Excerpt from All or Nothing

CHAPTER ONE

There are few things that make a single man more uncomfortable than sitting across from a visibly pregnant woman.

Ian McIntyre pondered the irony of this as his gaze bounced off Valerie’s gently rounded belly. She picked up her Styrofoam cup and frowned at him. “Don’t give me that look. It’s decaf.”

His lawyer seemed unfazed by the exchange and continued to drone on about escrows and title fees. He shuffled another paper to the top of the pile and pointed to where Ian should sign. Then he and the seller’s attorney stood and shook hands, collected their papers and said their goodbyes, and Ian was left staring at the empty surface of the weathered old table in front of him.

Valerie pushed back her chair and stood up. “Congratulations. This is usually when I hand over the keys and say enjoy your new home.”

Ian shrugged, feeling the need to stretch his legs despite the fact that the closing had taken less than twenty minutes. Rather anticlimactic actually. “Guess that’ll have to wait.”

He pushed back his own heavy wooden chair and thought how ironic it was that an occasion he thought would feel, for lack of a better word, monumental would end up taking place in such a nondescript setting.

“When do you start work?” Valerie asked, zipping her briefcase.

He shrugged again. “Jim didn’t say. Soon.”

She paused and leaned forward. “You’re supposed to be happy. You just closed on a property we’ve been trying to get for eight years. I think this calls for a celebration.”

“Thanks, but I’m good.”

“Not even coffee? Oh, that’s right. You don’t drink coffee.” She hitched her briefcase strap over her shoulder and smoothed her shirt over her belly. “Neither do I. Much. I’ve definitely cut back.” A wistful smile passed over her features, and for some reason it made Ian’s chest tighten. “Well. It’s been a pleasure.”

“Same here,” he said. “Thanks so much. I know it wasn’t easy convincing them to sell.”

Her lips tilted. “You made a pretty persuasive argument in the end.”

He wasn’t sure whether she was referring to his tragic backstory (as Val had taken to calling it over the years) or the money he’d thrown at it. No doubt it was the money.

And he had plenty of that.

He stepped into the bright summer sunshine outside the courthouse and looked up and down Sugar Falls’ main street at a loss for what to do next. It felt a bit surreal to be standing here on a balmy New Hampshire weekday, the cars buzzing by, a few people walking up to Lucky’s for a sandwich or into one of the shops in the old mill buildings as if it were any other day of the week. Which, of course, it was. The fountain his younger brother, Carter, had helped rebuild earlier that summer burbled down by the common, and a handful of young mothers with strollers and toddlers dipped their hands in to stay cool.

Ian smiled noncommittally as a group of men in dress shirts and ties, sleeves rolled up to beat the heat, hurried by him. He wondered what life would be like if he had to punch a clock. He pulled his car keys out of his cargo shorts.

Warm air swirled around him as he drove away from the center of town, toward the rolling hills beyond. The drive was pleasant enough, gently winding, picturesque, hints of Miller Brook popping occasionally into view before he turned off to head up Blackberry Hill. The thick canopy of trees overhead finally parted to reveal the Russell’s sprawling farm on the right.

And Ian’s new property on the left.

He pulled into the gravel drive, cut the engine, and stared through the windshield. He hadn’t actually been to the property in years.

The woods he remembered playing in as a young boy stretched out to his right, behind a rambling stone wall, deep and dark and mysterious. The farm’s fields crept up on the left. And the spot where his childhood home once stood was marked with nothing more than a thicket of blackberry bushes and a handful of young poplars.

Ian pushed the car door open and got out. He squinted against the sun as he looked down over the fields, sweat sticking his T-shirt to his chest. He remembered what those fields had looked like on cold fall mornings, the frost heavy on the long, bent grasses, the geese honking to one another as they congregated there, one of their many stops on their way south for the winter.

He knew there was a small seasonal stream that wound through the back woods toward town again. He used to play ‘spy’ out there with his younger brother, Carter, writing secret messages on the inside of flaps of bark on the white birches and ambushing each other with foam darts.

He turned toward the road. More memories flooded him. Walking home with fresh eggs from the Russell’s farm. His dad untying the Christmas tree from the roof of the car. His mom walking toward him, looking so pretty and happy, holding his new little sister in her arms…

It felt odd to stand here after all these years knowing there was a big blank space of time in between the then and the now, with no more memories, his mother and father and the home he thought would be there forever… gone.

It annoyed him that the property looked so neglected. Once the remains of the house fire had been cleared, the recession had hit. The new owners hadn’t been able to build as they’d hoped, and the property had languished.

Until his little brother had gotten engaged and Ian figured he ought to do something with his life. He’d had his real estate agent, Valerie, approach the owners with a new offer. One they couldn’t refuse.

He didn’t have a wife, a family, a home or even a dog, but he had more money than he knew what to do with.

And now he had a patch of dirt.

“I thought I might find you here.”

Ian started and turned. “Grams! What are you doing here?”

“Just visiting across the way. Hank Russell isn’t feeling well. I brought him muffins.”

“Plus you were spying on me.”

“That, too.” She walked carefully over the uneven ground toward him and held out a paper bag. “Muffin?”

“No, thanks.”

She pursed her lips. “You don’t eat right, Ian. That’s not healthy.”

“I eat when I get hungry.”

“When you remember to come up for air.”

He sighed and reached out a hand. Okay, they did smell good. “Fine.” He opened the bag and pulled out a muffin kept warm by the heat of the day. Blueberry. Grams’ specialty. He sank his teeth into one.

“You know, if you got married, you wouldn’t have to wait for me to make you muffins.”

“Very subtle, Grams. And also very 1950’s of you.”

She shrugged, undeterred, and rested against the bumper of his car. She pulled a water bottle from her fanny pack. “I’m a product of my generation. What can I say?” She unscrewed the cap and held the bottle out to him. “Are you sure you want to go through with this?”

“My accountant says I need to stop paying rent so I can get a tax write-off for a home office.” He glanced at her. “Don’t say it.”

“I’m being very quiet.”

“I can hear you thinking. You’re thinking I’m building this house so I can fill it with a wife and family and get back the life I lost when I was eight—and that’s pathetic and probably requires psychiatric evaluation.”

“You heard that?”

He took the bottle and guzzled. It was hot out. “Did it occur to you that, perhaps, I have a fondness for the old architecture? That I feel this site is made for the classic New England farmhouse with neoclassical details like layered entablature, elaborate cornice returns, and a deep, inviting porch no one has the money or patience to build anymore?”

“You’ve been talking to James again, I see.”

He finished off the muffin in his hand and fished in the bag for another. “Yes. But he has a point. I’m thirty-four years old, Grams. I’ve got the means to rebuild an historic structure and help out my cousin. Give him a project he’s excited to work on. It’s a no-brainer and no more complicated than that.”

She seemed to ponder this a moment. “Do you not like women, Ian?”

Ian choked on his muffin and took a long drink of water. “Excuse me? Yes, I like women!”

She shrugged. “It’s okay to tell me. I’m not as old school as everyone thinks.”

“I. Like. Women.” He stuffed the rest of the muffin in the bag. “It’s hot. I’m going home.”

Grams trailed after him. “You just don’t get out much unless it’s alone on one of your hikes. It gets people wondering.”

Ian stopped. He knew she wouldn’t quit. She was like that. “Grams, it’s a small town. Everybody knows the millionaire geek who created Treasure Trakker and lost his parents in a tragic fire. Everybody. I’ve been set up with or conveniently tripped over every available woman my age with a pulse and a smile in five counties—and nothing has worked out. They either wear more flannel than I do, or they can’t wait to ditch backwoods New Hampshire and never look back. And don’t get me started on the women who only see dollar signs and high heels in their future. They don’t seem to grasp that the whole point of Treasure Trakker is to get people outside and active…”

“Maybe you need to stretch beyond the local pond of fish. If you dated equally successful women…”

He was just about to ask where he was supposed to find these equally successful women when Grams thumped him on the back with her palm as if he were choking.

“I’ve got it! Don’t you worry. I know just the person to set you up. She has a 100% success rate!”

“Fantastic.” Ian opened the door of his car. “Thanks for the muffins. You let me know when you’ve found Cinderella.”

Grams shut the door on him before he could get in. “It wouldn’t hurt for you to listen when I’m speaking. I’m not talking about my success rate, although that’s none too shabby either.”

Ian rolled his eyes which earned him a glare. “You have a success rate of two. Two couples, Grams. And while you were around to witness these romances, I hardly think you were instrumental¾”

“How incredibly little you know me,” she tsk tsked. “How would you like to date twenty women from around the country who are beautiful, talented and successful?”

“Is this a trick question?”

“You, Ian, could be the next bachelor on the reality show Happily Ever After!”

Good thing he wasn’t eating still or he would have spewed muffin all over his grandmother. “What?”

“It is perfect. The show’s host, Marcia Powers, is a matchmaking guru. She’ll go through her database of applicants to find the most compatible women to introduce you to, and then all you have to do is go on the show and get to know them!”

“Are you freaking kidding me?”

“Watch your language, young man, and, no, I’m not.”  She opened his car door and set the paper bag with the remaining muffins on his dashboard. “I’ll e-mail her when I get home.”

“I regret ever showing you how to use a computer.”

“You’ll thank me in the end.”

“I won’t, because I will never. Ever. Agree. To do this.”

Purchase All or Nothing in print or e-book today!
Amazon USAmazon UK | Amazon AU | Amazon CA | Barnes & Noble | Kobo | Google Play | iBooks