Hold On My Heart

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Chapter One

 

“I don’t mean to hurt your feelings, Dad, but this place looks like a crack house.”

Libby Hamilton frowned at the dingy interior of the abandoned, one-room schoolhouse and shook a possum-sized dust bunny from her running shoe. The aroma of funky dog tinged with faint undertones of broccoli having passed through a digestive system assaulted her nostrils. Her resulting sneeze echoed through the empty room, sending whorls of dust into the single shaft of light coming through a cracked windowpane.

She had been lured into this decrepit building under false pretenses. Her father had promised her a morning bike ride and a cup of coffee. She should have known he was up to some kind of shenanigans. Instead of exercise and caffeine, she was getting his visionary monologue about transforming this pile of historic scrap wood into a vintage ice cream parlor.

At least this was one she hadn’t heard before. Implausible schemes and Peter Hamilton went together like George Washington and the proverbial cherry tree, but this venture was grandiose, even for her dad.

Libby sneezed again and checked the time on her watch. She had an interview that afternoon for a job she’d be perfect for. A job she desperately wanted. One she desperately needed, too. But it was an hour-long drive into the city, so even if she wanted to indulge her father’s latest whim, she didn’t have the time.

“Seriously, Dad. I need to get moving. Let’s go.”

Her father stood with his hands on his hips, his pale, skinny legs protruding from khaki shorts. He smiled at one wall, then another, as if miraculous transformations were taking shape even as he gazed about. He looked younger than his sixty-seven years, with his hair just a hint more silver than dark brown, but a year of retirement had left him restless instead of relaxed.

“Sure, it’s nothing to look at now, Liberty, but this place has real character. Scores of little pioneer children must have spent time here, reading their primers and practicing arithmetic on slates. There would have been rows of wooden desks and maybe a chalkboard over here. This place would make a delightful ice cream shop. Can’t you picture it?”

Libby was a corporate event planner in Chicago. At least she had been until a few months ago, when she’d been unceremoniously fired. She knew exactly how to size up an empty room and evaluate its potential, but whatever appeal her father saw in this shell of a building was beyond her comprehension.

Maybe losing her job had cost her more than her dignity and self-esteem. And possibly her boyfriend and her apartment. Maybe it had robbed her of her vision, too.

Libby had lost count of how many job rejections she’d gotten lately , but each one felt like a face-plant on rough cement. And all because she’d accidentally hit “reply all” and sent an email to every employee of Kendrew/Graham & Associates stating her boss possessed fewer brain cells than a potted geranium and possessed all the cuddly appeal of a cactus wrapped in barbed wire. It was a stupid, silly email, meant to be a joke for one person, yet it cost Libby more than just a job. It was costing her a career. Because apparently it’s hard to get a good reference after suggesting your boss is a moron. Even if you apologize.

Libby plucked her damp T-shirt away from her skin. It was stuffy in here, in this dark hovel, the air pressing down like a wool blanket. But it wasn’t the temperature making her skin prickle. It was regret.

Unemployment made her sweaty. And demoralized. She’d never realized how much her identity revolved around what she did for a living. Or that all her friends were work associates. Without projects to talk about, Libby didn’t have much to offer.

She was good at her job, but now that she’d lost it, she suddenly didn’t feel good at virtually anything at all.

“The soda fountain could go right along this wall.” Her father gestured to one side. “And we could put some small tables over here. And more outside. Your mother will love it. She’ll think it’s a fabulous idea.” His blue eyes glowed bright with a kind of desperate enthusiasm.

Libby’s chuckle felt as hollow as it sounded. “Uh, I bet she won’t. Has she been inside this place?”

If patience was an Olympic event, Libby’s mother would have once been a gold medalist, but too many challenges had worn her down. Like the time Libby’s dad decided to fence in their yard so they could become alpaca breeders. Or the time he bought two sheep from Craigslist so he wouldn’t have to mow the lawn. But what had really extinguished his wife’s enthusiasm was the time he brought Nana Hamilton home to live with them.

Her father shook his head. “No, I haven’t brought your mother here. I want her to be surprised.”

“Oh, she’ll be surprised all right. Look, I hate to rain on your old-fashioned soda-fountain parade here, Dad, but you’re a history teacher. You don’t know anything about running an ice cream parlor.”

His caterpillar brows lifted at the challenge. “I don’t know how to ride an elephant either, but I can learn.” He pointed over the door. “That extraordinary trim work is from the original building. Do you know what it would cost to install hand-carved trim like that today?”

“No. Do you?”

Honestly, her father must be having some sort of post-retirement crisis to even consider buying this catastrophe with walls. It may have been a charming old schoolhouse in its day, but now it sat like an aging prom queen, forgotten and forlorn, knowing time had passed it by without a second glance.

Nudging dark-rimmed glasses up the bridge of his nose, her father eyed her squarely. “As a matter of fact, young lady, I do know what it would cost. I’ve done quite a bit of research, and this place has tremendous potential. The city commission just changed the zoning all along this side of the lake, and these wonderful old buildings are going to get snatched up by savvy guys like me. All we need is a little elbow grease and a good marketing strategy, and we could be the next big thing. Maybe we can even get a TV show out of it.”

His tenacity was impressive, even if his logic was about as sturdy as the cracked foundation beneath her feet. Libby hadn’t seen him this worked up since he won front-row tickets to see Lyle Lovett at the Monroe County Amphitheater. It was kind of adorable, but it was also a little sad, because this ice cream parlor thing was never going to happen.

“Getting this place up and running would take a ton of work and a boatload of money, Dad. I’m sorry. I just don’t think Mom is going to go for it.”

His shoulders drooped. He turned away and scuffed at something on the floor with his old Top-Sider. “Well, that’s where I was hoping you could help me out.”

Libby crossed her arms, her skin prickling once more. “I doubt it. Mom’s already on my case about finding a job. And she’s been pestering me for details about why I moved out of Seth’s apartment and came back home. I can’t give her any more ammunition. Besides, do you really think I’d have better luck convincing her to let you buy it?”

He turned to face her again, jaw stiff and tilted upward. “No. But I want you on my side when I tell her I already did.”

Libby’s breath popped from her lungs in a painful burst. “You already bought it? With what money?”

His skin flushed. “We had some money set aside for … well, for whatever might come up, and I took out a tiny loan, but this is an investment for our future. The whole town’s future, really. This building is a historic landmark.” His hands landed on his hips again. “You know, Liberty, ever since I retired, your mother has been telling me to find a hobby, find something to do. Well, this is it. I’m turning this place into a turn-of-the-century ice cream parlor with a soda fountain and waitresses in old-fashioned uniforms. And saltwater taffy!”

He said the word taffy as if that were the key ingredient to a successful business venture. 

“What possessed you, Dad? Even if you had the money for the building, what about the other stuff? Contractors and permits and furniture and ice cream paraphernalia? Just updating the wiring in this place alone is going to cost a fortune. Mom is going to have heart attack.”

This was much worse than his buying a couple of sheep.

Her father shuffled on his feet like a sixteen-year-old caught between guilt and defiance. “I am my own man, Liberty, and I make my own decisions. I don’t need to clear everything through your mother. I’m not some kind of … some kind of anglerfish!”

She’d regret asking. She knew that before the words even formed in her mouth, but it was like watching a car crash. “What do anglerfish have to do with anything?”

He puckered his lips for a moment and squinted at her. “Do you know how the anglerfish mates?”

“Oh, geez, Dad.” Her hands turned to lead and dropped to her sides.

Peter Hamilton was fascinated by reproductive anomalies of the animal kingdom, and because of that, Libby and her sisters had grown up hearing all about how the banana slug has a penis as long as its body, and that bonobo monkeys have a proclivity for face-to-face copulation. And that bedbugs engage in something called traumatic insemination, which is apparently every bit as unappealing to a lady bedbug as it sounds.

“Just hear me out. It’s fascinating stuff,” he said, stepping closer. “When the male anglerfish choses his mate, he attaches himself to her. Then he stays there. Forever. His digestive system erodes since he can’t get his own food, and then the rest of his body is slowly absorbed into hers. Even his heart and his brain get sucked in because he doesn’t need them anymore. Eventually there is nothing left. He literally just … fades away. As if he’d never existed at all.” Her father’s hand flitted against the air, a feather on the wind.

“Dad, you’re not going to fade away into nothingness just because you retired. And you’re not too reliant on Mom, if that’s what you’re driving at.”

He shook his head. “It’s more than retiring, Liberty. A man wants to leave his mark in this world.”

“You left a pretty big mark in the football field over at Monroe High School when you crash-landed that hot-air balloon. Wasn’t that enough?”

He frowned. “They were going to lose that football game anyway. And you know that’s not what I mean. That’s not the kind of legacy I want to leave for future generations.”

“And an ice cream parlor is?” She wanted to be supportive, but this pile of rubble was not the solution to his anglerfish issue.

“This building is the legacy.” His voice grew louder and more certain. “It’s a piece of the past, a one-room schoolhouse. It’s pre–Civil War, you know.”

“I know my history, Dad.”

“Then you should understand it’s a travesty to let these old buildings crumble to the ground. I’m not the only one who thinks so. We talked about it on the town council, and everyone agrees we should invest in this whole area.” He gestured to the street, his eyes bright, his cheeks flushed. “You could join me, you know.”

A butterfly of eagle-sized proportion flapped in her stomach. Her father could be persuasive to the point of hypnotic, but she did not want to get drawn into one of his adventures. She had her own troubles to worry about. Namely, finding a new job and working things out with her boyfriend, Seth. Things between them had been strained ever since she’d lost her job, and she had to fix that. She did not have the time or energy to get sucked into some vortex of her father’s.

“Join you in what way?”

“Be my business partner.”

She might have laughed at that little bit of absurdity, but surprise squeezed every bit of air from her lungs, leaving her breathless.

Still, her father stared at her, nodding with encouragement. “Think of it, Liberty. You’ve got the time right now. You can keep looking for another job, of course. I know you want to get another corporate job and move back to Chicago, but until you find something, I could sure use your help and expertise.” He gazed at her expectantly.

She found some breath and used it to laugh this time. “My expertise? Other than loving ice cream, I have no expertise that could help you.”

“Sure you do. You’re a details person. The perfect complement to my vision. You can help with getting permits and ordering supplies and keeping things on track. And when the place is ready, you can plan the big grand opening. It’ll be glorious.”

Rock. Libby. Hard place.

She was currently living at home, sponging off her parents like a deadbeat dropout. They wouldn’t accept her money for rent or food because they pitied her. It was beyond humiliating. This was the first thing either of them had asked of her since she’d moved back. How could she say no? But how could she say yes?

“I just don’t know, Dad. You have to let me think about it, okay?”

Her father’s smile tightened. “Okay. I understand. But this could be really fun. Remember when we built the birdhouses together? We had a great time, didn’t we?”

“We forgot to add holes, and the birds couldn’t get in.”

He shrugged. “Sure, but they enjoyed sitting on the roofs. And crapping all over them.”

Why did she have a feeling that she was about to get crapped on herself? This was a lose-lose situation. Her mom was going to be mad, her dad was going to be disappointed, and adding carpentry skills to her current résumé was not going to help Libby find a job or fix things with Seth.

Her father reached over near her shoulder and caught a drifting cobweb with his fingertips, flicking it away. “It has a bell, you know.”

“What?”

“A school bell, up on the roof. The rope is gone, but come upstairs with me, and I’ll show you.”

She didn’t want to climb some rickety old steps to see an old bell. “What I need right now is functional plumbing. Does this place have a working bathroom?”

He shook his head. “Not currently. You’ll have to go outside.”

“Outside? It’s broad daylight. Can’t we just go home?”

Her father frowned. “Give me ten more minutes. I want to show you the bell tower. And the cellar. We have more exploring to do.”

“Dad, I really need to pee.”

“Well, there’s a Dumpster out back. Just go cop a squat behind it. No one will see you.”

Few things in life are more distasteful than urinating next to a Dumpster. Unless it’s hearing your father tell you to cop a squat next to one. But nature was calling too loudly to ignore.

“If I get poison ivy I will never forgive you.”

She stepped out the back door and spotted the Dumpster. A cluster of overgrown forsythia shaded most of it and might provide her a modicum of privacy. Plus her father was right. There were run-down old buildings on either side but certainly no people. Just the sounds of traffic rumbling in the distance.

Libby chose her spot and, with a final look to the right and left, shimmied her black shorts down her legs to assume a most undignified position. Nearly assaulted by a frisky weed, she shuffled forward to avoid its advances, her motion complicated by the restriction of the spandex bike shorts. Cop a squat, indeed. This was ridiculous. Her bladder thought so, too, and resisted—but at last, relief.

Except that she was peeing on her foot.

“Damn it!” She moved too abruptly, lost her balance, and fell back with a whoosh, whacking her arm against the side of the Dumpster. It was filthy and foul, and with nothing to grab on to, she fell to the ground with a whoof and a thud. Breathless, she lay sprawled out in the dirt and weeds, her shorts twisted at her knees. “Damn it!” she said again, louder this time.

“Hello?” A masculine voice floated around the corner of the old schoolhouse, followed by the six-foot-plus-something man who came with it.

Libby gasped and flopped like a fish on a hook as she tried to twist and stand up while simultaneously pulling up her resistant shorts.

He caught sight of her, his brown eyes going wide before he turned away and blocked his vision with his hand. “Holy— Oh, uh, sorry. Are you okay?”

Libby managed to scramble to her feet and yank up her shorts, but she could feel bits of gravel and weed fragments stuck to her ass. Her face burned with humiliation. Couldn’t a girl get a moment to herself around here?

The man glanced through his splayed fingers. “Are you okay?” he asked again, his voice solicitous but edged with humor.

“I’m fine!” She smoothed the waistband of her shorts. “I just fell down. What are you doing back here? This is private property.”

“Not that private,” he murmured, a smile tugging at his mouth.

“Excuse me?”

“I, ah … nothing. I was just looking for Peter Hamilton. Is he here?” His cheeks flushed under tanned skin.

She slipped her hand inside the back of her shorts discreetly to dislodge a pebble ingrained in her skin. “That’s my father. He’s inside.”

He looked at the door, then back at Libby. “Should I just go in?”

“Oh, come on,” she said with more growl than she intended. “I’ll show you.”

It couldn’t have been some sweet little old lady with bad eyesight who found Libby splayed out in the weeds without her pants. Oh, no. It had to be a guy like this. A macho type … with wavy chestnut hair and shoulders as wide as a doorframe.

A little smirk played around the corner of his mouth. She frowned. That smirk was at her expense.

“Dad,” she barked as they stepped inside. “There’s somebody here to see you.”

Her father appeared from a doorway, wiping a cobweb from the front of his shirt. “Oh, hello there!” He extended his arm. “Are you Tom Murphy?”

Peeping Tom was more like it.

The man nodded and shook hands with her father. “You must be Mr. Hamilton.”

“I am. Proprietor of this fine establishment. I see you’ve met my daughter.”

The man nodded once, not meeting her eyes. “Sort of.”

Libby sighed audibly. “Dad, you didn’t mention you were expecting someone.”

“I wasn’t sure when he was coming. But how lucky that you caught us here,” her father said.

Libby winced. She was the one who’d been caught.

Her father continued, the smile on his face bright. “Tom, this is my daughter, Liberty Belle Hamilton.”

Insult, meet injury.

It wasn’t bad enough this stranger had seen her floundering with her pants down next to the Dumpster, now he also knew the full extent of her ridiculous name, courtesy of her history-loving father.

“Just Libby,” she corrected.

Another single nod and a fast flick of the man’s big brown eyes completed the introductions.

“Tom is a builder. And a restoration specialist,” her father said. “He’s going to help us get this place back to her former glory, isn’t that right?”

Tom tipped his head. “I’ll try. Let’s have a look around and see what we’ve got to work with.”

The men started walking toward the other side of the room, leaving her behind.

“There’s a lot to be done, but I’d love your ideas on where to start,” Libby heard her father say.

The man chuckled as he answered, “I think I’d start with a Porta-John.”

Tracy Brogan’s books have been translated into dozens of languages. Here is just a small sampling of her foreign covers.

Germany