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At precisely one o'clock on a sunny September Saturday afternoon, Megan McGuire spied the pirate.
Had Canyon Springs been a coastal, historic reenactment community or adjacent to Disneyland, she might not have looked twice. But to the best of her knowledge, the mountain country of northern Arizona generated little demand for the likes of seafaring swashbucklers.
Only minutes earlier, she'd propped open the door of the general store, allowing warm, pine-scented air to permeate the cool interior of the natural stone building. Once again huddled behind the oak counter and intent on reviewing next week's lesson plan, the creak of the wooden floor reached her ears. At that moment she glimpsed the flash of a gold hoop earring and a black eye patch as a bandana-headed man disappeared behind a shelf.
What now? The little town, with its many seasonal visitors, seemed to draw from a bottomless grab bag of eccentric individuals. Meg gave her short, tousled hair a shake and smiled. She'd come here as one of them herself six months ago, so she could afford to be tolerant.
Reluctant to leave her cozy little nook, she nevertheless set aside her pen and straightened her maroon Arizona State hooded sweatshirt. The guy was probably a motorcyclist, not a pirate as her too-active imagination labeled him. But to fulfill her role as a part-time employee of Dix's Woodland Warehouse, his appearance warranted an investigation.
She found the man crouched in front of the medication shelf, his muscled arm extended toward a row of aspirin boxes. Short-sleeved black T-shirt. Faded jeans. Well-worn tennis shoes. Except for a gold band on his left hand, all other fingers were pinched into dimestore-quality, gem-studded rings. A foot-long plastic sword tucked securely in a belt loop topped off his unconventional regalia.
Nope, not a biker. A pirate.
Definitely a pirate.
"Yo-ho-ho. May I help you, matey?" Meg bit her lip, chiding herself for the glib intro. After all, the customer was always right, even if the customer was a healthy-looking specimen of maleness dressed like a five-year-old's concept of a buccaneer.
He glanced up, one startled brown eye meeting hers. The other remained concealed beneath a black satin patch. The man pulled a box from the shelf and stood. Ramrod straight, legs slightly apart. Just like Meg's older brother, who had been out of the military for years and still assumed that soldierlike stance even when "at ease."
He didn't look more than a handful of years older than her twenty-seven, and although he was under six feet tall, he nevertheless towered over her five-foot-three stature. Cropped black hair peeped from beneath the red bandana as he removed a gold hoop from his ear. Kneading the reddened lobe with a thumb and forefinger, he held up the aspirin box in his other hand.
"Getting your land legs back will do that. Clip earrings, too."
A smile twitched at the corner of his mouth as he lifted the eye patch and tilted his head to study her. "You're going to give me a hard time, aren't you?"
Such expressive eyes. Captivating. "I could. But hey, to each his own, right?"
The pirate stuffed the earring in a back pocket. "I bet you're wondering—"
"Dad," came a child's chiding whisper from behind a nearby postcard rack. "You're not talking like a pirate."
"Sorry." The man dipped his head in acknowledgment to the scenic display, then focused again on Meg. "'Tis Talk Like a Pirate Day."
She raised her brows.
"International," the youngster's soft voice clarified.
"Ah, yes." The man patted the plastic sword at his side. "International Talk Like a Pirate Day."
A black-haired, brown-eyed boy dressed in an oversized pirate's hat and black rain boots stepped from behind the rack. His shy smile brightened. "Ahoy, Miss Meg!"
"Ahoy, yourself, Davy." She recognized Davy Diaz, whose grandfather was her landlord, so to speak. The good-looking brigand was Bill's offspring?
"Be ye knowin' this comely lass, son?" The man glanced down at the beaming boy, then winked at Meg.
Her heart roller-coastered for a fleeting moment.
Davy ducked his head and nodded, then stepped closer to lean against his father's sturdy leg. "Miss Meg is my Sunday school sister."
"Assistant," Meg corrected with a smile in the kindergartener's direction. He'd been a newcomer at church the previous Sunday. "I'm a helper in the elementary department."
"Sunday school, huh?" The man bumped Davy with his knee. "You lucky kid. My teachers were old ladies. Ugly old ladies."
Warmth crept into Meg's face as both Davy's smile and that of the man broadened in her direction. Then Davy looked up at his father, his eyes wide with wonder.
"You went to Sunday school when you were a kid, Dad?"
The boy's mouth dropped open and he placed fisted hands on his hips. "Shiver me timbers!"
Meg chuckled. "I think that's pirate talk for wow."
The man laughed, his gaze again catching Meg's as he held out a bejeweled hand. "Nice to meet you, Miss Meg."
"I'm Joe Diaz."
Cocky Joe Diaz, she amended as her extended hand disappeared into his firm, warm shake. Her heart skittered again, but to her relief their shared laughter covered a sudden shortness of breath. What was wrong with her? Flirting with some kid's father—and some other woman's husband. Maybe it was the new medication making her feel giddy. Yeah, that was it.
"Bill's son, right?"
"You know my old man?"
"She lives in an RV, Dad," Davy interjected. "In the campground. Is that cool or what?"
"Way cool." Joe's eyes narrowed with the same speculative look Meg always got when people heard she lived in a house on wheels. A look filled with "whys" they were too polite to ask.
Joe folded his arms, his forehead wrinkling. "So, why do you live in an RV?"
She laughed. "Why not?"
Davy tugged on his father's pant leg. "We turned out the lights in Sunday school, and she showed us balloon lightning."
Joe cocked his head in question.
"You set a ball of clay on the table and insert two stretched-out paper clips like antennae. Then you rub a balloon against a woolen scarf." She demonstrated with her hands. "Hold the balloon close to the paper clips, and voilà! Sparks."
"Whoa. Now it's my turn to say it—shiver me timbers! That's outside the norm for a Sunday school lesson, isn't it?"
Meg shrugged, unable to drag her gaze from his. "I'm a science teacher. Sometimes I get carried away."
Like right now. Losing herself in the warmth of his eyes. And oh my, that smile. Some lucky woman had sure hit the prayer request jackpot.
"My daddy's a science teacher, too," Davy chimed in, his face glowing with pride as he wrapped an arm around his father's leg.
Meg's interest quickened. "Where?"
"Nowhere yet." Joe ran a hand along the back of his neck. "But it looks like I'll soon be blowing the dust off an ancient secondary education degree."
A knot twisted in Meg's stomach. "Locally?"
"Yeah, my old school principal, Ben Cameron, is still holding down the academic fort here. Can you believe it? Says he may have a science teacher who won't be returning after maternity leave. So I guess there is some truth to that saying. You know, when God closes a door, He opens a window."
Or slams both shut. Hard. Meg swallowed. "So this is your hometown?"
A dimple surfaced. "For better or for worse, I'm a product of Canyon Springs."
She heard the laughter in his voice, clearly oblivious of the blow he'd dealt her.
"So," he continued, his eyes attentive, "you're a science teacher. Here?"
"Subbing. Show Low. Pinetop-Lakeside. Anyplace within driving distance. At Canyon Springs exclusively the past month." She zipped her hoodie, then rubbed her palms together, willing her circulation to jump-start and the erratic beat of her heart to subside.
This couldn't be happening.
"Great. Then I'll know at least one familiar face at the faculty meetings."
"Miss Meg?" The little boy stepped forward, his eyes dancing. "Did you know I was named after Davy Jones Locker?"
She knelt down to his level, still attempting to suppress the anxiety washing over her in icy waves. "No, I had no idea. I'm impressed." She glanced up at his father, forcing a smile. "Way to go, Dad."
Joe's arms remained folded, but he cast an amused sidelong glance in Davy's direction. "He was named after his grandfather. David. On his mother's side."
Davy shrugged, his smile impish.
"So, which of you," Meg whispered to the boy, "is Captain Jack?"
"Me," father and son responded in unison.
Both nodded, Davy an adorable Mini-Me of his parent.
Joe motioned to his son. "Davy wanted to be the other guy— until I congratulated him on getting the girl."
"I don't want to get the girl." Davy rolled his eyes, then pointed to his father. "And he doesn't want to get the girl either."
Meg laughed and stood. "I'm sure your mom's relieved to hear that."
For a flashing moment Davy's eyes registered confusion, but his father scooped him into his arms and heaved him over a broad shoulder. Joe pulled the patch down over his eye again and spun toward the door.
"Aarrr! Come, Captain. Our ship sets sail. Bid Miss Meg farewell."
"Aye, aye, sir!" Giggling, the little boy clutched his hat to his head and waved. "Farewell, Miss Meg."
"Bye, Davy. I'll see both you Captains at church tomorrow."
"This Captain." The little boy waved a chubby finger at himself. "Grandpa will bring me."
"Okay. See you then."
Oh, no. Meg rushed to the door as the pirate pair stepped onto the porch. "Excuse me, um, Davy's dad?"
Joe swung around to face her with a still-snickering Davy over his shoulder. "Joe."
"Right. Joe. About your headache—"
"Gone. Must have been that earring." Grin broadening, he winked. "But thanks for asking."
Flirt. Bet the little woman at home has to keep a short leash on you.
"Sure. But I mean… the aspirin?"
She pointed, and he glanced down at the box still clutched in his fingers. With an apologetic shake of his head, he tossed the aspirin through the open door in a high arc. She caught it with both hands.
"Thanks for keeping me honest, Miss Meg. Wouldn't want to get arrested in the old hometown." He bestowed another wink. "At least not right off the bat."
He turned away, his footsteps echoing a hollow cadence on the wooden porch.
"Dad, can we have pirate food tonight?" Davy's plaintive voice carried back to Meg.
"What? Fish sticks? Again?"
"So you met Canyon Springs' hometown hunk and hero rolled into one." Sharon Dixon, the shop's owner, maneuvered her considerable weight and a metal walker over the threshold. Her auburn hair now lacking the tell-tale gray it sported earlier in the day, the fifty-five-year-old glanced in a mirror hanging inside the door and brushed at her bangs.
A former heavy smoker, her voice came in rasping fragments. "Saw him come out the door as I was leaving the Cut-n-Curl. Quite the looker. Cute kid, too. But don't get any ideas. Joe' ll tire of this place. Faster than you can bat your big baby blues at him."
Catching a whiff of generously lacquered-on hairspray, Meg laid a stack of T-shirts on the shelf she'd been stocking, grateful it had been a slow afternoon and the shop was devoid of customers at the moment. Why did people always assume that because she was single, she "got ideas" anytime an attractive man crossed her path? She'd hardly given the eye-catching pirate a second thought—or had she? Okay, maybe a second. Or third.
"Don't worry, Sharon." She turned away to straighten a sunglasses display. "Men in general—and married men in particular—hold little interest for me."
"Joe's not married. Widower."
Meg cringed and gave the display rack a slow spin. No wonder Davy looked confused when she referred to his mother. Or why his father immediately toted him far, far away from the blundering Sunday school assistant.
Usually, she took precautions with parental references at school. No one came from an intact mom-pop-and-two-point-five-kids home anymore. She could blame her change in meds or the distraction of Joe Diaz's dazzling smile all she wanted, but it was her own insensitive mess-up. She'd apologize at the first opportunity.
She stooped to pick up an empty T-shirt box.
"I'm surprised he's still on the market," the older woman continued as she made her way slowly across the room, sneakers peeping from beneath turquoise velour sweatpants. "Good lookin' guy like that, you know? Too bad my Kara's not in town anymore. She had a crush on him when she was in junior high. Probably still does. She tell you about that?"
Kara was Meg's best friend from college and one of the reasons she'd arrived in the somewhat remote Canyon Springs in the first place. Ironically, Kara sounded the bugle to charge into the world at the very moment Meg called retreat.
"She never mentioned him." No doubt she'd remember her friend talking about a man whose smile could take your breath away and send your heart kicking into overdrive.
"Then she still has a crush on him," her mother concluded with a nod, "even though he hasn't been around these parts since high school. Took off for college, then the Navy. But just as well she's not here. He won't be for long either."
"I don't know about that." Meg stripped the seam tape from the cardboard box in her hands, wadded it and tossed it in a nearby trash can. "It sounded like he plans to stay awhile. He's applying for a teaching job."
"Around here? In his dreams. Look at how long you've waited."
Meg dropped the box to the floor and flattened it with her foot. "A science teaching job."
Sharon's eyes widened and she clasped a hand to her mouth. "Oh, no."
"Oh, yes." Meg gave the box another stomp. "Ben Cameron, his old principal, has apparently told him he's just the man for the job."
"Can he do that? Doesn't the board or somebody have to approve it?"
Meg shrugged. "Davy's dad—Joe—thinks God's opening a window."
Sharon scoffed. "Pooh. I have it from a good source—Joe's dad—that Joe hasn't graced a church door since his wife died. What's he know about God opening any windows?"
"You don't always have to be sitting in the front row pew for God to hear you," Meg said. "Or for you to hear from God. And for some people, church is the hardest place to go when they've suffered the loss of a loved one."
Sharon scoffed again and eyed Meg. "I hope you told Joe you have a prior claim to the job. Need it more than he does."
Her heart lurched. "Of course I didn't."
Sharon eased the walker closer. "Doll, you can't let him come in and roll right over you. As I recall, that boy's used to calling the shots and getting his own way. This will be no different if you don't take a stand."
"I'm not going to make a play for the sympathy vote." Meg's lips tightened. She'd decided that right from the beginning and she wasn't backing down now. The job was either God's will or it wasn't. Manipulation on her part wasn't going to play a role in the outcome.