Too Close to Home
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by Alison Stone
Description: They say you can never go home. If you do, better watch your back. Ten years ago, after her father's gruesome death was ruled a suicide, Kathryn McNabb left her hometown, vowing never to return. And never to let anything--business or personal--break her heart. Now an overachieving manufacturing engineer, she thrives on order, control and solitude. But an unexpected inheritance makes her the co-owner of the company her father founded, forcing her to face the ghosts of her past. Including Ben Nowak, childhood friend, secret crush, and son of the man who ruined her father. Ben hadn't planned on returning home either, but with his own father's death it falls to him to continue the family legacy. When he learns Kathryn plans to sell the plant out from under him, his quest takes on new urgency--Midport Industries is the main source of jobs in town. Butting heads strike sparks of attraction that entangle business and pleasure into a hopeless knot. And someone is watching. Someone with a darker reason to prevent the deal from going through. Someone desperate enough to kill? Warning: Beware of the shadows, disgruntled employees, and childhood crushes all grown up.
eBook Publisher: Samhain Publishing, Ltd., 2012 2012
eBookwise Release Date: October 2012
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [250 KB]
Reading time: 155-217 min.
She shook away the thought and closed her eyes briefly. The sights. The sounds. Nothing had changed in the ten years since she had been here. The overwhelming smell of oil carried her back to another time. A time she suddenly missed with a fierceness she hadn't known she possessed.
Kathryn let out a shaky breath and forced herself farther into the plant. Her frustration grew when her thin heel got stuck for the third time in the rubber brick floor. What a fool to think they would have updated the floors, she mused as she bent and yanked her shoe free.
For a fleeting moment, she considered snapping the heels off her shoes. Instead, she stuffed her foot back into the shoe and scanned the area. Workstations were lined up in neat rows. The assemblers performed their jobs with practiced fluidity. Her gaze drifted from one worker to the next when she noticed a familiar profile.
Her heart beat wildly against her ribs. Her mouth went dry. Despite the lies she told herself, she wasn't ready to face him. Not after everything they had been through.
Benjamin turned away without seeing her, giving her a chance to observe him unnoticed. He had his sleeves rolled up to his elbows while holding a radiator core. He seemed to be pointing out something to the assembler in front of him. The assembler, a young woman, smiled and tossed her hair back with a gloved hand.
The vestiges of a horrible memory threatened. She shoved it away before it solidified in her consciousness.
As if in slow motion, Benjamin turned around. Kathryn wondered if he sensed her presence. She quickly dismissed the idea. She was foolish to think she had any influence over him, real or perceived.
Benjamin nodded to acknowledge her. His wavy brown hair looked thicker, his face more rugged, angular. Gone was the eighteen-year-old boy she remembered. Once upon a time, they had been friends. Best friends. They'd flirted with the idea of more. But it hadn't worked out. A dull ache settled over her. So many things in her life hadn't turned out as she had expected.
Kathryn fisted her left hand and dug her nails into her palm. She refused to unravel in his presence. She wasn't a teenager anymore, the passive girl who tended to agree just to get along. And he was no longer one of the most popular kids at school. They had graduated to the real world. Yet she couldn't deny the old emotions swirling inside her.
Benjamin approached her and extended his hand. "Morning. I'm glad you made it." The cool expression in his eyes contradicted his greeting.
"Glad to be here." She returned his handshake, a hint of sarcasm in her tone. Had she really expected something other than polite indifference? Benjamin had probably been blindsided by his father's last wishes too. She certainly hadn't expected to inherit half of Midport Industries.
"Would you like a tour?" He looked at her with a bland expression.
She spread her hands. "It doesn't look like anything has changed."
He raised his eyebrows but didn't say anything.
"Is there somewhere we can talk?"
Benjamin tipped his head toward a set of stairs leading to the second-story enclosure perched over the plant floor. Her father's old office. Her jumbled emotions clouded her vision. She cleared her throat and strode ahead of him. She'd never imagined childhood memories of people--of places--could be so powerful.
As she climbed the steel stairs, she admonished herself to hold it together, but the warning had little effect when she opened the door and saw her father's desk. She crossed the room and ran a hand along the desk's mahogany edge. The distinct smell of expensive wood reached her nose, and suddenly she was eight years old and hiding under the huge desk, fancying herself a young John John. Smiling at the memory, she ran a palm across her wet cheek. She hadn't thought of that in years.
"We can clear off that desk." Benjamin's words snapped her back to the moment. Every inch of the desk's surface was covered. No doubt the Nowak family preferred to bury her father's memory under three feet of business reports and instruction manuals.
"I'd like that," Kathryn whispered around a too-tight throat. She swiped at her tears and turned to face him. "But--" she gestured to the desk, "--I think we have a lot more to clear up than this."
Benjamin resisted the urge to comfort Kathryn. He wouldn't know how. He hated to admit it, but after a childhood of friendship, she had become a stranger to him. Gone were the wild curls framing her face, replaced by a neat braid with one stray strand at the nape of her neck. Her freckles had faded some. Her ready smile had disappeared.
He rubbed the back of his neck and turned his gaze from her pained expression. He shoved away his growing sense of empathy, instead zeroing in on a more familiar emotion of late.
What was Dad thinking? Willing her half of Midport Industries? Bringing her back into my life?
Walking around to the other side of his desk, he picked up the phone and punched in a few numbers. "I'll call the laborers. They can move all that stuff for you."
Kathryn nodded. With a faraway look in her eyes, she sat down and ran her hands along the smooth leather of the chair's arms. He turned away before she could catch him watching her. When he was done with the call, he hung up. "The laborers will stop by this afternoon."
"That will be great." She laced her fingers in front of her and twisted her hands. "I'm sorry about your father," she finally said.
"Thank you." Benjamin gave her a weak smile as their gazes locked then lingered. Leaning forward, he rested his crossed arms on the desk. His father had died a month ago and the loss was still fresh. But what did she care? Something in his heart shifted. She does understand what it's like to lose a father.
Kathryn was the first to look away. She slid open a desk drawer and seemed to study its contents. After a few minutes of watching his new office mate, he decided to get some paperwork done. They'd have to find a way to work together. At least until he could unravel his father's will.
The high-pitched squeaking of casters brought his head up. Kathryn had slid back her chair and stood. She pushed the bottom drawer shut with her high-heeled shoe. Those must be murder on the plant floor.
She propped her hip on the edge of her father's desk and crossed her arms. "Are we going to talk about why I'm here or are we going to pretend it's no big deal?"
Narrowing his gaze, he tilted his head. "Trust me, it's a big deal." He jerked his chin toward the desk. "Being the true gentleman I am, I thought I'd let you get settled first."
Kathryn arched one of her perfectly manicured brows. "A true gentleman? Is that why you refused to meet with me and the lawyers?"