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"Really, Nana? This is the house you want to buy?" Shannon Deacon wrapped her arms around her midsection, frowning at the older Craftsman house tucked against tall fir trees. Its low-pitched roof, wide eaves and heavy beams supporting the spacious deck created an air both welcoming and solid, a feeling Shannon knew her nana treasured.
"I'm tired of looking around," Nana Beck said as she got out of Shannon's car. "This house and yard are big enough for all my grandchildren and future greatgrandchildren. Now that you've let your lease run out on your apartment, there's lots of room for you to stay with me until you until after Carter and Emma's wedding."
Shannon didn't miss the hesitation in her grandmother's last sentence. They both knew that a few weeks after Shannon's last duty as bridesmaid for her friend Emma was done, she was taking a holiday and after that, starting a new job in a large Chicago hospital almost two thousand miles from Nana, her cousins and Hartley Creek, British Columbia.
"But why here? In this neighborhood?" Shannon continued. And why a house beside Sophie Brouwer's?
Shannon's gaze drifted unwillingly to the starkly modern home sitting on an unbroken expanse of lawn a few hundred feet away. Less than a year ago Sophie Brouwer had been on the verge of becoming her mother-in-law. Then her son Arthur had dumped Shannon two weeks before their wedding and now the sight of that house was a painful and embarrassing reminder of the past.
Nana patted her shoulder. "Honey, I didn't move next door to Arthur's mother on purpose. This house really was the only one I wanted. Besides, you are well over Arthur by now and you're better off without him."
"So you keep saying."
"Don't worry, honey. You'll find someone else," Nana consoled her.
"I don't want to find anyone else," Shannon said, unable to keep the sharpness out of her voice. "I have no intention of making myself that vulnerable again. Ever."
Her nana's surprised look made Shannon regret her angry tone. Shannon dragged her hands over her face, feeling the heavy funk of sleep deprivation. She knew it had as much to do with her mood as her nana's choice to live next door to her ex-fiance's mother. Shannon had just come off a hectic twelve-hour shift in the emergency department of Hartley Creek Hospital and her head still buzzed. She didn't get a break until her shift ended.
Shannon held the door open for her grandmother just as her cell phone sent out its happy chimes. She glanced at the number and her heart sank. The hospital. "I'll just be a minute," she said. "I'll meet you inside."
"Don't be too long," Nana warned. "I want to go downtown after this to put in an offer on the house."
Shannon nodded, then pushed a button to connect the call. "Shannon here," she said into the phone, just as a large diesel truck pulled up behind her grandmother's car. The driver stopped, stretched his arms out in front of him, then pulled his hands over his face. He looked as tired as Shannon felt.
His features created a thud in her chest, but as he adjusted his cap, she caught a glimpse of dark hair instead of blond. Brown eyes instead of blue.
Not Arthur, thank goodness, she thought as her heart slowed its heavy beat, but this man's face, though obscured by a cap, still teased out a memory.
"You'll be glad to know I got your shift covered for tomorrow," her colleague Daphne was saying over the phone. "But I really need you to work the rest of the week."
Shannon felt a heavy weariness fall on her at the thought of having to work again in thirty-six hours after six twelve-hour shifts in a row.
"You do realize I'm only supposed to work three shifts a week until I quit," she said, glancing at the truck again still trying to figure out why the driver looked familiar.
"If it's any consolation Doc Henneson has been going steady for the past week and so has Doc Shuster as well as Dr. Martin. Sure wish we could find another doctor willing to work out here."
"Poor guys. That is some consolation," Shannon said. "I guess I'll see you in thirty-six hours then. Take care." Shannon ended the call and blew out an exhausted breath. The hospital had been running short staffed for the past couple of months, which made Shannon feel even more guilty about quitting and moving away. But she had made her mind up. She would have left this town sooner, but her grandmother's heart attack shortly after the canceled wedding had made her postpone her plans. Then her cousin's own wedding made her postpone her plans again. But after that, she was out of here.
She dropped her phone in her pocket just as the driver of the truck, who now had his back to her, pulled a box out of the back. Then he turned.
Shannon felt a pain in her chest as the memories clicked into place.
The dark hair worn short, the deep-set brown eyes, the eyebrows like two dark slashes across the bridge of his forehead, his unsmiling mouth and the cleft in his chin all combined to create a cruel twist in her heart.
From the first time she had met Ben Brouwer, Arthur's older brother, she'd been struck by the differences between the two brothers. While Arthur was blond, blue eyed and outgoing, Ben was dark, taciturn and, if she was honest, a bit intimidating. A curious trait for an emergency-room doctor.
Ben shifted the box, then looked up. He pulled back, as if he'd been hit, taking a step backward. Then he recovered and sauntered up the walk.
"Hello, Shannon," he said, his deep voice reverberating in the quiet of the neighborhood.
The afternoon sun cast his face in shadow, making him look even more stern. As he came nearer she saw his eyes fringed with thick, dark lashes and in their brown depths she caught a glimpse of pain and regret.
The same pain and regret she'd seen in his eyes a year ago when he had come to her apartment to tell her that his brother, Arthur, Shannon's fiance, was calling off the wedding and had already left town.
Shannon wondered if Ben had given her another thought after throwing his horrible, life-changing news into her life, then leaving. She wondered if he regretted covering for his cowardly brother.
And then, as their gazes met and clung, in spite of her memories, a hint of attraction budded in her dormant heart.
No. This wasn't happening. Not a chance. Hadn't she learned her lesson?
She swallowed and gave him a tight nod, her arms wrapped around her midsection, as if protecting herself from her own renegade emotions.
"Visiting your mother?" she asked, pleased she could sound so casual around this man who had been the chief spectator of her total humiliation.
Ben looked down at the box he held and shook his head. "Actually, no. I'm moving in."
Shannon blinked, surprised and confused at his words. "But I thought you worked thought you were a doctor in Ottawa working in the emergency department."
"I'm taking time away from work," he said, the cold note in his voice creating an answering chill in Shannon. "Helping my mother do some much-needed work on her house and yard."
"I see." But she didn't. Surely he could hire someone to do the work instead of taking time away from an important job?
"And why are you here?" he asked in the brusque voice she easily remembered from before.
"My nanagrandmother," she added, "she's moving from my cousin Carter's ranch into town and looking for a house. She seems to be attached to this one."
She wasn't imagining the deepening of Ben Brou-wer's frown or the thinning of his lips. He seemed to have the same opinion of her grandmother's choice that she had, though why he cared she didn't know.
"Isn't it a bit large for her?" he asked.
"It's a lot large for her but she does have a lot of family. Anyway, it's still up in the air." Now that she knew Ben Brouwer would be living next door, as well, Shannon knew she wasn't moving in with her nana. There was no way she wanted to see Ben Brouwer every day.
Or, worse yet, run the risk of seeing his brother.
Ben's only reply was a curt nod. "I hope she finds something that works for her."
Then his features softened and his eyes caught hers again. "And how have you been?"
His words, so quiet, so mundane, rested between them, weighted with the past.
The muted sounds of the town surrounded them. A hopeful bird sent out a sweet song, looking for a mate. The swish of vehicles on other streets, the cries of people in other yards. In the distance the train sent out its melancholy clarion call. All the sounds threaded through each other reminding Shannon that life moved on.
Shannon drew in a slow breath, trying to measure her words. Though she wasn't sure why it mattered, she didn't want this man to think her life had been defined by his brother's broken promises.
Even though it had.
"I'm good. I've I've got a job in Chicago starting in a couple of months."
His frown deepened. "So you're leaving Hartley Creek?"
"But I thought you loved it here."
And as Arthur's brother, he would know. The fact that Shannon had wanted to stay in this town after she and Arthur were married had been a source of tension between them. In fact, as soon as Arthur had called off the wedding, he had moved away.
Ben's expression grew even more serious and in his eyes Shannon saw something that created a curl of anger in her midsection.
"I hope you enjoy your stay with your mother." She cut him off midsympathy. She didn't want this man's pity. "I'm sure she'll enjoy having you around."
Thankfully he got the hint and simply nodded his reply.
They endured an awkward moment of silence; then Shannon poked her thumb over her shoulder. "I better have a look inside."
And before he could say anything more, she turned and walked away, resisting the urge to shoot another look over her shoulder. Ben Brouwer was just another man and she wasn't interested in any man.
Especially not one who had been the instrument of so much pain and sorrow.
She looked the same and yet so different. Ben watched Shannon walk to the door of the house, still wearing her brightly colored nurse scrubs.
Her auburn hair flowing down her back looked longer than he remembered and she had lost weight. Her face was narrower, and the smattering of freckles that his brother, Arthur, had always thought so cute were more pronounced against the paleness of her complexion. Her eyes had grown harder and she held her mouth a bit tighter, as if restraining her emotions.
But she was just as beautiful as the last time he'd seen her when he'd gone to her apartment to deliver the news his cowardly brother couldn't. News that Arthur had changed his mind and couldn't marry Shannon after all.
That day, as now, Shannon had been wearing her nurse's white shoes as she stood in the middle of the living room of her apartment, smoothing her hands down the front of the immaculately white wedding gown skimming her slender figure. Her younger sister, Hailey, knelt at her feet, pushing Shannon's hands away, fussing at her about getting stains on her dress only two weeks before her wedding. That day Shannon's wavy hair was pulled back away from a face flushed with anticipation.
She had looked so beautiful, Ben remembered. His younger brother's bride.
When he had come into Shannon's apartment, she had laughed with nervous excitement at his presence, reprimanding him for seeing her in her dress before the wedding. But her laughter died a hasty death when Ben delivered his news.
The dress she was trying on was unnecessary, he had to tell her. Arthur was calling off the wedding.
Shannon had stared at him, then emitted a nervous laugh. "Not funny," she told him.
And when she understood how serious he was, she had swayed and taken a stumbling step backward, reaching behind her for something, anything, to support her as she stammered out her questions.
Why? What had happened? What had she done wrong?
Hailey had caught Shannon, settled her down and then grabbed Ben, demanding an explanation. Ben stammered out a vague reply about Arthur being unsure for some time now about marrying Shannon and as the day came closer becoming more certain marrying Shannon wasn't right for him.
That was a year ago and at that time Ben had been a stressed-out, overworked emergency-room doctor in a relentlessly busy downtown Ottawa hospital, dealing with a cheating wife who wanted to end their marriage.
He wasn't supposed to come to Hartley until the day before the wedding. Then Arthur called him fifteen days early, asking Ben to please, please come and help him out. He needed his brother badly.
Ben heard the desperation in his brother's voice, called in some favors and shifted the time off he had booked for the wedding, then flew out to help his brother. Maybe even talk him out of what he was sure were prewedding jitters.
But when he got to Hartley Creek it was to discover Arthur had already skipped town, leaving Ben to finish what he couldn't.
Ben still got angry with Arthur when he thought about how easily he had ignored his responsibility to the woman who seemed so devoted to him.
After Ben returned to his job in Ottawa, and after his divorce was finalized, Ben caught himself thinking of Shannon from time to time. But he never called. He doubted she would appreciate contact with any of Arthur's relatives.
Ben adjusted the box he carried, then turned and walked back to his mother's house, putting the memories behind him.
He had his own problems right now. The biggest one was reminding himself to take life one day at a time, like his counselor told him.
As he came up the stairs of his mother's house, she met him at the door, her arms open, her smile even wider. She wore her usual velour jogging suit and running shoes even though the fastest he'd ever seen his mother move was a casual stroll. Her hair, however, was immaculately coiffed, each strand positioned and shellacked so not a hair could shift until the spray was washed off.
"Here you are," she said, reaching her arms out to hug him. "I wondered when you were coming."
"I told you, Mother, four o'clock." He returned her hug with one arm, balancing the box of books with the other. "And here I am."