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Rachel Grant sighed down at her chipped and dirt-encrusted fingernails. What she wouldn't give to be at Eve Kelly's Salon Alegra right now, getting a manicure and not staring at a shelf of toilet parts in a hardware store. But such were the joys of home ownership on a shoestring budget.
Whoever said that men didn't gossip as much as women was dead wrong. But they would be right about one thing: Man-gossip left a lot to be desired in comparison to girl-gossip. Floyd Mason, owner of the hardware store, was gossiping with someone whose voice she didn't recognize the next row over in Paint, and, of course, she was shamelessly eavesdropping. Floyd drawled, "Seems like there's Colton boys all over town all of a sudden."
The customer replied, "I hear Damien Colton's back. The missus sent me over here to get a dead bolt for the back door because of 'im."
Bless Floyd, for he replied, "Why's that? Damien didn't murder Mark Walsh the first time around or else the bastard wouldn't have turned up dead for real a few months ago."
"Yeah, but fifteen years in a penitentiary...that's gotta change a man. Make him hard. Mean. Maybe even dangerous."
She might have her own bone to pick with the Colton family, but she bristled at the suggestion that Damien had become a criminal. She'd never for a minute thought he was capable of murder, not fifteen years ago, and not now. She had half a mind to march around the corner and tell the guy so.
Thankfully, Floyd drawled, "Ahh, I dunno 'bout Damien bein' dangerous. Those Colton kids might'a been wild, but they was never bad. At least not that kind of bad."
"I hope you're right," the customer drawled. "Ever since Damien got outta jail, it's been like old-home week over at the Colton place. Wouldn't be surprised if they's all back in town by now to welcome home the prodigal son."
Rachel's heart skipped a beat in anticipation and then just as quickly thudded in dismay. Please God, let it not be all of the Coltons back home. She really, truly, never needed to see Finn Colton again as long as she lived. He'd been the best-looking boy in the high school. Maybe the entire town. Smartest, too. Was so effortlessly perfect that she'd fallen in love with him before she'd barely known what had happened to her. Oh, and then he'd broken her heart for fun.
The bell over the hardware store's front door dinged, jolting her from a raft of old memories. Very old. Ancient history. Water way under the bridge--
"Speak of the devil!" Floyd exclaimed. "Long time, no see, boy! You're looking great. All growed up...got the look of your daddy about you."
Rachel glanced toward the front of the store. It took no more than a millisecond for certain knowledge to hit her that a Colton had just walked through that door. The brothers were all tall, broad-shouldered, hard men who dominated any room they entered. And one of them was here now. A wave of loss slammed into her. Its backwash was tempered by bits of humiliation, fear, and a few specks of nascent anger swirling around like flotsam. But mostly, it just hurt.
Rachel ducked, wishing fervently that the shelves were at least two feet taller than their five-foot-tall stacks. Which Colton was it? Several of them had left town after high school and gone on to bigger and better things than Honey Creek had to offer.
It didn't matter which Colton it was. She didn't want to see any of them. And she especially didn't want to see Finn. Her knees were actually shaking at the prospect. Lordy, she had to get out of here now. Preferably unseen. She randomly grabbed the nearest rubber toilet gasket and took off crawling on her hands and knees for the front of the store and the cash register. Pleeease let me make it out of here. Let me be invisible. Let me make it to the front door--
"Ouch!" She bumped into something hard, nose-first, and pulled up short. That was a knee. Male, covered in denim. And it smarted. She grabbed the bridge of her nose, which was stinging bad enough to make her eyes water.
"Lose something?" a smooth voice asked from overhead.
Oh. My. God. She knew that voice. Oh, how she ever knew that voice. It was dark and smooth and deep and she hadn't heard it in fifteen years. It had gained a more mature resonance, but beyond that, the voice hadn't changed one iota.
"I asked you a question, miss. Did you lose something?" the voice repeated impatiently.
Her mind? Her dignity? Definitely her pride.
She forced her gaze up along the muscular thighs, past the bulge that was going to make her blush fiercely if she dwelled on it, past the lean, hard waist beneath a black T-shirt, up a chest broad enough to give a girl heart palpitations, and on to a square, strong jaw sporting a sexy hint of stubble. But there was no way her gaze was going one millimeter higher than that. She was not looking Finn Colton in the eye. Not after he'd caught her fleeing the hardware store on her hands and knees.
"Uh, found it," she mumbled, brandishing the hapless gasket lamely.
"Rachel?" the voice asked in surprise.
Her gaze snapped up to his in reflex, damn it. She started to look away but was captured by the expression in his green-on-brown gaze. What was he so surprised at? That she was crawling around on the floor of the hardware store? Or maybe that she still lived in this two-bit town? Or that she looked like hell in ratty jeans and a worse T-shirt and had on no makeup and her hair half coming out of a sloppy ponytail? Or maybe he was just stunned that she'd dared to breathe the same air as he, even after all these years. She hadn't been good enough for him then; she surely wasn't good enough for him now.
Her gaze narrowed. She had to admit Finn looked good. More than good. Great. Successful. Self-assured. The boy had become a man.
For just one heartbeat, they looked at each other. Really looked at each other. She thought she spotted something in his gaze. Longing, maybe. Or perhaps regret. But as quickly as it flashed into his eyes that unnamable expression blinked out, replaced by hard disdain.
Ahh. That was more like it. The Finn Colton she knew and loathed. "Finn," she said coldly. "You're standing in my way. I was just leaving."
With a sardonic flourish of his hand, he stepped aside and waved her past. Jerk. Watching him warily out of the corner of her eye, she took a step. She noted that his jaw muscles were rippling and abruptly recalled it as a signal that he was angry about something. All the Coltons had tempers. They just hung on to them with varying degrees of success. Finn was one of the calmer ones. Usually. He looked about ready to blow right now, though.
Hugging the opposite side of the aisle, she gave him as wide a berth as possible as she eased past. She made it to the cash register and looked up only to realize that just about everyone in the store was staring at her and Finn. Yup, men were as bad as women when it came to gossip.
She had to get out of there. Give them as little fodder for the rumor mill as possible. She was finally starting to get her life together, she had a new job, and she didn't need some new scandal to blow everything out of the water when she was just getting back on her feet. She fumbled in her purse for her wallet and frantically dug out a ten-dollar bill. The clerk took about a week and a half to ring up her purchase and commence looking for a small plastic bag to put her pitiful gasket in.
She snatched it up off the counter, mumbling, "I don't need a bag," and rushed toward the exit. But, of course, she couldn't get out of there without one last bit of humiliation.
"Miss! Miss! You forgot your change!"
Her face had to be actually on fire by now. She was positive she felt flames rising off her cheeks. She turned around in chagrin and took the change the kid held out to her.
"Don't you want your receipt? You'll need it if you have to return that--"
She couldn't take any more. She fled.
She didn't stop until she was safely locked inside her car, where she could have a nervous breakdown in peace. She rested her forehead against the top of the steering wheel and let the humiliation wash over her. Of all the ways to meet Finn Colton again. She'd pictured it a thousand times in her head, and not once had it ever included being caught crawling out of the hardware store in a failed effort to dodge him.
Knuckles rapped on her window and she jumped violently. She looked up and, of course, it was him. Re luc-tantly, she cracked the window open an inch.
"If you're going to faint, you should lie down. Elevate your feet. But don't operate a motor vehicle until any light-headedness has passed."
He might be a doctor, but that didn't mean he needed to lecture her on driving safety. Sheesh. He didn't even bother to ask if she was feeling all right! She snapped, "Why, I'm feeling fine, thank you. It was so kind of you to ask. I think I'll be going now. And a lovely day to you, too."
She rolled up her window and turned her keys in the ignition. Thankfully, her car didn't choose this moment to act up and coughed to life. She stomped on the gas pedal and her car leaped backward. Finn was forced to jump back, too, or else risk getting his toes run over. It might have been petty, but satisfaction coursed through her.
She pulled out of the parking lot with a squeal of tires that had heads turning up and down Main Street. How she got home, she had no real recollection. But a few minutes later, she became aware that she was sitting in her driveway with her head resting on the steering wheel again.
Finn Colton. Why, oh why, did he have to come back to Honey Creek after all these years? Why couldn't he just stay in Bozeman with his perfect job and a perfect wife, two point two perfect kids, and a perfect life? Heck, knowing him, he had a perfect dog and drove a perfect car, too.
All the joy had been sucked right out of this day. And she'd been so excited to cash her first paycheck and have a few dollars in her pocket to start doing some desperately needed repairs around the house. Cursing Colton men under her breath, she dragged herself into the house and got to work fixing the toilet.
The gossip network took under thirty minutes to do its work. She'd just determined that, although she'd mi-rac ulously managed to get the right-size gasket, her toilet was officially dead. She was going to have to replace all the tubes and chains and floaty things that made up its innards.
Her phone rang and she grabbed the handset irritably. "Hello."
"Hi, Raych. It's me."
Carly Grant, her sometimes best friend, sometimes pain in the ass, second cousin. They'd been born exactly one week apart, and they'd had each other's backs for their entire lives. Carly had stuck by her when no one else had after Finn dumped her, and for that, Rachel would put up with a lot of grief from her scatterbrained cousin. Rachel's irritation evaporated. "Hey. What are you doing?"
"I'm wondering why my home girl didn't call me to tell me she ran into the love of her life down at the hardware store. Why did I have to hear it from Debbie Russo?"
"How in the heck did she hear about it?" Rachel demanded.
"Floyd Mason told his wife, and she had a hair appointment at Eve's salon at the same time Debbie was having a mani-pedi."
Rachel sighed. Telephone, telegraph, tell a woman. Sometimes she purely hated living in a small town. Actually, most of the time. Ever since she'd been a kid she'd dreamed of moving to a big city. Away from nosy neighbors and wide open spaces...and cows. Far, far away from cows.
She'd have left years ago if it wasn't for her folks. Well, her mom, now that her dad had passed away. A sharp stab of loss went through her. It had been less than a year since Dad's last, and fatal, heart attack. Sometimes his death seemed as if it had happened a lifetime ago, muted and distant. And sometimes it seemed like only a few days ago complete with piercing grief that stole her breath away. Today was one of the just-like-yesterday days, apparently.
"So. Spill!" Carly urged.
"Finn Colton is not the love of my life!"
"Ha. So you admit that you did see him!"
"Fine. Yes. I saw him. I was crawling on my hands and knees, my rear end sticking up in the air, trying to make a break for it, and he walked right up to me."
Carly started to laugh. "You're kidding."
"I wish I were," Rachel retorted wryly. "I can report with absolute certainty that his cowboy boots are genuine rattlesnake skin and not fake."
"Oh, my God, that's hilarious."
Rachel scowled. She was so demoting Carly from BFF status. "I'm glad I amuse you."
"What did he say?" Carly asked avidly.
"Not much. He said my name, and I said his. Then I got the heck out of Dodge as fast as I could." She added as a sop to Carly's love of good gossip, "He did knock on the window of my car to tell me that I looked like crap--and that if I was going to faint, I shouldn't drive."
"What a jerk!" Carly exclaimed loyally.
Okay, she'd just regained her status as best friend forever.
"You'll have to fill me in on the details while we drive up to Bozeman."
Rachel groaned. She'd forgotten her promise to go with Carly to shop for a dress for the big celebration of the high school's hundredth anniversary, which was scheduled for next weekend in conjunction with the school's homecoming celebration.
"You forgot, didn't you?" Carly accused.
"No, no, I'll see you at three. But right now I have to go back to the hardware store and get more parts for my toilet."
"Hoping to see your favorite Colton brother again?"
"When they're having snowball fights in hell," she retorted. She slammed the phone down on Carly's laughter and snatched up her car keys in high irritation.
Finn threw his car keys down in high irritation. He remembered now why he hated Honey Creek so damned much.
His older brother, Damien, finished off his sandwich and commented, "Funny how you can want worse than anything in the world to get back home. And then you get here, and in under a week, you'd do anything to get away."