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She was called Wild Rose.
And she was watching. Always watching.
Evan ambled past the long-jump pit. Two boys were stalling nearby, tightening the laces on their running shoes. He stopped to get them up and running. With loud groans, they joined the team members who were already jogging around the track that circled the field.
Evan was in sweatpants and sneakers himself, so he followed the group for half a lap, hectoring them like a drill sergeant until they were moving at a faster clip. The boys showered him with a chorus of complaints. They'd rather be in the gym, shooting baskets.
Calling encouragement to the stragglers, Evan peeled off at a jog and gradually slowed to a stop. He was now near the watcher, within speaking distance.
He didn't look directly at her. He surveyed the field. It was early September, the weather was warm and the new school year had just begun, but already some of the trees showed tinges of rusty color. Hisbasketball team was not in top shape after a lazy summer. But this was only their first practice and before fall had really arrived he'd have built up their endurance.
In Evan's peripheral vision, the woman called Wild Rose hunched over a sketch pad. Disheveled hair as black as a crow's wing blew across her face. Her hands made quick, furtive movements. Slashes of the pencil, a scrub with the eraser, nervous fingers brushing aside crumbs that reminded him of the strawberry-flecked crusts his pouting daughter had crushed into her eggs that morning.
He drew closer. "You're Rose Robbin."
The name was odd. It brought to mind storybook illustrations - a mother robin in a kerchief, plump with feathers, brooding over a nest - accompanied by bouncy lyrics about bob-bob-bobbin' in the springtime.
At his voice, Rose bolted like a thoroughbred at the starting gate, but she didn't go far. Guilt was stamped across her face.
The guilt was what bothered Evan.
He was responsible for these kids. While he couldn't imagine the woman approaching any of them, she did have a certain reputation, so the question remained.
What interest did she have here?
He might have asked that outright, except there was a hint of vulnerability in her expression that made him want to treat her gently.
Rose flung back her head. Storm-cloud-blue eyes glared beneath the swoop of dark hair she impatiently pushed aside. "Yeah, I'm Rose Robbin. So what?"
Evan squinted. Being of fair mind, he'd tried to overlook what townspeople said about her. But there was no denying she was one of the hardscrabble Robbin family - supposed tough nuts and bad characters, all of them. She could handle herself. Perhaps he'd imagined the vulnerability out of a penchant for helping others - wounded females especially.
"You're interested in athletics?" he said.
Her mouth pulled into a sour pucker. "Not much."
"Oh. I've been counting you as one of our biggest fans."
She shook her head. "Don't think so."
"You went to all the home games last year."
After a hesitation, she shrugged. "Not much else to do in Alouette, is there?"
Evan scratched behind his ear. He'd been living in the small northern town on the shore of Lake Superior for nearly three years and had never been bothered by the remote location and lack of city-style amenities. The unspoiled countryside offered a wealth of activity - hunting, fishing, biking, hiking, skiing, swimming. "I seem to think of plenty to do."
"Bravo for you."
The stonewalling didn't exasperate Evan. Even though Rose must be in her early thirties, she wasn't so different from a sulky adolescent who had to show how little she cared before she could allow herself to soften. In his years as a teacher and coach, he'd had plenty of practice at probing beneath the veneer of stubborn independence. With teenagers, the trick was not to come on too strong - at first.
But this was an adult woman and he only needed answers, not involvement.
He cleared his throat. "Then it's coincidence that you're here at our first team practice of the season?"
Rose held the sketchbook to her chest beneath crossed arms. "Yeah," she snapped, still belligerent even though her quick in drawn breath told him there was more to her being there.
Not what he wanted to discover.
"It's a free country," she added.
He held up his palms. "Sure."
"You're an artist?"
Her arms tightened on the sketchpad. "No."
He said nothing, but raised an eyebrow. That usually worked.
She tossed her hair again. "I'm a clerk at the Buck Stop, as if you didn't know." Alouette was small - most faces were familiar, even if there'd been no formal introduction.
"Of course." The Buck Stop was a run-down convenience store a couple miles outside of town. Evan had stopped there now and then for gas, but it wasn't a particularly welcoming place. Not unlike Rose. "That wouldn't stop you from being an artist."
She gave a grudging hitch of one shoulder. "I draw a little."
"Can I see?"
She shook her head.
"Why not?" He wondered what she drew. Figures, perhaps. She might be using his team as unknowing models. That was all right, he supposed. If potentially creepy.
"My drawings are none of your business."
"As long as you don't bother my team."
Her eyes darkened. Color stained her cheeks. "Are you accusing me?"
"No. Warning you, maybe."
"I haven't done anything wrong!"
"I realize that. I didn't mean to insinuate -" He made a conciliatory gesture, stepping toward her.
She backed away one step. "Yes, you did mean to insinuate."
Caught. He moved forward again. "Maybe so. But I'm sorry if that seemed insulting -"
"It was." Another step back.
If his arms had been around her, they'd have been dancing.
Excerpted from A Family Christmas by Carrie Alexander Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted July 10, 2005
After leaving her small town as an unwed teen mother, Wild Rose Robbin is back to help her ailing mother. Always an outsider it seems things won't be much different than they were before she left. Until she meets Coach Grant. At first suspicious of why Rose is hanging around watching basketball practice, Evan soon learns Rose isn't a threat. And as a widower trying to raise a frightened little girl, he certainly has his plate full but that doesn't stop him from wanting to help Rose who seems to be as frightened and hurt as his daughter. But as he gets to know Rose the ugly rumors he's heard don't add up to the woman he's found buried underneath her rough exterior. And as Rose learns to accept the love of others she bears little resemblance to the Wild Rose of years past. In this touching tale of second chances you can't help but remember one of the best reasons for celebrating Christmas -- family.
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