned, exposing disarmingly appealing dimples. “I got the fire going, but you’ll probably have to wait until morning for a bath or shower. Did Zelda send over enough bedding?”

Abby didn’t trust herself to look at him, but forced herself to nod.

“Well, then—” As he reached back to the floor for his jacket, Abby felt her eyes drawn to him again. What was she doing? He was attractive, but that didn’t excuse her for acting like a schoolgirl. She didn’t even like the plaid-shirt and jeans, outdoorsy kind of man. Dragging her eyes away, she resolved to ignore him. By morning this fatigue would be gone and she would be more sensible.

Tomorrow she had to be rational. She’d need to think about the house and the kids. Tomorrow she’d worry about food. And she’d find a phone booth and make the first of the calls that would eventually let the folks in Tempe know they’d made it safely.

“Is there anything else you need?”

Like a healthy dose of common sense? “No. We’ll be fine. Thank you for everything.” Now, more than ever, she wanted Kurt Morgan to leave. Fatigued and beset by all their other problems, Abby had lost control of her emotions.

“Maybe I should leave my number for you in case you need anything.” Kurt crossed the kitchen and rummaged through a drawer until he came up with a scrap of paper and the nub of a pencil. “I’ll leave you the one at home and at my office. I’m usually at one or the other, and if I’m not home my secretary will know where to find me. You can call Zelda if you want, but it might just be quicker to let me know if something needs to be fixed. She’ll just call me anyway.”

Abby waited in silence as the pencil scratched against the paper. Kurt held it out and when she took it, she made certain their fingers didn’t brush.

The silence stretched uncomfortably until, without warning, a scream shattered it. “Abby!” Michael’s terrified voice carried through the house.

Dropping the paper, Abby turned. Before she could get through the kitchen door Michael called out again, and by the time she reached the stairs his terrified cries had roused Erin who stumbled through her door onto the landing.

Abby felt Kurt behind her, matching her stride as she leapt up the stairs and burst into the boy’s room. In the half light from the hall Abby could see Michael’s tear-streaked face and quivering shoulders.

She sat on the edge of the bed and pulled him to her. Whispering soothing words, she tried to still his fears and cursed herself silently for not expecting this. The nightmare had come every night of the last four.

“Is he all right?” Kurt stood in the doorway, silhouetted by the light behind him.

“He’ll be fine.”

“Is there anything I can do?”

“No!” Realizing how sharp her voice sounded, Abby struggled to soften it, to force a smile to her lips. “It’s nothing —really.”

After a slight hesitation, Kurt nodded. “You have my number if you need anything.”

“Yes. Thank you.”

She held her breath until he turned away and released the tension in her shoulders only after she heard the front door closing behind him.

For a long time after Kurt left, Abby held Michael against her, stroking his hair away from his forehead.

“My dad was here, Abby. I saw him.”

“No, Michael. It was just the dream again.”

Erin tiptoed into the room and sat on the foot of the bed, her face heavy with worry. “Isn’t Michael ever going to get better?”

“He’ll be fine. Sometimes these things take time. We have to be patient—all of us, including Michael. It won’t go away overnight.” Holding Michael’s shoulders, Abby pushed him away from her slightly. “We have another problem, though. You know what you did?”

Michael shook his head solemnly.

“You called me Abby.”

The little boy’s face paled.

“You must both remember what we talked about, even when the nightmare comes, even when you’re afraid. You mustn’t ever call me Abby, remember? Call me Mom.”

(copyrighted material)


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