Exclusive Free Read - Chapter 1 of The Recipient
Kacie Nolan is content with life. Jett Vanders is desperate to escape the limelight. When an obsessed celebrity stalker sets her daring plan into motion, she puts both their lives at risk and exposes a shocking revelation. Kacie is forced to choose whether she’s willing to let go of the past and risk everything for the future.
“Shail Rajan has done it again! Her sophomore novel, THE RECIPIENT, is a delicious read that goes down easy, while serving up a surprisingly twisty mystery.”
-Joanna Monahan, Author of Something Better
“I could not put this book down. I loved it so much...the way [the characters] all weaved together in the end, gah. I was crying. It took me literally until right before it happened to figure it out and when it clicked, I was a mess.”
- 5 Star Goodreads Review
“Hi. Are you on your way home?”
“Yup, I should be there in another ten minutes.”
“Any ideas on what to have for dinner?”
“Want to grill something? Eat out on the back patio, enjoy a glass of wine?”
“Mmmm, that sounds perfect.”
“Great, I’ll see you in a few. I love you, Katherine Claire.”
“I love you, Robert Patrick.”
Robert disconnected the speaker phone and waited for the traffic light. Thinking about the relaxing evening ahead with his new wife made him smile.
The light turned green, and he started to ease through the intersection. An unexpected flash of movement on his left made him turn his head quickly. His mind barely registered the large pickup truck with no headlights on barreling towards him. His heart, however, knew he would never see the love of his life again.
Six Years Later
The House on Willow Avenue
As the rock ballad came to an end, the DJ chimed in, “I don’t know about you, but that song gets me every time I hear it. It was off the first album by Mirrors, one of my all-time favorite bands. The newest album has been panned by critics but has still gone multi-platinum. Too bad Jett Vanders, the lead singer, seems to be focused more on partying than making music. Looks like the band may be cancelling the rest of their world tour dates so that he can ‘rest.’ Anyway, enough with me letting the real world infringe on our idyllic little bubble. Okay, let’s see, it’s just a few minutes before eight, which means it’s time for a quick word on the weather and an update on your commute. First, the weather: sunny and cold. And now, the commute: there is no traffic anywhere. Just another one of the reasons I love living in Sycamore Ridge! All right, folks, back to the music. Here’s another great tune you can sing along with. Enjoy!”
Kacie turned up the radio and started singing along rather loudly and, truth be told, rather badly. Fortunately, no one was around to hear her. As her mother was fond of teasing, “You can’t hold a tune to save your life, but I love that you sing with gusto!”
As she turned right onto Willow Avenue, Kacie tapped her hands on the steering wheel in time with the music, in no rush to get to work. This portion of her fifteen-minute “commute” along the beautiful tree-lined street was her favorite. The stately homes ran the gamut of architectural styles, from classic bungalows and Craftsman to the grander Tudors and Colonials and were set far back from the road with broad sweeping lawns and flower beds that were patiently waiting for warmer weather. A light dusting of morning frost was still visible on the lawns, and everything shone in the sunlight.
As she rounded a slight curve, Kacie looked forward to seeing her favorite home, a sprawling light gray Colonial with black shutters. The curving driveway led up a gentle incline to a three-car garage and intersected with a walkway leading to the welcoming white front door.
It had been several years since the original owners had lived there. Kacie had never met them, but she had heard through the town grapevine that the elderly couple, married for over 60 years, had passed away within a few short months of each other. The house had been left to their only child, a hot-shot entertainment lawyer on the West Coast, who had made a couple of feeble attempts at bringing his family to the house for short vacations. Unfortunately, his teenaged children had not been interested in spending their breaks in a rural town, and frankly, neither had he. He had stopped pushing the issue, and eventually, they had stopped coming to the house altogether. Oddly, though, he seemed in no rush to sell it, either.
Kacie sighed. Not that she could afford a house like that, and she certainly didn’t need all that space for only herself and Cooper. It just made her feel sad that such a beautiful house couldn’t become home to a nice family.
“Oh, what have we here?” Kacie asked aloud to no one. A nondescript four-door sedan, a rental from the looks of it, was parked on the street in front of the house and a couple was standing nearby it on the front lawn looking up towards the beautiful home.
Despite numerous admonitions about curiosity and the cat, Kacie couldn’t help herself and pulled up behind the car to see if she could be of assistance.
“Hi there, can I help you?” she asked, stepping out of her car.
The woman, dressed in intimidating stiletto heeled boots, managed to walk gracefully across the lawn towards Kacie and asked in a snide and impatient tone, “Are you Walter?”
Kacie, not one to take things lying down, cocked her eyebrow at the woman as she appraised her. In addition to the stylish yet impractical boots, she was dressed well in a beautifully tailored off-white, long winter coat that was unbuttoned to reveal a slim figure clad in skintight jeans and a black turtleneck sweater. Her makeup was impeccable, the kind that looked natural but in reality took a long time to apply. Her long blonde hair was tied up in a harsh ponytail and straightened and sprayed in such a way that not one single hair dared pop out of place.
“Cut it out, Lindsay,” the gentleman said as he walked over to join the two women. At just that moment, Lindsay’s phone rang, and she immediately answered it. The only words Kacie heard her say as she was walking away were, “Did you do it exactly the way I told you? Because I expect nothing less than perfection.”
“Sorry about that. Our flight got in really late last night, and we had to get an early start this morning. I’m Robert Wilkens.” He held out his hand, and Kacie took it with some relief that he seemed to be a normal person.
“Kacie Nolan, nice to meet you.”
“Pleasure,” Robert smiled. Like Lindsay, he was also well dressed. But unlike Lindsay, his smile appeared genuine. It reached his grey eyes and made a few crow lines appear. Based on the smattering of grey hair at his temples, Kacie guessed his age to be late forties, maybe early fifties. He was tall and seemed to have managed to avoid developing the paunch that so many men his age sported.
“I’m pretty sure the owners aren’t home,” Kacie said gesturing towards the house. “They hardly ever come here anymore.”
“Actually, I’m hoping to become the new owner.”
“Oh? I didn’t know the house was on the market. Are you sure you have the right address?”
“Yup. The owner, Stephan, is a friend of a friend. Somehow word got around that I was looking to purchase a vacation home that was relatively off the grid, and he called me last week saying he might be interested in selling if the offer was right. I guess he contacted someone named,” here he paused to look at his phone, “let’s see…here it is. A real estate agent named Walter Reid. He was supposed to meet us here at 8:15.”
“I know Walter. If he says he’s going to be somewhere, he’ll definitely show up.” Kacie checked her watch, “It’s only 8:08 right now.”
“True,” Robert chuckled, “and very precise. Do you live around here?”
“I’ve only lived in Sycamore Ridge for the past few years, but I consider it my home. My family lives a short drive from here.”
“Nice. I grew up about two hours away from here, and we have a lot of emotional ties to this area. It’s funny, I hadn’t even heard about Sycamore Ridge until last week. This street reminds me so much of the neighborhood my family lived in when we were kids. I’d love to give my own family a chance to experience this lifestyle.”
“It’s a great place to live. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”
“Would you mind if I ask you some questions about the town? I didn’t have much time to research the house or the surrounding area before coming out here.”
Kacie smiled. “Absolutely. You’ll find that most people around here always have at least a few minutes to chat. Walter did some work on the house a few years back, so he’ll be able to tell you all about the home and the property, but I can answer just about any question you have about the town. What would you like to know?”
“Anything you can tell me, really. How about a quick sales pitch? Pretend you’re trying to convince me to move here.”
“I can certainly try.” Kacie took a moment to collect her thoughts and then launched into a topic on which she was knowledgeable and of which she was extremely proud.
“As you know, we’re about a two-hour drive from the city and the international airport and about an hour from two well-known universities. For a lot of people, those distances are detractors. But for the folks who choose to live here, they’re one of the huge pluses. In the grand scheme of things, two hours isn’t a lot if you really need to get somewhere. And for staff and professors at the university, it puts just enough distance between them and their students. Our location makes a huge difference in the type of people who make Sycamore Ridge their home.”
Kacie paused for a moment to gauge Robert’s reaction. He appeared to be listening intently to what she was saying, so she continued. “When the trend towards working remotely first took off, everyone was looking at homes within a 30-minute drive of the city. Then property prices started spiking, so people pushed out to within an hour of the city. But they weren’t willing to go past that, even when the traffic started getting bad, prices increased, and space decreased. We cater to people who really want to be ‘off the grid’ but with access to a lot of great amenities like restaurants, spas, outdoor space, hiking trails. Here, we have managed to find a great balance: little to no traffic, decent property values, plenty of open space, and, most importantly a small-town feel.”
Robert was duly impressed at how smoothly Kacie’s “impromptu” pitch seemed to roll off her tongue, and he told her as much. “Wow…I almost feel like you’ve practiced that.”
Now it was Kacie’s turn to chuckle. “How’d I do?”
Just as Robert was saying “great,” they heard a car approaching and both turned to see a dark green, vintage pickup truck turning into the driveway. The word Sally had been elaborately painted in white on the passenger side door.
“8:12. Early, as I expected.”
“All right, that’s my cue.” Smiling, Robert reached out his hand and took Kacie’s once again. “It really was great meeting you. And thanks for the sales pitch!”
He started to walk away and then turned back. “One more question…you mentioned there’s a small-town feel. How does that translate into respecting people’s privacy? That’s a really important reason for why I’m looking at more rural locations.”
“I think you’ll find people are generally helpful and friendly, like in many small towns. But most of our residents live here because they also value their own privacy. I believe they are largely respectful of others’ privacy, as well.”
“Fair enough.” Robert smiled at her one more time and then nodded his head in the direction of Walter’s car. “I’d better head on over there before Lindsay bites Walter’s head off, too.”
Unfortunately for Walter, Robert didn’t head over quickly enough.
Walter got out of his truck and attempted to straighten out his outdated suit. It was already a bit snug and now it was wrinkled, too. He wondered for the hundredth time that morning whether the suit made him look like his grandpa. Maybe he should have just dressed in his favorite pair of jeans and his worn denim shirt. Oh well, he thought. Too late now. Anyway, they’re here to see the house, not me.
Turning towards the street, he saw a woman confidently striding towards him in high heeled boots while snapping orders at some unfortunate soul on the other end of her cell phone. There were some sharp dressers in Sycamore Ridge, but this woman put them to shame. Her elegant clothes and impeccable appearance made Walter think she had probably never seen a wrinkle in her life. Women like her tended to make Walter nervous. Walter almost chuckled out loud as he admitted to himself that truth be told, most women made him nervous. He could feel himself starting to sweat, and as she got closer, he realized that not only was she perfectly dressed, but she was also quite beautiful. His sweat glands immediately jumped into overdrive mode. Worried that she would hold out her hand to shake his, Walter made a feeble attempt at wiping his palms on his crinkled-up suit jacket without her noticing.
He was off to a very shaky start. Walter reminded himself to take a deep calming breath in and out as she closed the distance between them. Calm down, Walter, he thought. You need this sale and the commission. For Sally.
The woman stopped in front of him but continued with her phone call.
“Did you get the list I sent you? It’s all clearly laid out there, and none of it is up for negotiation,” she snapped. “If you can’t do it, I can find someone in a heartbeat to replace you. Someone who understands how important my clients are.” She angrily tapped the end call button without saying goodbye.
“Walter Reid?” she asked. The way she said his name made him feel almost ashamed. Like he had something slimy hanging out of his nose. She held her perfectly manicured hand out, and Walter stared at it for a moment.
“Yes,” he said hesitantly, resisting the urge to wipe his nose before taking her hand in his. Her skin was soft and cool, and again, Walter found himself resisting another urge: the urge to raise her hand to his lips and kiss the back of it ever so softly.
“I’m Lindsay Waller.” They shook hands briefly, and Walter got the distinct impression that she was contemplating whether to wipe her hand on her coat. He could feel beads of sweat starting to form at his hairline and was suddenly grateful that he had on his wrinkly suit jacket to hide the unseemly sweat stains that were undoubtedly forming on his shirt.
“Why don’t we wait for my partner to join us before starting the house tour?” Lindsay turned her attention away from Walter and back towards the end of the driveway where Robert was standing, still apparently deep in conversation with the woman who had stopped to “help” them. Not a fan of small towns in general, Lindsay wondered to herself what kind of person would randomly stop on the street when they were on their way somewhere just to talk to two complete strangers. And she wondered, not for the first time, how Robert could manage to be lured into conversations with just about anyone he met. Sighing, she turned back towards Walter and almost laughed aloud at his obvious discomfort.
Walter was not a bad looking man, she thought. He had eager, bright blue eyes and wavy blonde hair that was rather unfashionably styled and desperately in need of a cut. His wrinkled suit jacket was unbuttoned and worn over a traditional white collared shirt that hosted a small smudge of what looked like strawberry jelly just between the top two buttons. His belt was on one notch too tight, as if that would help hold in his slight paunch. And his shoes, well, his shoes made Lindsay cringe.
Despite all of that, Lindsay could tell that with some well-tailored clothes, a little exercise, and a new haircut, Walter would be quite good looking. She had a knack for style and a penchant for before-and-afters. Her makeover fantasy was interrupted when her phone started ringing again. She glanced at the screen to see who was calling and excused herself to take the call. “I need to take this. Get started without me.”
Walter breathed a sigh of relief and hoped that Lindsay’s partner, who was finally making his way up the driveway, was nicer than she was.
“Hi, Walter?” The man had a confidence and elegance about him similar to Lindsay’s, but there was something kind about his face which put Walter immediately at ease.
“Yes, you must be Robert. Good to meet you.” The two men shook hands. “I see you’ve already met our mayor.”
Confused, Robert asked, “How’s that?”
“Kacie. The woman you were just talking to. She’s the mayor of Sycamore Ridge.”
“Well, that explains it,” Robert mumbled almost to himself. “She didn’t mention it.”
“I’m not surprised. Let me guess, she was driving by and saw your car? Got out to see if you needed any help?”
“That’s Kacie for you. Always trying to be helpful. She’s a big reason Sycamore Ridge is such a great place to live.” Switching gears and feeling his confidence returning, Walter asked, “Shall we get started?”
And without waiting for an answer, he led Robert towards the front door and began describing the property with almost as much knowledge and pride as Kacie had described Sycamore Ridge.
Kacie was stripping faded olive green paint off an antique, five-drawer dresser she was refurbishing when the bell on her workshop door chimed. She looked up to see Walter balancing two cups of coffee and a light blue pastry box. The sight made her mouth water.
“Rebekah’s? Wow, what’s the occasion?” Kacie asked.
Walter smiled at his friend, who was almost unrecognizable hidden behind her layers of safety gear. “Take off your equipment and come on over,” he said. “I’ll tell you all about it.”
Kacie was dying to get her hands on the contents of the blue box. She quickly took off her safety goggles, respiratory mask, and heavy-duty rubber gloves. As she walked over to the small seating area where Walter was waiting, the heavenly smell of coffee and freshly baked pastries wafted to her nose.
Walter handed her one of the coffee cups. “Lots of cream and two sugars, just the way you like it.”
Kacie removed the lid from her cup, blew on the piping hot beverage and gingerly took a sip, waiting with almost childlike anticipation as she watched Walter open the box. He reached inside and handed Kacie her favorite pastry, a golden, flaky, buttery, cinnamon-y morning bun delicately seasoned with just a hint of yuzu peel. “You are not going to believe it.”
Kacie, not being able to control her craving any longer, took a bite of the bun and asked through her full mouth covered in sugar and cinnamon, “You sold the house?”
“I didn’t just sell it, I sold it for fifteen percent over the appraised value. But honestly, I can’t really take any credit for it. I guess that was the agreement that Robert and Stephan had struck before Robert even came out to see the house. Stephan basically gave him right of first refusal. If he didn’t like the house, he could walk away. But if he did, he’d have to pay a premium to keep Stephan from putting the house on the market. I almost felt bad for Robert, seems like a good guy. But he did not hesitate at the price and made a full cash offer with a quick close. Apparently, they want to get a bunch of renovations done inside of six weeks.”
“That’s fantastic! Congratulations!” Kacie smiled through another mouthful. If anyone deserved a little happiness, she thought, it was Walter. He and Sally had been through so much the past couple of years. Kacie was thrilled for his success.
“And get this, when Robert found out that I used to be a general contractor, he convinced me to handle the renovations. I hesitated at first because I really want to focus on building up my real estate business, but when he told me how much work they wanted to get done, I figured it was worth it. Besides, I don’t have any other listings right now.”
Kacie sighed as she took another big bite of her morning bun. “I’m so happy for you. For both you and Sally.” Licking her fingers, she asked, “Is it just me or do these get better every time Rebekah makes them? Delicious.”
Walter smiled. Kacie was one of his dearest friends in the world, and even though he knew she was genuinely happy for him, he also knew she was even happier with a morning bun in her hand.
“What kind of work does he want you to do on the house?” Kacie asked, between another bite and a sip of the steaming hot coffee.
“Tear out the entire kitchen. Cabinets, countertops, appliances. The works.”
“Didn’t Stephan do a renovation a few years back to persuade his family to come out to the house? Seems like a waste.”
“He did, but he didn’t get around to touching the kitchen. I tried to convince him that a full kitchen renovation would add to the value of his house, but he said no one ever cooked, so why should he waste his money on renovating a room no one would use.”
Kacie rolled her eyes and took another bite. She tried to pace herself, but it was useless.
“The floors and bathrooms are in great shape. They spent a lot of money on the master bathroom and the finished basement.”
“I remember you telling me something about that. So, what else is there for you to do besides the kitchen?”
“Oh, not much,” Walter said nonchalantly. “Just tearing down the pool house and building a new guest house.” His comment had the effect he was expecting.
Kacie almost choked on her last bite as she exclaimed with her mouth full, “A guest house? You mean with a kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, everything?”
“In six weeks?”
It wasn’t until then that the reality of how much work he had to do really sunk in. Walter stuffed the last of his morning bun into his mouth, mumbled a hasty goodbye and practically ran out of Kacie’s shop to get things started.