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"Matt, you're back," Mrs. Wyzecki proclaimed, as though it was the biggest surprise of her life.
Matt knew better. After all, the elderly lady had called his cell phone at least eleven times over the past two weeks, just to double-check that he was still heading in her direction.
But there was no sense in reminding her of that. Surely things hadn't changed all that much in the ten years since he'd lived in her house. "You're giving me no credit. Did you really think I wouldn't show up like I said I would?"
Wanda Wyzecki stepped back to allow him entrance. "It wasn't that I didn't think you'd come back I just wasn't sure you'd be able to."
"Well, I was." Matt carefully closed the door behind him, using the moment to steady himself. The Wyzecki home smelled exactly like he remembered lemon-fresh Pledge, tart Pine-Sol, and underneath it all, Ivory soap. Mrs. Wyzecki had always been a big fan of crisp, clean scents.
And, for some unknown reason, him.
"You comin' in or are you gonna stand there all day?"
Just so she wouldn't realize how good it felt to be around herand how guilty he felt about staying away for so long, he sassed her right back. "I knew it wouldn't be long before you started ordering me around."
She took his elbow and led him into the rear of the house, where the overlarge kitchen lay. Its space had nothing to do with gourmet cooking and everything to do with the number of people who could sit at the cereal bar.
Matt noticed that their pace was slower than he recalled, and Mrs. Wyzecki's arm a little frailer than he remembered. He was glad things had worked out with SavNGo and he could return as promised.
"Have a seat, Matt. Would youlike some water?" Before he could answer she was on the move again. "Sit down and let me get a glass for you."
After she set the drink in front of him and he took a few sips, Matt supposed it was time to get to the heart of the matter. "So, you really are moving."
Faded blue eyes told him a wealth of things her words did not. "It's true."
"You sure you're ready to pick up and go? Jim died just a year ago."
"It seems longer when everything here reminds me of him. It's time, Matt." Hopping up again to turn on her kettle, she added, "There's too many memories around here."
Memories were why he'd driven all the way from Philadelphia to Crescent View, Texas, in one shot. Some things were worth remembering. "Maybe after you let things settle in for a while longer, you'll want to stay."
She turned to him in surprise. "And not let you move in after I promised you could? I wouldn't do that. That's not who I am, Matthew."
"I could find someplace else to live," he said slowly. "I feel I'm pushing you out."
"I asked to you to move here, not the other way around. You haven't pushed a bit."
"Well, if you change your mind, just let me know. A year isn't all that long."
"You're one to talk. We both know worlds can change in a year's time."
She was right about that. His world had changed during his senior year in high school. In twelve months, he'd lost his father, moved in with the Wyzeckis and had applied and been accepted at a number of colleges far away from the only place he'd ever known.
Linking her fingers around the glass, damp and pearly with condensation, Mrs. Wy added, "I'm really looking forward to a new place. I went and visited one of those retirement communities. For a good price, I can have a condo near a walking trail. They even have a fully staffed dining room. I'll be able to go out to eat whenever I want."
Mrs. Wyzecki might have just said she was going to take up tap dancing, it sounded so strange. "You, not cooking?"
"Things have changed since you left, Matthew. I don't have a need for macaroni casserole anymore."
That had been a favorite dish. "That's a shame."
"As I said, things change." The pointy chin that he knew so well inched upward. "It has been almost ten years, you know."
He did know.
Her expression softened, and for a moment, Matt was sure they were both back in time. Back when he was a teenager with a chip on his shoulder the size of Rhode Island and had just moved into the Wyzeckis' house.
She'd served chicken and dumplings for dinner Matt's first night there. It had taken everything inside him to keep his mouth shut in between mouthfuls, he'd been so afraid he was going to say something stupid like it had been a really long time since he'd had a home-cooked meal. Not since his mother had died when he'd been in fourth grade.
"Anyway," Mrs. Wyzecki blurted, transporting him back to the present. "I figure between the two of us, we could get this old place cleaned up and emptied out in no time at all. Then, come September, it'll be all yours."
The change of ownership still felt strange. "No hurry."
"Oh, I think there might be a bit of a hurry. You've got things to do. We both know that."
"All I've got to do is open Store 35, and it's right here in Crescent View. This move can take all the time it needs to. I usually have to live out of a suitcase for my job, so it'll be nice to have a home base."
Brightening, she patted his arm. "I guess the timing was meant to be, huh?"
"I guess so."
The timing hadn't been a coincidence. He'd fought long and hard to get Crescent View a supercenterthe town was dying ever since the GM factory had closed. People here needed SavNGo.
But just as important to Matt was the opportunity to come back as somebody. Though he'd been a star athlete, he'd also been the kid without any family at graduation. For years before that, he'd been the kid who didn't have a mom to help out at class parties or watch his games.
He'd also been the kid with the tough, demanding father who gave affection according to how well he performed on the football and baseball fields.
Everyone had known that.
So it was going to be nice to walk around Crescent View without a shadow hanging over him. Without a hint of talk about who he was ever going to become. He wanted to be able to hold his head up high. It meant a lot to him. So much it was embarrassing.
Ever observant, Mrs. Wyzecki narrowed her eyes at his tone. "You okay, Matthew?"
Hearing his name from her lips in that know-it-all tone never failed to bring a smile. "I'm fine."
"When you get settled here, I hope you'll breathe some new life into this old place. Put on some new paint. Maybe add a screen porch." She pointed out the back window to her late husband's pride and joy: the in-ground pool. "All the plant life surrounding the pool is overgrown. The sun hardly hits the concrete around it anymore."
"I can trim the trees."
"It needs more than that. Matthew, what this place needs is a family." She looked him over. "You ought to start thinking about that."
Well, that brought him up short. He wasn't in the family-planning way. At all. "Don't get carried away."
"Oh, one day you'll find the right woman," Mrs. Wy said with a smile. "You'll fill up this house with love and laughter again and life will be right as rain. Right now, it's too quiet. When the night drags on, my mind drifts to how things used to be."
He couldn't help smiling. "Kids running everywhere?" The Wyzeckis had always taken in foster kids.
"Yep. Kids and dogs and mountains of laundry. Sometimes I was sure that I had more schedules to keep track of than any big-city CEO."
"You did a fine job managing it all."
"You did okay, too, Matthew."
Barely. "I don't know about that."
The way she looked at him made Matt almost believe she was right. Almost. To most of the town, he'd had everythinggood looks, good grades, athletic ability. Only people who knew him well realized that inside he was a mess. Unsure of other people, eager to please, and more than a little resentful of things he didn't have like a family.
Sliding off the stool, she said, "Well, I'll go show you to your room and let you get settled."
They walked up the stairs, Matt following Mrs. Wy with two duffels in his hands. Instead of heading for his old bedroom, he followed her into the "special" guest room. He raised a brow. "I'm staying here?"
"You're pretty darn special, Matthew." She motioned to the window. "Plus, this room has a better view than your old one."
Obligingly, Matt looked out the window. Everything appeared to be the same except that the trees were taller and the houses seemed smaller than he remembered.
Mrs. Wyzecki pointed to a cute little white house with black shutters, a covered front porch and a cherry-red front door. "You'll never guess who lives there now." After the slightest pause, she announced the answer, just like she was the new host on The Price is Right. "Minnie Clark!"
The name sounded familiar, though he couldn't quite place her. "Who?"
"Minnie is Paige's little sister." Tapping on the window, she said, "Let's see. When you were seniors, Minnie was a freshman."
Paige. They'd been a couple, off and on for a good nine months right before graduation. Paige had been vivacious, pretty in that Barbie doll kind of way, and a cheerleader. He'd truly enjoyed dating her. Well, until he'd found her making out with one of the guys on his football team. That little encounter had managed to ruin two relationships and empty a bottle of tequila in one fell swoop.
Mrs. Wyzecki pointed toward the neatly arranged flower beds that surrounded the house like a bright ribbon. "That Minnie's such a sweetie. She owns a card shop now, you know. It's got a real catchy name, too. Carried Away Cards."
Turning his attention from the neatly trimmed boxwoods, he eyed his favorite woman in the world. "Why are you telling me all this?"
"I don't know. Thought you might enjoy reacquaint-ing yourself with an old friend. Especially since she took in Paige's child just last year."
Matt had heard about Paige from his buddy Lane, one of the few people besides Mrs. Wy he'd kept in touch with. "Paige died in a car accident, right?"
"She did, though neither Minnie nor her parents talk much about it." With a frown, she added, "From what I understand, Paige and her husband met up with a semi on the highway in Arizona. In their wills, they left Minnie full custody of Kimber."
Still gazing at Minnie's house, Wanda murmured, "It was surely the saddest day you ever saw when Minnie came home with that little girl. They both looked like they were barely holding each other up."
"Are they doing okay now?"
"I suppose. Minnie's not one to complain." With a steady look in Matt's direction, she added softly, "Never was."
Now what was that supposed to mean?
"Do her parents live nearby?"
"Two towns over. Anson and JoAnn help when they can, but sometimes I think Minnie does better without them around. Anson and Jo can't last more than a minute or two without mentioning Paige and dissolving into tears."
"Which would be hard for Kimber."
"Uh-huh. But that's okay. Me and that little thing have become pretty close. I get a kick out of watching Minnie deal with Kimber. Oh, but she's getting a run for her money!"
She padded to the tiny linen closet and pulled out two towels. "After you get settled, come downstairs and we'll make plans."
When he was alone, Matt sat on the crocheted bedspread and took a deep breath. At the moment, it didn't matter that he'd lost most of his Texas accent around the time he'd been doing his best to climb up the corporate ladder at SavNGo Discounters. It didn't matter that most of the time he lived out of a suitcase, spending very little time in one placehis job of facilitating grand openings of stores kept him on the road.
For one brief moment, Matt felt vulnerable and full of hope. Like he did years ago. Just after he'd buried his dad and realized he had nowhere to go. Well, nowhere until Mr. and Mrs. Wyzecki offered their home and asked him to help with the dishes.
Once again, he felt accepted and wanted. And that well, that felt good.
Picking up his cell phone, he called Jackie, his personal assistant. "I'm in," he said, not bothering with small talk. "Anything you need from me right away?" "Grab a pen, Matt," she replied with a husky laugh. "I always need something from you."
Oh, it was him. Matt Madigan. Spiky brown hair. Eyes as blue as the sky. Perfect jaw. Flawless smile. Shoulders broad and solid. Matt Madigan was standing in her card shop.
Minnie Clark pulled the invoices she'd been reading a little closer to her face. One foot tapped in a nervous rhythm, keeping pace with her pounding heart. Funny how some things never changed.
She still was drawn to Matt like a child with a shiny new penny. Memories of ninth grade came flooding back. He used to wear frayed button-downs and old Levi's. Scuffed boots and his hair a little too long.
She'd worn a perpetual, lovesick expression whenever he was within ten feet.
Of course, he'd rarely said a word to herhe'd been a senior and Paige had been his on-again, off-again girlfriend.
Minnie had just been a mousy replica. Oh, but how she'd dreamed things were different.
Now, years later, here he was, standing three feet away and looking at a row of cards right in her very own store.