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Hey, look who's back in town. Goldilocks." Melinda Spencer whirled. Shock slammed into her like a runaway truck. Her eyes widened and she took a step back.
Gazing down at her was the original bad boy of Potter Creek, Montana. His dark eyes held the same teasing glint she remembered from ten years ago. His easy slouch and the cocky way his Stetson sat tipped back on his head suggested he hadn't changed one whit since she last saw him.
Since the day she'd gotten on a bus to hightail her way out of Montana and back to her home in Pittsburgh. She'd lost her heart to this dark-eyed Romeo.
She narrowed her eyes and folded her arms across her chest. "Hello, Daniel. I thought you'd be long gone from here by now." Probably in jail or killed in a bar fight.
One corner of his mouth kicked up a notch. "Nope. This is my hometown. I'm here to stay."
"Good for you," she said, deadpan. She turned her back on him to finish the task he'd interrupted, unlocking the door to Aunt Martha's Knitting and Notions shop. The silly key didn't want to work, which had nothing to do with her fingers that had suddenly turned clumsy.
"What brings you to town?" Daniel asked.
She went still for a moment, then looked over her shoulder. "Aunt Martha had a stroke. I brought her home from the rehab facility this morning. I'm here to take care of her."
"So you're not planning to stay long?"
"I'll stay as long as she needs me." In truth, she didn't have much of anywhere else to go, but she wasn't going to tell Daniel O'Brien that.
She resumed her efforts with the obstinate key.
"Here, let me help you."
He reached around her, his hand closing over hers, his fingers long and deeply tanned. His forearm had a light covering of dark hair over corded muscles. He was too close, so close she caught the scent of the prairie on his shirt and the unique masculine aroma that was his alone.
Memories of being seventeen years old and foolish assailed her. Memories she'd never been able to completely bury even when she'd married another boy, the one who had taken her to the senior prom.
She yanked her hand away, her heart thudding like the hooves of a quarter horse galloping across the open landscape.
The lock released its grip on the door. Daniel shoved it open.
"There you go, Goldilocks. Welcome to Aunt Martha's Knitting and Notions." With a mock bow, he gestured for her to enter the small shop.
Instead she held out her hand. "The key."
His eyes twinkling, his lips curved upward, he dropped it in her hand.
"Thank you." She stepped inside, intending to close the door behind her, leaving him standing on the cracked sidewalk that ran the length of Main Street.
No such luck.
Like a predator on the prowl, he slipped past her and sauntered into the store.
Bins for yarn lined two walls from floor to ceiling, but many were empty. Other bins were a jumble, worsteds mixed with baby weight yarn, variegated and solid colors randomly mingled in the same bin. The display rack for knitting needles, crochet hooks, stitch markers and other notions canted at a precarious angle and the pattern books tucked into a pocket display looked as though they'd been published in the 1950s.
In a back corner of the room sat a table and six unmatched dining room chairs that had been used for knitting classes. Odds and ends of yarn were scattered about the table.
Daniel picked up a skein of merino yarn and tossed it gently in the air, catching it and tossing it again as a young boy might toss a baseball. In no way, however, did Daniel O'Brien resemble anything other than a full-grown cowboy with an attitude.
"It smells musty in here. Better leave the door open and air out the place." He tossed the skein back in the bin where he'd found it.
Melinda wrinkled her nose. "I don't think that Aunt Martha has opened the store in weeks." Martha, even at age eighty-two, had always been lively and energetic, busy in the community and with her church work, until the stroke felled her. Or so Melinda had thought.
From the disarray in the shop and out-of-date stock, she suspected her great-aunt hadn't spent a lot of time serving her customers in recent years. Assuming she had any customers left.
Her shoulders sank. Not only had she planned to help her aunt during her recovery, but she'd also desperately hoped to turn Aunt Martha's Knitting and Notions into a profitable business that would support them both.
Apparently God didn't care what she wanted. Not that she deserved His help.
Still skulking around and poking into things, Daniel said, "I heard you got married a while back. Your husband come to town with you?"
Despite the ten-inch needle of grief that stabbed her in the chest, she lifted her chin. "I'm widowed."
That stopped him in his tracks. The teasing glint vanished from his eyes and his brows tugged together. "I'm sorry. I hadn't heard that." He lifted his Stetson, ran his fingers through his thick, dark hair and resettled his hat. "You got kids?"
"No." No husband. No childnot anymore. She'd as much as killed them both with her own hand. Her chin quivered. She bit down on her lip, turned away and walked behind the counter to the ancient cash register.
"If you don't mind, I'd like to check the inventory and some of Aunt Martha's records." She looked at him expectantly, willing him to leave.
He straightened to his full six feet two. "You want me to get lost."
"Yes, please." Her teeth clenched.
He shrugged, an easy roll of broad shoulders beneath a blue work shirt that pulled tautly across his chest. He'd filled out in the past ten years and looked as though he was used to hard work. Which, remembering his wild-ness, the way he'd loved to party and drive at reckless speeds, was hard for her to believe.
"Then I'll catch you later, Goldilocks." He winked and ambled to the door.
She watched him walk down the sidewalk past the shop's dusty display window, all loose limbs and easy gate. His buddies used to call him Swagger.
He called her Goldilocks.
"My name is Melinda," she whispered to herself. Goldilocks and her wide-eyed innocence no longer existed. That foolish person had endured a painful death along with her son, Jason.
Daniel still had that arrogant swagger that had hooked her the moment he'd walked across Riverside Park to stand two feet in front of her. In a low, husky voice, he'd said, "Hi, Goldilocks. Wanna go for a ride in my truck?"
To her dismay, a part of her still did.
* * *Daniel reached his pickup parked a few doors down from Martha's shop. He'd driven into town to pick up a prescription from the pharmacy. When he'd spotted Goldilocks, he'd been so surprised that a dust devil racing across the prairie could've blown him over.
Opening the truck door, he smiled to himself. He would've recognized her golden curls from a mile away. Long and bouncy and woven of pure silk.
A city girl, she'd been sent out west to spend the summer with her great-aunt Martha before her final year of high school. Daniel had spotted her right off then, too. Even knowing she was too young and he ought to keep his distance, he'd been drawn to her like a horse to a quartered apple in his hand.
He'd teased and cajoled and lured her with every bit of charm he had.
But Miss Goody Two-Shoes had won out. She told him no and skedaddled back home to Pittsburgh without so much as a wave goodbye.
That hadn't done his ego a bit of good. Not that his ego hadn't needed a good kick in the butt back then.
She was different now. Older. Maybe wiser. A widow with a hint of sadness shadowing her baby-blue eyes. No longer a girl, now she was a full-grown woman.
But she hadn't given him a single sign that Goldilocks had any interest in a second time around.
He climbed into the cab of the extended pickup, which was baking hot from sitting out in the summer sun.
He wondered how long she'd stay in Potter Creek this time. Long enough for him to get a second chance to prove he wasn't a worthless cowboy?
Sweat crept down his back and he licked his lips. It might be worth a shotif she stuck around for a while.
The O'Brien ranch lay a little northwest of Potter Creek, less than thirty minutes away. Daniel and his older brother, Arnie, ran a hundred head of beef cattle on the place and Daniel pursued his passion for breeding quarter horses. His mares had foaled some of the top-ranked quarter horses in the state and he got big bucks for his stallions to service mares owned by other horse owners.
Turning off the highway, he drove under the wrought-iron arch at the entrance to O'Brien Ranch and bumped over the cattle guard. The driveway bordered the horse pasture on the right and led to a two-story white house his grandfather had built.
A house and ranch his father had nearly destroyed in a drunken haze that lasted around fifty years, until his death.
April, his favorite sorrel mare, trotted over to the fence. He tooted his horn and she shook her blond mane in response, keeping pace with the truck until she reached the end of the pasture.
He pulled the truck up next to the barn and parked just as Arnie came out of the open double doors riding his shiny red ATV.
"Yo, bro." Daniel swung down from the truck. "What's happening?"
Using hand controls, Arnie brought the ATV to a halt. His dog, Sheila, a golden retriever mix, sat proudly behind him. "What I want to know is what took you so long, Danny boy. Had Doc Harper gone fishing?"
Daniel slapped himself on the forehead. Doc Harper was the town pharmacist. "The prescription. I forgot to pick it up."
Arnie gave him a steady-eyed look and slowly raised his brows. Although they both had inherited their mother's olive complexion and the telltale cheekbones of the Blackfoot Indians, Arnie's upper body was more muscular than Daniel's. His legs, though, had withered considerably since the accident that had paralyzed him eight years ago.
"You got distracted, I gather," he said.
"Yep, you could say that."
Heat from more than the sun flooded Daniel's cheeks. "Mindy Spencer's back in town." He used the nickname for Melinda that family and close friends used. "She's helping her aunt."
Arnie's eyes widened and he tilted his head. "If Ivy hears about Mindy, she might not be too happy."
Scowling, Daniel shook his head. "Ivy doesn't have any claim on me."
"She'd sure like to." Taking off his hat, Arnie wiped the sweat from the inside of the hat band. "Is Mindy planning to stay permanently?"
"She said not."
"Interesting." Arnie shifted the ATV into gear. "Have a nice ride back to town."
Daniel held out his hands, palms up. "Ah, come on, Arnie. The prescription can wait till tomorrow, can't it?"
"Tomorrow's Sunday. Doc Harper closes up shop on Sundays." He drove the ATV to the back porch of the house. Sheila agilely jumped down and waited while Arnie unloaded the wheelchair from the back of the all-terrain vehicle. Using a trapeze device Daniel had jerry-rigged for him, Arnie lifted himself out of the ATV and into the chair. "Say hello to Mindy for me next time you see her."
Daniel jammed his hands in his pockets. "Yeah. Right."
Chortling a big-brother laugh that put Daniel's teeth on edge, Arnie wheeled himself up the ramp and into the house, Sheila right behind him, ready to be of service whenever she was needed.
Yanking open the truck door, Daniel got inside. He'd go into town. Get the prescription. And come right back. Like he was supposed to have done the first time.
Unless Goldilocks was still hanging around the knitting shop.
Then he might stick around for a while.
Head down, her footsteps as slow as a desert tortoise, Melinda left Knitting and Notions to walk the short distance to Aunt Martha's house.
She hadn't spent long in the shop after Daniel left. Realizing how much needed to be done to get the store up and running was a daunting prospect. First, a top-to-bottom cleaning would be needed, followed by rearranging the stock and ordering new yarns and notions. Advertisements would have to be created and placed in the local biweekly newspaper, flyers made and posted around town about classes and special activities.
To make the shop a profitable venture, she'd have to attract customers not only from Potter Creek and its five thousand residents, but from the surrounding area, as well. Which meant she'd be competing with shops in Bozeman, less than an hour away.
Daunting was an understatement.