Read 1 A High-End Finish Online

Authors: Kate Carlisle

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1 A High-End Finish (18 page)

BOOK: 1 A High-End Finish
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Two women walked into the room and I almost groaned out loud. They were Jennifer Bailey and Whitney Reid. It was odd to realize that even though Whitney had been married to Tommy Gallagher for more than twelve years now, I still called her by her maiden name. In my mind, she would always be the high school girl who made my life hell.

Jennifer saw me first and quickly whispered in Whitney’s ear. The two of them seemed to have been frozen in that gossipy high school mode. And maybe I had, too, because my first concern was whether my outfit was cute enough. I checked the mirror in front of me and decided I looked good in a sleeveless lime green top with a jazzy pair of black-and-lime cropped tights.

Unfortunately, Jennifer was wearing the exact same outfit. And wasn’t that just my luck? Maybe it was my imagination, but I was pretty sure I was rocking the lime green look, while the same color made Jennifer’s skin appear sallow.

Of course, Whitney noticed our clothes right away. “Oh, look. Twins.”

Jennifer scowled. “Shut up, Whitney.”

“You shut up,” Whitney said.

It was interesting that the mean girls could be just as mean to each other as to outsiders.

They walked to the other side of the room to use the big Pilates balls, so I ignored the two of them and continued my run. Five minutes later, I slowed down and then came to a stop. After wiping off the machine, I slung my towel around my neck and walked across the spacious gym floor to the free-weight area to find Penny.

She was working out on the bench press and I had to admit, I was a little intimidated. There were way too many weights on the barbell she was lifting.

I had used the bench press a few times when I first joined the gym and was able to work with a personal trainer, but, in general, I preferred to use the machines because I felt more in control of both the weight and my own movements. Penny was way beyond my level, at least when it came to the bench press. I was grateful she’d agreed to work out with me.

“There you are,” she said, straining to lift the weight over her head. “Do you mind spotting me?”

“Not at all,” I said, moving closer to the weight stand to lend her any support she needed. “How much weight are you lifting?”

“Hundred twenty-five,” she gasped, as her biceps bulged from the effort.

“Holy mother,” I muttered. “Those sedate little banker’s suits you wear every day are hiding some amazing muscles.”

She grinned and managed to slide the barbell onto the pins of the rack before letting her head drop back and exhaling loudly. She laid her hands on her chest, trying to catch her breath. When she finally was able to sit up, she glared at me. “Rule number one: you’re not supposed to make me laugh on the bench press.”

I could tell she wasn’t really angry, but I apologized, anyway. “I’m sorry, but you really shocked me. You’re so strong.”

“For my weight and experience, it’s pretty standard.” She grabbed her water bottle and took a long gulp. Once she was standing, she wiped off the bench with her towel and said, “Okay, let me spot you.”

“I’m going to be a severe disappointment to you.” But I went ahead and stretched out on the bench. “I injured my shoulder the other day, so I’d better take it easy. Let’s start with twenty pounds.”

She laughed. “Oh, come on. Even with an injury, you can do better than that.”

“Okay, thirty.”

Shaking her head, she said, “We’ll start with fifty.”

“No way. I’ll go forty.” I was basically in good shape, thanks to my occupation, but I was a novice on the bench press.

“All right, but that’s nothing. A ten-year-old could lift that much.”

I laughed. “I’m okay with that.”

“So am I, because the barbell weighs ten pounds on its own. So you’ll be lifting fifty after all.”

“Diabolical,” I muttered.

She chuckled as she reset the weights on each side and then gave me the thumbs-up sign.

I grabbed hold of the bar with both hands and lifted it carefully off the sturdy pins that were screwed into the rack. “Oh, God.”

“Bring it down first, easy, easy,” she said softly. “That’s it. Now lift.”

“I’m so out of shape,” I said on a rush of breath. I thought my aches and pains from the bicycle accident had faded, but they now came roaring back with a vengeance.

“No, you’re not,” she insisted. “You look good. You should be lifting at least ninety pounds, by the way. That’s just according to your size.”

“No way.”

“I’m serious. Now on the next lift, focus on your pecs. Feel those muscles working. Can you feel them?”

“Are you kidding?” I could feel them screaming.

“Isn’t that the best feeling there is?” she asked.

“Hey, Penny.”

From the corner of my eye, I saw Jennifer Bailey catch Penny’s attention.

“Jennifer! Hi!” Penny sounded happy to see her. Go figure. As they started chitchatting, my interest in bonding with Penny wavered. It got worse with every second that Jennifer hung around.

Ignoring me, Jennifer grabbed hold of the rack and swayed coyly. “Whitney had to go home.”

“But you stayed,” Penny said, her tone demure, not sounding like herself.

“Yeah. Did you think about what I asked you?”

“Sure did.” Penny giggled. “I say let’s do it.”

It was odd to hear Penny giggle after watching her kick ass on the bench press, but I wasn’t in a position to judge, having giggled myself a time or two. But never when talking to Jennifer Bailey. She was a vile, angry person. How could anyone possibly giggle around her? Since Penny was new in town, though, I decided to cut her some slack.

“You’re doing great, Shannon,” Penny said, her voice perkier than it had been a minute ago. “Keep it up. I’ll just be a second.”

I was a little miffed when they walked away, but I decided to keep lifting because I figured the stronger I got, the easier it would be to kick Jennifer’s butt. Not that I ever wanted to get close enough to kick any part of her, but the visual worked. I was able to lift the barbell another six times before I was ready to collapse and die. I managed to slide the monster weight back onto the pins and after that my arms fell limply to my sides.

I closed my eyes and listened to myself wheezing. I knew I shouldn’t have lifted that much weight, but I wanted to get back into fighting shape and make Penny proud. It was probably stupid, but I liked her and hoped we would become good friends. Or I had, until I saw her being so chummy with Jennifer.

The one thing I refused to do was compete with Jennifer for Penny’s friendship.

I opened my eyes and stared at the ceiling.
You don’t have to compete with anyone,
I thought, hating that any time I was around the mean girls, I felt like I was back in high school again.

I was about to sit up when I heard a sudden pop and a loud screech. I looked up and saw that one of the pins had cracked. The front of the pin launched into the room while the back screw dangled from the rack.

And fifty pounds of barbells were about to drop on my head!

Chapter Eleven

My scream came out more like a gasp. My arms shot up to catch the heavy weight, but I wasn’t strong enough to catch the bar midfall. I did manage to slow it down, though, and changed its trajectory enough so that instead of landing on my neck and strangling me, it struck my already tender shoulder.

That was definitely going to leave a bruise.

I still had both hands gripping the bar, but I’d exhausted my muscles and couldn’t budge it. I was trapped beneath the weight, but at least I wasn’t dead.

“Help!” I shouted weakly.

Penny was already racing across the room. She grabbed the barbell with one hand and dropped it on the floor. “Oh, my God, Shannon! Are you all right? I’m so sorry I left you. You were doing so well, I thought you’d be okay for a minute, but I . . . Oh, my God. I’ll go get the manager.”

She ran off and I struggled to sit up. It wasn’t easy to do without shrieking and crying in pain. I had to roll over on my good shoulder and push up from the bench. My injured shoulder was throbbing so badly, I wondered if I would ever use a nail gun again.

That might’ve sounded crazy, but my nail gun was a big part of my life.

Penny was back in less than a minute with an instant ice pack. “Here, use this.” I took it and pressed it against my shoulder. The cold seeped in immediately and I shivered.

“On your way out,” Penny continued, “you need to stop and see Becky, the manager. Tell her what happened and fill out an insurance form.”

“She should probably come over here and check out the rack,” I said, pointing at the broken pin. “See how it snapped off?”

“Oh, crap.” She wiped away a thin stream of sweat from her temple. “I’m just so sorry, Shannon.”

“I’ll be okay,” I said, smiling weakly. “I’m still catching my breath.”

A guy sitting on the incline bench across from me spared me a look of disgust. “Chicks should stay away from this place if they don’t know how to use the equipment.”

I kept my mean-spirited response to myself and instead muttered, “Yeah, thanks for your help.”

But Penny whipped around and said, “Hey, pal, the rack broke. This place better have plenty of insurance, because otherwise, Shannon will own it by the time she gets finished suing their sorry asses.”

Go, Penny,
I thought, as I held the ice pack against my shoulder and tried not to whimper.

She turned her back on the guy and squatted down next to me. “What can I do?”

“Don’t worry.” I reached for my water bottle and took a sip. “You got here just in time. Probably saved my life.”

“I wouldn’t have had to if I’d been paying attention. There’s no excuse.”

“Let’s forget it,” I said, trying for a casual smile. “I’m going to go take a shower and then stop for a bite to eat at the pub on the way home. Do you have other plans tonight or would you like to join me?”

“I’d love to join you.”

“Okay, good. Let’s meet in the lobby in about forty-five minutes.”

“Perfect.”

I walked into the locker room, still irritated at Jennifer for distracting Penny in the first place. Maybe I should’ve been annoyed with Penny, too, but she was new enough to town that she hadn’t quite figured out the good guys from the bad guys. And Jennifer was definitely bad. If she hadn’t come over and started flirting with Penny . . . Wait.
Flirting?
But, yeah, Jennifer had been acting so coy, swaying around and twisting her hair like a ten-year-old talking to her first crush. It was embarrassing. And so out of character that I was instantly suspicious.

Maybe she needed a bank loan. Maybe she was desperate. Maybe her credit was lousy. It would be just like Jennifer to fake a friendship to get what she wanted.

In the locker room, I stripped and wrapped a towel around me and walked into the steam room, hoping some wet heat would help my shoulder. I’d have to remember to grab another ice pack on the way out.

I sat in the damp, sizzling heat for ten minutes and then escaped to the showers. Thirty minutes later, I went to find Becky, the manager.

“Penny told me about the incident,” Becky said. “I’m really sorry about it. We check the machines and equipment every morning and those pins were fine a few hours ago.”

“I believe you,” I said, and meant it. “It was just weird how it happened the way it did. I hate to admit it, but I’m still kind of shaken up.”

“Let’s have you fill out an accident report so we can get the insurance company involved.”

As I filled out the form, she assured me that if I needed to see a doctor, their insurance would cover it. I didn’t think it would come to that, but I appreciated her concern.

I didn’t write it down on the form, but I’d been thinking about that moment when Jennifer came over to giggle with Penny. She had grabbed hold of the rack and was swaying around as she talked. I’d stopped paying attention because she was such a twit, but now I wondered if she had deliberately done something to the pin to break it while I was working out.

It was a far-fetched theory, but having known Jennifer for all these years, I wouldn’t put it past her to try to sabotage me like that.

Becky gave me another instant ice pack for later and I walked back to the lobby. Penny was waiting for me, so we left the gym together.

“My car’s right here,” I said. “I’ll see you at the pub.”

“Great,” she said. “And dinner’s on me.”

“That’s not necessary.”

“Yes, it is. I owe you.” She glanced over my shoulder. “Oh, there’s Jennifer. Should we invite her?”

“Uh . . .” Before I could answer, Penny skipped over and gave Jennifer a warm hug. I could hear her chirpy voice and knew she was asking Jennifer to join us. I also knew that Jennifer would be happy to join us—as soon as hell froze over.

Penny laughed at something Jennifer said and gave her arm a quick squeeze. She didn’t seem to notice the mean girl glaring at me with stone-cold eyes that made me shiver.

“She can’t make it,” Penny said when Jennifer walked away. “So I’ll see you in a couple of minutes at the pub.”

“Okay.” I waved at Penny, but kept my eye on Jennifer until she got into her spiffy little black BMW, gunned the engine for my benefit, and tore out of the parking lot.

•   •   •

I called Jane on the way to the pub to invite her to join Penny and me for dinner. I thought she might like to get to know Penny, since it was always good to be friends with a banker. Jane passed on dinner, but said she’d meet me at my house later on to spend the night.

The pub was lively on a Friday night. One table in the bar was overflowing with my crew members, so I stopped to talk with them for a minute. I’d seen a few of the guys earlier that afternoon, but I’d been missing out on regular visits to the job sites and wanted to catch up. That would have to wait, though, because I saw Penny walk in a minute later.

We found a table in the dining area and both of us ordered a beer and the fish and chips. We ended up staying for almost two hours and found out we had a lot of common interests. If only she would tell Jennifer to buzz off, we might manage to be good friends.

“Hello.”

I looked up and found Police Chief Eric Jensen’s compelling blue eyes staring right at me. He was out of uniform in a casual jacket, a denim shirt, and blue jeans that looked alarmingly good on him.

“Oh, hello,” I said, sounding foolishly breathless. “Are you on duty tonight?”

He grinned. “No. I’ve got the night off. Thought I’d come in for a beer.”

“That’s nice.” I was about to invite him to join us when I glanced at Penny, who looked positively terrified.

I gave him a regretful smile. “I would invite you to join us, but we’re just about to go.”

“No worries. I’ve got some friends waiting for me at the bar. I just wanted to stop and say hi.”

“Thank you. It’s good to see you.”

“You, too.” He lifted his hand in a wave and walked off toward the bar.

I turned to Penny. “Are you okay?”

“Thanks for making up an excuse,” she said with relief as the waitress brought the bill. “I didn’t want him to sit down.”

“What’s wrong? He’s actually pretty nice.”
Easy for me to say,
I thought. I hadn’t always thought of him as
nice
.

Still on edge, Penny reached for the beer bottle and took a sip. “I hate feeling this way, but I just get so nervous around the police. W-we had a robbery at the bank where I used to work. When the police arrived, they accidentally shot one of our own tellers instead of the bank robber. Ever since then, I can’t help it. I feel really anxious around the police. It’s their guns, I guess.”

“I understand.” I leaned in and whispered, “It probably didn’t help that we were all under suspicion for a while.”

“So true.” She signed the check and finished the last of her beer.

“Are you ready to go?” I absently rubbed my shoulder, feeling achy again and way past tired.

“Yes,” she said, smiling with pleasure. “This was so much fun. Let’s do it again soon.”

“I’d love to,” I said, and meant it. At least, as long as she didn’t invite Jennifer.

•   •   •

I slept in fits and starts that night. Not only was my shoulder killing me, but I also suffered another nightmare. This one featured Jennifer and Whitney chasing me on bicycles around the curves of the Old Cove Highway. Cars would swerve and screech their brakes, barely missing me. My bike kept finding gopher holes and ejecting me. I would fly through the air but never hit the ground. Instead, I would wind up back on my bike, racing down the highway with the mean girls in pursuit.

Saturday morning, I was still in pain. I felt drained and stiff all over again. But on a positive note, at least I hadn’t dreamed of barbells strangling me.

Another happy note was that when I hobbled downstairs to make coffee, I found Jane already there, fixing breakfast.

“Good morning,” she said, sounding way too cheerful at this hour of the morning. “Coffee’s ready and breakfast is minutes away.”

Recently, Jane had begun testing recipes to use for breakfasts once Hennessey House opened for business. Today she was making her famous apple, bacon, and French toast casserole. I could smell the syrupy topping bubbling in the oven.

It was as delicious as it sounded and went a long way toward making me feel better about life in general again.

After breakfast, Jane went home to take care of some chores and run errands. I washed the dishes and cleaned up the kitchen.

As I was finishing, the phone rang and I grabbed it.

“Hello?”

“Hi, it’s me.” I recognized my sister Chloe’s voice instantly.

“Hey, superstar, how are you?” I poured myself another cup of coffee and sat down at the kitchen table to talk.

After years of office and production work in Hollywood, Chloe had climbed up the food chain and had recently become the host of her very own home-improvement show on the DIY Network.

So all those years of hanging out on construction sites with our dad had finally paid off for both of us.

These days, Chloe rarely came back home to visit except on holidays. She had made a good life for herself in Hollywood and had a number of close friends who had also moved there from everywhere else in the country. Last year, Dad had helped her buy an adorable cottage in the Silver Lake hills. She’d been with her steady boyfriend for a few years now and his parents loved her.

After we touched on all the important stuff—health and happiness and new clothes—I said, “Tell me about the show. What are you working on?”

“We just filmed a segment on earthquake damage to concrete patios.”

“Ooh. Fascinating stuff.”

We both laughed. As long as she was happy, that’s all I cared about. Chloe had a warm, caring soul that somehow, for no lack of effort on Dad’s part or mine, had never fit in here in Lighthouse Cove. During her freshman year in high school, her best friend had died of cancer. Some of the new rich kids in her class thought it was funny that Chloe was so distraught about it, so they liked to make fun of her. Chloe kicked the crap out of a few of the girls and even one boy. After she was threatened with expulsion from school, she resisted making friends again or even getting close to anyone from around here.

She loathed the whole class structure that some newer, wealthier residents had tried to impose on those of us who’d been born and raised here. The
townies
.

Maybe it helped that in Hollywood, everyone she knew was from somewhere else, so they all started out on an even playing field. For whatever reason, she had found it easier to make friends there and be happy again. Dad and I missed her, but we both knew she was better off where she was. Besides, I talked to her on the phone every other week or so.

I shared all the stories about the murders and she was fascinated, especially with my major role in the macabre scenarios. When I revealed that the murder weapons were actually my own tools, she was horrified.

“Yeah, it’s been pretty awful,” I confessed, “especially when our new police chief thought I should be his number-one suspect.”

“No way,” she said. “You wouldn’t hurt a flea.”

“You’re wrong. I kill fleas all the time. I take great pleasure in doing so.”

“Well, no wonder he suspects you. You’re a brazen flea killer.”

And after I told her about my bicycle crash and the severed brake line, she accused me of going to a lot of trouble just to meet the delectable new author. We laughed awhile longer, talked about our holiday plans, and promised we would send photos and e-mail more often before we finally ended the call.

Once I hung up the phone, I felt restless and unsure of what to do next. After talking to my sister for almost an hour, I missed my dad. But since he wouldn’t be home for a few more days, I was stuck with this antsy feeling.

Whenever I felt this way, the best thing to do was bury myself in work. But, sadly, I was still in too much pain to actually show up at one of my job sites and pound nails. Instead, I decided to do some gardening and then figure out where to go from there.

For the next hour I clipped fragrant herbs and tied them in bundles to dry. Later this winter I would stir the savory bundles into soups and stews. Some of the herbs I dried were pretty enough to use for decorating and aromatic enough to add to sachets and potpourri. So rather than aimlessly running out the clock, I could chalk up this extra time toward making Christmas goodies for my friends.

BOOK: 1 A High-End Finish
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