by Roxanne Rustand
Rose stared in disbelief at the man in front of her. He was taller now-- no longer a lanky teenager—with broad shoulders and a powerful build, but his piercing silver eyes and unruly black hair were unmistakable, sending her thoughts spinning back to the moment they’d literally bumped into each other fifteen years ago, at this very spot. He’d gently grabbed her upper arms to steady her, and even now the memory of his touch sent warm shivers through her that settled around her heart.
They’d stared at each other, frozen in place for what seemed like eternity, until she finally found her voice and apologized—at the same moment he did. The awkward moment dissolved when he gave her a lopsided grin that deepened a dimple in his cheek, his eyes twinkling.
And at that moment, she’d known she was forever lost.
They’d had just a short time together, walking along the shore of the lake. Skipping rocks across its pristine cobalt surface. Sitting on a picnic table and discovering that they had so many hopes and dreams in common.
With her parents impatiently calling for her to get in the car for the trip back to the city, they hadn’t had time to exchange addresses so they could write. Every time she went back to visit her grandfather, she’d asked around town about the mysterious boy she’d met, but received only blank looks and off-hand shrugs. In time, she’d given up asking.
She gone off to college. Became engaged, then found herself alone after her fiance left her for someone else. But she’d never forgotten the boy she’d met on this path, and seeing him again made her heart falter.
“I can’t believe this,” she managed at last. “Y-you’re my grandfather’s executor?”
Mason nodded. “I wish I could’ve introduced myself at Valentin’s funeral a few months back, but I was out of state for several weeks, dealing with some family matters of my own. And after I returned, it took a while to find a copy of the will.”
“Had you written it for him?”
“My predecessor did. Walt was the town’s only lawyer for fifty years, before I joined the firm. He passed away last year.” Mason frowned. “Walt remained stubbornly in the past technology-wise until the day he died—no computer records, just hard copies filed away. I knew Valentin and had seen his file, but when I came in to pull the will, it was gone. Strange. I had a state-of-art security system installed after Walt died, and we've never had any theft."
“Your partner misplaced it?”
“No. I can’t imagine that. Walt was sharp as could be up to the day he handed me the keys and said he was done. Nothing was ever out of place. Luckily, your grandfather’s housekeeper and I were eventually able to find his copy of the will in his files at home.”
Rose bit her lip. “Honestly, I just don’t understand any of this. There are over five hundred people living here. How could I possibly have inherited a town?”
A corner of Mason’s mouth lifted in a faint smile. “Your great grandfather bought up hundreds of acres around here, sure it held vast amounts of coal and iron ore. There was quite a boom town here in the late 1800’s. But eventually he went broke and everyone left.”
“I remember grandpa saying it became a ghost town back then.” She stared across the sparkling lake. “He loved this area so much. He said he never wanted it to fall into the hands of developers.”
“Which is why he refused to sell it off. Instead, he leased the land—only to people who wanted to establish homes here. So yes, you’ve inherited over two hundred undeveloped acres of the most rugged, beautiful land in Virginia, plus the twenty-some acres developed in town.”
Rose suddenly felt faint as the enormity of the situation hit her. “I-I don’t even know what to say. Until now my goal was to become an archivist at a history center. I know nothing about all of this. And the inheritance taxes…”
“As much as I love this quaint old town, I have to be honest—there are two developers who have been clamoring for the chance to buy it all—every acre. They’ve been competing with each other, offering your grandfather more money every year, but he refused.” Mason paced a few feet away, then turned back to her. “You could become a wealthy woman if you were to sell.”
She backed up to a park bench and sank down on it, her head spinning. “And these developers…”
Mason’s mouth hardened. “They want to challenge the existing leases. Bulldoze the entire town. This whole area would be built up into resorts, condos, outlet malls and amusement parks. Valentin has also turned down offers from mining companies that seem to be sure there are vast, untapped resources in the hills.”
Rose closed her eyes, remembering the charming, quirky folks who had lived here all their lives. The drugstore and grocery store, that still looked as if they belonged in the 1800’s. A place where everyone knew each other’s families for generations past, and kids could play safely outside until evening fell and their mothers called them home.
“Every time I came for a visit, I went on long walks with my grandfather. He knew the names of every type of bird, tree and plant in the area. He said the pristine land was like a testament to God’s infinite glory, and that he would protect it until his dying breath. Those developers’ plans would be a desecration of all he held dear.” She took a long, slow breath. “I just wish those old tales about hidden treasures were true. People used to talk about a trunk buried somewhere in town—filled with smuggled jewels and gold that were hidden during the Civil War. Of course, no one ever found so much as a clue. I could sure use it right now, just to pay the taxes and save this town.”
“I’m afraid I can’t help you with that, but I do want to go over the will with you, back at my office, and there are other documents we need to discuss.”
“Now is as good a time as any,” she whispered, “I need to know where I stand.”
She stood, feeling a little wobbly, and gladly accepted his arm to steady herself. Just as she had all those years ago, she felt unexpected shivers of warmth at his touch.
“We also need to talk about the contents of your grandfather’s house, and a number of other things while you’re here.”
Their eyes met, held. And for a moment she felt too disoriented to speak. “I-I appreciate your help.”
“I’ll do whatever I can.” The corners of his eyes crinkled as he smiled down at her. “I do hope you can stay a while. It’s going to take a long time to go through that big old house, and your grandfather once mentioned that his father told him there might be treasures of a different kind hidden away in it. Possibly some old diaries and documents, dating back to the mid-1800’s. But Valentin was never able to find them. Maybe you'll be a better sleuth."
Rose felt her historian’s heart leap at the thought of finding such precious things, but something even stronger was drawing her…something perhaps even more important.
She’d never forgotten the boy she’d met along the lakeshore. Perhaps the magic of those brief moments with him had forever affected her attraction to the guys she’d met later, because no one else had quite measured up. Had she simply fantasized about her connection to Mason? Imagined it to be much greater than it was?
This would be her chance to spend time with him. Discover the truth, and either put that silly schoolgirl crush to rest, or find out if he truly was all she remembered.