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Touch delicate, Nolan Radek slid his hands over the broad slab of granite. He'd once been told he had the gift of "stone hands," a description he'd liked. He closed his eyes, the better to feel instead of relying on sight. Silky smooth
no. The pads of his fingertips found a hint of roughness there.
Opening his eyes, he studied it, turned the sander back on and eased it over the spot, then tested again. Better. He stroked the entire slab, which would be a garden bench, and was pleased with the vinelike effect of the darker veins within a pale green base. Occasional splashes of rusty-red might be the flowers.
The client had asked for a bench that would appear part of the landscape, having the solidity of stone and yet surprising the eye when it picked the bench out from the surrounding greenery.
A diamond polishing pad added more gloss—not too much. Neither garden bench nor sculpture should have the mirror shine of a kitchen countertop, but it should be lustrous to the touch. Instinct and long practice told him when to stop.
The two massive chunks that would form the support had been left rough-hewn but for a few asymmetrical streaks of smoothed granite that highlighted texture and grain. He intended to polish only the part of the back that would come in contact with the human body. Contrasts in texture were part of nature.
Tempted to start work on that slab, Nolan reluctantly decided to wait until morning. He had a kid now, and it was time he put on dinner.
Besides, he was a little surprised that Sean hadn't come out to the workshop since he got home from school. He was usually eager to help. Nolan supposed it wasn't uncommon for foster kids to work hard to please in hopes they'd be allowed to stay.
Having removed his ear protection, Nolan ran his fingers through his hair and shook his head like a dog springing from the pond. Granite dust flew. He shed his coveralls, hanging them beside the back door, and used the utility sink to sluice off his hands and face. He checked to make sure everything was unplugged, turned off all the lights, then locked up and strode the short distance across the backyard to the farmhouse he called home.
After letting himself in the kitchen door, Nolan listened to the silence. Not that long ago, he'd been content to work alone all day, then go home to an empty house at night. No longer. But instead of calling for Sean, he went upstairs, lightly knocked on the bedroom door then pushed it open.
The boy was kneeling in front of his dresser. In a flurry of movement that seemed to hold alarm, he tried to poke something in the bottom drawer and shove it closed. His cheeks flushed.
"That your grandmother's quilt top?" Nolan asked. He was careful to sound neutral, to pretend not to notice that Sean was embarrassed to be caught looking at it. Or had he been holding it, like a toddler with his blankie?
"Great-great-grandmother," he mumbled.
"Right." Nolan sat at the foot of the twin bed. "Do you mind if I take a look at it?"
He knew that it was damn near all this boy had in the way of a legacy from his family. From the sound of it, the only person who'd ever cared at all about Sean was the grandmother who'd taken him in when he was seven or eight, after his dad died.
He didn't so much as remember his mother, didn't even have a picture of her. Apparently she'd flitted off with some other man not long after her little boy took his first step.
The way Nolan had heard it, even though Sean's grandma had been too old to raise an active boy, she had never considered consigning him to foster care. In death, she hadn't had any choice. Unfortunately, his first foster placement had been a disaster. Nolan knew trust was going to be slow in coming.
The boy shrugged with exaggerated indifference. "Sure. I guess." He pulled the drawer open again and took out the bundle of fabric, holding it up to Nolan, who checked to be sure he really had gotten his hands clean, then shook the quilt top out over the twin bed.
Like most men, he didn't know much about quilts. But for some reason he knew he'd recognize a design called Log Cabin. He guessed it was a pretty common one, once upon a time. A woman could use just about any leftover fabrics she had around and still create something nice to look at.
His mother had kept an old family quilt rolled in a pillowcase in a cedar chest, which he thought was a waste. She claimed to want to preserve it. She'd called it Grandmother's Flower Garden, he recalled. Tiny scraps of pastel fabric had been hand-pieced to make flowerlike circles. Nolan was glad Sean's wasn't that feminine looking. He had something precious to hold on to, and he could put it on his bed without embarrassment.
This quilt top was more geometric than anything, and had only two colors: a navy blue fabric polka-dotted with white, and plain white. Chains of small white squares linked bigger squares, all against the darker background. He couldn't tell what it was meant to depict, if anything.
"I wonder why it never got finished," he said.
"Grandma said supposedly it was the last one her grandma made before her arthritis got real bad." There was a rhythm to the way Sean reported this bit of family wisdom; Nolan could tell that he was repeating what he'd heard, with the emphasis on the same words.
Nolan nodded, fingering the fabric. "I wonder if we could find someone to put it together. So you could use it on your bed." He thought a boy who'd lost his family might sleep better warmed by a quilt his great-great-grandmother had made with love and handed down to her descendants.
Naked hope showed on Sean's thin face. "Do you think there's someone who would?"
"I don't know," he admitted, "but I can find out. I've seen a quilt shop in town that I think mostly sells fabric. I can stop by tomorrow and ask."
"That'd be cool."
Nolan ruffled the boy's wheat-blond hair. "For now, why don't you put it away. I'll start dinner."
"Are we having spaghetti?"
"I thought just hamburgers, if that's okay. Maybe baked beans and corn."
"Sure. You make good spaghetti, though."
Nolan laughed at the broad hint. "I'll make it later in the week, when I leave myself a little more time."
Sean was carefully folding the quilt top when Nolan left to go back downstairs. As he located a can of baked beans in the back of the cupboard and took out pans, Nolan worried about what might have happened to make his foster son come home from school looking for comfort. Fourteen years old, a freshman in high school, he didn't seem to have friends. He was a good-looking kid; there wasn't anything obvious about him to draw scorn from his classmates. Living with his grandmother, he'd been in a different school district, but he'd been here for second semester last year, so he already knew some of the kids. Maybe everyone knew he lived in a foster home. Would he be looked down on?
Despite the amount of food he put away, so far Sean stayed skinny, but Nolan seemed to remember that being normal for teenage boys. Sean's feet and hands were too big for the rest of him. But, damn, there'd been a time when Nolan had hardly been able to walk without tripping over his own feet, so he kind of guessed that was normal, too.
Sean had looked pretty raggedy when he first came to Nolan, and he'd admitted his clothes had mostly been acquired from thrift stores and even, a few times, from the charity that gave clothes to the really poor kids at school. That might make a teenager feel funny, wondering if someone would recognize the shirt he was wearing as their discard.
Give it time, Nolan decided. You're fretting like an old lady. He'd only had the boy for a couple of months, and somehow he thought he should have been able to make everything right immediately. Snap, snap.
Faintly amused at himself, he put water on to boil and started husking the corn. Chances were good Sean had better social skills than he had. The kid would manage.
Feet thundered on the stairs, an encouraging sound. Sean burst into the kitchen. "I'm hungry! It's cool you buy real hamburger buns. Grandma and me always just used bread. And it gets, like, soggy."
Nolan grinned. "Glad you're happy. Homework?"
"Yeah." Sudden gloom. "It sucks."
That all sounded normal to him, as well.
The water was boiling, so he dropped in four ears of corn then flipped the burgers. Damn, but he was hungry, too.
The bell hanging from the door rang. In the middle of gathering tiny stitches onto her needle, Allie didn't immediately look up. Her quilt frame was at the back of the shop, next to the large space where she taught classes, but allowed her a sight line to the front door. Some days she never had a chance to sit down or even reach for the needle, and most days there were bursts of several busy hours. But she almost always had a quilt assembled on the frame, with which she could contentedly fill the slow periods. The quilts she created herself inspired her customers, and she got excellent prices when she sold the finished work.
"I'll be right with you," she called.
Her customers were all women. Occasionally a husband would trail his wife in and hover, some patiently, some not so much, while she made her selections. Usually at this point many of the women would respond to Allie with something like, "That's okay, I need to browse for a while anyway." This time, there was no answer. Surprised, Allie finally lifted her head.
A man was making his way gingerly toward her, between the rows of bolts of fabric. For a moment she did nothing but gape at him. He didn't belong, even more so than most men. She couldn't decide why. He was good-sized, but not huge—maybe six feet or a little under, broad-shouldered and powerfully built, though not massive. Maybe what she was reading was his discomfort with being here.
He had brown, unruly hair and a plain, bony but nice face. Blunt cheekbones, a nose distinguished by a bump that suggested a long-ago break and eyes so blue Allie blinked in surprise.
She could almost sense his relief when he escaped the narrow aisles between tightly packed bolts of cotton into the clearing at the back.
She anchored the needle in the fabric. "Can I help you?"
"I hope so." He stopped at the edge of the polished wood frame and gazed at the half-finished quilt with interest. "Well, isn't that a beauty," he murmured after a minute.
"Thank you. It's a simple pattern called Lady of the Lake."
"It's the colors." He seemed to be enthralled. "And the sewing you're doing."
"Quilting," she corrected him. "This is what makes the sandwich of fabrics a quilt and not a comforter."
She was happy with this particular quilt herself. She'd used all shades of purple, from palest lavender to deep, rich plum, interspersed with a red startling enough to define the blocks.
The man lifted a big, blunt-fingered hand and said, "Would you mind if I touched it?"
"Not at all. Come around here." Part of the quilt was outside the frame.
He fingered it, seeming to savor the texture. He still held the corner of the quilt when he lifted his eyes, suddenly, to her face. They were not only vividly blue, they were penetrating. Allie had the uneasy feeling he was seeing more in her than most people did.
"Beautiful," he said again, his voice deep and even a little gravelly, as if he ought to clear his throat.
Feeling her cheeks heat, Allie wondered if he was still talking about the quilt.
Get a grip.
"Can I help you?" she asked.
"I'm looking for someone willing to do what you're doing right now. We have this part—" he touched the top "—but the thing never got finished. I guess I figured these days the sewing—the quilting," he corrected himself, "was done on a machine."
"Machine-quilting is more common than hand-quilting like I do," she agreed. "And most often, what hand-done quilts you see were made in China or somewhere else with cheap labor, and usually the stitches are big and fairly sloppy."
He nodded slowly.
"I'd have to see what you've got to tell you whether it's worth getting hand-quilted. How old is it? Was it handpieced? What's it look like?"
His expression was mildly befuddled. "Well, it's different than this. It's only two colors, for one thing. Dark blue and white."
She nodded encouragement.
"Little squares and big squares and " He seemed to struggle to find the right words and finally shrugged as if giving up. "They form a pattern."
Allie laughed. "There are quilts with one big picture in the middle or a giant star, something like that. Otherwise, a pieced quilt by its very nature ends up with symmetrical blocks."
He nodded thoughtfully. "It's not new." He considered her, looking a little wary. Allie had the feeling he wasn't much of a talker and probably not given to confiding in many people, and especially not a total stranger. But after a minute his face relaxed, as if he'd made up his mind. "I've got a foster son—he's fourteen—and supposedly his great-great-grandmother made this quilt top. The story is that her arthritis had gotten so bad she couldn't finish."
Intrigued now by the quilt and not only the man, Allie calculated. "Um if he's right about the great-greats, it's probably at least eighty years old, then. Maybe a hundred."
"That might be."
"I'd like to see it."
"Your work is beautiful," he said simply. "I want you to do Sean's quilt."
Smiling, she shook her head. "I won't make any promises. I do take on a project like that once in a while, but it has to be something special. Interesting enough for me to want to give it a great deal of time."
"I understand," he said, and looked as if he really did. "I'll bring it to you."
"Okay." She smiled at him, let the thimble fall from her forefinger and held out her hand. "I'm Allie Wright. This is my store."
His large hand engulfed hers. She felt thick calluses, and saw nicks and healed wounds on the back of his fingers and hand. No banker or attorney here; these hands were well used, as hers were, though in a different way.
He didn't seem to want to let her hand go. And for some strange reason, she wasn't in any hurry, either. His grip was so warm and solid. They looked into each other's eyes, neither of them smiling anymore. She'd swear she could hear her heart beating, as if it had taken flight. Breathless, Allie knew she'd never responded to a man in this way. And she didn't even know him.
He finally released her, his reluctance palpable. He did clear his throat now. "It was good to meet you, Ms.
"I can come back tomorrow."
"Good. I'm here until five."
He nodded, studied her face one more time as if memorizing it, then turned and walked out. She saw his head swiveling as he went, as if he wasn't so much uncomfortable now as intrigued by the raw material that went into a quilt like the one she was working on. If he'd been a woman, she would have guessed that she'd have a new student and customer. Of course, there were men who quilted, even if she didn't know one, but not Nolan Radek, she thought. Those large hands weren't made for itty-bitty snippets of fabric or a teeny tiny needle.
She wondered what he did do with them that had earned him so many wounds. And then wondered what those hands would feel like on a woman's body.
Her face hot again, she was grateful for the sound of the bell and the chatter of women's voices. Leaving the needle and thimble where they were, Allie went to wait on her customers.