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Susan Hill waved goodbye to her best friend, Keira, as she walked out the door of Keira's candy shop. "See you." She laughed at the silly look on her friend's face then turned and smacked into a hard body. Oof.
Strong fingers gripped her arm and a masculine voice close to her ear held remorse. "Susan, you okay?"
She jerked free of his touch, yet her skin tingled where his fingers had held her arms. She let her breath out slowly then braced herself to look into the deep mocha eyes that still haunted her dreams. "Blake." Why had he returned to Leavenworth? She took a step back. "Um. What are you doing here?"
"Katie wanted candy." A corner of his mouth lifted, lighting a smile in his eyes. "You look good. I see you're still into Goth. The purple streaks are cool."
The young girl standing beside him couldn't be more than eight or nine, but Susan was never good at guessing ages. A sick feeling gripped her stomach as she counted the years since she had last seen him. He wouldn'tit's not possible.
"Are you sure you're okay?"
His gentle voice softened her defenses and almost lulled her into forgetting their pastalmost. She tightened her lips and balled her hands into fists. First thing tomorrow she'd dye her hair a solid color. She pulled her attention from the child and glanced down at her long lacy skirt and black platform sandals. One of her favorite combos. "It's not really Goth. I just like wearing black." Crossing her arms, she narrowed her eyes. "What brings you back to town?" The young girl standing beside him slipped her hand into Blake's. Her dark, wavy hair hung to her shoulders and her sundress showed off a light tan.
"I'm here to fix my house up. It's time to sell." He rubbed the back of his neck.
He looked good. His bad-boy look drew her to him like a child to candy. No, she couldn't go therenot with the man who'd broken her heart. "Were you " her voice cracked. "Were you planning to tell me you were in town or just slink in and out without even saying hi?"
"Of course not. I figured Keira would be able to tell me where to find you. Guess that won't be necessary now."
"So you're only in town temporarily?" Please say yes. Or rather, no. Ugh, he was barely back, and she was already confused.
"We're here for the summer." He motioned to the girl. "This is"
"Can we go now, Dad?" The girl tugged his hand.
He grinned. "Sure. Maybe we can catch up later, Susan."
Her heart beat a rapid staccato. "It looks like you have your hands full." She nodded toward the girl trying not to frown, but sensing she'd failed.
He stepped aside allowing her to pass. "Yeah, I do. Okay, then, maybe I'll see you around."
"Please, no," Susan muttered under her breath. She strode past him with her head high and her jaw jutted out. A whiff of his cologne tickled her senses. She'd always loved the scent of Obsession and melted just a bit. She strode across Front Street on shaky legs. Did she dare glance back?
It had been years since she'd last laid eyes on Blake Mitchell. Back then he didn't have a child in towa child that clearly belonged to him. She straightened as anger seared through her. She'd had a feeling there'd been someone else, but he had reassured her there wasn't. Apparently he'd lied, because that child was Blake's spitting image and she'd called him Dad.
Blake looked into Katie's troubled eyes. "Hey, what's wrong?"
"I want to go home to Maine. Why'd we have to come to this stupid place, anyway?" She sniffed. "What was up with that lady? She didn't seem very happy to see us."
To say Susan wasn't happy to see him was an understatement. Blake squatted to Katie's level, wincing at her watery eyes. Her emotions had been all over the place since he'd announced they were spending the summer in Washington. "Susan's really a very nice lady but she's angry with me. I did something a long time ago that hurt her, but it has nothing to do with you. Okay?" He watched her blink away unshed tears. "All good now? Or should we go to the house?"
Katie nodded. "I'd still like candy."
He stood and took her hand. Together they opened the door to his old buddy Michael's shop. Relief at Katie's quick recovery washed through him, but quickly vanished when he replayed her words in his mind. Why did Katie have to call him Dad in front of Susan? Sure, it was a running joke between them since so many people assumed he was her dad because of the huge gap in their ages. He'd have to warn her not to call him that in public, though.
He would explain to Susan laterif she would talk to him. After her icy reception, it seemed unlikely. Hesitating, he took a deep breath and braced himself. The rich smell of chocolate, and cool air, washed over him as Katie led him inside.
Keira stood wide-eyed behind the counter with her lips pressed together. She was always more the silent type. She returned her attention to the customer at the register. Blake cleared his throat. "Go ahead and pick something out, Katie," he said softly before walking to the display counter filled with enticing rows of gourmet chocolates.
He looked around the store and couldn't help admiring the changes. They'd increased the inventory and it looked a hundred times more inviting than it had the last time he'd been here. Business must be good. He waited until the other customer left then nodded to Keira.
"Long time no see, Blake. What brings you to Leavenworth?" A guarded look covered her face.
He couldn't blame her. Blake hesitated. Keira was close to Susan. Would she kick him out? "I need to fix up my place to sell it. Is Michael around?" Blake regretted losing touch with his friend. But when he left Leavenworth he'd severed all ties, unable to deal with his parents' deaths or life in general. He'd even gone so far as to change his cell number and email. He shook his head, swamped by regret. He'd made so many mistakes.
"You've been gone a long time, Blake. Michael was killed in a car accident five years ago."
Blake's stomach knotted. "I didn't know. I'm sorry." He wanted to ask what happened, but didn't. He understood the pain of loss and how hard talking about it could be. Maybe someone else would be able to fill in the blanks. Michael dead. Pain at the loss of the friend he hadn't seen in six years filled him.
"Thanks. I would've contacted you, but you dropped off the planet."
"Yeah. Things were pretty messed up then. I'm sorry you couldn't reach me." More sorry than she could ever imagine. He'd hurt so many people, including himself.
She shrugged and a sad smile touched her lips. "It's just me and Cody now." She held out her left hand. "But I'm engaged to an awesome man."
"Congratulations. Who's Cody?"
"My son. He's five."
Blake nodded. "Things have changed around here more than I realized." Maybe coming back had been a bad idea. It wasn't too late to hire someone to fix up his house and return home to Maine. Katie would be thrilled, but he hated to pay someone to do what he could handle on his own. Besides, it was time he faced his past and dealt with the mess he'd left behind.
Katie brought a candy bar to the counter.
"Seems your life has changed, too." She raised an eyebrow toward Katie.
"Yeah." He pulled a dollar from his wallet and placed it on the counter. Keira handed him the change and he pocketed it. "Thanks. See you."
Keira's voice stopped him.
He turned. "Yes?"
"Welcome back." A soft smile lit her face. "Michael liked you, so you and I are good, but if you hurt Susan again"
"Point taken. Thanks." He strode from the store with Katie trotting along beside him. Bavarian music streamed from speakers placed throughout the quaint village. Flower boxes and hanging baskets scented the air and he sneezed. Leavenworth hadn't changed much since he'd been gone. At least the stores all looked the same. Maybe a few had come and gone, but for the most part the German-themed storefronts had remained the same. But everything else had changedincluding Susan.
Susan managed to pull the office keys from her bag, unlock the door, then step inside and slam it shut.
On rubbery legs, she sat at her oversize desk and powered on the computer. She refused to allow him to break her heart all over again. She didn't need him in her life and for sure didn't want him, even if he did look like he just stepped off the red carpet with his perfect-fitting jeans and black leather boots. Who was she kidding, just seeing him again stirred emotions she hadn't felt in six years. Her shoulders sagged. "What am I going to do?"
Reaching for the phone, she dialed her best friend.
Keira picked up on the first ring. "Hel"
"Keira, what did Blake say to you?"
"Nothing much. Are you okay?"
"I'm fine. Discombobulated, but fine." Susan pinched a pencil between her finger and thumb and whipped it back and forth. "He has a child. She looks like him." Her voice caught. "I can't believe he cheated on me."
"Aren't you jumping to conclusions? You have no proof that he cheated or that she's even his daughter."
"She called him Dad. Isn't that enough? It doesn't matter anyway. We're over. We ended the day he broke our engagement. We could've postponed the wedding, but instead he cut me out of his life completely." The pencil flew from her grasp and hit the wall making a resounding clap in the silent office. She jumped, her frayed nerves ready to burst. "I should get to work. Thanks for listening."
"Anytime. If you want to do lunch today I can get Cody's grandma to watch him. Or I could whip us up a few sandwiches to eat in the park near the gazebo while Cody plays with his puppy."
A grin touched Susan's lips. "I'd like that. Meet you at noon? I'll bring my own sandwich." She'd enjoy watching Keira's adorable son play with his Cocker Spaniel. Yes. Lunch with her best friend and her little boy was exactly what she needed to soothe her ragged nerves.
With a sigh, she forced herself to focus on work. Numbers were easyconcrete. Easy had never described Blake. Ugh, she had to stop thinking about him. With a flick of her wrist she opened the next file that needed attention and got busy. With any luck, lunchtime would be here before she realized it.
Two hours later she turned the computer monitor off, grabbed her lunch and headed out. Keira and Cody would be waiting in the park and she couldn't wait to see the little guy and his dog. Standing at the crosswalk she waited for traffic to stop then strode across Highway 2.
Sure enough, her friend had spread a blanket on the grassy hillside and Cody played nearby with his dog.
Susan plopped down beside Keira. "Thanks for this."
"No need to thank me. Cody has energy to burn." She bit into a sandwich that smelled like peanut butter and jelly.
Susan wrinkled her nose. "I don't know how you eat those things." She pulled a turkey sandwich from her insulated bag and unwrapped it.
"Mmm. You don't know what you're missing."
Susan grinned. This banter was exactly what she needed. She could always count on Keira. Not something she could say about Blake. Nothinking about him was off-limits. It didn't matter that he was back in town, even if it was only for the summer.
Susan sat in the salon chair, her eyes fixed on the mirror as Betty removed the towel.
"This is such a good look for you."
"Thanks." Susan studied the richness of her hair, a shade darker than she was accustomed to.
"Why'd you want to get rid of the purple streaks? It's the only color you wear." Her longtime hairdresser chuckled as if she'd cracked a joke.
"Not true." She pointed to the silver watch on her wrist and grinned when Betty rolled her eyes. "And black is a color."
"You know what I mean, girl."
"Actually, I'm getting a little bored with my look. Thought I might spruce up my wardrobe, too. Add a little pop of color here and there." Truth be told, she was plain lazy about clothes. Black went with everything.
Betty's eyes widened. "That's a marvelous idea. In fact I have just the thing. Wait here."
Susan watched as the spiky-haired woman in the mirror disappeared around the corner. She hadn't realized until she'd spoken the words, but a little color in her life would be nice.
A minute later, Betty returned carrying a black silk scarf with a scrolling red design. "What do you think?"
"It's nice. But I don't know how to wear something like that. I've never been one for scarves."
"No worries. It's for your hair. I'll fix it for you so you can see how."
"Thanks." Susan studied the scarf. She was partial to red. She gazed at herself in the mirror and tilted her head. Hmm, maybe she really did need to rethink her look. She was nearly thirty and still dressed like she did at sixteen. Blake or no Blake, it was time to make a change starting with this scarf. She grinned at her hairdresser's reflection in the mirror, watching carefully as she worked the scarf into a hair accessory.
"Voilà! What do you think?"
"I like it." It irked her that it took Blake showing up in town to cause her to make this change, but at the same time, she was thrilled at the results. "Thanks, Betty. I owe you a bowl."
Betty waved a hand. "Sweetie, you don't owe me a thing, but I won't turn down your pottery. You make the best stuff around. When are you going to take me up on my offer to display your stuff in my salon?"
Susan shook her head. "You know pottery is just a hobby. I'm not good enough."
"Ha. I happen to know a thing or two about what people like and I'm telling you there's a market for your work."
"You're too sweet. I'll think about it and get back to you." Maybe Betty had a good idea, but right now she couldn't deal with a new business venture, at least not with Blake in town.