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Megan Romesser's eyes brightened as Hannah Moore walked through the back door of Grandma Mary's Candies on this quiet September afternoon. Quiet equated good in Hannah's book, because she longed to vent loud and long, knowing Megan would listen, commiserate and then tell her to get on with it.
Megan understood the role of a good friend.
But venting would mean explaining why heading up a library fundraising drive with weekly meetings and full immersion into what everyone else considered normal life thrust Hannah into an emotional tailspin. Opening that door meant facing things she'd tucked aside years ago.
If not now, when?
How about never?
Hannah shoved the internal questions aside. If keeping that door closed guarded her mental health, then so be it.
She nodded toward the trays of fresh candy and the wall of boxed chocolates shipped in from Grandma Mary's Buffalo-based factory. "Just being around this much chocolate adds inches to my hips. Why do I work here? To torture myself?"
"To see me." Megan sent her a quick grin, finished packing an order, then waved toward the back. "New sponge candy in the minikitchen. See what you think."
"I love the perks of this job. Have I mentioned that lately?"
"Which is why you run voraciously. Nothing sticks on you."
"A blessing and a curse."
"Ha." Megan sent a doubtful look over her shoulder. "Not packing on pounds is never a curse. Bite your tongue."
"Let's just say I'm not afraid to augment as needed," Hannah shot back, grinning. "Aiding and abetting my lack of curves."
Megan laughed out loud. "Seriously, Hannah, the way you look in a dress? In your running gear? Head-turning. Brat."
"Thanks." Hannah nipped a piece of fresh sponge candy, closed her eyes in appreciation and breathed deep. "Wonderful. Marvelous. Words escape me."
"That'll do for the moment. The chocolate is smooth enough?"
"The perfect blend of slightly bitter chocolate to golden, sugary honeycomb. Need any more convincing?"
"I could use you to write my ad copy." Megan grinned, then turned to answer the wall phone. "Grandma Mary's Candies, Megan speaking. Hey, darlin', when are you coming home?"
Honeymooner talk. Hannah moved into the kitchen, removing herself from the inevitable love-yous and miss-yous of being separated for two whole days.
Right now, the last thing Hannah needed was another reminder of her empty life.
She tried to appear normal. She'd done a morning stint at the library, followed by a mandatory meeting with Helen Walker, CEO of Walker Electronics, which put her into this current tizzy. Now she would put in four hours of work helping Megan in the family candy store in Wellsville.
Working odd jobs offered a semblance of normal, but normal had disappeared on a rainy afternoon almost five years ago, taking a hefty part of her self-reliance with it.
Pretense worked now. Fake it till you make it, an old sales adage that applied. Only Hannah hadn't gotten to the "make it" part yet. Lately she'd been wondering if she ever would. Perhaps Helen Walker had been right, maybe shouldering this library fund-raising task would be good for her. Anything that pushed her out of her self-imposed comfort zone wasn't bad, right?
Depends on your definition of bad, her inner voice scoffed.
Oh, she knew bad. Been there, done that, had no desire to return. Not ever again. Keeping her responsibilities minimal meant downsizing risk, and that had become her current mantra. "Hannah?"
"Yes?" She poked her head around the corner, then shifted her attention to the phone. "You done with lover boy?"
Megan laughed. "Yes, but he's not coming home until tomorrow. Problems with staffing at the Baltimore store. Wanna do a movie tonight?"
Hannah shook her head. "Too nice to stay inside. What about walking the ridge?"
"As in walk, not run?"
Hannah smiled as she weighed sponge candy into one-pound boxes. "Promise."
"I'm in. You're okay on your own here?" Hannah glanced around the empty store. "Fine. You're leaving?"
"Just for a bit. Ben needs a ride home from the restaurant."
Ben was Megan's developmentally challenged younger brother who lived in a group home a few blocks from the store. "You go get Ben. I'll do quality control on the sponge candy. And maybe the caramels, as well."
"Can't be too careful." Megan paused and gave Hannah a quick hug on her way out. "Are you okay?"
"Fine. Why?" Steadying her features, Hannah glanced up.
"You seem a little off"
"I'm a girl. That happens, doesn't it?"
"Hmm." Megan didn't look convinced. "If you need to talk "
"Which I don't."
"Even so." Megan gave Hannah a look, her expression unsure. "If you do, I'm available."
"I know." Hannah turned her attention back to the task at hand, shoulders back, feet firm. "I appreciate it."
"Well, then." Megan sounded dubious but she'd never delve. More than Hannah's friendship, she respected her right to privacy, a wonderful plus in this age of girlfriends-know-all.
Hannah couldn't afford to have anyone know all. Bad enough she carried that burden on her shoulders. She refused to bring others down. But that weighted the yoke, and with the Allegheny foothills hinting gold and red, fall's beauty carried heavy reminders of love and loss.
The antique bell announcing a customer's arrival provided a welcome interruption. Hannah left the half-filled box on the scale and moved to the front of the east-facing store. A man stood scanning a new display kiosk, a man who'd become distressingly familiar two hours ago. "May I help you?"
Surprise painted his features as Jeff Brennan turned from a corner display. Hannah fought the rise of emotions his expression inspired. In three years she hadn't crossed paths with this man, and now twice in one day?
Obviously God had a sense of humor, because the last person Hannah wanted to be around was a rising young executive, no matter how great he looked in gray tweed, the steel-and-rose pinstriped tie a perfect complement to the silver-toned oxford. She'd seen enough in the library council meeting to know he was self-confident, self-assured and slightly impatient, a condition that might arise from lack of time or lack of compassion, not that she cared.
His crisp, clean, business-first air had Brian's name written all over it, a CEO in the making, driven and forward-thinking. With the leaves beginning their annual dance of color, thoughts of her former fiancé only worsened matters. She shoved the memories aside, kept her expression calm and stepped forward, determined to get through this library fundraiser somehow, since her library contract allowed her no other choice.
"You've got time to work here, but you're reluctant to help with the new library?" The hint of resentment in Jeff's tone said her lack of enthusiasm was unappreciated in light of Helen and Jonas Walker's sacrifices.
But then Jeff had no idea what dragons loomed in her past as summer faded to fall and kids marched off to school, pencils sharp, their backpacks fresh and new, a world she'd been part of until that dark November day.
She met his gaze, refusing to let the clipped tone get to her. "My library job in Jamison is part-time. Last I looked life was full-time and that includes living expenses. An extra job helps pay the bills since the county couldn't afford more hours in the library budget."
"And you tutor?"
He'd actually been listening when she'd tried to beg off the fundraising committee earlier, but that shouldn't surprise her. You didn't get to Jeff Bren-nan's rung on the corporate ladder at thirty-plus without having a working brain. Of course being the boss's grandson couldn't hurt, but somehow she didn't see that happening at Walker Electronics. She slipped on fresh plastic gloves, ignored his question and indicated the glass-fronted candy display with a tilt of her head. "Would you like a hand-chosen collection, Mr. Brennan?"
His eyes narrowed, his look appraising once again. She got the idea that Jeff Brennan did a lot of appraising.
Well, he could stuff his appraisals for all she cared. Feigning patience she waited, a box in hand, letting him make the next move. Which he did. "Are you free for dinner tomorrow night?"
It took her a moment to register the words, shield her surprise, think of a response and then shelve the comeback as rude, a quality she chose not to embrace.
This is not Brian.
And yet the quick looks, the straight-on focus, the let's-get-down-to-business mode pushed too many buttons at once, especially with the distant hills hinting gold behind him.
He angled his head, his eyes brightened by her reaction. Which was really a nonreaction, and he seemed to find that almost amusing.
"I'm not, no."
"The library is open until eight on Wednesday."
He sent her an exaggerated look of puzzlement, crinkled his eyes and moved closer, his manner inviting. "You can't eat after eight o'clock? Are you like one of those little aliens that couldn't eat after midnight?"
"Thanks for the compliment. Sorry. Busy."
"Look, Miss Moore."
A smile softened his features; he was probably remembering they'd had this conversation before, like two hours ago in the conference room of Walker Electronics.
"Hannah. Pretty name. It means favored. Or favored grace."
"And you know this because?"
"I looked it up on my computer when I got back to my office."
Add smooth to the list of reasons to avoid Jeff Brennan. Too smooth, too handsome, too winsome with his short curly brown hair, hazel eyes, strong chin, great nose and lashes that girls spent way too much money for.
Hannah flashed him a cool smile, not wanting or needing to dredge up a past best left buried, not this time of year. "You and the wife picking baby names, Mr. Brennan?"
He raised unfettered hands. "Not married, never have been, nor engaged. And dinner is simply so you and I can go into Thursday's meeting on the same page with similar goals, if neither one of us successfully ducks this project. No strings, no ties, no ulterior motives."
The sensibility of his argument enticed Hannah to accept. Chronic fear pushed her to refuse. She waffled, hating this indecision, longing to be the person she used to be. Strong. Self-motivated. Forceful.
But that was before Ironwood, and nothing had been the same since. She shook her head, needing to decline and hating the cowardice pushing the emotion. "I can't. Sorry."