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The morning sun shot shafts of light over the mountains. It picked up the hints of red and gold among the deep green leaves and had them glowing. From somewhere in the woods came a rustling as a rabbit darted back to its burrow, while overhead a bird chirped with an insistent cheerfulness. Clinging to the line of fences along the road were clumps of honeysuckle. The light scent from the few lingering blossoms wafted in the air. In a distant field a farmer and his son harvested the last of the summer hay. The rumble of the bailer was steady and distinct.
Over the mile trek to town only one car passed. Its driver lifted his hand in a salute. Shane waved back. It was good to be home.
Walking on the grassy shoulder of the road, she plucked a blossom of honeysuckle and, as she had as a child, drew in the fleetingly sweet aroma. When she crushed the flower between her fingers, its fragrance briefly intensified. It was a scent she associated with summer, like barbecue smoke and new grass. But this was summer's end.
Shane looked forward to fall eagerly, when the mountains would be at their best. Then the colors were breathtaking and the air was clean and crisp. When the wind came, the world would be full of sound and flying leaves. It was the time of woodsmoke and fallen acorns.
Curiously, she felt as though she'd never been away. She might still have been twenty-one, walking from her grandmother's to Sharpsburg to buy a gallon of milk or a loaf of bread. The busy Baltimore streets, the sidewalks and crowds of the last four years might have been a dream. She might never have spent those four years teaching in an inner-city school, correcting exams and attending faculty meetings.
Yet four years had passed. Her grandmother's narrow two-story house was now Shane's. The uneven, wooded three acres of land were hers as well. And while the mountains and woods were the same, Shane was not.
Physically, she looked almost as she had when she had left western Maryland for the job in a Baltimore high school. She was small in height and frame, with a slender figure that had never developed the curves and roundness she'd hoped for. Her face was subtly triangular with its creamy skin touched with warm color. It had been called peaches and cream often enough to make Shane wince. There were dimples that flashed when she smiled, rather than the elegant cheekbones she had wished for. Her nose was small, dusted with freckles, tilted up at the end. Pert. Shane had suffered the word throughout her life.
Under thin arched brows, her eyes were large and dark. Whatever emotion she felt was mirrored in them. They were rarely cool. Habitually, she wore her hair short, and it curled naturally to frame her face in a deep honey blond. As her temperament was almost invariably happy, her face was usually animated, her small, sculpted mouth tilted up. The adjective used most to describe her was cute. Shane had grown to detest the word, but lived with it. Nothing could be done to alter sharp, vital attractiveness into sultry beauty.
As she rounded the last curve in the road before coming into town, she had a sudden flash of having done so before—as a child, as a teenager, as a girl on the brink of womanhood. It gave her a sense of security and belonging. Nothing in the city had ever given her the simple pleasure of being part of the whole.
Laughing, she took the final yards at a run, then burst through the door of the general store. The bells jingled fiercely before it slammed shut.
"Hi, yourself." The woman behind the counter grinned at her. "You're out early this morning."
"When I woke up, I discovered I was out of coffee." Spotting the box of fresh doughnuts on the counter, Shane rolled her eyes and headed for them. "Oh, Donna, cream filled?"
"Yeah." Donna watched with an envious sigh as Shane chose one and bit into it. For the better part of twenty years, she'd seen Shane eat like a linebacker without gaining an ounce of fat.
Though they had grown up together, they were as different as night and day. Where Shane was fair, Donna was dark. Shane was small; Donna was tall and well rounded. For most of their lives, Donna had been content to play follower to Shane's leader. Shane was the adventurer. Donna had liked nothing better than to point out all the flaws in whatever plans she was hatching, then wholeheartedly fall in with it.
"So, how are you settling in?"
"Pretty well," Shane answered with her mouth full.
"You've hardly been in since you got back in town."
"There's been so much to do. Gran couldn't keep the place up the last few years." Both affection and grief came through in her voice. "She was always more interested in her gardening than a leaky roof. Maybe if I had stayed—"
"Oh, now don't start blaming yourself again." Donna cut her off, drawing her straight dark brows together.
"You know she wanted you to take that teaching job. Faye Abbott lived to be ninety-four. That's more than a lot of people can hope for. And she was a feisty old devil right to the end."
Shane laughed. "You're absolutely right. Sometimes I'm sure she's sitting in her kitchen rocker making certain I wash up my dishes at night." The thought made her want to sigh for the childhood that was gone, but she pushed the mood away. "I saw Amos Messner out in the field with his son haying." After finishing off the doughnut, Shane dusted her hands on the seat of her pants. "I thought Bob was in the army."
"Got discharged last week. He's going to marry a girl he met in North Carolina."
Donna smiled smugly. It always pleased her, as proprietor of the general store, to be the ears and eyes of the town. "She's coming to visit next month. She's a legal secretary."
"How old is she?" Shane demanded, testing.
Throwing back her head, Shane laughed in delight.
"Oh, Donna, you're terrific. I feel as though I've never been away."
The familiar unrestricted laugh made Donna grin. "I'm glad you're back. We missed you."
Shane settled a hip against the counter. "Where's Benji?"
"Dave's got him upstairs." Donna preened a bit, thinking of her husband and son. "Letting that little devil loose down here's only asking for trouble. We'll switch off after lunch."
"That's the beauty of living on top of your business." Finding the opening she had hoped for, Donna pounced on it. "Shane, are you still thinking about converting the house?"
"Not thinking," Shane corrected. "I'm going to do it." She hurried on, knowing what was about to follow.
"There's always room for another small antique shop, and with the museum attached, it'll be distinctive."
"But it's such a risk," Donna pointed out. The excited gleam in Shane's eyes had her worrying all the more. She'd seen the same gleam before the beginning of any number of outrageous and wonderful plots. "The expense—"
"I have enough to set things up." Shane shrugged off the pessimism. "And most of my stock can come straight out of the house for now. I want to do it, Donna," she went on as her friend frowned at her.
"My own place, my own business." She glanced around the compact, well-stocked store. "You should know what I mean."
"Yes, but I have Dave to help out, to lean on. I don't think I could face starting or managing a business all on my own."
"It's going to work." Her eyes drifted beyond Donna, fixed on their own vision. "I can already see how it's going to look when I'm finished."
"All the remodeling."
"The basic structure of the house will stay the same," Shane countered. "Modifications, repairs." She brushed them away with the back of her hand. "A great deal of it would have to be done if I were simply going to live there."
"I've applied for everything."
"I've already seen an accountant." She grinned as Donna sighed. "I have a good location, a solid knowledge of antiques, and I can recreate every battle of the Civil War."
"And do at the least provocation."
"Be careful," Shane warned her, "or I'll give you another rundown on the Battle of Antietam."
When the bells on the door jingled again, Donna heaved an exaggerated sigh of relief. "Hi, Stu."
The next ten minutes were spent in light gossiping as Donna rang up and bagged dry goods. It would take little time to catch up on the news Shane had missed over the last four years.
Shane was accepted as an oddity—the hometown girl who had gone to the city and come back with big ideas. She knew that to the older residents of the town and countryside she would always be Faye Abbott's granddaughter. They were a proprietary people, and she was one of their own. She hadn't settled down and married Cy Trainer's boy as predicted, but she was back now.
"Stu never changes," Donna said when she was alone with Shane again. "Remember in high school when we were sophomores and he was a senior, captain of the football team and the best-looking hunk in a sweaty jersey?"
"And nothing much upstairs," Shane added dryly. "You always did go for the intellectual type. Hey," she continued before Shane could retort, "I might just have one for you."
"Have one what?"
"An intellectual. At least that's how he strikes me. He's your neighbor too," she added with a growing smile.
"He bought the old Farley place. Moved in early last week."
"The Farley place?" Shane's brows arched, giving Donna the satisfaction of knowing she was announcing fresh news. "The house was all but gutted by the fire. Who'd be fool enough to buy that ramshackle barn of a place?"