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By Bonnie Winn
Steeple HillCopyright © 2005 Bonnie Winn
All right reserved.
Rosewood, Texas. Two years later.
Seth McAllister ambled down the quiet street of the very quiet town. Rosewood wasn't what he was used to, but it was what he wanted now.
Having traded in his architectural design firm for a return to his roots, he hoped to establish a remodeling business. The local hardware store should provide a good source of leads.
Spotting the store, he paused outside to glance in. As he did, a woman kneeling in the window display area whirled around. He caught a quick and vivid image of long, blond hair, an arresting face and a slim body.
An instant later her face was even with his. She was obviously startled. Her eyes, an incredible turquoise, widened and her mouth opened a fraction.
Seth pulled back, the contact too close, too immediate.
At the same time, the woman rocked on her heels, looking abashed.
Seth quickly stepped to the door and pushed it open. As he entered, the woman scrambled from the window ledge.
"I didn't mean to startle you," he explained.
She brushed her hands against her jeans. "I'm not usually so jumpy."
After an awkward moment, he smiled. "Maybe we can start over. I'm Seth McAllister and I'm looking for the manager."
"Oh," she replied, still looking flustered. "I'm Emma Duvere." She gestured halfheartedly toward the window. "I don't work here. I'm decorating. But you don't want to hear about that." She took a breath, before her words came spilling out again.
"You said you're looking for the manager. That's Luke and he's out right now. Could you come back later?"
"Or you could leave a message for him," she continued, looking for a paper and pencil in the maze of cartons surrounding her.
"No, thanks. I'll come back."
"Okay then." Mild curiosity kindled in her expression.
But he'd moved to Rosewood to avoid explanations. "Thanks." Seth left quickly, glancing at his watch. He had an appointment with the realtor at the house he'd rented. It was just as well. He didn't want to run into the window decorator again. He'd had enough of questions, concern and curiosity for one lifetime.
Emma stared after Seth's tall, athletic form as he exited. Rosewood's population was small, but she hadn't run into him before. She would have noticed his handsome face, his dark hair that looked slightly too long, as if he needed it cut.
Funny. His face so close to hers for those few seconds had been disturbing. She'd had the odd sensation of looking deep into his dark eyes. It had made her feel vulnerable, this soul-searching moment between two strangers.
"Who was that?" Cindy Mallory asked, bringing in a box of fabric.
"Seth McAllister," she replied, absently rubbing the weltlike scar on the palm of her right hand.
"Well, well. Stranger in town," Cindy said, smiling. "Tall, dark and definitely handsome."
Emma reached for the box in Cindy's arms. "Thanks for helping me today."
Cindy's eyes narrowed. "That wasn't even subtle."
Emma kept her gaze on the fabric. "What?"
"Let me put it this way. If you'd been driving and changed lanes the way you just changed the subject, you'd be one big car wreck."
Sighing, Emma dropped the fabric. "Sorry. It was just..."
"Nothing." Emma couldn't explain the connection she had seemed to make with him. It wasn't something she could put into words. "He could be new to Rosewood."
"We'll have to alert the Welcome Wagon. If there's no Mrs. McAllister in the picture, every single woman in town will volunteer for the assignment."
Emma doubted he was attached. His eyes were filled with too much loneliness. "Hmm."
"You're being the enigmatic one now. Something I didn't notice about him?"
Emma turned to look at the window, her back to her friend. "No. Just remembering that it wasn't so long ago that I was a stranger here."
Cindy's tone softened. "But it's home now, isn't it?"
Emma nodded. She didn't like to dwell on the time two years earlier when she'd first arrived in Rose-wood. She'd left her parents, family and friends behind with no certainty that she would ever see them again.
Cindy seemed to understand what Emma wasn't saying. "Have you decided on the fabric for the window?" She pointed to the only unopened carton. "That was the last box."
Gratefully, Emma latched on to the safe subject. "I think so. And, Cindy, I really do appreciate your help. The store's so busy lately it takes nearly all my time."
"You know I love the design aspect of creating window displays. Besides, what are friends for?"
Swallowing, Emma silently acknowledged that the friendships she'd forged in Rosewood had rescued her, in so many ways.
The warm fellowship of the Community Church had been a balm to her wounded spirit. Cindy and her friend Katherine Carlson had swept her into their lives. Inviting her into their homes and families, the women had forged a bond that eased the pain, that sometimes diverted the loneliness.
Excerpted from Protected Hearts by Bonnie Winn Copyright © 2005 by Bonnie Winn. Excerpted by permission.
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