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"Oh, lookthis is where Mom hid J.J.'s princess costume!" Jenna Bowen exclaimed when she discovered the pintsize, ruffly, flouncy dress in the back of the hall closet she was clearing out.
"I remember that Halloween," Meg PerryMcKendrick said.
They were both on the floor. Jenna was on her knees scooting in and out of the closet, while her best friend since childhood held a garbage bag and a cardboard box in front of her, awaiting Jenna's decision about whether what she dragged out went to charity or into the trash.
Jenna sat back on her heels to hold up the costume she'd just discovered.
"We were sixteen that year," Meg continued. "I remember because we'd both had our driver's licenses for just a few weeks and neither of our parents would let us drive that night for fear we might hit a trickortreater.
We thought that was crazy. So, since we were sixteen, that would have made J.J. what? Four?"
"Four, right," Jenna confirmed, quickly calculating the age her much younger sister would have been at the time. "And instead of driving around, we ended up taking J.J. out. Rather than saying trick or treat at every door she regally stood there"
"Just waiting to be given her due," Meg concluded as they both laughed at the shared memory.
"She was so cute," Jenna said affectionately. "But Mom couldn't get her out of this thing even after Halloween. She'd only change into her princess pajamas to go to bed at night. Mom would wash the costume while J.J. was asleep, hoping she'd get tired of wearing it the next day. But by Christmas, Mom couldn't take it anymore, and one morning when J.J. went looking for it, Mom said the washing machine had eaten it. I always figured she just threw it away, but apparently, she hid it in here."
"She was probably afraid J.J. would refuse to wear anything at all if she couldn't have the costume, so she'd better keep it, just in case. That's what I'd do if it were Tia."
Tia was the daughter of Meg's new husband.
"J.J. did spend that whole day in the house, in her pajamas," Jenna said. "Mom and Dad were worried she was going to start wearing those night and day, because one way or another, she insisted that she was a princess."
"J.J. always was strong willed and determined," Meg recalled.
Because she'd been around Jenna's house so much growing up, Meg knew the goingson in the Bowen family as well as Jenna did. Jenna was packing up her family home, and since Meg had some free Saturday afternoon time, she'd come by to help.
With that bit of reminiscence over, Meg said, "Shall we save the costume for Abby? Think she'll take her turn at wanting to be a princess, too?"
"I have to streamline, remember?" Jenna answered. "That means, get rid of everything that isn't necessary, because I won't have room for more than Abby and I need. And after so many washings, the costume is pretty worn out. I don't think it can even go in the charity box. Let's just put it in the trash."
Meg took the costume from Jenna and complied by jamming the worn garment into the black plastic bag. Jenna crawled partially into the closet once again and grabbed up an entire pile of old sweaters from the floor.
"These are Mom'sthey should all go to charity," Jenna said as she shifted from her knees to sit crosslegged so she could help Meg fold the very large, very bulky sweaters that her sturdily built mother had worn. Sweaters that Jennaat five feet four inches, a hundred and ten poundswould be lost in.
"Abby looks just like J.J. did as a baby, doesn't she?" Meg said then.
"Just like her," Jenna agreed, thinking about her late sister.
The initials stood for Joanna Janeane. An earlymenopausal surprise for Jenna's parents, her sister had been named to appease both grandmothers after neither of them had been satisfied with the combination of their names that had produced Jenna's. Abby was the late J.J.'s fifteenmonthold daughter.
And at that moment the baby was napping in Jenna's room on the upper level of the old farmhouse that had now sheltered four generations of Bowens. Her grandfather had built the house and passed it down to her father, along with the small farm that had sustained the family until recent years.
Having both been twelve when J.J. was born, Jenna and Meg had done more than their fair share of babysitting for Jenna's much younger sibling, so it was easy to recall what she'd looked like and to see the resemblance now in her daughter.
"J.J. was a beautiful baby," Jenna added, fighting the grief that still rose at the memory of her sister.
"She was," Meg said in a commiserating tone.
"But so far, Abby doesn't seem quite as headstrong, and I'm grateful for that."
"Mmm," Meg agreed. "Although she might pick up a little of it from Tia because Tia has enough to share," Meg said with a laugh.
"Still, it'll be nice, raising little girls together," Jenna said. "I never thought we'd get to."
Certainly, unusual circumstances had made that come about. Marriage had made Meg stepmother to threeyearold Tia McKendrick. For Jenna, it was divorce and the loss of her younger sister, and then both of their parents, that had brought her back to her small Montana hometown of Northbridge, where she had just adopted her niece. In spite of the sadness and loss that had brought Jenna to that point, she was happy to be home again, to have Abby and to be in close proximity to Meg.
"Have you decided yet whether you're going to rent an apartment on Main Street or take old Mrs. Wilkes's guesthouseif we can't save this place?" Meg asked.
"It'll be the guesthouse," Jenna said. "It's tiny, but it has two bedrooms and a little bit of yard that Abby can go out into. And Mrs. Wilkes will give it to me dirt cheap in trade for some nursingI'll look in on her every day, take her blood pressure, oversee her meds"
"You'll work as a fulltime nurse at the hospital and then go home to do more nursing?"
"I don't mind. Low rent will give me the chance to pay off some debt and save for a place of our own. Besides, Mrs. Wilkes loves Abby, and Abby loves herI think maybe Mrs. Wilkes reminds Abby of Mom. It'll work out for everybody," Jenna finished, trying to sound upbeat.
But Meg knew herand her situationwell enough to know how she really felt. "The fund could still get high enough for you to pay off the taxes or, at least, to put in a bid at the auction," Meg said, clearly attempting to inject some hope.
"It could," Jenna said without any more confidence than Meg had shown, smiling at her friend's weak optimism when they both knew neither of those possibilities was likely. Otherwise, they wouldn't be packing up.
The Bowen Farm Fund was an account initiated by an old friend of her father's. People could make donations to save the farm. There were several thousand dollars in it, but it was nowhere near forty thousand, and unless it reached the full amount of the tax debt, that money would be returned to the donors.
"Nope," Jenna shot down what she knew her friend was going to say.
Meg said it anyway. "You could sell to the Kincaid Corporation and make enough money, even after paying off the back taxes, to buy a threebedroom house right now."
Jenna shook her head. "I have enough to feel guilty about. I won't add not honoring my father's last wish to the list."
Meg didn't respond to that. Instead, glancing over Jenna's head in the direction of the living room as if something had caught her eye, she said, "Speak of the devil Well, not that Ian Kincaid is the devilhe's actually really great."
Jenna swiveled on her rump until she had the same view Meg had.
Across the living room, through the nearly floortoceiling picture window that looked out at the front porch, Jenna saw the local Realtor, Marsha Pinkell. And a man.
Oddly enough, it was the first time Jenna had seen Ian Kincaid.
Though he and his twin brother had been born in Northbridge, his connection to the small town was complicated. Ian was the biological brother of Chase Mackey, Meg's husband's business partner in Mackey and McKendrick Furniture Designs.
Over thirty years earlier, a car accident just outside of Northbridge had orphaned Chase, Shannon, twins Ian and Hutch, and a half sister. The half sister had gone to live with her birth father, Chase had ended up in the fostercare system, while Shannon had been adopted by one local couple, and the twin boys had been adopted by another, only to have both couples leave Northbridge almost immediately.
Only the half sister was old enough to remember she had brothers and a sister. Her desire to find a blood relative to raise her own child had prompted a search for the lost siblings and led her to Chase. Then, after Chase had located Shannon, together they'd discovered the whereabouts of Hutch and Ian.
Hutch had yet to appear, but Jenna had heard through Meg that Ian had been coming in and out of town since just after the first of the year to get to know Chase and Shannon.
Which was right about when Jenna's father had died and she'd had to put the farm up for sale, hoping to sell it before it was auctioned off by the IRS.
Since January, Ian Kincaid had also been to her farm several times with the Realtor to look at the place with an eye toward buying it. But Jenna had not been at home during any of his visits. Nor had her path crossed that of Ian Kincaid's in town.
Jenna had been swamped working long hours and caring for her father, then dealing with her father's death and the financial mess left in his wake. She'd also taken custody of Abby and was sorting through the legal issues of adopting her. Jenna had barely had time to come up for air.
Still, it seemed odd that Jenna had yet to encounter the man who had set all of Northbridge to talkingand arguing. The man who was interested in buying her farm. The man she wasn't interested in selling it to.
The man who now stood on her porch, six feet three inches of athletic masculinity resembling Chase Mackey but taking Chase Mackey's size and increasing it slightly and improving upon Chase's noteworthy good looks while he was at it.
"Wow " Jenna muttered involuntarily at that first glimpse of Ian Kincaid.
Meg laughed. "I know," she agreed, not requiring any explanation for the exclamation.
He was framed by the picture window but apparently looking at the structure of the house rather than through the plate glass into the interior, so he obviously had no idea he was being watched. And Jenna couldn't help watchingstudying him, actually.
Slacks, a buttondown shirt and a sports coat didn't hide the fact that the man was all broad shoulders, taut torso, narrow hips and long legs.
And above the broad shoulders?
There was no question that he was Chase Mackey's brother because the similarities were marked, particularly in the sexy dent in the center of his chin. But beyond that, Ian Kincaid's features took Chase's and refined them.
The lines of his face were more sharply defined, more angular. His jaw was chiseled. His nose was slightly longish but perfectly shaped. His lips had a hint more fullness to the lower than to the upper. His goldenbrown, sunkissed hair had the same waviness that Chase Mackey's had, but was cut shorter and neater all over. And his eyes
Oh, those eyes!
Chase Mackey's were sky blue.
Ian Kincaid's were a more ethereal, almost translucent bluelike the sky reflected off a frozen pond.
"Wow " Jenna heard herself say again as the full impact of those good looks sank in.
Meg laughed. "Uhh Nurse Bowen? Should I throw cold water on you?"
"No Right. He's the enemy," Jenna said to yank herself out of her reverie.
"Well, no, he isn't the devil or the enemyhe's a great guy"
"Who could take over my dad's farm and turn it into a football training facility."
"You said you were coming to grips with that."
"I'm trying to." But she didn't need to be going gaga over the guy.
And yet, there she was, still staring at the man.
"Why don't we go out and I'll introduce you?" Meg suggested.
And why was concern for how she looked the first thing that flashed through Jenna's mind? Why should she care if her long, brown hair was still neatly in its ponytail or if the mascara had stayed on her brownishgreen eyes? Why should she care that she had on baggy jeans and a toobig sweatshirt?
But she did.
"I'm a mess," she said, as if that were answer enough to Meg's suggestion.
"No, you're not. You look fine."
But somehow fine was not good enough when she thought of meeting the man who still had her staring.