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Hannah Dunbar clutched the neck of her raincoat and shivered against the blast of wet wind swooping down on the graveside mourners. She didn't really know why she'd made a point of coming to the funeral. She'd barely known Frank Malone, even though he'd been her neighbor for so many years. The few times she'd visited with him, he'd been closer to drunk than sober. And although Hannah hated drunkenness, she'd looked beyond the man's vice and come to bid him a final farewell. She guessed it was the least she could do. And then there was Jess. She'd come for him, too. Though she suspected her presence meant little, if nothing at all, to him.
Across the open grave, standing apart from the rest, Jess Malone looked around at the small group of mourners. He was surprised that a dozen or so people had shown up and he wondered why any of them had made the effort. Out of friendship to his father?
Certainly the three men across from him, Bill Barnes, Floyd Jones and Walt Newman, had been old friends. In fact, they were the only friends who'd stayed in contact with Frank after he'd become a recluse.
But the rest of the group? Jess couldn't say. Maybe they were here out of curiosity. Maybe they'd even expected Jess's mother to show up for her ex-husband's burial.
If that was the case, they'd been disappointed, Jess thought cynically. He could have told them that once Betty Malone had walked out on her husband and son, she'd totally wiped them from her existence.
Jess's green eyes slid over the vaguely familiar faces until he reached the end of the group where a tall, slim woman stood apart from the rest. Her flaming red hair had been whipped by the wind. Loose tendrils, which had been torn from the single French braid at the back of her head, curled wildly around her face and shoulders. A drab gray raincoat hid most of her dark dress, while a worn pair of penny loafers covered her feet. The wind was playing with the hem of her dress, exposing a portion of her legs. They were nice legs, he decided, his gaze lingering on their long, sleek curves. Too nice to be hidden by such dowdy clothing.
The murmur of nearby voices jolted him back to the reality of where he was, and he pulled his eyes up to the woman's face.
Hannah Dunbar! If he'd been studying her face as intently as her legs, he would have already recognized the woman who lived across the street from his father. What was she doing here?
The question was instantly forgotten as a tug on Jess's hand brought his attention to Daniel, who'd been standing quietly beside him, but was now looking up at him with a lost, bewildered look on his face.
Jess reached down and lifted the small boy into his arms, finding comfort in having his son close to him. The boy would never have a grandfather. Not that Frank could have been one. But now the chance or hope of that ever happening was gone.
"Let us pray."
The minister's request had Jess bowing his head and clutching his son even closer. It was just him and Daniel now.
Draping her coat over the back of a kitchen chair, Hannah crossed the small room and began to fill the coffee machine with water and coffee grounds. After she'd switched it on, she lit a small gas heater in the living room.
It was unusually cool for Lordsburg, New Mexico, even if it was mid-January. Hannah couldn't ever remember feeling this chilled, even counting the time she'd gone to Ruidoso on a trip with the senior class. And that had been more than fifteen years ago.
Jess Malone had been on that trip, too, she recalled, her expression thoughtful as she held her cold hands out to the heater. That year had been his last in Lordsburg. She hadn't seen him since. Until today at the funeral.
He'd changed. That much had been obvious. Fifteen years was a long time. Now that he was thirty-three, he was more muscular and his thick brown hair far shorter than the way he'd worn it as a teenager. His face had changed, too. It was leaner, rougher and more damnably handsome than she remembered. But she'd expected most of those changes in him. What Hannah hadn't expected to see was a child in his arms.
Jess was the last boy in their class that she would have described as a father figure. But obviously the child was his. The minister officiating the memorial service had spoken of the boy as a surviving grandchild to Frank, and since Jess was an only child, that left just one conclusion. So where was the mother, Hannah wondered. She hadn't heard anything about a surviving daughter-in-law. Could Jess be divorced? Widowed?
That's none of your business, Hannah, she hastily scolded herself. A man like Jess would never be her business. She was awkward, shy, just plain old unattractive. If a man did happen to look at her twice, it was for all the wrong reasons. She'd learned that the hard way.
Jess threw his jacket at the end of a grungy plaid couch, then pushed his fingers wearily through his damp hair. He hated this damn house, he thought as he glanced around the small, cluttered room. It reminded him of the isolated, pitiful life his father had led.
Frank had spent most of his time sitting in this dusty old house. Drinking. Grieving over a woman who'd walked out on him and his small son years before. After Jess had grown into a young man, he'd often tried to reach out to his father, to try to help him get past the torment that made him reach for a bottle too often. But Jess had never been able to make his father see what he was doing to himself. He'd continued on a downward spiral, until finally the alcohol had taken him over completely. These past ten years, Frank had rarely been sober.
No woman was worth it, Jess told himself bitterly. There wasn't a woman on this earth who could ever move him to drink himself to addiction, to give up on life.
Sighing, he took a seat on the couch. "Come here, son. Let's get you out of that wet jacket."
"I'm hungry, Daddy," Daniel said as he obediently sidled up to his father.
"I know you are. I'll see what I can find in the kitchen in a few minutes. Why don't you go to the bathroom and wash your hands."
The dark-headed boy looked at his father. "My hands aren't dirty. See?"
He held up his small hands for inspection and Jess shook his head.
"How do you know they aren't dirty?" Jess asked.
Daniel tilted his head to one side as though his father's question didn't make sense at all. "Because you can't see it."
Normally, Jess found his son's logical, nearly four-year-old mind amusing, but today he could hardly force a smile on his face. Even though Jess had been expecting it, the death of his father had shattered him. Not that they were close. It was hard to be close to a man who was more concerned with drowning his sorrows in a bottle than being with his son. Still, he'd loved his father. Alcoholic or not, he was going to miss him terribly.
He looked accusingly at Betty Malone's photo still sitting atop the dusty television. Women were to be enjoyed by man, not cherished. At least Jess knew that, even though his father had never learned it.
"Some kinds of dirt you can't see," Jess said. "So you'd better go wash to make sure."
Daniel frowned but didn't argue the point. Instead, he scampered off toward the bathroom, making zooming noises all the way.
Jess leaned back against the couch and let his gaze drift once again to the picture of his mother. He'd never really known the woman. She'd left him and his father long before Jess was old enough to build memories of her. It would be the same with his own son, he realized with a pang of bitter resentment. Michelle, Daniel's mother, had skipped out on them as soon as she was able to leave the hospital.
It wasn't the way Jess had planned or hoped it to be. Early in their relationship, Michelle had insisted she loved him, and when she'd unexpectedly gotten pregnant, Jess had wanted to marry her. He'd wanted her, himself and the baby to be a family. But Michelle had balked at making such a big commitment. It had been all he could do to talk Michelle out of an abortion.
His mouth twisted with the memory. He'd hoped that Michelle would change as her pregnancy advanced. That her mothering instinct would kick in. It hadn't. She'd resented the nausea, the weight gain, the sheer confinement of her condition. By the time she'd gone through the pain of giving birth, she'd told Jess she was leaving. She didn't want to be a mother. So she'd gone, leaving Jess with a newborn and a hard-learned lesson.
But that had happened almost four years ago. He'd put Michelle and her irresponsibility behind him. Daniel was happy and healthy and Jess was going to make sure that he stayed that way. He was determined to see that the boy didn't grow up feeling as unloved and unwanted as Jess had. No matter that the only family they had was each other.
Rising and entering the kitchen, Jess started to put a sandwich together for Daniel when a knock sounded on the front door. He went to answer it, Daniel following closely on his heels.
Jess stared at the woman standing on the small slab of concrete outside the door. He'd expected it to be one of his father's old cronies. Not Hannah.
"May I… come in?" she asked hesitantly.
Jess noticed a swathe of color flooding her cheeks as she spoke. Apparently, this woman was still as shy as she'd been back in high school. It only made him wonder how she'd summoned enough courage to come over here.
He pushed open the screen door, then stood aside to allow her entry. "It's been a long time. I almost didn't recognize you at the cemetery."
Because he'd been too busy looking at her legs, he thought with self-disgust. What was the matter with him, anyway? Ogling a woman at his father's graveside! What had the worry and strain he'd been through the past few days done to him?
Hannah found it hard to believe that Jess hadn't immediately recognized her. She looked exactly as she had in high school, just a little older. But then, Jess Malone had rarely ever glanced her way. She'd been quiet and awkward then, too. Nothing like the sort that had interested him.
"You do remember that my name is Hannah?"
"Yes. I remember." Even though she'd lived across the street from him and they'd gone to the same school, Hannah Dunbar had never really crossed his mind after he'd left Lordsburg. He almost felt guilty about that, though he couldn't understand why.
He turned back to her and Hannah very nearly gasped. He seemed so big now that she was in the house and standing only a foot away from him. Her heart fluttered as she looked up at his dark face.
"I—noticed that no one—" She swallowed and started again. "I thought you might enjoy some coffee and cake." She thrust a thermos and a foil-wrapped package at him.
Jess's first instinct was to tell her he wasn't the least bit hungry. He wasn't in the mood to visit with anyone. But as his gaze connected with her liquid gray eyes, he stopped himself. She looked like a skittish doe, ready to bolt at his slightest move. Was she afraid of him? Surely not. More than likely she was afraid he would refuse her offer of sympathy.
He took the thermos and package from her and it was then that Hannah noticed the boy standing a few steps away. His forefinger in his mouth, he was carefully studying her. She smiled at him, her love for children automatically brightening her face.
"Hello," she said, holding her hand out to him.
The child immediately came to her. "My name is Daniel Malone," he told Hannah proudly.
She shook Daniel's hand in grown-up fashion, which, by the look on his little round face, obviously impressed him. "It's nice to meet you, Daniel," she said, then looked at Jess.
"Would you like to join us, Hannah? I was just making Daniel a sandwich."
Join them? All sorts of thoughts ran through Hannah's head as her gaze skittered over Jess's face. This morning, she hadn't really planned to do more than attend Frank Malone's funeral. She hadn't thought it prudent to come over to the Malone house and offer her condolences to Jess and his son in person. But as she'd waited for her coffee to brew, she'd looked out the living-room window and noticed that not one car was sitting in the driveway to the old house. The man had just lost his father, and it looked as though no one cared. She didn't like to think of anyone so alone. Not even an outlaw like Jess Malone.
"Well, I suppose I could. Mrs. Rodriguez gave me the rest of the afternoon off. She runs the child day-care center I work for."
Jess motioned his head toward an open doorway just behind them. "The kitchen is through here."
Hannah followed him, glancing tentatively around her as she did. The house was in bad shape. There was no other way to put it. She wondered what Jess thought about the place, then wondered even more how he'd felt about his alcoholic father.
In the kitchen, Daniel climbed upon a chair and scooted eagerly up to the table. Jess set down the thermos and package, then reached to help Hannah off with her raincoat.
She'd never had a man help her with such a personal task. Hannah felt heat flush her face as his hands lightly brushed her shoulders.
"I'm—sorry about your father," she said quietly, not really knowing what to say to this man who'd rarely spoken to her during the years he'd lived in Lordsburg.
At that moment, Jess realized she was the first person who'd said that to him and really meant it. A few of the border patrolmen who worked with him back in Douglas had mouthed the words. But they hadn't known Frank Malone and they'd merely expressed sympathy out of courtesy. He had a feeling Hannah was too reserved to bother saying something she didn't mean.
"I am, too, Hannah." In fact, he was sorry about a lot of things, he thought wearily.
He pulled out a chair for her, and Hannah dropped gracefully into it.
"I have to confess I hadn't seen your father in several months. The last time I tried to visit with him— well, he was—"