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There was a muffled crash from the living room and Tom Walker let out a weary sigh as he turned from unpacking the few small kitchen appliances that had come with him from Houston.
"Moose!" he grumbled. He got up from the floor and left the box sitting to see what latest disaster his pet had caused.
It had all started with a rainstorm and a tiny, frightened little ball of fur hiding under a metal mailbox in downtown Houston. Somebody had abandoned the puppy and Tom had been unable to leave it there on the side of a busy street. But the act of compassion had repercussions. Big ones. The tiny puppy had grown into a gorgeous but enormous German shepherd mix whom he had named Shep, but who was later rechristened Moose.
As he stood watching the huge animal settle himself among the remains of a onceelegant antique bowl on the big coffee table, he reflected that the new name was appropriate. It was like having a moose in the house.
"Kate will never forgive you," he said pointedly, remembering how happy his sister had been when, newly married, she had given him the bowl as a Christmas gift. "That was a Christmas present. It was handmade by a famous Native American potter!"
"Woof," Moose replied in his deep dog voice, and grinned at him.
The vet had said that Moose was still going through his puppy stage.
"Will he outgrow it?" Tom had asked plaintively, having taken the big dog to the vet after Moose had gone swimming in a neighbor's outdoor goldfish pond.
"Sure!" the vet had assured him, and just as Tom began to sigh with relief, he added with a wicked grin, "Four, five years from now, he'll calm right down!"
Resigned, he took the big dog back home and hoped he could adapt to living among pottery shards and disemboweled furniture for the next few years of his life.
One of his neighbors had offered to buy Moose who, while a walking disaster, was absolutely beautiful, with a black coat of fur that shone like coal in sunlight, and stark white markings with medium brown eyebrows and facial markings.
Tom had replied that he liked the man too much to sell Moose to him.
He gave the coffee table one last look, shook his head and went into the kitchen to make coffee. Just as he started the coffeemaker, he heard a crunching noise and turned to find that while he'd been occupied with coffee, Moose had overturned the kitchen trash can and spread the contents all over the linoleum floor. He was munching contentedly on an apple core amidst coffee grounds, banana peels and empty TV dinner cartons.
"Oh, Lord," Tom prayed silently. He took the apple core away, set the trash can upright and went to find a broom. What a good thing that he wasn't entertaining thoughts of marriage. No woman in her right mind would put up with his canine companion.
He was thirtyfour. He should have been longsince married, but he and his sister, Kate, had been victims of a shocking, terrible upbringing that had stunted them sexually. Their father had beaten both of them as children and raised the devil every time one of them so much as smiled at the opposite sex. In fact, sex, he lectured, was the greatest sin of all. He was a lay minister, so they believed him.
What they hadn't known at the time was that he had a brain tumor that modified his onceloving personality and eventually killed him. Their longmissing mother had been found by Jacob Cade, his sister Kate's husband, and presented to them both at Jacob and Kate's wedding, over six years ago. It had been a painful reunion until they learned that far from deserting them as children, their mother had never dreamed that their father would kidnap them and spirit them away from her. But he had done just that. She'd spent half a lifetime using money from her meager salary trying to find them again. She lived in Missouri, but they both saw her frequently. Now that Kate was married and had a son, their mother often visited her.
Tom wondered if he could ever marry. Kate had, but then Jacob Cade had been the love of her life since her early teens. Presumably Kate's fear of the physical side of marriage had been overcome. She and Cade had a son, who was five years old. And although they'd tried to have a second child, they hadn't been able to just yet.
He'd have liked children. But his one sexual experience had left him sick with guilt. Kate's wedding had pointed out, as nothing else ever had, how very alone he was. He'd gone back to his job with an advertising firm in New York City and that weekend, to a local bar to drown his sorrows.
She'd been there at a goingaway party for one of the girls in the office. Elysia Craig had been his secretary for two years. She was a pretty blonde with gray eyes and a neat little figure who was teased by her coworkers for being so prim and prudish. Tom thought it was a joke. He never realized that she was as inexperienced as he was. Not until it was far too late. His most vivid memory of Elysia was of her crouching in the fullsize bed in his apartment with a white sheet clutched to her breasts, weeping like a widow. He'd hurt her without meaning to, and the tears had been the last straw. He couldn't remember saying a single word to her as she dressed and got into the cab he called for her. He'd been far too inebriated and sick to drive by then.
He hadn't known how to apologize, or explain. His behavior had shamed him. He couldn't even meet her eyes the next morning, or speak to her. Most of the women in the office where he worked were sophisticated and savvy, but Elysia wasn't. His inability to communicate with her provoked her into quitting her job that very day and going back home to Texas. To his shame, he hadn't even looked for her. He'd still been fighting feelings of shame and guilt, holdovers from his brutal childhood, despite the aching hunger he'd felt for Elysia.
Her gentle, kind nature was what had attracted him to her in the first place, but except for his excessive drinking he would never have approached her. His feelings for her he'd kept secret, never dreaming that he might one day end up in bed with her. It had been the most exquisite experience of his life, but the guilt had made him sick, so he pushed it to the back of his mind and tried to forget it.
Not long afterward, he'd given up his advertising job and studied the investment business. His first job had been as an assistant advisor with a wellknown national company. Then he'd moved to Houston, Texas, to open his own office in the building with a friend, Logan Deverell. But he'd gotten wanderlust again when Logan had married his longsuffering secretary.
He'd arrived in Jacobsville three weeks ago, thanks to another mutual friend, Matt Caldwell, who owned a stud farm out of town. Matt was friends with the Ballenger brothers, Calhoun and Justin, who owned a huge feedlot and liked to invest their earnings. They were all mutual friends of the Tremayne brothers, who owned properties all over Texas. Before he'd even had time to unpack, Tom had all the business he could handle.
A realestate agent in town had dabbled in the properties market, but since she'd remarried her exhusband, a pilot, they'd moved house to Atlanta. The nearest investment counselor now was in Victoria. Tom had no competition at all, for the moment, in Jacobsville. It seemed like a dream come true.
Then, yesterday, out of the blue, a new client had walked in the doorLuke Craigand the bottom had fallen out of Tom's life. Luke had a sister, recently widowed with a small daughter. Her first name was Elysia.
Tom poured himself a cup of coffee and sat down on the sofa. Moose jumped up beside him to rest his chin on his master's leg.
He petted the big dog absently. "Don't think I'm forgetting the broken pot or the garbage," he murmured.
Moose sighed and gave him a baleful look.
Tom sipped coffee and wondered what he was going to do. Of all the quirks of fate, to land himself in the one town in America where he couldn't bear to live. No wonder it had all seemed too good to be true. Fate was playing a monstrous joke on him. The woman he'd seduced lived right here. Apparently she'd married and had a child after she'd come home. He wondered if she remembered him, and then chided himself for his own stupidity. Of course she did. He'd been her first experience, just as she'd been his. She didn't know that. She'd still think that he'd seduced and abandoned her, like some big city playboy without a conscience. What a joke.
He put the coffee cup down. Moose was snoring softly. He stroked the huge head and thought how nice it was to have a companion, even such a one as this.
He didn't know how he was going to cope, but he knew he would. Jacobsville was a small town, but not all that small. He might never run into Elysia. Worry at this stage was premature. He had all this unpacking to do that he'd put off for almost a month. He'd do better to go to work and stop tormenting himself with things that might never happen. He probably wouldn't recognize the woman, anyway. It had been years ago, after all.
Fate must have been howling the next morning when he drove to work, parked his car and started into the office. Next door to his office was an insurance agency. And heading toward it was a blond woman in jeans, boots, a Tshirt under a flannel shirt and a neat French braid.
She stopped dead when she was close enough to recognize him. Gone were the bigrimmed spectacles she'd worn when she worked for him. Gone was the racehorse thinness. She'd filled out. She still wasn't pretty, but she was very attractive. He couldn't help staring at her.
She moved closer, not shy or reticent as she had been. She looked right at him. "I heard you'd moved here to open an investment office. My brother said you looked strange when he mentioned my name. I told him I used to work for you, nothing else." She laughed bitterly. "So you don't have to worry about being lynched. Feel better, Mr. Walker?"
The unexpected assault had tied his tongue. She wasn't the same girl he'd known at all.
His dark green eyes lanced down into hers. "You've changed, Miss Craig."
"Mrs. Nash." She corrected him.
His eyebrow jerked. "Mrs. Nash," he said.
She seemed less assertive all at once. "My husband died last year. He had cancer."
"He was sick for a long time," she murmured. "It's trite to say it, but he really is better off."
"You're not married yet?"
He searched her soft oval face without expression. "That'll be the day," he replied.
"Yes, I remember. You're the original love'emandleave'em bachelor." The bitterness was back in her voice. "I guess you're still shaking the women out of your bed "
He stepped closer, his eyes kindling. "My love life is none of your damned business!" He never raised his voice, but the whip in it cut almost physically. It disconcerted her.
"No of of course not!" she stammered.
She actually took a step backward, and he cursed himself inwardly.
"I'm sorry," he said curtly. "You probably think you were one in a line. That's the joke of the century."
"Ex excuse me?"
He checked his watch, feeling selfconscious. "I have to get to work."
His behavior puzzled her. She'd spent years blaming him, hating him. But he didn't look like a philanderer. Sure, she reminded herself, and most axmurderers probably don't look like killers, either.
She stood aside to let him pass. He hesitated, though, the wind blowing his thick black hair around over a face that was deep olive. He had an untamed look about him. He was still very handsome, although she was sure that he was in his middle thirties by now. His build was that of a much younger man, lean and muscular.
"You have Native American ancestry, don't you?" she asked involuntarily.
"Sioux," he agreed. "Our greatgrandfather."
"How is your sister?" she asked without wanting to.
"Fine. She and Jacob have a son. He's five now."
"I'm happy for her."
"So am I. It wouldn't have surprised me if she'd never married, either."
There was a deeper meaning to what he was saying. She wished she could read between the lines. Her eyes searched his curiously. If only she could hate him.
He looked down his long, straight nose at her with dark green eyes that didn't blink. "We're both older. I'm glad you found someone you could love. I hope he was good to you."
She flushed. "He was very good to me," she said.
"And I wasn't." His lean hand reached out, almost touched her hair, withdrawing before it made contact. He laughed at his own inability to show affection. "I regret you most of all, Elysia," he said numbly. "I was afraid. Maybe I still am."
He turned and went into his office, leaving her staring blankly after him.
She'd hated him so much when she'd come back to Jacobsville after his cold rejection. It hadn't even been much of a memory, that short night she'd spent in his arms. He'd been ravenously hungry for her, but rough and at times, oddly hesitant. When he'd hurt her, he'd even tried to draw away, but it hadn't been possible. His harsh groan as he gave in to his hunger had stayed with her all these long years. He'd sounded as if he hated himself for wanting her, blamed her for it. He hadn't said a single word. Not before, during, or after.
It was painful to remember how desperately she'd loved him. She'd gambled everything on giving in to him, that once. But instead of bringing them closer, it had destroyed their tenuous friendship. She'd come home and he'd never tried to contact her at all. Perhaps that was best. She didn't really want him to know about Crissy. Eventually he might notice that the child bore a striking resemblance to him, but he wouldn't know what her late husband looked like, so there was little danger of her secret coming out.