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By Lynnette Kent
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTHE BELL ON THE DINER'S front door jingled, and Abby Brannon glanced up from the miniature Christmas tree she'd just started to drape with a string of shiny red beads.
A man stepped out of the bright December sunshine, then halted for a moment just over the threshold, blinking his eyes against indoor shadows. His black hair had been cut short, without much skill or style. He looked a little sunburned across his arrogant nose and high cheekbones. His broad shoulders filled out a scarred leather jacket, while dusty biker boots and lean hips in faded jeans completed the bad-boy-drifter picture.
The beads slipped through Abby's fingers to clatter on the counter. Noah Blake.
Only when the newcomer looked at her across the empty room did she realize she'd said his name aloud. He narrowed his eyes and tilted his head slightly. "Is that you, Abby?"
At the sound of his husky voice, her heart jumped like a startled frog. She swallowed. "Who else would you expect to find at the Carolina Diner in the middle of the afternoon?"
She rounded the counter and confronted him where he stood, grabbing the lapels of his jacket to shake him a little. "You've been gone a long time, but things haven't changed that much. Welcome back!"
His hands closed over hershoulders and he grinned down at her. If she hadn't been stunned by his sudden arrival, she certainly was at that moment. Noah's one-sided grin was a sugar high she'd never been able to resist.
"Thanks." He leaned in and kissed her cheek, then let her go. "Kinda quiet in here, isn't it?"
Abby fought to keep from touching the kissed cheek with her fingertips. "The usual lull between late lunch and early dinner. Come sit down. You look a little chilly - what can I do to warm you up?" Good thing she'd turned away before she asked that stupid question, so he couldn't see her blush. "Coffee? Tea?"
"Got any hot chocolate?"
When she glanced at him in surprise, he shrugged.
"I haven't had some in ... a long time. I just thought it would taste good."
"Well, sure. I can make you hot chocolate. Give me a couple of minutes." She stepped through the kitchen door, then poked her head out again. "The menu hasn't changed since you left, but in case you don't remember ..."
Propping one hip on a stool, Noah pulled the plastic folder out of the clip on the counter. "Right here."
"You got it." Abby smiled, then went into the empty kitchen to hyperventilate.
I can't believe he's here. She drew hot water from the pot and blended in cocoa powder and sugar until they melted. I thought he'd have got himself killed by now. Or arrested. Adding vanilla, then milk, she heated her brew on the burner. Why has he come back? Should I ask him? There's no way it could have anything to do with me. Right?
The suggestion left her too shaky to pick up the mugs of cocoa. She bought time by squirting whipped cream on the tops, then dishing up a couple of cherries for decoration. When she thought her hands could handle the strain, she grabbed a thick white mug in each hand, dragged in a deep breath and headed back to the counter.
"Here you go." Setting his drink in front of him, she backed up against the service counter and took a sip from her own. "Enjoy."
Noah toasted her with a lift of his cup. "Thanks." After one taste, he looked at her in surprise.
"How'd you make this?"
"Cocoa, sugar, water, vanilla and milk. A little salt. Is something wrong?"
"I just ... expected the usual powder." He shrugged.
"Not many people make hot chocolate from scratch."
"I'm an old-fashioned girl, I guess." She felt her cheeks heat up. Again. "So, how long have you been in town?"
Noah squinted at the clock over the counter. "Almost thirty minutes now."
"You came here first? You haven't seen your mom?"
Surprised in her turn, she raised an eyebrow. "She doesn't know you're coming, does she?" When he shook his head, she nodded. "I talked to her just yesterday, when I took her to the grocery store. No wonder she didn't say anything." Noah's mother was not the kind of person to enjoy surprises. "Would you like to call her from here? Give her a little warning?"
Now he was the one with flushed cheeks, and a storm in his dark gaze. "You think she needs warning?"
"This will be a pretty big shock - you showing up after fifteen years away. And she's been sick. Did you know that?"
"She's supposed to use her oxygen all the time."
"It's not good for her to get upset."
In a sudden hurry, Noah downed the last of his chocolate and stood up. "This was a bad idea, after all. I think I'll just keep going. Don't mention I was here." His long strides quickly took him outside.
Abby rushed after him and found him standing beside a big Harley. "Noah, I didn't mean ... Noah!" She grabbed his arm as he jerked on a glove. "First of all, you owe me one-sixty for the hot chocolate."
He shoved his bare hand into the pocket of his jeans.
"More important, you can't run away like this."
"Who says?" He crammed a couple of dollars into her fingers, still wrapped around his sleeve. The leather was cold, the bills warm from his body.
"You'll hate yourself if you do."
"So what's new?" His mouth hardened into a straight line.
She squandered the only leverage she had left. "You can't let your mother die without ever seeing her son again."
He stared at her a long time. The resistance in his expression made her want to weep. "She's ... dying?"
"She's got diabetes, heart and kidney problems. Her health has been precarious for several years now."
They stood still, gazes locked, while the sharp wind whipped up dust in the gravel parking lot. A small, dirty dog trotted to the bike, sat by the rear wheel and lifted a paw to touch Noah's leg.
"You've got a friend." Abby let herself be diverted.
"He wants a lift."
"Yeah, I helped him out of some trouble back in South Carolina. Now he thinks he owns me." Noah pulled out of her grasp. He bent to pick up the animal and stowed the dirty little guy in the backpack hanging from the bike's seat.
Excerpted from Abby's Christmas by Lynnette Kent Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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