“IT’S NOT like I was expecting an adorable little café. I knew that even Starbucks might be pushing it.” Mackenzie tried to loosen his grip on his cell phone before saying, “But Kristen, there’s not even a Tim Hortons! There’s a donut shop. It’s called The Donut Shop. It sells donuts. No pastries, no soup, no sandwiches. Just donuts. And coffee.” In the interest of full disclosure, he added, “And bagels. I don’t know what’s with the bagels. But there isn’t even a drive-through!”
“You were just complaining about having to drive everywhere up there,” Kristen replied. Mackenzie could hear the laughter in her voice, and it really didn’t help matters. “And you aren’t a big coffee drinker, anyway.”
“It’s not for me,” Mackenzie said in exasperation. He pushed away from the stone wall he’d been leaning on. “It’s for the clientele. I mean, I need support services, right? People aren’t going to drive all the way up here for a wedding and not want to get something to eat or do a little shopping. I was excited when I saw that they have an antique store, but, honestly, it looks like my grandma’s basement. It’s not even kitsch—just crap.”
Kristen sounded a little more serious as she asked, “What are you going to do about it? It’s not too late to come back, you know. Sell the damn church, get back down here to the land of cafés, and move on with your life.”
“I am moving on.” Mackenzie had given this some serious thought, especially the night before as he’d tossed and turned in his low-thread-count sheets at the local motel. “This business was my idea, not Nathan’s. And it’s a good idea. If I come back now, I’ll just sit around and mope. I need to keep busy.”
“If you come back now, you’ll be looking for work,” Kristen corrected. “You don’t have a sugar daddy anymore.”
“I paid my own way,” Mackenzie protested. “I mean, I paid for the essentials. If Nathan chose to treat me to a few luxuries….”
“You haven’t paid for rent, utilities, or groceries in almost six years. Stealing clothes from your shoots does not count as paying for the essentials.”
“I paid for some of those clothes. And the rest were gifts, not stolen. I can’t help it if people want me to be seen wearing their designs.”
“You finding much use for your wardrobe up there? Anyone appreciating your bold fashion choices?” Kristen was clearly back to laughing at him.
“My people will continue to appreciate me. And soon, my people will be up here. They’ll be getting married in my beautiful church, celebrating in the lovely gardens—”
“And picking up donuts in town. Without driving through.”
“The town needs some work,” Mackenzie admitted. “Hard to believe that somewhere two hours from Canada’s biggest city could be this backward. But I’m not giving up. No way. I just need to figure a few things out.” He looked up at the stone wall he’d been standing next to, then stepped back far enough that he could see the whole front of the church. “It’s a beautiful building, Kristen. It’s going to be perfect when it’s all fixed up.”
“A traditional venue to celebrate your nontraditional love,” she said. “Is that the one you’re going with?”
“Or maybe ‘drive two hours out of the city to get married in a total shithole.’”
“I vote for the first one. I’m coming up this weekend, okay? If you don’t have a place by then, I can stay at your motel. You’ve made it sound so appealing I can’t resist.”
“You’ll bring Griffin?”
“Of course. He’s pining without you.”
“He’s not really, is he? He’s okay?”
There was a pause, and Mackenzie could picture Kristen leaning down to fondle the goldendoodle’s silky ears. Or probably just leaning over, not down, because as soon as Kristen had heard the dog didn’t shed, she’d made him into her couch mate and cuddle partner. “He’s fine. He was sad for the first five minutes, just like he always is when you leave him. Then I gave him the new toy, and he got over it. But he’ll be happy to see his daddy.”
“One of them, at least.”
“He never loved Nathan like he loves you.”
“Good thing.” There didn’t need to be two of them pining for Nathan. But Mackenzie didn’t want to think about that. Luckily, a distraction arrived in the form of a pickup truck with ladders and a variety of tools in the back, and two men in front. There was a Sutton Construction logo on the side. “I’ve got to go. The contractors are here.”
“Have fun. Call me later.”
He agreed and ended the call, then squinted at the men getting out of the truck. They were both tall and rangy with angular faces, wearing jeans and work shirts, the driver with a baseball cap and the passenger slipping on a cowboy hat without a trace of irony. Mackenzie kept staring at them. There was something strange going on….
“Yeah, we’re twins,” the one from the driver’s side said with a friendly smile. “But I’m the good-looking one.” He held out his hand. “Will Sutton. We spoke on the phone.” He glanced over at his brother, who was staring at the church like he thought it might be about to crumble on their heads. “That’s Joe. Don’t mind him. He’s just here in case there’s heavy lifting.”
“I’m Mackenzie.” He extended his hand and braced himself for a painful show of manly strength, but Will’s handshake was firm without being crushing. “Thanks for coming by. Do you want to look inside, or…?”
“Outside first, if that’s okay. I did a quick look-around when you called me. There’s a few things you should have a look at.”
“Okay,” Mackenzie said doubtfully. He knew nothing about construction.
“It looks like it’s in pretty good shape,” Will said as he led the way around the building. “Couple broken windows in the basement, but the big windows look okay. You’re keeping the stained glass?”
Will nodded. “Good. It adds a lot, I think. There’s a bit of work to be done here,” he said as he brushed at some loose mortar, “and we’ll have to take a good look inside to make sure water didn’t get in. Gutters need some work, there”—he pointed—“and we’ll have to go up and take a look at the roof to see what kind of shape it’s in.”
“We won’t be doing that,” Mackenzie clarified. “There’s no way I’m going up there.”
“Joe’ll do it,” Will said dismissively. “He likes heights.”
Joe didn’t respond or even look in their direction. Mackenzie was beginning to find the man’s silence a little unsettling.
Will continued to calmly point out deficiencies in the building as they toured around the perimeter, and Mackenzie struggled to maintain his positive attitude. “We had an inspection done,” he said defensively. “They said there were no major problems. And you just said it was in pretty good shape….”
“It is,” Will responded in surprise. “Really good, considering. But it’s a hundred and forty years old, and it’s been empty for almost a decade. It needs some work.”
“I’m on a fairly tight budget. Can you prioritize things? Like, tell me what needs to be done right away to keep the place from falling down, what needs to be done in a couple years, what would be nice to do someday? That’d be really helpful.”
Will had given him a weird look as soon as he’d said he was on a tight budget, and that was just one more thing for Mackenzie to worry about. The contractors had been highly recommended as people who weren’t only good at their jobs but also scrupulously honest, and Mackenzie had really hoped he’d be able to just sit back and let them guide him through the necessary renovations. But if they were looking for someone who’d be able to throw endless cash into the project, he was in trouble. Two months ago, he’d have been happy to oblige, and he probably wouldn’t have looked too closely at the invoices, either. Now, though, he needed to be more careful.
“We can figure it out,” Will finally said. “You want to go look inside, see what’s what in there?”
Mackenzie absolutely did. The outside of the church was lovely, but it was the interior that had really captured his heart. He led the way through the carved wooden doors, through the gracious narthex with its spiral staircase, and into the sanctuary. He took a deep, satisfied breath as he entered. Yes. This room made it all worthwhile. The proportions of the walls and arched ceiling were perfect, the light through the stained glass divine. The wooden pews curved gracefully toward the altar, which was itself rounded and felt like a part of the larger circle. It was a setting that spoke of community and fellowship and belonging, and it was the perfect place to celebrate a wedding.
But Will wasn’t soaking up the charm quite as deeply as Mackenzie always did. Instead, he was focusing on a collection of whitish-gray… something in the middle of the central aisle. He glanced toward his brother, who shrugged in laconic cowboy fashion.
“Not a tragedy,” Will said as he turned back to Mackenzie. “But we need to get this taken care of. It’s a mess, but it’s also acidic. The floor beneath that spot is probably wrecked. We’ll have to try to match the hardwood for the repairs.”
“What is it?” Mackenzie asked. “I mean, it looks like bird shit….”
“Bat shit,” Will corrected.
And for the first time, the cowboy spoke. “You’ve got bats in your belfry.” He pointed up, and Mackenzie followed his finger. The pile of droppings sat immediately beneath an octagonal hole in the ceiling, an opening Mackenzie had barely even noticed before.
“Bats? And that’s my belfry?” He frowned. “What is a belfry?”
“It’s where the bell goes.” Will was back in charge. “But I doubt they’ll let you ring a bell, anyway. It’s not like you’re a real church. Is there even a bell up there? We should check, to make sure it’s not going to fall on someone’s head.”
“It’s over in Mossberg,” the cowboy told his brother. “In that schoolhouse.”
“The converted one on the town line?”
“Yeah. They moved it over a few years ago.”
Will nodded, then turned to Mackenzie. “That’s Joe’s second skill. He likes heights, and he knows weird shit.” He grinned quickly and waggled his eyebrows almost suggestively. “I don’t know if you want to hear about his third skill!”
“Enough,” the cowboy said, no humor in his tone, and there was a tense moment when it seemed like Will might push whatever he was doing just a little further. Finally, though, he shrugged as if disappointed in his brother’s decision, then turned around in a big circle, looking at the ceiling.
“Probably best to just shut the belfry off entirely, but we’ll want to get the bats out too. Might need to hire an expert for that. You’ll need to check on their breeding season; they’ve probably got babies up there now, and you don’t want to separate a family.” Will glanced over to be sure Mackenzie wasn’t going to argue with that, then continued his inspection. “I don’t see any water damage from down here, but we’ll need to poke around up there to be sure. And we’ll want to check the basement, and the windows….”
So the inspection continued without further interaction between the brothers. Mackenzie wondered why the cowboy was even there; he certainly didn’t seem too interested in any of the proceedings. Mackenzie had heard this was a family business, but it seemed pretty clear that Will was the brains of the operation. Whatever Joe’s mysterious skills were, they obviously didn’t involve customer service.
“You want to go set up the ladders?” Will asked his brother when they’d finished poking through the choir loft. “We can check out the basement while you’re doing that.”
Joe looked almost suspicious at the offered escape, but he nodded and headed outside while Will and Mackenzie made their way to the basement.
“Joe’s a good guy,” Will said as he tested the stability of the railing on the stairs. “Just takes him a while to warm up to people.”
“Okay.” It wasn’t like it was any of Mackenzie’s business. “Can you take a look at the ceiling? There’s a couple feet of space in there, and if we could find a way to open that up….”
“They probably lowered it to save heat. You’ve got a big space here, and you’re going to want someone to come in and look at the furnace, wherever it is. It’ll probably be worth the expense of updating it as soon as you can. They’ve got natural gas running by here now, so you could hook up to that and get rid of the propane tanks.” He found a rickety chair and stepped up on it to peek into the ceiling. “He’s never been much of a talker,” he said, his voice muffled.
It took Mackenzie a while to figure out that the man was back to his brother. “Well, that’s kind of nice sometimes,” he managed. “Gives more space for the rest of us to dominate the conversation.”
“Exactly!” Will hopped off the chair and dusted his hands off on his jeans. “Yeah, I think we could raise that ceiling back up. You’ve got a lot of height down here. More than most old churches. Have you got plans for the space?”
“I’m not sure. I was thinking we could use it for receptions if we had to. There doesn’t seem to be anywhere in town….”
“Legion, community center, golf course,” Will said thoughtfully. “Or people’s backyards. That’s where most people have their receptions.”
“The golf course?” That was an exciting possibility. Mackenzie didn’t golf himself, but many well-heeled people did.
“Out on the highway. You would have driven past it on the way from the city.”
Mackenzie searched his memory. “Can you see the clubhouse from the road?”
“Yeah. It’s board and batten, kind of a faded green? One story, with the shop in front and a big garage door on the side.”
“Huh.” Mackenzie couldn’t remember the exact building, but it wasn’t sounding too promising.
“You want something fancy?” Will guessed. “That ain’t it. This isn’t a rich area. Industry is pretty much packed up and gone, and farming… it’s mostly going large-scale, now. The people who actually own the land are probably making good cash, but they live down in the city or maybe even farther away. The ones who live up here are just employees now, not real farmers.”
Of course it wasn’t a wealthy area. That was why Mackenzie had been able to afford to buy the church. It was located in a picturesque hamlet a few miles outside a two-stoplight town, with quaint historic homes on either side of it and a forest-covered ravine in the back. The setting was beautiful, but remote. If it were located elsewhere, it would have been snapped up at three times the price and converted into a grand residence or weekend home. He sighed. “Let’s see if we can find the furnace. And one of the bathrooms has a pretty big shower in it. Does that make sense? Do people shower at church?”
“No idea. Joe might know. Does it work?”
They continued the walk-through with only a few more bits of random praise or apology for Joe’s behavior, then walked outside to find the cowboy himself leaning on the back of the pickup, silver ladders safely stowed away.
“What’d you see?” Will asked.
“Looks good. Steel’s in good shape. Maybe a couple hours to fix a few loose spots. A day for a cleaning and a coat of paint. But it’s solid.”
Will seemed pleased, and that cemented Mackenzie’s decision to trust the man. He wasn’t trying to pretend the roof needed more work than it did. He was happy to discuss the issue in front of Mackenzie, not trying to control information or manipulate anything. “I’ll put some paperwork together,” Will said. “I’ll prioritize stuff, like you said—what needs to be done, what should be done, what you could do at some point if you felt like it. Okay?”
“Sounds great,” Mackenzie agreed. “Thanks for coming by.” He held out his hand for another firm but not crushing shake. By the time he’d turned toward Joe, the man was already heading for the passenger door of the truck. Obviously he wasn’t interested in any departure rituals.
Mackenzie watched the truck pull away and wasn’t surprised to see the door of the house across the street open almost immediately. Lorraine Liverson had introduced herself that morning, inquiring none too subtly into Mackenzie’s background, his plans for the church, his plans for himself, his marital status…. He had almost expected her to pry his mouth open for a look at his teeth. Now she was back, her manner exaggeratedly casual.
“Oh, the Suttons came by? I hope they said good things about your project!”
Mackenzie decided it was time for a little prying of his own. He’d heard the recommendations from his local lawyer and his real estate agent, but Lorraine probably had her own collection of data ready for review. “One of them did. Will. I haven’t gotten a quote from him yet, though.”
“It’ll be fair, whatever it says,” Lorraine said confidently. She was one of those women who seemed to have gotten frozen in late middle-age. He couldn’t have said whether she was in her fifties or her seventies, but her eyes were still bright, and her voice was strong as she said, “The Suttons have been in Falls Creek since the settler days, and they’ve always been honest. A lot of the last generation moved away, but Will’s father stayed, and he started that company… must be coming up on forty years ago now.” She smiled, pleased to have found a justification for her gossip.
“The father’s retired now? Is Will in charge, or the other one?”
“Malcolm passed about five years ago, along with his wife, Susan. They were lovely people. It was so sad… an icy night, and their car just slid right in front of a gravel truck out on Bayersly Road. All those kids left behind.” She sighed, then brightened. “Lucky that Will and Joe were old enough to take care of the younger ones. It would have broken Susan’s heart if her brood had been split up.”
“A brood? How many kids are in a brood, exactly?” Mackenzie had only wanted to know whether the contractors were honest, but now he was finding himself intrigued by the rest of their story.
And Lorraine was happy to share. “Well, the twins, obviously. That’s two. Then a bit of a gap, and with the handful those two were when they were babies, I can’t blame Susan for waiting a bit. Then Sarah. She just got married this summer, to Dave Henderson. They’re a good family too. Dave works for the municipality, Sarah does the office stuff for her brothers.” She paused for Mackenzie’s encouraging nod and having received it, moved on. “Nick’s the next one, and he’s away at school. Studying business, last I heard, so I guess he’ll probably be staying away, although….” She paused as if there was actually a piece of information she wasn’t sure she should share. “That comes with its own set of issues. Then Ally. She’s a bit… well, I’d say it’s because she was raised by her brothers, but that’s only been for the past few years, and Ally’s been a tomboy since she was born. Hard to get her out of the barn, as I hear it.”
Lorraine seemed done, but it was possible she was just pausing for a well-deserved breath. “So, five of them?” Mackenzie prompted. “That’s the brood?”
“Well, that’s that generation. They’ve started on the next, as well.”
That made sense. Mackenzie hadn’t noticed a ring on either brother, but they must be in their late twenties, so it would hardly be surprising if one of them had begun reproducing. “Will?” he guessed. He couldn’t imagine the taciturn Joe as a father.
And there was the moment’s hesitation again before Lorraine threw caution to the wind and leaned in with a wicked smile. “Nick! When he was still in high school! And not with the sort of girl who you’d want raising a little one, if you know what I mean. It wasn’t that long after their parents died, so everyone was pretty understanding about his little mistake. And Austin’s a complete charmer, bright and happy all the time, and Lord knows the whole Sutton family just dotes on him. So it all worked out okay, really.”
“Sounds like it,” Mackenzie agreed. “And they all work for the construction business? But Will’s in charge?”
“The construction is Will’s,” Lorraine said, “but Joe helps out sometimes. The rest of the time Joe looks after the… well, folks around here call it the ranch, even if that’s a bit of a strange word for this part of the country. But it’s over a thousand acres, most of it only good for grazing and logging. You can’t really call that a farm, can you?”
Mackenzie had absolutely no idea what he’d call it, and Lorraine didn’t seem too concerned about his opinion, anyway. “I don’t actually know why he was with Will today, to be honest. It sure wasn’t for the sales pitch.”
Lorraine snorted. “He didn’t seem too friendly? I’m not surprised.” She shrugged philosophically. “It’s probably the gay thing.”
It hit Mackenzie almost like a slap. He’d thought he was prepared for small-town attitudes toward his sexuality and had absolutely considered homophobia as a possible barrier to setting up his wedding chapel somewhere like Falls Creek. But he couldn’t believe it was being treated so casually. “You’re saying he was rude to me because I’m gay?”
Lorraine looked startled. “No. I’m not sure I’d call it rude, but the way he acts? Distant, kind of? I always figured it was because he’s gay. You know, he’s always been a bit different, so he’s never really tried too hard to fit in. He just hangs out on his ranch, being a lonely cowboy….” She trailed off and fixed her gaze on Mackenzie. “But you say you’re gay as well? I mean, I can’t say it didn’t cross my mind. But it seemed rude to ask….”
“Joe Sutton is gay.” Mackenzie had always prided himself on being able to read people and certainly on being able to pick up on that little spark from a man who was noticing Mackenzie’s undeniable charms. But he’d gotten none of that from the cowboy brother. “That’s confirmed? Or you’re just guessing?”
“Well, I haven’t been there in the room with him and another fella,” Lorraine said with an arched brow, “but it’s general knowledge. He’s never tried to hide it, not that I ever heard of.”
“Maybe he just couldn’t be bothered to speak in order to deny it. He doesn’t seem like someone who cares a whole lot what other people think about him.” Mackenzie was trying to figure it all out. He wanted to find a mirror and make sure he still looked like himself. First Nathan had dumped him for that twenty-year-old, and now a man living in what must surely be a gay desert had crawled right past Mackenzie’s bountiful oasis?
“You could ask Nancy Yeats’s nephew, if you wanted. Trevor something or other. He lives over in Darton, and I guess the two of them were seeing each other for quite a while.” Lorraine’s grin was a mix of curiosity and mischief. “If you’re interested, I can find out if he’s seeing anyone right now. I haven’t heard of it, and usually that’d be a good sign that it isn’t happening, but like I said, Joe’s a bit different. A bit more private than most folks.”
Private was not a good enough excuse for failing to pay attention to his surroundings or, more importantly, failing to pay attention to Mackenzie. But none of that needed to be shared with a woman who clearly gossiped as a way of life. He smiled brightly. “Oh, no, I’m not interested. You know, not like that. I was just curious. I wanted to know what kind of people I’d be doing business with if I had the Suttons do the work on the church.”
“The best kind,” Lorraine said firmly. “You couldn’t do better.”
Lorraine started telling a story about the Suttons helping out some poor family that had lost everything in a house fire—well, of course the whole community had chipped in, but the Suttons had done the biggest part—and some people might say that’s because they’re blood, but really, they’d be third cousins at best—because it was Susan Sutton’s grandmother? Yes, grandmother, Maggie Johnson—she was from out in Newfoundland, back before it was even part of Canada, and she’d carried that accent with her for her whole life…. Mackenzie tuned out. Joe Sutton was openly gay. And Mackenzie was a model, for Christ’s sake. Maybe his career hadn’t quite taken off, but that was because Nathan hadn’t really liked it. He hadn’t been rude enough to try to forbid it, but he’d be grumpy for days before and after Mackenzie went out of town for even a couple days, and there just weren’t enough shoots in Toronto to propel someone into the modeling elite. The first time Mackenzie turned down a New York job, Nathan had leased him a silver Mini convertible as a reward. Mackenzie had been thrilled by the symbol of Nathan’s affection and by the adorable new wheels. But being a good boyfriend had made it a bit difficult to be a good model. So, no, it wasn’t as if Mackenzie had set the world on fire as a model. Still, he must be a tastier piece of ass than Nancy Whoever’s nephew!
Mackenzie forced himself to pay a bit more attention to Lorraine’s chatter, but the biggest part of his brain was still focused elsewhere. He was not going to be ignored by some desperate hick pretending to be a damn cowboy. No. Joe Sutton was about to get his world rocked. “Nobody puts Baby in a corner,” he muttered to himself, and then he smiled when Lorraine shot him a quizzical glance. “I’ve got to go,” he said without trying to explain. “But thanks so much for catching me up on all this. You’ve given me a lot to think about.”
He beat a hasty retreat inside and went to sit in the sanctuary of the church. A lot to think about. And a lot of things to do, things actually based around the important points of building a successful business and keeping himself out of the poorhouse. But his mind kept drifting back to the tall cowboy who’d told him he had bats in his belfry. And then ignored him. What the hell was Joe Sutton’s problem?