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Maggie O'Neil loitered outside Scooter's Café in Finnegan's Stand, Kentucky, working up the nerve to enter the restaurant and inquire about her maternal grandmothera woman she'd never laid eyes on in all her thirty years. The urge to climb into her car and drive back to Louisville was so powerful her stomach churned with nausea. Rarely did she react to stress physically. After years of being a nurse practioner, her nerves were strong.
She fingered the envelope in the pocket of her hot pink blazer. The letter, already a month old, was barely legible. Maggie had had to enlist the aid of her nursing colleagues to decipher the chicken scratchesincomplete sentences, misspelled words and bizarre phrases such as "It don't make me no nevermind,"
"layin' up" and "Lans-sake." In the end, her coworkers had determined that the message had been a request for Maggie to return to her deceased mother's birthplace to retrieve the personal possessions left behind when her mother had run away at the age of seventeen.
Maggie had agonized over one sentence in her grandmother's note: "I'm yer only kin on yer mama's side left." And the signature at the bottom of the page: Margaret O'Neil.
Maggie's mother, Catherine O'Neil, had never married Maggie's father, but the two had lived together until he'd perished in a car accident when Maggie was a toddler. The desire to learn more about the woman Catherine had detested, yet had named her daughter after, and the need to discover if her father's relatives remained in the area, had driven Maggie to pack a suitcase and head for Heather's Hollow, her mother's birthplace.
The small town of Finnegan's Stand, not farfrom the hollow, boasted a main street of wooden storefront businesses dating back to the early 1900sa post office, hardware store, beauty salon and Scooter's Café. A gas station and convenience store sat at the end of the street. For a Saturday afternoon, there was little foot traffic. No wonder her mother had felt trapped in this isolated mountain community. Maggie had been born in Louisville, gone to college at the University of Louisville, then landed a nursing job at a satellite clinic sponsored by Baptist Hospital East. In short, she'd lived her entire life in a large city, with movie theaters, shopping malls and chain restaurants at her disposal.
Sweat trickled between her cleavage, but Maggie resisted the urge to rub the front of her blouse. She wanted to blame her overheated body on the weather, but the sunny September day was on the cool side due to the town's higher elevation in the Appalachian Mountains. Her nervousness stemmed from the prospect of meeting her grandmother for the first time. Would the old woman be pleased to see Maggie or barely civil? Caught daydreaming, Maggie didn't notice the café door open. "Howdy, miss." The greeting came from a lumber-jack in a flannel shirt, scruffy jeans and a stained baseball cap. He flashed a tobacco-stained leer. Eeew! A wind gust sent the fine layer of sawdust clinging to his shirt dancing around his head.
"Ya lost or somethin'?" Holding a brown paper sack, its sides soaked with grease, sawdust man paused, his attention shifting between her face and her bosom.
Maggie edged backward until the window pressed against her spine. "You wouldn't happen to know how to get to Heather's Hollow, would you?"
A grimy finger pointed up at the slop of trees behind the town. "Take the road that forks off at the end of the street. Once ya cross Periwinkle Creek, yer in the holler."
"Great." She smiled her thanks.
He leaned forward, his cigarette-scented breath blasting her in the face. "I got time to show ya the way afore I head to the mill."
"Ah, no thank you. I"
"We could have ourselves a little picnic." He held up the greasy bag.
A sliver of apprehension raced across Maggie's shoulders. She'd arrived in Finnegan's Stand less than ten minutes ago and already the small-town charm was losing its appeal. "Ah"
"The lady said no."
Maggie spun and collided with a solid wall of muscle. Hands grabbed her upper arms to steady her. Dressed in combat fatigues and a green T-shirt, which showed off well-defined biceps, the manmake that warriortowered over her five feet six inches. She craned her neck and studied her rescuer's chiseled face.
He had a square jaw, high cheekbones, crooked nose and dark slashing eyebrows that showcased chocolate-brown pools of misery.
Startled by her assumption that the man possessed a wounded soul, she shifted under his probing stare. Her ability to sense things about people had always troubled Maggie. Once, she'd asked her mother about the thoughts that popped into her head, but her mother had attributed the condition to Maggie's overactive imagination.
A single eyebrow lifted at the outer corner, and Maggie's face warmed with embarrassment at having been caught gaping. She faced the mill worker, who appeared ready to bolt. "Thank you for the offer, but I have a few errands to run in town," she lied. With a nod, the man shuffled across the street and disappeared into the hardware store.
Before Maggie had the opportunity to thank the soldier, he slipped into the café. Surreptitiously she watched him claim a seat at the lunch counter, leaving his broad back to her. Something in his gaze had called to Maggie.As if feeling her attention on him, he glanced over his shoulder. Instead of the loneliness and emptiness that had been in his eyes moments earlier, the message he flashed now was loud and clearNo Trespassing.
Startled, she shifted sideways out of view. She blamed her interest in the man on the fact that she'd been involved with an enlisted soldier years ago. But after Michael had been shipped toAfghanistan, where he'd died during his unit's first patrol, she'd sworn off military men. No matter how sexy, strong or handsome, a man in uniform was nothing more than a heartache waiting to happen.
The post-office door opened, snagging Maggie's attention. An elderly woman with long silver hair marched down the sidewalk. Dressed in somber clothingan ankle-length black skirt, navy blouse and a black jacketthe granny toted a rifle.
Was carrying a firearm in plain view legal? The woman climbed into a truck that should have found its way to a junkyard years ago. The engine sputtered, died once, then roared to life with a bang! Expecting her to drive at a snail's pace, Maggie gasped when the old biddy blew through the stop sign at the end of the street and sent the truck fishtailing as she swerved left and disappeared around the bend in the road.
I understand why you took off, Mom. The place was full of kooks.
At the squeak of the café door, the muscles along Abram Devane's shoulders twisted into a giant knot. The woman with the bewitching green eyes and midnight-black hair strolled toward him. He studied her reflection in the stainless-steel shelving across from the lunch counter. He'd bumped into her kind beforefemmes fatales who fawned over men in uniform, then cut out when their perfect warriors arrived home not so perfect. Forcing his gaze back to the menu, he feigned interest in the daily special of meat loaf and mashed potatoes.
Clip, clop. Clip, clop. Clop. She paused about a foot away. Too close for comfort. Her intriguing scent drifted over his shoulder, reminding him of an activity he hadn't experienced in a long, long timesex.
A feminine voice floated into his ear. "Excuse me. I hate to bother you." She slid onto the stool next to him, evidently not hating to bother him enough to leave him alone.
Bracing himself, he cranked his neck sideways and made eye contact. Yep. He hadn't been mistaken. She was a knockout.
Green eyes blinked. "I'm searching for a Margaret O'Neil."
Betty Sue, where the hell are you? he wondered. The waitress had disappeared. Abram had made few acquaintances since arriving in the area a month ago and mostly kept to himself. The localsexcluding the stunning brunette next to himrespected his privacy. "Don't know a Margaret O'Neil."
Her simple utterance grabbed Abram by the gut and yanked. Just like a woman to insert the right amount of helplessness in a single word to guilt a man into rescuing her.
"You must not be from around here, either," she stated.
"Nope." Abram had been born and raised in a small Ohio town. He was stayingwell, hiding outin a former army buddy's cabin. If he hadn't had the need for a few groceries and the taste of real coffee, he wouldn't have made the trip into town today. After ten years in the military, he still struggled to brew a decent pot of coffee. Once a week he trekked into Finnegan's Stand to treat himself to Betty Sue's Colombian roast.
The woman next to him fidgeted, her earthy musk scentlike that of a belly dancer he'd watched perform in Jordan a few years agowafting past his nose.
Her whispered assertion drew his eyes to her mouth.
Full lips painted with the barest hint of red shine. Lips that begged for a man's mouth to cover them. A man's lips to lick them his teeth to nibble them his tongue to thrust between them. She was by far the most striking woman he'd ever encounteredwhich said a lot, seeing how he'd observed his share of exotic beauties throughout his military career.
A beautiful mouth combined with olive skin and high cheekbones hinted at a Native-American heritage. Although at first glance her hair had appeared black, under the flourescent lights, hints of auburn popped. Her eyes captivated him most, their expressiveness reeling him in like a fish.
"Thanks for your help outside." When she smiled, Abram swore flecks of gold flashed in the glittering green orbs.
Intrigued, he wondered if her eyes changed color when a man was deep inside her. The notion didn't shock him. After the things he'd experienced in the army, a passing sexual thought about a relative stranger was the least offensive.
Just then, Betty Sue stepped out of the kitchen and the tension drained from his body.
"Coffee?" The waitress set a cup on the counter and began pouring.
"Thank you," the black-haired beauty answered. Abram detected a hint of a southern accent, but nothing heavy like that of the old-timers in the area. She'd probably grown up in the city.
"Our cashier quit yesterday." Betty topped off Abram's mug. "I got folks to ring up before I take your order." She set the pot on the warmer, then cut across the room to the register near the door.
The stool beside him spun and the woman's knees bumped the side of his thigh, sending a zap of awareness through his body. "Maggie O'Neil. I'm from Louisville, but my mother grew up here."
City girlhe'd guessed right. "Abram Devane," he muttered, hoping she'd accept the hint that he wasn't interested in conversation.
"My mother passed away several months ago and I received a letter from my grandmother asking me to " She shook her head, the motion sending her long locks swishing across her shoulders. "I'm sure you don't care to hear about my problems."
With another heartfelt sigh, she faced forward. "As soon as I collect my mother's belongings, I'm heading back to civilization."
In Abram's opinion, civilization wasn't all it was cracked up to be. Odd, but the knowledge the beauty wouldn't be hanging around after today didn't produce the feeling of relief he would have anticipated.
"Apologize for the wait." Betty Sue loosened the pencil from behind her ear and tapped the order pad.
"No problem." Maggie smiled. "I'm searching for a relative in the area."
The pencil and order pad disappeared into an apron pocket. "Who's your kinfolk?"
"I'm Maggie, her granddaughter."
"Got a granddaughter, does she? Ain't that nice."
"Oh, no, it's not like that. We've never met." Betty Sue frowned and Abram did his best to ignore the conversation. He'd met the infamous granny, but hadn't known her name was Margaret O'Neil. If he were the old bat's granddaughter, he'd tuck tail and skedaddle. While Betty Sue and the beauty next to him engaged in conversation, Abram intended to slip away. He gulped the rest of his coffee, unconcerned the hot liquid scalded his tongue. Like the rest of his body, his mouth possessed a thick hide, too. He tossed a five-dollar bill on the counter and left his seat.
"A passerby mentioned that Heather's Hollow is located on the other side of a creek. I don't recall the name."
"Periwinkle," Betty Sue supplied, then shouted across the room, "Hey, Abram. You headin' to yer cabin?"
Damn. He'd almost made it to the door. "Will you show this here lady the turnoff to the holler?"
Double damn. "Sure." The sooner Maggie O'Neil got what she came for, the sooner she'd leave. The sooner he'd put her out of his mindor attempt to. OnceAbram had left the army, he'd discovered his biggest disability had been his memory and his inability to forget.
He held open the café door, but instead of brushing past him, Maggie O'Neil paused at his side, the top of her head even with his shoulders. "I'm ready." Her white-toothed smile blinded him.
That was one thing he'd never beready for the likes of Maggie O'Neil.