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Reaching behind her waist to tie the strings of her crisp cotton apron in a jaunty bow, Emily Porter kept a firm eye on the clock, waiting with a quickening of her pulse until the long hand finally ticked to the twelve. She glanced to her friend and boss, Lucy Miller, who gave a nervous smile followed by a simple nod of her head. Eleven o'clock. This was it!
With a deep breath, Emily crossed the polished wood floors and turned the homemade sign on the door of the Sweetie Pie Bakery. They were officially open for business.
"I haven't been this nervous since my wedding day," Lucy exclaimed giddily, her voice high with sudden emotion.
"It'll be a huge success. I just know it," Emily said, grinning ear to ear. This was the most exciting day she'd had in a long time, and heck, it hadn't even started yet! Her stomach fluttered with anticipation as she glanced around the sun-filled bakery. The past few weeks had flown by in such a whirlwind of activity to get everything ready for the opening day that she hadn't stopped to stand back and take it all in. The walls were painted a creamy ivory, nearly the same shade as the sleek cabinets that lined the wall behind the gleaming glass display case now housing fifteen different kinds of pie, all baked fresh that morning, with more in stock in the kitchen. The counter was a warm rustic cherrywood, chosen to complement the spotless floor. Ten cozy tables dotted the room, all eagerly awaiting the guests who would soon be coming through the front door.
"I hope so." Lucy sighed, glancing out the wall of windows onto Main Street.
It was the first time Emily had seen her friend express any doubts since she'd first announced she was going through with the venture. She'd been working for Lucy for as long as she could remember at the diner across the street and never in all that time had she seen her boss so flustered.
"You've been in the restaurant business for almost twenty years," Emily replied, coming around the counter to get the coffee started.
"You calling me old?" Lucy winked. Then, on a sigh, she admitted, "You're right " She began straightening chairs that were already straight. "I just don't want to let anyone down."
Emily poured another heaping spoonful of fresh coffee grounds into the filter. "You aren't going to let anyone down. Everyone in Maple Woods loves your diner and there's no reason why they won't love this place, too."
Lucy brushed an imaginary crumb from her pink and white pinstriped apron and squared her shoulders. "What would I do without you, Em?"
A ripple of guilt crept over Emily, but she pushed the feeling aside as quickly as it formed and distracted herself by setting the coffee to brew. She glanced around the bakery once more, wishing someone would just come in already! Deciding there was nothing left to do but wait until the first customer made their appearance, she announced, "I'll water the flower beds."
Lucy nodded her approval, her eyes never leaving the window.
"You know what they say about a watched pot.." Emily teased as she pushed through the front door with a wide grin, feeling the warmth of late morning sunshine on her arms and face.
Bright pink tulips lined the tall windows of the storefront, and Emily gave each one a healthy drink while gazing down Main Street, which was unusually quiet for this time of day. In an hour the lunch crowd would hit, and then then Emily didn't know what to expect. She had visions of people pushing through a crammed door, eager to take a peek inside Maple Woods's newest establishment.
Still smiling at the thought, she whipped around to the sound of an engine revving in the near distance. A bright red sports car was sitting at the intersection of Main Street and Maple Avenue, the noise a dramatic contrast to the peaceful and simple life of Maple Woods.
Emily watched as the car took a sharp left when the light turned, wincing as the vehicle rumbled offensively and took speed in her direction. She squinted into the sunlight as it quickly closed the distance, but as it zipped past her, her eyes shot open.
It couldn't be not him. After all these years, there was no way. Why now?
Emily peered at the sidewalk as she tried to logically process what she had just seen. Her stomach tightened with each ragged breath. Scott Collins hadn't shown his face in this town in nearly twelve years. Would he really come back now, after all this time?
She pursed her lips. It had taken months of heartache and waiting to learn the answer to that question. It was about time she accepted it, too.
She swallowed the knot of disappointment that was quickly forming a lump in her throat, replacing her sudden shock. She hadn't thought of her high school sweetheart in years, and look at her: all it took was one drive-by, one trigger to open wounds she thought had finally healed. One double take to have her thinking of those blue eyes and that lopsided grin all over again.
She shook her head and pulled open the door to the bakery. The car had been too fast. Her mind had been playing tricks on her. Besides, Lucy would have surely announced if her own brother was paying a visit.
"I just got a call from George," Lucy announced breathlessly as soon as the door closed behind Emily. She finished untying the strings to her apron and hung it on a hook on the back of the kitchen door. "He needs me at the diner for a bit to help prep for the lunch crowd, seeing that we don't have any customers here yet." The last words of her statement were laced with disappointment.
Emily studied Lucy's face thoughtfully, wondering if she should even mention her possible sighting, but her friend's expression showed nothing that would indicate Scott's arrival any more than her words did.
"Hurry back if you can," Emily said as Lucy gathered her things to hurry to the diner that she owned with her husband. "I have a feeling that by tonight, we'll be so busy, we'll be wishing everyone would just go home." She paused to stare out the window, idly searching for the mysterious red car. Suspicion engulfed her all over again. No one in Maple Woods drove a car like that. She turned back to Lucy. "Were you expecting anyone special for today's grand opening?"
She knew from Lucy that her father wasn't well but no. Scott hadn't so much as bothered to come back for a holiday in all these years. Surely he wasn't suddenly sweeping into town looking to make up for lost time. Unless
"Just the usual group of friends and family showing their support." Lucy shrugged. She surveyed the empty room once more, her lips thinning. "I'm off, then. Call if you need me. I'll just be across the street."
"Will do," Emily said, sighing. Silly girl, she thought with a shake of her head. Of course it hadn't been Scott. He was gone, never coming back.
Besides, she was better off without him.
What the hell was he doing here? Scott leaned on the hood of the red Porsche, his eyes narrowing as his gaze swept down Main Street and over to the town square. The charming little gazebo bordered with hydrangea bushes. The bronze statue of the town's founder standing tall and proud under the umbrella of a magnolia tree. His stare lingered on Lucy's Place, his gut knotting at the familiar sight. In all his life, he never expected to see that diner again, or any place in Maple Woods, really. There was no circumstance that could bring him back, he'd thought, and yet here he was.
He shook his head in disgust, angry at himself for giving in. He shouldn't have come back. He should have stayed away. Twelve years was a long time. Longer than the innocence of some childhoods. Longer than most marriages. But twelve years wasn't enough time to put distance between him and Maple Woods. Or the secret the town held. The one he had sworn he would take to his grave.
Scott turned and regarded his rental car, grimacing with regret. He'd rented the exact model he owned in Seattle, out of habit, but with its flashy red paint and six-figure price tag, that car didn't belong in Maple Woods any more than he did. It would only garner more unwanted attention and speculation, and God knew this town was full of enough gossip. Sleepy little towns like this enjoyed a good scandal, or in his case, a good secret. It kept things interesting, and gave an otherwise dormant community something to talk about other than marriages and births. Deaths.
Scott scowled as his stomach began to burn again. It had been happening a lot lately-ever since Lucy had called and begged him to come back to Maple Woods, pleading with him to take over the rebuilding of the town library, which her son had damaged in a fire he had accidentally started. "Kids," Scott had told her over the phone, when she'd tearfully explained his nephew's involvement, but something about it touched a nerve, evoking memories that were better kept buried. Lucy wanted to set things right: Bobby was doing community service, he was working hard to get into a good college on a football scholarship, and the plans for the new library were moving along nicely until their father got sick.
He didn't know why he gave in to her request in the end. Maybe it was because she'd let him stay away as long as she had, maybe it was because he respected her need to set things right for the wrongdoings of her son, or maybe it was because she didn't ask him directly to come back and be there for the family in their hour of need that he felt he couldn't say no to her. Whatever the reason, he was here.
You 're gonna pay me back for this one, Lucy.
His breath hitched on a rueful laugh. Who was he kidding? He could never stay mad at her for long. How could he? With their seven-year age difference, they'd never had the kind of banter or rivalry one expects with siblings. Lucy had always doted on him, right up until the time she married George Miller and moved across town to start a family of her own.
She would probably be in the diner right now, filling coffee mugs with that no-nonsense grin and a twinkle in her eye. In a matter of minutes he could see her again. He had to admit the idea of it was appealing, despite the circumstances.
Scott pushed back from the car and straightened his shoulders. Hands thrust into his pockets, he began wandering down the sidewalk, taking his time in surveying the shops that lined the quaint street. He was struck with wonder as his eyes roamed over the storefronts. Absolutely nothing had changed. It was all the same. The pizza place. The flower shop. The bookstore. The fashions in the window of the clothing boutique sure had changed, though. He paused to study the dress on the mannequin with furrowed interest before his gaze slid to a wide-eyed face staring back at him through the glass. He flushed as the woman mouthed what he was nearly sure was "Oh, my God, it's Scott Collins!" and another slack-jawed face quickly appeared on the other side of the mannequin, eyes gleaming in the ray of sunlight that poured through the shop window.
Scott frowned before turning on his heel and quickening his pace toward the diner. He remembered those girls, all right. Women now. They were both in his math class senior year. They'd been some of the prettiest girls on the cheerleading squad. From the looks of it, they'd remembered him, too.
He'd put a hundred bucks on the notion that the women in the clothing shop were calling around to every one of their old classmates right this moment and grimaced to think of the reaction he was going to elicit when he pushed through the doors of Lucy's Place. After all, a man didn't disappear from this town for twelve years without prompting a reaction when he returned.
He didn't think he could stomach it, honestly.
Scott closed his eyes as his chest tightened. He could only hope that one person could be spared. If he was in and out of town quick enough, he might manage to avoid her altogether.
A chalkboard sign up ahead boasted the loopy script Grand Opening! and Scott grinned. Of course! Lucy's new bakery. She had mentioned on the phone that she was planning to launch this week but his mind had been so muddled with the thought of his return that he'd almost forgotten. He glanced to the diner across the street, noting the swarm of customers filling every table near the windows and exhaled in relief.
He couldn't face that diner-those curious faces and eager smiles-and now he wouldn't have to. He strode up to the bakery and registered the open sign. One glance through the windows revealed an empty establishment: a safe haven. With any luck he'd have a chance to catch his breath and reunite with his sister without forty sets of eyes memorizing the exchange, eager to report it verbatim at the dinner table later that evening.
He glanced back up the street to where the women from the clothing shop were now standing on the sidewalk, cell phones pressed against their ears, staring at him as if he was some carnival freak. He swallowed the acidic taste that filled his mouth.
It had been a bad idea to come back here. He had known it would be difficult to face his past but he hadn't realized how quickly the emotions he had tried to bury would bubble to the surface. Well, all the more reason to do his business and then get the hell out. And this time, he wouldn't be back. Under any circumstances.