She could not allow herself to need Nick Valentine.


“Mrs. Timmings is here to see you.”

Nick glanced up at his PA. Alison had been remarkably patient—he’d been expecting to hear from her long before this. His sister had always had an overwhelming interest in his life…and the bombshell he’d dropped about Candace announcing she was Jennie’s mother would’ve been driving Alison crazy.

He knew he should’ve contacted her and told her the outcome of the DNA tests. Alison would’ve expected it of him.

With a mental sigh he said, “I’ll be with her in a minute.”

His sister appeared in the doorway behind Pauline. “Too late. I’m already here.”

Nick mentally braced himself for the scolding to come. “How are you, Alison?”

She settled herself in one of the four chairs arranged around a table in a sunny spot in front of the glass wall looking out over the lake and parklands beyond.

Getting up from the black leather executive chair behind his desk, Nick crossed to the table where his sister sat and pulled out the chair beside her.

“Not good. Richard has received notice from the NorthPark Mall Group that our appliance stores have to move out of all their shopping centers.”

Nick gave her a sharp look, his already overloaded brain whirling with this new setback. But at least Alison wasn’t asking about Candace…or Jennie.

“Have you and Richard defaulted on a payment?” he asked.

Alison hesitated. “One…”

“You should’ve come to me, Allie. I would’ve helped you.” He should’ve offered. But he’d never realized his sister and brother-in-law’s chain of appliance stores was in quite so precarious a financial state.

“You know how proud Richard is—he wouldn’t take help. But it wasn’t that we couldn’t afford to pay the rent.” Alison looked utterly miserable. “Oh, Nick, it was all my fault. We changed banks because we managed to get a more favorable rate on our home loan, but part of the arrangement was that Richard had to transfer the business accounts there, too.”

Nick nodded. “That’s pretty standard.”

“But I forgot to give the bank the authority to deduct the rent to NorthPark. I only found out when I checked the bank statements the day after the payment was supposed to go through that it had bounced.” She gave a helpless shrug. “No one from the bank even called to let me know before they’d bounced the check. Our old bank would’ve called first.”

“That’s the price of change—it takes time to build a relationship with a bank.” Nick thought about the irony of his observation. He had better relationships with his own bank than he’d ever had with his dead wife.

But Jilly wouldn’t have been his wife if he hadn’t been forced into marrying her.

Too late to dwell on that. Nick focused his thoughts back on his sister’s predicament. “You spoke to the NorthPark Mall Group? Paid the late rent?”

“Of course.” She nodded. “And I thought it was all sorted out. Then the letter came from their lawyers. I called and they told me we’d breached the contract so the group was exercising their right to terminate. Richard checked with our lawyers and they can do it.”

“Seems odd that they’d be so eager to evict you,” said Nick. “It’s not easy to get new tenants for the kind of floor space you occupy. Especially in this economy. Is there something else you’re not telling me?”

“No—we’ve been model tenants in all the shopping centers NorthPark owns.”

“Hmm.” Nick’s mind was racing.

“Richard has started looking for new space in other malls, but it’s going to be hard to match the deal we had and find premises that are one hundred percent suitable. It’s scary—we might actually have to shut down some of the stores. Oh, Nick, I should’ve been more organized!”

There was nothing he could say to make Alison feel better. Rising to his feet, Nick went around the table and gave her a clumsy hug.

She hugged him back and sniffed. “You’re being so nice—you’re going to make me cry.”

“I’m always nice.”

“Not really—you’re usually distant. No, don’t withdraw and ruin it all,” she said hastily as he straightened up. “I just want you to know I’m so grateful you didn’t tell me it’s all my fault.”

“How would that help?”

She made a sound that was half laugh, half sob. “Oh, Nick, that sounds more like you.” She looked up at him, a small smile curving her lips. “I’m glad you’re my brother—you know that?”