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"I know your secret, mister."
Spence McKaslin jerked his attention away from the spreadsheets and frowned at his sister, Danielle. She was leaning against the doorjamb to his office with her arms crossed in front of her. Somehow she managed to look kindly and meddling all at once. He frowned. "What secret do you think you know? I don't have any secrets. I don't have time for any."
"Sure. I know you're a busy man." She laughed. A loving soul, she always had a smile for everyone these days, especially since her hardship at home was over. Her wedding ring sparkled as she shook her head at him with utmost disapproval. Mischief flashed in her dark eyes, and she gave an eye roll. "You can't fool me, big brother. I'm on to you."
"Wow, I'm really worried." What on earth was she talking about? he wondered. What did she think she knew? It had to be really good, considering the amusement on her face. He didn't approve of amusement.
Amusement had never helped him. He shoved his chair back and moved a little. His muscles were stiff from sitting in the same position for the past hour or so.
Snow was falling harder outside his office's corner window, obscuring the buildings across the parking lot and disguising the pavement so it looked like a winter wonderland. He scowled. He didn't like wonderlands either. "Talk to me about something real. Something that matters. How's the traffic?"
She flashed him that glimmer of humor. "It's November, you know that, right? I heard that it's snowing. This morning it was sunny, and now there's a surprise winter storm advisory out there. The roads are a mess."
It was his turn for an eye roll. This is what he got for working with family. Family you couldn't choose, and they were impossible to order around. Harder to fire. He tried to hide his great affection for Danielle behind a bigger scowl. He had a reputation to protect. "I was asking about the store."
"I know." That stubborn cheerfulness didn't dim one iota. "Spence, you would be an incredibly handsome man if you would just put a smile on your face."
"Now you're sounding like Dorrie." Dorrie was his stepmom and Danielle's mom. "I'm not falling for that handsome line. I don't mind looking homely and disagreeable."
"Sure, you don't, but the rest of us have to look at you, brother dear." She gave him a wink, still lighthearted and apparently distracted from the topic of his secret.
Whew. He had only one secret and no one repeat no oneknew about that. There were days when that secret was so secret that he almost couldn't remember it himself.
"We haven't had a customer for the last two hours." Danielle gave him the lookthe mom look she used on her kids. "I've counted down the tills, I'm turning over the sign and I'm going home."
Good thing he was immune to the mom look. "This is my store. We stay open until closing time."
"I'm driving home while I can still navigate the roads. I sent Kelly home, too."
"What?" That brought him to his feet. This was his store and Katherine, whom Danielle had replaced as his assistant manager, understood that. He and Dani were still figuring out how to work together. She was still new, but that didn't mean she could go usurping his authority. "Customers depend on us to be open."
"Customers are not going to be fighting through the snow to find us on Thanksgiving Eve." That smile faltered, and it was replaced by something worsesympathy, maybe even pity. "I know you don't want to go home. I understand what it's like to unlock the door and step into an empty house. Remember when Jonas was in the Seattle clinic?"
"I remember." Remembering made his chest tangle up with a whole lot of feelings he had no interest in feeling. Jonas, his brother-in-law and Dani's husband, had been shot on a routine traffic stop a year and a half ago, and no one had thought he would recover from his traumatic brain injury. But he was coming along just fine. Grateful, Spence swallowed hard, managing to beat down every emotion. "Go home to your husband and kids. They're waiting for you. I'll close up here."
"I don't want you staying late." Her look turned to one of concern. "You're welcome to drop by for dinner. Jonas is cooking, and he's gotten pretty good. He's been watching cooking shows on television. I think he's doing homemade pizza tonight. It should be tasty."
Sure, he knew what she was doing, offering him a balm for his loneliness. He couldn't count the number of times he'd taken her up on it, and he liked the idea of having somewhere to be. He and Jonas could catch a sports show. There were the munchkinshis little niece and nephewto play with. One thing he liked was Dani's kids.
But what if he had failed to distract her? What if she really had figured out his secret? Then there was no way he was going to put himself in close proximity to her so she could bring that secret out in the open. He hated to, but he forced out the words. "No, thanks. Maybe another night."
"Sure. Okay." Danielle took a step back, and that mischief returned to her eyes. She disappeared into her office for a few minutes, and the next time he saw her she was wearing a black wool coat and had her purse in hand.
"Drive safe," he called out, going back to his worrying spreadsheets.
"I will. Thanks." Danielle stopped at his door. "I should tell you that you're not alone in the store. Lucy came"
"Lucy?" he interrupted. The spreadsheet numbers rolled right out of his head. His mind went blank. His lungs forgot to suck in air. "Lucy Chapin is here?"
"You don't have to say that like she's contagious with the bird flu. She's signing a shipment of her latest book because I asked her to," Danielle explained as if that was no big deal.
It was a big deal. His pulse began to thud in his ears. His palms went dampa sure sign of panic. "Lucy is here right now?"
"She's in the break room. Are you all right, Spence? You've gone beet-red."
"Just my blood pressure." Or worse. And in that moment his worst suspicions about Danielle had come true. Not only did she know how he felt about Lucy Chapin but she was leaving him alone with her on purpose. There was no other explanation. "How did you know?"
"Careful observation." Danielle didn't even look apologetic as she turned on her heels. "I'm thinking she'll be done in a few minutes. The least you can do is thank her, and see if she needs anything else."
"You do it."
"Sorry. I've got to get home. Talking to her would do you good, Spence." She called over her shoulder and sauntered around the front counter. "Call me, and tell me how it goes."
He couldn't see anything other than red. Bright crimson splashed across his field of vision. He put his hands to his face. This was too much. How had she guessed? Danielle was good; he had to give her that. Somehow she had figured out he had a tiny, miniscule, barely nothing at all crush on Lucy Chapin.
Not that you could really even call it a crush. More like a dysfunction of his eyes, which made them always turn toward her whenever they were in the same room. That was all. Nothing more. Nothing serious.
He didn't believe in love. Not even a little bit. So he got up and closed the door. With any luck, Lucy would finish her signing and leave all on her own without a single word to him. Besides, it wasn't as if she liked him either. She'd always done her best to steer clear of him.
With any luck, she would avoid him, and his eyes wouldn't malfunction and glue to her pretty face and gentle smile. Comforted, he bowed his head over his profit ratios and tried to concentrate.
The phone rang. He snatched it up. "Corner Christian Books. How can I help you?"
Wait. He knew that soft voice, as melodic as lark song. Every defensive shield he had went up around his heart. "Lucy?"
"I'm calling from the break room. Danielle said you were busy in your office, and I didn't"
His ears stopped taking incoming information. There was just a haze of static as he digested what she'd said so far. She was calling him from the break room? He shook his head. That was something his younger sister Ava would dothe flaky sister. He adored Ava, but he didn't trust her with a set of keys to the store. "You're calling me when you're what, ten yards away?"
"Sure." She seemed unfazed by that or at least unable to see that her behavior was, well, quirky. "I didn't want to interrupt you."
"By knocking instead of calling?"
She was silent a moment, but when she spoke, her voice was still stubbornly meadowlarkish. "This is just a quick call. I've hauled the books back to the storeroom in the boxes, just like they came. I'll go out the back, and I'll be out of your way, but I wanted to make sure the alarm wasn't on. I don't have the best luck with alarms."
"No, I haven't set it yet."
"But Danielle locked up and turned off the store lights, and so I just wanted to make sure" She must have felt she had to explain.
He was probably sounding terse again. Well, better that than vulnerable, right? He was grateful for the hard-won shields he'd learned to put up around his heartaround everything. "Fine. I understand. You're free to go."
"Great. Thanks." Surely he'd insulted her, but it didn't show in her voice. "Have a good evening. Bye."
The line went dead, but he couldn't seem to move. Even her voice had a strange effect on him.
Her kind alto seemed to circle around in his head, and he wished for one second that he was a different kind of manone who believed in true love and happy endings and all that make-believe stuff. Because if he could, then at least he wouldn't be alone. Instead of wishing he'd never see Lucy Chapin again; he would be hoping he could see her again. Talk to her. Take her out to dinner. But he wasn't that kind of a man.
He was the type of man who went back to his work. To his responsibilities. The store was his parents'. Some thought that meant an easy ride, since he'd walked into this job and his parents weren't about to find fault with him. But working for his folks meant something different to him. Commitment. Responsibility. Going beyond and doing all he possibly could. It was the least he could do for Dad and Dorrie. He disappointed a lot of people every day, but one thing he would never do was disappoint them.
The phone rang again. Good thing he'd stayed behind. He grabbed the receiver. "Corner Christian Books. How can I help you?"
"Spence?" said a familiar gentle voice. "It's me again. Lucy."
Lucy. He grimaced, fighting to keep his mind from going numb. His senses from going to static. To keep the steel around his heart.
"I can see you're not thrilled I bothered you again," she went on, apologetically but obviously not sorry enough to hang up and put him out of his misery. "Believe me, I called everyone else I know. The trouble is I don't know all that many people, at least anyone I can call during a blizzard to come get me."
"To come get you?" He swallowed hard, grateful his guards were still up. Now he just had to keep them there. "That sounds like car trouble. Won't it start? I'll call the auto club. I'll have someone here immediately."
"Oh, if only that was the problem. Then it would be easily solved."
"Then what's the problem?"
"The snowplow went by and buried my car. I can't get it out. I don't suppose you have a shovel I can borrow."
"A shovel?" He put a hand to his forehead and started rubbing as if he had a sudden, mammoth headache. "No. Sorry."
"Okay. Just thought I'd ask." She could see him across the parking lot. His forehead was still in his hand. There was no missing that grimace of his. She turned away, not wanting to see it. Not wanting to watch him when he thought he was alone. She tried to tell herself it didn't matter. Spence McKaslin was more like the abominable snowman whenever he was around her, which is why she stayed away from him whenever possible. She knew him only in passing; she hardly knew him at all. But she did know that he was very standoffish. She should give him a break and figure out someone to calllike a cab company.