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"I hurt, Uncle Nick."
"Aw, I'm sorry, sweetheart." Nick Green tenderly shifted the weight of the little girl clinging to his neck as he stepped into the hospital hallway. "Is that better, honey?"
Maggie sighed and laid her head on his shoulder. "It's okay."
It was so not okay that a five-year-old accepted pain as part of her world. A blaze of anger seared his insides, quickly joined by uselessness and frustration. One drunken driver had inflicted so much pain on Nick's family, leaving Maggie bereft of her parents and physically damaged. Not only had she sustained a host of internal injuries, but her legs had also been crushed in the accident. She'd endured many surgeries but she still couldn't walk.
"You did very well with the doctors, darlin'," he encouraged. "Now let's go get some ice cream." He needed it, to wash away the aftertaste of their unappetizing hospital lunch.
"Nick?" A voice with faint vestiges of an English accent made him stop.
"Yeah?" He turned around and blinked at the woman striding down the hall toward him. The hair gave her awaya glorious tumble of copper-colored waves and curls. But if the hair hadn't done it, the famous emerald-green eyes in that heart-shaped face would have. He grinned. "Shay Parker's back in town."
"I always told you I would be back. But what are you doing here in Hope?" Shay tapped him playfully against the chest, her smile dazzling him. "You insisted Seattle was your home, yet here you are in New Mexico, and with such a beautiful lady." Shay touched a finger to the end of the little girl's tipped-up nose. "Who is this?"
"This is my niece, Magdalena. We call her Maggie."
"Hello, Maggie. I'm Shay." She held out a slender hand for the child to shake.
"Hi." Maggie kept her hands tucked around Nick's neck. But she did risk a smile before shyly pressing her head into her uncle's shoulder.
"Maggie and I are going for ice cream," Nick explained. "Want to join us?"
He knew she would. For as long as he'd known Shay, she'd never been able to resist ice cream. They'd met when they were twelve, the year she'd moved with her dad from England. When their friend Jessica had died, their shared grief had turned into a close friendship. Taller than most of their classmates, they'd played basketball, picked pecans on her grandfather's farm and gone together to their senior prom. Shay had become an ardent supporter of Nick's football prowess, and she'd actually encouraged his love of inventing and tinkering with machines while most of their peers scoffed.
And yet, as Nick studied her now, he realized he'd never fully appreciated her exquisite beauty. Pretty stupid considering Shay Parker had gone on to become a world-class model.
"I'd love some ice cream, Nick. I can hardly wait to get out of this place." Shay glanced down the hospital hallway and faked a shudder.
"Us either. But why you?" Curious, Nick walked outside beside her.
"I need a break. I've been jumping through hoops to get privileges at this hospital," she joked, touching the unblemished skin at her throat. "They act like physiotherapists are criminals."
"It's probably a security thing. I imagine they're trying to be extra careful given the number of people the new mine is drawing into town." Nick stopped at his truck, which was sheltered under a huge mesquite tree, the only one in the lot that had already bloomed. He'd managed to snag this shady spot by arriving for Maggie's appointment with the traveling neurologist before sunrise. "Want to ride with us?" He glanced around. "I don't see that red dream-mobile you always talked about owning," he teased. "Change your mind about getting a convertible?"
"I think I'm beginning to. My car is in the shop. Again. So, yeah, a ride would be great." Shay paused a moment to study the splashes of green dotting the desert landscape. "Don't you just love the desert in spring?"
"April's nice, yeah." Nick paused a second to look around then focused on fastening Maggie into her booster seat before he held the front door open for Shay.
"It's wonderful to walk around Hope freely, not like in the big city where you have to be on guard all the time," she murmured, glancing around the parking lot.
Nick frowned. If Shay felt so safe here, why was she looking over her shoulder like that?
But then he remembered. Three years ago he'd been in New York for a meeting with his agent and decided to pay Shay a surprise visit. Confused by her haunted look and nervous manner, Nick had been stunned when she'd confessed that she was being stalked. His temper still blazed at the memory of her trembling tone as she related what she'd gone through. Her stalker had her private number, knew where she lived and had not only snuck onto her set and left gifts for her there, but gloated that he'd even touched her several times without her noticing.
Nick figured Shay's lack of success with the police meant that either they didn't believe her or they'd given up. So, in Nick's mind, it was up to him to help Shay, just as he would have helped one of his sisters. He'd hung around after they'd had lunch, hoping her stalker would call again. Nick figured the guy liked taking chances and probably felt that no one would discover his identity now that the police had given up. No doubt he enjoyed terrifying Shay, making her feel helpless. That infuriated Nick. When the call came, Nick put a lid on his own reactions to the creep's mockery of Shay's vulnerability. Anger still surged at the memory of that snide and gloating voice exulting in the death of Shay's father.
When the guy boasted that Shay now had no one to protect her, Nick saw red. He'd grabbed her phone and told the slimeball Shay had innumerable friends like him waiting en masse to bring down their wrath on his head if he didn't leave Shay alone. Nick also intimated that the police were ready to haul the guy off to jail. The guy hung up fast. After that, he disappeared and wasn't seen again, according to the bodyguard Nick had hired for Shay.
"Earth calling Nick? Hello?" Shay snapped her fingers in front of his face to draw him out of his introspection. "Where were you?"
"Daydreaming." He tweaked Maggie's nose. He'd ask Shay about her stalker later. "What kind of ice cream are we getting, Maggie-mine?"
"Choc'late, Uncle Nick," she told him without hesitation. She peeked up through her lashes.
"I should know that, shouldn't I, after the number of cones I've bought you." As Nick tugged playfully at a hank of her short, dark hair, he noticed Shay's quick scan of the braces encircling his niece's legs. "Privileges must mean you're starting at Whispering Hope Clinic. When?"
"Yesterday. Jaclyn and Brianna have been nagging me to join them for ages." Shay shrugged her elegant shoulders.
"So I have."
Nick knew all about the youthful vow Shay, Jaclyn and Brianna had made to build a clinic for kids after Jaclyn's fifteen-year-old twin sister, Jessica, had died. It was their way of honoring her, making sure no other child went without the medical care Jessica had needed. Doctors had been sadly lacking in Hope when they were kids. But now Whispering Hope Clinic was open and, according to Nick's mom, full of activity with Jaclyn as a pediatrician and Brianna as a child psychologist. Now that Shay had joined the clinic as physiotherapist, Nick figured the place would get even busier.
Though Jaclyn and Brianna were married to Nick's friends, Kent McCloy and Zac Enders, Nick knew Shay wasn't married. He'd heard in Seattle that she'd left modeling but he'd only learned several months earlier, at Brianna and Zac's wedding, that Shay had finished her physiotherapy degree a while ago. He'd had very few moments during that busy weekend to discuss her return to Hope, and Shay had left town the next morning. The following weekend Nick had been injured during a game, and his career as a pro quarterback had ended in the blink of an eye. Then had come Maggie's car accident. Life hadn't settled down since.
Nick wondered what had delayed Shay's homecoming till now.
"I heard about your shoulder injury, Nick." Shay's lustrous green eyes lost their twinkle. "I'm so sorry. I know how much you loved football."
"Thanks." Nick did not want to discuss the demoralizing loss of his career as a pro quarterback.
"How long have you been back in Hope?" she asked.
"About a week. Mom's finding it tough to make all the medical trips to Las Cruces with Maggie, so I came to help." He glanced at his niece, unwilling to discuss the accident that had killed his beloved sister Georgia and her husband. Besides, he'd told Shay the important parts when she'd called with her sympathies. Just hearing her soft, quiet voice that morning had helped him get through what followed.
Nick's throat tightened at the loss he hadn't yet fully accepted. How could it be part of God's plan for his sister's car to get hit by a semitruck?
"How's your mom?" Shay adjusted Maggie's braced left legs to a slightly different angle, then smiled at the little girl as if they shared a secret.
"She's okay, though her arthritis is really bad. I had hoped she'd stay with me in Seattle, but she couldn't take the cold or the humidity. She always came back here." He paused, glanced at his niece. "Now Maggie's with her. To Mom, Hope is home."
"To me, too," Shay agreed. She grinned as if the little town offered everything she needed. And maybe it did, for Shay. But for Nick, Hope could be only a temporary stop. He had to get back to the city and begin the coaching job that would allow him to provide for his family now that pro ball was out.
"Want to eat outside?" He pulled into a stall in front of the local general store where the owners still piled cones high with real ice cream. "The sun's burnt off this morning's chill by now."
"Maggie and I will find a place in the park while you get our treats." Without waiting for him, Shay slipped from her seat, quickly unfastened the little girl's restraints and lifted her out.
Nick noticed that Maggie didn't make her usual squeal of pain and felt a rush of guilt. He'd been doing it wrong. Disgust washed over him at the thought that he'd even inadvertently hurt his niece.
"I'll have butter pecan," Shay called as she walked away.
"Still supporting the pecan industry, huh?" he teased.
"Have to." Shay's eyes twinkled as she glanced at him over one shoulder. Gold sparks of mischief lurked in their emerald depths. "I guess you haven't heard. I bought back my grandfather's farm. Support the pecan farmers," she chanted in imitation of a protestor.
Surprise held Nick immobile as Shay chose a grassy spot and set Maggie gently against the smoothed-off trunk of a towering palm tree. A moment later the former model's melodic laughter burst into the sunlit afternoon, her face glowing with happiness and health as she folded her long legs beneath her and settled next to the child.
Nick strode toward the store but jerked to a halt when, for the first time since the accident, he heard Maggie giggle. Choked up by the sound, he hurried inside to buy the ice cream, overwhelmed by the fact that his old friend had made his usually somber niece laugh.
As Nick waited for his order to be filled, he puzzled over Shay's decision to purchase her former home. She was famousshe'd been one of the best-paid models in the world. She'd spent years wearing elegant clothes and expensive makeupneither of which, in Nick's opinion, she needed to enhance her loveliness. Shay could have bought the nicest house in town. She didn't need to dirty her manicured nails with nuts and soil.
So why buy back the farm?
Nick studied her through the window. The stunning woman now sitting with Maggie seemed worlds apart from the shy, grieving English girl who'd arrived in Hope having just lost her mother. Back then, quiet, reticent Shay had struggled to fit in at school. But Shay had lost that shyness when Jessica, Zac, Kent, Brianna, Jaclyn, Nick and Shay had all become good friends.
Then, in her junior year of high school, Shay's grandfather died. After that, her dad lost the farm. They'd struggled until, on a dare from Brianna and Jaclyn, Shay had entered a contest at a mall in Las Cruces and won a modeling contract in her senior year. Instead of studying physiotherapy to join the clinic she and her friends were going to build to honor Jessica, Shay had opted to model so she could support her father.
Now Shay Parker was back in Hope. It sounded as if she had her future happily mapped out. Nick wished he felt the same. The assistant coaching job his football team had offered him was not the career he'd planned for himself. Shrugging away his disquiet, he muted his concerns about the future, paid for the cones and carried them outside.
"You're having vanilla?" Shay demanded as he handed over the ice cream. She blinked at his nod. "Forty-one flavors and you chose vanilla? Who are you and what have you done with the adventurous, always unexpected Nick Green? Maggie, are you sure this is your uncle?"
The little girl giggled, and Nick marveled at the sound again.
"Well, I'm shocked. The old Nick would have chosen green bananas with licorice or huckleberry with liver pateanything but vanilla," Shay teased.
"You know they don't even make those flavors. Anyway, the old Nick is gone." And been replaced by whom? Nick asked himself. Shay had given up her career of her own volition, but Nick felt as if his had been stolen from him.
"I'm sorryI wasn't thinking. Was the surgery successful?" Shay frowned.
"The doctors said it was a total success. Now it only hurts when I move," he joked. Shay didn't laugh. "I can't throw a football fifty feet," he admitted. Her eyes darkened with sympathy that Nick didn't want, so he moved the focus back to her. "Why did you buy the farm, Shay?"
"Because it's my home. I know every nook and cranny of that land, and I always liked living there." She smirked. "I like it even more now. The old house was a wreck, so I had it torn down and built a new one. You should visit me. I've got the best view in this county."
"But surely you don't intend to farm? The orchards must be in very bad shape." Nick couldn't fathom what this model-turned-physiotherapist would do with a pecan farm.
"Well, I was told the harvest in December didn't yield much. But I do think the trees will come back eventually. I'll wait and see. For now I have to concentrate on my practice." Her voice softened. "Anyway, it's not the orchard I wanted, Nick, as much as my home. Dad had big plans for the family place. I'd like to fulfill some of them, but that's down the road. For now, I have to live somewhere, so it might as well be on familiar territory."