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Annie McKee was not a charity case.
How dare Patrick Kirkpatrick treat her like one? She sped up the gravel drive of the cabin that belonged to her deceased husband's best friend, then slammed on the brakes, causing the powder-blue 1974 Gremlin to fishtail before skidding to a stop near the front porch.
"Whoa, cool, Mom," her son, Bobby, praised her.
His twin brother, Tommy, begged, "Do it again."
Get a hold of yourself, Annie, before you plow into a tree. Two deep breaths later, she instructed, "Zip your coats, boys." The end of February had arrived, accompanied by temperatures hovering near forty degrees. "I want you to stay outside and play with Mac while I talk to your uncle Patrick," she said as she spotted Patrick's black Lab bounding around the corner of the cabin, tail wagging. The boys bolted from their seats and took off after the dog.
A gust of wind bit Annie's face and she wondered how air managed to filter through the miles and miles of dense Kentucky Appalachian forest surrounding Heather's Hollow. If she'd had the means, she would have left these mountains behind for good years ago. She shut the car door, shoved her hand into the front pocket of her jacket and gripped the wad of bills until her fingers ached, then stormed up the porch steps. Patrick Kirkpatrick's cabin was one of the nicest in the hollow, and normally she'd take a moment to admire the beautiful structure, but not today. Not when she was mad enough to kick Patrick's backside into next week.
Bang! Bang! Bang!
Almost a minute passed before the door flew open, revealing a disheveled Patrick. Good griefhe'd been asleep at seven in the morning? Churchservice began at eightnot that she had plans to attend.
"Annie?" he grumbled, shoving a hand through his hair, leaving the burnished locks standing on end. She wondered if Patrick had any idea how beautiful his hair waswomen paid a fortune to copy the color in salons. Reddish brown stubble covered his cheeks and a pillow crease dented his temple. If she wasn't so het up about the money, she'd smile at his rumpled state.
Patrick towered over her five-foot-five-inch frame. His distraction allowed her a moment to ogle the wall of muscle inches from the tip of her nose. A promotion to manager at the sawmill a few years ago hadn't hurt his physique any. He possessed nicely shaped pecs and an intriguing line of reddish brown fuzz that connected his belly button to hisnever mindbeneath the waistband of his flannel pajama bottoms.
"It's freezing." He shivered. "C'mon inside."
"No." She forced her gaze from his perky nipples.
"What I have to say won't take long." Withdrawing the roll of bills from her pocket, she shoved them, along with her fist, into his gut.
"Oomph!" He clutched his stomach and grimaced. "What was that for?"
"For treating me like a charity case." Charity. The word rubbed her raw. A cooked meal or a helping hand was appreciated on occasion, but cold hard cash made a person feel as worthless as spit in a bucket.
Dark eyebrows drew together. "What are you talking about?"
"How dare you send Fionna Seamus to do your dirty work?" The clan preacher had stopped by Annie's yesterday afternoon to deliver a chocolate cake for the boys and Patrick's guilt money. And Fionna had attempted to persuade Annie to attend the church service this morning. She and the boys hadn't stepped foot inside the sanctuary since her husband Sean's funeral this past October.
"Would you have accepted the cash from me?" Patrick's question sapped somenot allof the steam out of Annie.
He only wants to help. Gossip ran amuck through the clan, but she'd never heard anyone criticize Patrick or find fault with him. Nor had he ever uttered an uncomplimentary word about her in public, which she found amazing, considering Sean had aired all their dirty laundry to his best friend.
People grieved in different ways, and Annie sympathized with Patrick's need to offer financial assistance to his friend's family. For his sake, she wished she could accept the donation. Chin in the air, she insisted, "Lots of women lose their husbands and manage to get along fine." And then there were some, like herself, who worried over having to find a job to make ends meeta daunting task for a woman who'd failed to graduate from high school.
"Sean would have wanted me to look after you and the boys."
Annie doubted her husband had thought that far ahead. "I don't need your money." She noticed Patrick hadn't taken the bills from her fist, which remained pressed against his warm belly. She also noted his chest had erupted with a rash of tiny goose bumps. Distressed that she couldn't keep her mind off the man's physique, she shoved her knuckles deeper into his flesh. "Take it back."
"No," he countered. "Stock up on groceries."
She assumed Fionna and Jo, Annie's best friend, had spread the word that Annie's cupboards were bare. Jo had urged Annie to cash the twenty-five thousand dollar settlement check from the mining company and use the money to tide her over until she secured a job. Annie had refused. Instead, she'd opened a college account for the boys and deposited the funds into that. Saving for college had been the reason Sean had quit his position at the sawmill and gone to work in the mines. Annie was determined that her boys wouldn't grow up to cut down trees or shovel coal from the earth's belly. She wanted better for her sons. She wanted them to do what she'd never been able to manage over all these yearsto escape from Heather's Hollow. The hollow was a dead enda mundane place where nothing ever changed.
"You have to eat," Patrick argued.
"Are you insinuating I'd allow my boys to starve before I accepted a handout?"
His bare chest expanded to twice its size as he sucked in a deep breath. When he exhaled, the air ruffled the hair on top of her head. "If you insist on arguing, then come inside. My toes are numb." He retreated farther into the cabin, leaving the door wide-open and Annie no recourse but to follow. She closed the doornone too gently then plastered her spine against it.
"Coffee?" he grunted from the kitchen off to her right.
She'd run out of coffee a week ago and would kill for a cup, but this wasn't a social visit. "No, thanks."
Out of the corner of her eye she spied him retrieving two mugs from the cupboard. Typical manhard of hearing. He scooped the grounds into a filter. "Where are the boys?"
"In the woods with Mac."
The tick-tock of the kitchen wall clock filled the stretch of silence. Once the coffee began dripping, Patrick faced her, his arms crossed in front of himself. A determined set to his jaw. She'd never seen this side of the man before. The times she'd run into him over the years, he'd been quiet, polite and respectful. Boring was a word that came to mind. The half-naked male across the room appeared anything but boring.
"Annie, you don't have family to count on."
True. Sean's parents had retired to the Carolinas ten years ago. Both were in poor health and hadn't even returned to see their only son buried. Annie's father had run off before she'd been born and her mother had managed over the years to exist off of neighborly handouts. Even the dilapidated trailer Fern McCullen lived in had been a castoff. Annie refused to become her mother.
"The clan looks after their own. You know that," he insisted.
"Food is one thing." Plenty of folks had delivered meals to her door for weeks following her husband's death and she hadn't turned down one gesture of goodwill. "But I won't take money." She tossed the roll of hundred-dollar bills onto the kitchen table.
"Sean said you were stubborn."
"I suspect my husband said a lot of things about me." A sliver of hurt poked her. "But you've only ever heard one side of the storyhis. Until you hear the other sidewhich you won'tkindly keep your judgments to yourself."
Patrick gaped at her outburst. "Sean would have wanted me to take responsibility for you and the boys."
Responsibilityshe'd been one all her life. First her mother's. Then Sean's. And now her husband's friend's. No.
The coffee finished dripping and he filled the mugs, taking a sip from his cup before setting hers on the table.
Big chicken. No doubt, he worried she'd fling the scalding liquid in his face if he handed her the cup. She stared at the brew, saliva pooling in her mouth as the mountain-grown aroma teased her nose. Drat. She reached for the mug. Passing on the coffee was more difficult than resisting the money. "Thanks."
Closing her eyes, she inhaled the rich smell, which drifted up her nostrils and flooded her brain with instant euphoria. Then she took a sipa small oneallowing the liquid to sit in her mouth and soak into her cheeks before she swallowed and sighed. She opened her eyes to Patrick's frown. Ignoring the grump, she savored half the cup, noting with relief that the earlier agitation in her stomach had dissipated.
As much as he annoyed her, Patrick didn't deserve to feel guilty about her husband's death. If Sean's passing was anyone's burden to bear, it was hers and hers alone. "I imagine the money is meant to ease your guilt."
His jaw sagged.
"I'm aware you attempted to talk Sean out of taking the job at the mine."
Sorrow filled Patrick's brown eyes and Annie had to resist the insane urge to hug the man. "I'm the one who harped on him to seek a better-paying job," she continued. She and Sean had never seen eye to eye on the need for the boys to attend college. Sadly, that hadn't been the real reason for her husband's career change. Annie had discovered that Sean had been having an affair, and she'd given him an ultimatumwork in the mine or divorce her. When Sean had figured out that child-support payments would eat his shorts, he'd agreed to hire on at the Blue Creek Coal Mine, a hundred miles east along the Virginia border. But he'd laid down a condition of his ownhe refused to end the affair.
Annie had agreed. Their marriage had been over long before then. Any love they'd felt for one another had fizzled when Sean took up drinking and spending money like a crazy man. But despite the overindulgence in alcohol, he'd remained a good father to the boys. For the twins' sakes, Annie had tossed aside her pride and remained married while Sean carried on with the floozy.
Patrick crossed the room to stand before the floor-to-ceiling glass panels that made up the west wall of the cabin. From her vantage point, Annie saw the thick gray barrier trees without leavesthat enclosed the hollow like a prison wall. At times the mountains suffocated her. There were days when she fought the urge to flee because she couldn't take a deep breath without smelling decaying vegetation, wet earth or the scent of fresh-cut wood from the mill.
Broad shoulders stiff with frustration, he argued, "You're making a big deal out of a little money."
"Two thousand dollars is hardly pocket change."
"Take the boys shopping for clothes or to the movies." His suggestion sounded innocent, but Annie read between the lines. He felt bad for the twins, because they hadn't left the hollow since Sean's death. Not that she'd intentionally hidden them away. There just wasn't enough money for extras like movies or gas to drive into Slattertonthe nearest town with a mall and a theatre. And even if the Gremlin did have a full tank, the car was on its last legs and she feared the motor would conk out halfway there, stranding her and the boys in the cold.
Time to leave. She should have made her exit after she'd tossed the money onto the table. Why didn't you? The truth lay somewhere betweenshe enjoyed the sight of Patrick's half-clothed body and she hated backing down from a fight. She gulped the remainder of the brew, then carried the mug to the kitchen sink as a courtesy not because she yearned for a look-see at the shiny stainless steel appliances.
While she rinsed the cup, she caught Patrick's reflection in the window above the sink and noticed the way his eyes roamed over her. A warm rush sped through her and the mug slipped from her grip, clunking against the bottom of the sink. Time to go. She wiped her hands on her jeans and headed for the door.
"Have you and the boys had breakfast?" he asked the moment her fingers touched the doorknob.
Say yes. In truth, she'd roused the twins from bed and insisted they wait to eat until after she'd spoken to their uncle. "Not yet," she answered, hating her weakness around this man.
"Been a while since I've spent time with Tommy and Bobby. Why don't we eat breakfast together?"
She and Patrick might not be cozy friends, but he'd grown close to her sons over the years, accompanying Sean and the boys on camping and hunting trips. You can survive another hour in the big Irishman's presence to let the twins visit with their uncle. "Thank you. We'll accept your invitation."
For the first time since she'd barged into his home, Patrick's rigid posture relaxed. "Let me grab a quick shower."
Before he made it to the bedroom door, she called, "What can I do to help?"
He offered her a lopsided grin. "Drink another cup of coffee." Then he closed the door, leaving Annie with a stinging sensation in her eyes. Had it been that obvious she'd enjoyed his coffee and his company?