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Back in her hometown for the first time in years, Jaz Harper is determined to face old flame Connor Reed with dignity. She won't be hurt again. But Jaz hasn't reckoned on Connor having become even more irresistibly handsome?or a bachelor dad.
As Connor's daughter bonds with Jaz, Connor realizes Jaz's warm nature is slowly melting away the hardened demeanor he's built up over the years?.
Back in her hometown for the first time in years, Jaz Harper is determined to face old flame Connor Reed with dignity. She won't be hurt again. But Jaz hasn't reckoned on Connor having become even more irresistibly handsome—or a bachelor dad.
As Connor's daughter bonds with Jaz, Connor realizes Jaz's warm nature is slowly melting away the hardened demeanor he's built up over the years….
Jaz made the move back to Clara Falls in bright, clear sunlight two weeks later. And this time she had to drive down Clara Falls' main street because an enormous skip blocked the lane leading to the residential parking behind the bookshop.
She slammed on the brakes and stared at it. Unless she turned her car around to flee back to Sydney, she'd have to drive down the main street and find a place to park.
Her mouth went dry.
Turn the car around ?
The temptation stretched through her. Her hands clenched on the steering wheel. She'd sworn never to return. She didn't want to live here. She didn't want to deal with the memories that would pound at her day after day.
And she sure as hell didn't want to see Connor Reed again.
Not that she expected to run into him too often. He'd avoid her the way the righteous spurned the wicked, the way a reformed alcoholic shunned whisky the way mice baulked at cats.
Turn the car around ?
She relaxed her hands and pushed her shoulders back. No. Returning to Clara Falls, saving her mother's bookshop—it was the right thing to do. She'd honour her mother's memory; she'd haul the bookshop back from the brink of bankruptcy. She'd do Frieda Harper proud.
Pity you didn't do that a month ago, a year ago, two years ago, when it might have made a difference.
Guilt crawled across her skin. Regret swelled in her stomach until she could taste bile on her tongue. Regret that she hadn't returned when her mother was still alive. Regret that she'd never said all the things she should've said.
Regret that her mother was dead.
Did she honestly think that saving a bookshop and praying for forgiveness would makeany difference at all?
Don't think about it! Wrong time. Wrong place.
She backed the car out of the lane and turned in the direction of the main street.
She had to pause at the pedestrian crossing and, as she stared up the length of the main street, her breath caught. Oh, good Lord. She'd forgotten just how pretty this place was.
Clara Falls was one of the main tourist hubs in Australia's breathtaking Blue Mountains. Jaz hadn't forgotten the majesty of Echo Point and The Three Sisters. She hadn't forgotten the grandeur of the Jamison Valley, but Clara Falls
The artist in her paid silent homage. Maybe she'd taken it for granted all those years ago.
She eased the car up the street and the first stirrings of excitement started replacing her dread. The butcher's shop and mini-mart had both received a facelift. Teddy bears now picnicked in a shop window once crowded with tarot cards and crystals. The wide traffic island down the centre of the road— once grey cement—now sported close-cropped grass, flowerbeds and park benches. But the numerous cafés and restaurants still did a bustling trade. This was still the same wide street. Clara Falls was still the same tourist hotspot.
The town had made an art form out of catering to out-of-towners. It had a reputation for quirky arts-and-craft shops, bohemian-style cafés and cosmopolitan restaurants, and and darn it, but it was pretty!
A smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. She cruised the length of the street—she couldn't park directly out the front of the bookshop as a tradesman's van had parked in such a way that it took up two spaces. So, when she reached the end of the street, she turned the car around and cruised back down the other side, gobbling up every familiar landmark along the way.
Finally, she parked the car and sagged back in her seat. She'd spent so long trying to forget Connor Reed that she'd forgotten stuff she shouldn't have.
Yeah, like how to be a halfway decent human being.
The sunlight abruptly went out of her day. The taste of bile stretched through her mouth again. Her mother had always told Jaz that she needed to return and face her demons, only then could she lay them to rest. Perhaps Frieda had been right— what had happened here in Clara Falls had overshadowed Jaz's entire adult life.
She wanted peace.
Eight years away hadn't given her that.
Not that she deserved it now.
She pushed out of the car. She waited for a break in the traffic, then crossed the road to the island. An elderly man in front of her stumbled up the first step and she grabbed his arm to steady him. She'd crossed at this particular spot more times than she could remember as a child and teenager, almost always heading for the sanctuary of the bookshop. Three steps up, five paces across, and three steps back down the other side. The man muttered his thanks without even looking at her and hurried off.
'Spoilsport,' someone hissed at Jaz. Then to the man, 'And one of these days you'll actually sit down and pass the time of day with me, Boyd Longbottom!'
The elderly woman turned back to Jaz. 'The only entertainment I get these days is watching old Boyd trip up that same step day in, day out.' Dark eyes twinkled. 'Though now you're back in town, Jazmin Harper, I have great hopes that things will liven up around here again.'
'Mrs Lavender!' Jaz grinned. She couldn't help it. Mrs Lavender had once owned the bookshop. Mrs Lavender had been a friend. 'In as fine form as ever, I see. It's nice to see you.'
Mrs Lavender patted the seat beside her and Jaz sat. She'd expected to feel out of place. She didn't. She nodded towards the bookshop although she couldn't quite bring herself to look at it yet. She had a feeling that its familiarity might break her heart afresh. 'Do you miss it?'
'Every single day. But I'm afraid the old bones aren't what they used to be. Doctor's orders and whatnot. I'm glad you've come back, Jaz.'
This all uttered in a rush. It made Jaz's smile widen. 'Thank you.'
A short pause, then, 'I was sorry about what happened to your mother.'
Jaz's smile evaporated. 'Thank you.'
'I heard you held a memorial service in Sydney.'
'I was sick in hospital at the time or I would have been there.'
Jaz shook her head. 'It doesn't matter.'
'Of course it does! Frieda and I were friends.'
Jaz found she could smile again, after a fashion. According to the more uptight members of the town, Frieda might've lacked a certain respectability, but she certainly hadn't lacked friends. The memorial had been well attended.
'This place was never the same after you left.'
Mrs Lavender's voice hauled Jaz back. She gave a short laugh. 'I can believe that.'
Those dark eyes, shrewd with age, surveyed her closely. 'You did the right thing, you know. Leaving.'
No, she hadn't. What she'd done had led directly to her mother's death. She'd left and she'd sworn to never come back. It had broken her mother's heart. She'd hold herself responsible for that till the day she died. And she'd hold Connor responsible too. If he'd believed in Jaz, like he'd always sworn he would, Jaz would never have had to leave.
She would never have had to stay away.
She shook herself. She hadn't returned to Clara Falls for vengeance. Do unto others that had been Frieda's creed. She would do Frieda Harper proud. She'd save the bookshop, then she'd sell it to someone other than Gordon Sears, then she'd leave, and this time she would never come back.
'You always were a good girl, Jaz. And smart.'
It hadn't been smart to believe Connor's promises.
She shook off the thought and pulled her mind back, to find Mrs Lavender smiling at her broadly. 'How long are you staying?'
'Twelve months.' She'd had to give herself a time limit—it was the only thing that would keep her sane. She figured it'd take a full twelve months to see the bookshop safe again.
'Well, I think it's time you took yourself off and got to work, dear.' Mrs Lavender pointed across the road. 'I think you'll find there's a lot to do.'
Jaz followed the direction of Mrs Lavender's hand, and that was when she saw and understood the reason behind the tradesman's van parked out the front of the bookshop. The muscles in her shoulders, her back, her stomach, all tightened. The minor repairs on the building were supposed to have been finished last week. The receptionist for the building firm Richard had hired had promised faithfully.
A pulse pounded behind her eyes. 'Frieda's Fiction Fair'—the sign on the bookshop's awning—was being replaced. With
She shot to her feet. Her lip curled. Her nose curled. Inside her boots, even her toes curled. She'd requested that the sign be freshened up. Not Not She fought the instinct to bolt across the road and topple the sign-writer and his ladder to the ground.
'I'll be seeing you then, shall I, Jazmin?'
With an effort, she unclenched her teeth. 'Absolutely, Mrs Lavender.'
She forced herself to take three deep breaths, and only then did she step off the kerb of the island. She would sort this out like the adult she was, not the teenager she had been.
She made her way across the road and tried not to notice how firm her offending tradesman's butt looked in form-fitting jeans or how the power of those long, long legs were barely disguised by soft worn denim. In fact, in some places the denim was so worn
The teenager she'd once been wouldn't have noticed. That girl had only had eyes for Connor. But the woman she was now
She stopped by the ladder and glanced up. Then took an involuntary step backwards at the sudden clench of familiarity. The sign-writer's blond-tipped hair
It fell in the exact same waves as—
Her heart lodged in her throat, leaving an abyss in her chest. Get a grip. Don't lose it now. The familiarity had to be a trick of the light.
Ha! More like a trick of the mind. Planted there by memories she'd done her best to bury.
She swallowed and her heart settled—sort of—in her chest again. 'Excuse me,' she managed to force out of an uncooperative throat, 'but I'd like to know who gave you the authority to change that sign.'
The sign-writer stilled, laid his brush down on the top of the ladder and wiped his hands across that denim-encased butt with agonising slowness. Jaz couldn't help wondering how it would feel to follow that action with her own hands. Gooseflesh broke out on her arms.
Slowly, oh-so-slowly, the sign-writer turned around and Jaz froze.
The familiarity, the sudden sense of rightness at seeing him here like this, reached right inside her chest to twist her heart until she couldn't breathe.
He took one step down the ladder. 'You're looking well.'
He didn't smile. His gaze travelled over her face, down the long line of her body and back again and, although half of his face was in shadow, she could see that she left him unmoved.
She sucked in a breath, took another involuntary step back. It took every ounce of strength she could marshal to not turn around and run.
Do something. Say something, she ordered.
Her heart pounded in her throat. Sharp breaths stung her lungs. Connor Reed. She'd known they'd run into each other eventually, but not here. Not at the bookshop.
Not on her first day.
Stop staring. Don't you dare run!
'I um ' She had to clear her throat. She didn't run. 'I'd appreciate it if you'd stop working on that.' She pointed to the sign and, by some freak or miracle or because some deity was smiling down on her, her hand didn't shake. It gave her the confidence to lift her chin and throw her shoulders back again.
He glanced at the sign, then back at her, a frown in his eyes. 'You don't like it?'
'I loathe it. But I'd prefer not to discuss it on the street.'
Oh, dear Lord. She had to set some ground rules. Fast. Ground rule number one was that Connor Reed stay as far away from her as humanly possible.
Ground rule number two—don't look him directly in the eye.
She swung away, meaning to find refuge in the one place in this town she could safely call home and found the bookshop closed.
The sign on the door read 'Closed' in big black letters. The darkened interior mocked her. She reached out and tested the door. It didn't budge.
Somebody nearby sniggered. 'That's taken the wind out of your sails, nicely. Good!'
Jaz glanced around to find a middle-aged woman glaring at her. She kept her voice cool. 'Excuse me, but do I know you?'
The woman ignored Jaz's words and pushed her face in close. 'We don't need your kind in a nice place like this.'
A disturbance in the air, some super-sense on her personal radar, told her Connor had descended the ladder to stand directly behind her. He still smelt like the mountains in autumn.
She pulled a packet of gum from her pocket and shoved a long spearmint-flavoured stick into her mouth. It immediately overpowered all other scents in her near vicinity.
'My kind?' she enquired as pleasantly as she could.
If these people couldn't get past the memory of her as a teenage Goth with attitude, if they couldn't see that she'd grown up, then then they needed to open their eyes wider.
Something told her it was their minds that needed opening up and not their eyes.
'A tattoo artist!' the woman spat. 'What do we want with one of those? You're probably a member of a bike gang and and do drugs!'
Jaz almost laughed at the absurdity. Almost. She lifted her arms, looked down at herself, then back at the other woman. For a moment the other woman looked discomfited.
'That's enough, Dianne.'
That was from Connor. Jaz almost turned around but common sense kicked in—don't look him directly in the eye.
'Don't you go letting her get her hooks into you again, Connor. She did what she could to lead you astray when you were teenagers and don't you forget it!'
Jaz snorted. She couldn't help herself. The woman— Dianne—swung back to her. 'You probably think this is going to be a nice little money spinner.' She nodded to the bookshop.
Not at the moment. Not after reviewing the sales figures Richard had sent her.
'You didn't come near your mother for years and now, when her body is barely cold in the ground, you descend on her shop like a vulture. Like a greedy, grasping—'
'That's enough, Dianne!'
Connor again. Jaz didn't want him fighting her battles—she wanted him to stay as far from her as possible. He wasn't getting a second chance to break her heart. Not in this lifetime! But she could barely breathe, let alone talk.
Didn't come near your mother for years barely cold in the ground
The weight pressed down so hard on Jaz's chest that she wanted nothing more than to lie down on the ground and let it crush her.
'You have the gall to say that after the number of weekends Frieda spent in Sydney with Jaz, living the high life? Jaz didn't need to come home and you bloody well know it!'