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There was nothing like walking into the town he'd almost killed twenty-five years earlier to make a man feel there was a bull's-eye painted on his back.
For the fifth time in as many minutes, J. T. Delaney forced himself to stop checking over his shoulder. He wasn't in dangerat least, not of the physical kind. Comeback Cove, Ontario, was a small tourist town on the St. Lawrence Seaway. Quiet was the word most often used to describe it, especially at dinnertime on an early June weeknight. He'd passed all of three people since he set off down Main Street toward the river.
But three people was enough. Especially when they were all old-timers who reached protectively toward their wallets the moment they recognized him. That hurt. He might have been the terror of the town when he was a teen, but he'd never picked pockets.
Taking the heat for things he'd done, he could handle. Taking the heat for things he hadn't done was not gonna happen.
His steps slowed as he walked past the hardware store. Other than a new coat of paint and fresh awnings, it looked the same as it had back when he used to buy supplies for his adolescent pranks. Same story two doors down, in the drugstore where he'd shoplifted his first pack of condoms. Now, with the wisdom of forty-two years behind him, he knew what a damned fool chance that had been. But he still could empathize with the testosterone-driven youth who would rather risk being hauled in front of the police than pay for rubbers under the eagle eye of a pharmacist who'd known him since birth. Ah, memories.
Seeing the stores and walking the still-familiar route to the river made him keenly aware of the fact only a fool would forget: small towns don't change. Not the buildings, not the faces, not the sentiments. The only thing different, it seemed, was him.
For as he'd learned the hard way over the years, the last thing most people wanted was change. Especially when it came to changing their minds.
At last he reached the corner of Main Street and River Road and the sight that had drawn him downtown on his first night back: the St. Lawrence River. It lay straight ahead, peaceful on this cool evening, calling him from the other side of the parking lot that connected Patty's Pizza Express and River Joe's coffee shop.
Gravel crunched beneath his feet as he hurried across the lot. Technically, this landand the pizza place and coffee shop, and a few other buildings around townwas now his, bequeathed to him by the father who had died last year. But he hadn't come to play landlord. Not yet. Tomorrow he would begin the task that had brought him back to townselling off the buildings and helping his mother move to Tucson with him.
Tonight, though, was his. He increased his pace as he rounded the corner of River Joe's. Tonight, it was him and the river
And a woman. There was a woman sitting in his spot.
J.T. stopped so fast that he had to grab the weathered cedar shakes of the coffee shop to steady himself. Talk about your reality checks. The alcove formed by the corner of the shop and fronted by the river was private, true, but come on. Had he really thought no one else would claim it in twenty-five years?
Okay. So every so often, some things did change.
He started to backtrack, but the woman raised her hand as if to wave. Since it was the first friendly overture he'd received all day, he stepped forward, stopping again when he realized she hadn't been gesturing to him after all. She was talking on her phone and had no idea he was even there.
He should leave before she noticed him. Even in Comeback Cove, a lone woman would be startled by the sight of a strange man hovering nearby. But she seemed intent on her conversation, so he allowed himself a moment to place her.
She wasn't a tourist. Not only was it too early in the season for weekday visitors, but she also didn't have the air of someone who'd come to see the sights. No, this woman, with her reddish-blond hair pulled back and sneakers lying beside her bare feet, seemed to belong here.
That intrigued him. She appeared to be about his age, and the town was small enough that he used to know everyone within three grade levels. He studied her more closely, mentally ticking off vivid blue eye shadow, a shaggy hairstyle and higher breastsall the features that had characterized the girls when he was in high school. Still no clue.
It was possible that she had moved here since he left. But who in their right mind would do that?
She said something and burst into laughter. Even if he'd wanted to leave, that sound alone would have stopped him. Her laugh was like the riverlight at first, rippling, then dropping into something full and liquid, with just a hint of mystery.
Whoever was on the receiving end of that laugh was one lucky bastard.
Her "Bye, hon" skipped toward him like a stone across the water. She shoved the phone into a pocket of those pants women loved but men hatedthe kind that ended halfway between knee and ankle, revealing enough skin to entice while hiding all the good parts beneath loose beige cotton.
She stood and stretched her arms over her head, fabric pulling tight, and he saw that the good parts were very good indeed.
She slipped into her shoes and scooted around the far side of the building. Intrigued, he waited a couple of seconds before following.
He wasn't trying to catch her. She was undoubtedly married, and even if she wasn't, he was only here for the summer. Less, if he could get everything done in time. But he was curious, and this was a lot more fun than waiting for someone to shove that knife in his back.
She followed the walkway that hugged the side of the coffee shop and turned onto River Road, waving to someone he couldn't see yet. He held back, watching. She took a slow step down the main sidewalk, calling a welcome. In a moment she was joined by a group of elderly women he recognized as friends of his mother. In his day they had ruled the town. They greeted her warmly, drawing her into light embraces that undoubtedly reeked of too much perfume.
This was getting stranger by the minute. Comeback Cove was one of those towns where you were considered an outsider until your family had been around for at least two generations. Yet this woman had been accepted.
Who the hell was she?
J.T. waited until the group had moved on, his quarry firmly surrounded by print dresses and blue hair. For a moment he considered heading back to his now-empty bench by the river. He was a desert dweller now, but he could never go near water without remembering the river.
He'd go back in a minute. After he tailed his mystery woman.
He turned in the direction she'd gone. There she wasstraight ahead on the other side of the road, mounting the steps of Town Hall while the older women gazed up at her and waved farewell. It was like watching the queen ascending the stairs.
He took two steps before old instincts kicked in. Town Hall also housed the police station. Given the reception he'd gotten, they probably still had his face on a homemade Wanted poster in the lobby.
Comeback Cove wasn't that big. He would find out who she was soon enough. In the meantime, there was a river calling. When he inhaled he could smell it, fresh and still familiar. Maybe he would even kick off his sandals and stick his feet in the water.
But when he began to retrace his steps, he knew he was screwed. For there on the sidewalk was one of the many reasons he had stayed away all these years.
He swore under his breath, then gave in to the inevitable.
She came to an abrupt halt, glanced at Town Hall and looked back at him. J.T. had detected more warmth from planets at the farthest reaches of the solar system.
"So it's true," she said. "You're back."
It wasn't an open-armed welcome, but at least she spoke to him.
"How are you?" J.T. nodded toward her blue power suit, the briefcase, the heels. "You're looking very official for a summer night."
"I am official," she snapped. "I'm the mayor."
"That's right." He remembered his mother mentioning it. "CongratulationsI think."
She glared. "What does that mean?"
He shrugged. "I'm just surprised to see you here. Weren't you the one who always bragged about having more ambition than the rest of the town put together?"
Jillian scanned the sidewalk, no doubt ensuring he hadn't insulted any potential voters, then ran a critical eye over his travel-rumpled Hawaiian shirt and baggy shorts. "Enough small talk. Why are you here, J.T.?"
"My parole officer finally let me leave the country."
"Don't be cute. How long are you staying?"
He considered telling her that it was none of her business, but reminded himself that some things weren't worth the fight.
"Just for the summer."
"You're sure you're not here to stay?"
"What, move back? Hell, no!"
She narrowed the big blue eyes that she used to bat so effectively back in high school. "You don't have to be that emphatic. This can be a pretty good place, you know." She paused, then added with lethal softness, "That is, when you're not here stirring up trouble."
So that was how it was going to be. He hadn't been imagining that bull's-eye on his back. It was as real as the fact that in the eyes of this town, he would never be anything other than the juvenile delinquent who burned down the prime tourist attraction all those years ago.
Okay. They had every right to hate what he'd been. He'd caused a lot of hurt to a lot of folks, and if some of them couldn't forget that, well, neither could he. Half the reason he lived in the desert now was because nothing therenot a tree, not a river, not even a flower in the grasswas the same as the ones found in this lush green village. No reminders. Knowing what he'd done still hurt that much.
But he also knew that there was a hell of a lot more to the story than most folks wanted to hear.
"What trouble? I've been back a couple of hours, done nothing more than walk down the damned street and you're already judging me?"
"Some things never change," Jillian said. "Some people never change. There's a reason we called you J.T. You were Just Trouble back then, and from the looks of you, I'd say you're still Just Trouble."
Further proof that change was the one force designed to generate the most opposition from the greatest number of people.
"You know, Jillian, it's been a long time. I screwed up. I admit it. But that was a frickin' lifetime ago. We're adults now. How about we make the summer a lot more pleasant for both of us and call a truce?"
She took a step back as if in disbelief, then fixed him with the same glare that he had required years of effort to forget. "Here are the rules. Lie low this summer. Do nothing to destroy my town. And be gone by Labour Day."
Something about this wasn't sitting right. Hell, nobody had given him a warm-and-fuzzy homecoming, but Jillian's reaction seemed extreme. There was only one reason he could think of for her to be this defensive. Luckily for her, it was a memory he was more than happy to leave buried.
Jillian squared her shoulders, checked the time on the clock outside Town Hall and shifted her briefcase to her other hand. "I have to go," she said. "But I'm warning you, J.T. Don't mess with my town."
He faked a salute. "Ma'am, yes, ma'am."
"You haven't changed at all, have you?"
Before he could come up with an answer, she walked a wide circle around him and vanished from his sight. He let his grin slip as the sound of her heels faded away.
He didn't want to upset Jillian. Not really. For one thing, he had enough bad Comeback Cove karma already. For another, it probably wasn't smart to annoy the mayor when he was trying to sell off a bunch of properties, many of them needing planning-board approval.
On the other hand, if he were going to walk around with a target on his back, he might as well have some fun with it.
Lyddie Brewster scurried into the Brewster Memorial conference room in Town Hall and slid into one of the last empty chairs gathered around the polished maple table.
"Thank God this is the last time this committee has to meet," Lyddie said to the older woman on her right. Beneath the table, she eased her shoes off and wiggled her toes. Some days were harder on the feet than others. "Please tell me I'm late enough that the meeting is over and I can go home."
"Sorry, kid. Her Worship hasn't made an appearance yet." Nadine Krupnick was not only Lyddie's assistant at her coffee shop, River Joe's, she was also both friend and secret keeper to half the town. More important, she was the only one who could get away with calling Mayor Jillian McFarlane "Your Worship" to her face. "What made you late, anyway?"
"Sara called. She wanted to tell me every detail of her day."
"I thought she wasn't speaking to you."
"I'm her favorite mom again since I said she could go to my sister's for the summer." Lyddie raised a hand in anticipation of Nadine's protest. "I know, I know. She's only fourteen, Vancouver is too far away, yada yada yada. But there's not much for someone her age to do here all summer, and Zoe can use the help. It'll be good for Sara to take on some responsibility."
"No need to sound so defensive. I think it's a great idea."
"You do?" Lyddie reached into the paper bag Nadine pushed toward her and pulled out one of the muffins left from that day's baking. Lemon poppyher favorite. She peeled back the paper before helping herself to a healthy bite. Tart lemon and crunchy seeds combined to give her the most sensual treat she'd known in ages. "Everyone else thinks I'm crazy."
"Let me guess. By 'everyone,' you mean your mother-in-law."
Lyddie stayed silent, not ready to let Nadine know she'd hit the nail on the head. Nor did she want to get into a discussion of why Ruth Brewster was afraid to let any of her family slip beyond the town line. Lyddie understood her mother-in-law's sentiments. She couldn't deny that there were times late at night when she, too, feared that Sara would never want to return to a quiet little tourist town after two months in Vancouver.