The Parent Trap

By: Lee McKenzie

CHAPTER ONE

  SPYING ON THE new neighbor was not a good use of her time, but Sarah Stewart had spent most of the morning peeking past the curtain in her office window anyway. At the sound of footsteps pounding up the front porch, she let the curtain fall and hastily took a seat at her desk, giving the mouse a jiggle and bringing a spreadsheet to life.

  The screen door banged shut. “Mom? You still home?”

  “I’m upstairs, Casey.” Upstairs and appalled at the still-empty columns in her file.

  Her daughter thundered up the stairs and burst into her office, eyes bright and blond ponytail swinging. Sarah accepted a hug, holding her sweet girl’s slender, too-tall-for-her-age frame until she squirmed out of the embrace. Her hair was scented with equal parts animal shelter and summer sunshine.

  “They gave me six dogs to walk today. Can you believe it? Six!” Casey’s level of excitement would rival any lottery winner.

  “That’s wonderful, hon. Everyone at the animal shelter must be very impressed with you.” As they should be, Sarah thought with a mother’s pride. Casey was a great kid, and she was one incredibly lucky mom. “Did they give you any trouble?”

  “The people at the shelter?”

  Sarah laughed. “No, silly. The dogs.”

  “Not a bit. Remember I told you about Petey? The little shih tzu-Maltese cross? It’s so cute to see him walking with the bigger dogs.” Casey perched on the corner of Sarah’s desk, one foot swinging. “Petey’s little legs are going like a mile a minute but he totally keeps up with them, then when we get back to the shelter he has a drink of water, curls up in his kennel and goes right to sleep.”

  “I’m sure he’s adorable.”

  “Yeah. He is.”

  Sarah recognized the wistful tone, having heard it many times, but Casey didn’t need to be reminded that they simply couldn’t have a dog. Letting her volunteer as a dog walker at the Serenity Bay animal shelter had seemed like a good idea. Now Sarah wondered if that had been a mistake because being around all those dogs only made Casey want one even more. Between school starting next week, homework, soccer practice and all the other activities Casey took on, plus all the hours Sarah spent at the store to keep her business running smoothly and profitably, a dog would be left home alone for hours at a stretch. That wouldn’t be fair to a dog, and it got Sarah off the hook.

  Besides, Casey had an ever-expanding menagerie in her bedroom, which at last count included two mice in a cage, a lizard in a terrarium, a half dozen fish in a small aquarium and a praying mantis in an enormous glass jar. Not exactly warm and fuzzy, except for the mice, but they didn’t need to be walked and groomed and taught to stay off the furniture.

  “Oh, I almost forgot,” Casey said. “There’s a moving van next door.”

  “Yes, I heard them pull up.” Sarah hoped she appeared nonchalant as she squinted at the numbers on her monitor.

  Midmorning, a man and his daughter had pulled their charcoal-gray SUV into the shared driveway that separated Sarah’s house from theirs. Since then she’d lurked at the window of her second-floor home office, distracted by the clang and thump of a furniture dolly as two men clad in navy blue overalls rolled furniture and stacks of boxes down the ramp and onto the front porch of the house, which had sat silent and empty for the past month and a half.

  Not that she would ever admit her mild neuroses to another living soul, but she had worried about this day ever since the empty-nesters who had lived there retired, set out to fulfill their lifelong dream of traveling the world and found a tenant willing to sign a one-year lease on their home. Bill and Marjorie hadn’t just been good neighbors; they were good friends. Six years ago they’d been there for her and her daughter after her husband died in a car accident and she had struggled to fit the jagged pieces of her life back together.

  If Sarah could, she would push the pause button on her current life and keep everything exactly as it was—happy, stable, secure—because if she disliked anything more than change, it was not knowing what that change had in store for her.

  The small West Coast community of Serenity Bay had only one real estate company, and Sarah knew the two agents who ran it, so getting a little background information about her new neighbor had been easy. Jonathan Marshall was the new physical education teacher at the high school, a single dad with a teenage daughter. But that didn’t tell her who he really was, nor did it explain why he was a single parent, why his daughter lived with him and not her mother, why they had moved to Serenity Bay.

  What she did know, from having surreptitiously watched from her office window, was that Jonathan Marshall’s blue jeans and white T-shirt portrayed a man in the kind of shape his profession would demand. Tall, well built, well proportioned, of course, but he also had an easy rhythm when he walked, a genuine smile for the people around him and a charming way of stabbing both hands through his hair while he made a decision. She was sure it was unconscious on his part, and she wished it wasn’t so completely endearing.

  His daughter appeared to be about the same age as Casey, but while Casey was equal parts tomboy and bookworm, that girl could have stepped off the page of a teen fashion magazine. Sarah could spot a designer label from a mile way, and that dad would have easily paid two hundred dollars for his daughter’s skinny jeans. Then there was the bag slung over the girl’s shoulder. There was a chance it was a knockoff, but Sarah would wager a week’s worth of sales that it was the real deal. On a teacher’s salary? That didn’t compute.

  Then they disappeared into the house, the man carrying a small pet carrier, the sullen-looking girl straggling behind, empty-handed.

  “Have you met them yet?” Casey asked. “Did you take them the cookies we baked last night?”

  “No, I thought we’d go over together.” Last night the cookies had seemed the neighborly thing to do. Pillsbury refrigerated cookie dough was one of her specialties, after all. Today the cookies seemed to hint that she was angling for a way to meet Serenity Bay’s newest and most eligible bachelor. Would he think she was being neighborly or out to snare him?

  Oh, for heaven’s sake, they’re just cookies. Who cares what he thinks?

  Casey slid Sarah’s iPad out of its case and turned it on. “You said he’s a new teacher at SBH, right?”

  “That’s right.”

  “What’s his name?”

  “Oh, um, Jonathan Marshall. I think. Why?”

  Her daughter tapped on the screen. “Marshall. One L or two?”

  “Probably two. What are you doing?”

  “Searching for him online.”

  “Casey! You shouldn’t do that. It’s like an invasion of privacy.”

  “If it’s on the internet, Mom, it’s not private.”

  “That’s true, but it still seems kind of stalkerish.”

  “Yep, but everybody does it.” Her daughter grinned widely, angling the device so Sarah could see the screen. “Does this look like him?”

  “Oh. Yes, it does.” And she didn’t have to ask the identity of the woman next to him in the photograph. The stunning brunette was Georgette Ogilvie, who last year left her job as news anchor at Vancouver’s top-rated TV station, divorced her husband, and was already remarried and living in Europe. So...Jonathan Marshall was the ex-husband.

  “He used to be married to that lady from the TV.” Casey swiped the screen. “And they have a daughter named Kate.”

  Sarah stood and glanced out the window in time to see him on the driveway below, opening the back of his SUV and hauling out two potted plants. Thinking that a man who kept houseplants must have something going for him was silly, but she thought it just the same. And he was a teacher, after all, and a parent. Probably a good parent, since he seemed to have custody of his daughter.

  “Says here that he used to teach at a high school in West Vancouver and...oh, he coaches soccer. Cool. I wonder if he’ll coach my team.”

  “I don’t know, and you can’t very well ask him.”

  “Why not?”

  “Because he’ll wonder how you found out he’s a coach.”

  Casey flashed another grin. “Good point. I’ll have to be more subtle.”

  The thought of her daughter being anything other than direct had Sarah smiling as she turned back to her desk, organized the invoices and bank statements that still hadn’t been entered into her accounting program, and tucked them into her briefcase. She would have to take them to the store and hope to carve some time out of a busy afternoon to process them. Otherwise she’d have to put in an extra hour or two tonight.

  “I’ll run downstairs and see what we have for lunch, then I have to get to the shop. Juliet’s on her own this morning and she’ll need a break. What would you like?”

  “What’ve we got?”

  Not much. “Grilled cheese sandwiches?”

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