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Late, as usual. Evie swung the door of the Downtown Denver Mission open and dashed inside. The lobby was toasty, even though a bitterly cold November evening wind blew off the Rockies and right down Broadway without pausing to add a few degrees. She strode across the polished floor, her gaze taking in the large wooden cross that hung from the upper level.
She loved that old cross. It was so simple, so strong. It had brought her back to a life of forgiveness and hope. Her steps slowed and she took a deep breath. There wasn't anything to be gained by running, except a few more seconds.
Now that she wasn't flying through the lobby, she noticed a large poster announcing the Christmas tree-lighting ceremony. She smiled, knowing how excited the city's kids would be. One of the biggest parties of the year, it brought the whole Mission family together, as the tree was delivered on an old-fashioned sled pulled through downtown by horses. Often as not, it snowed through the party, but that was part of living in Denver.
The sound of her own footsteps rang in the cavernous lobby. Must take a ton of money to keep this place warm. She couldn't imagine trying to balance the comfort of the residents and the reality of the electricity bill. But that was why she was here. An empty spot on the finance committee, her brother, Jack's, annoying ability to get his way and an extra dash of guilt meant Evie was the Mission's newest volunteer.
She glanced at the large, decorative mirror mounted to the nearest wall and tucked her dark hair behind her ears. Snow melting along the collar of her coat, blue eyes, generous mouth and the flush of a woman who'd been running late all day. She'd heard she was pretty, even beautiful, but sometimes when Evie looked in the mirror, all she saw was her twin brother, Jack. Same quirky smile, same off-center dimples, same arched brows that made them look just a bit mischievous.
Except for that little bit of sadness in her eyes that was all her own, a shadowy reminder of too many years running after the wrong things, too many nights awake staring at the ceiling. She smoothed her slightly wrinkled office clothes and forced her mouth into a smile she hoped would pass as genuine.
Evie paused at the long, low front desk. She'd been volunteering for years at the Mission, mostly during the holidays or when they were short-staffed. Now, for the first time, she had a position. The responsibility felt heavy on her shoulders. "Hi, Lana. Do I smell cookies?"
"Gingerbread. It's a rule that we can't have finance meetings without cookies. Take one." The secretary lifted up the plate, a smile creasing her face.
"Oh, great rule." Evie snagged a soft, round cookie and took a bite. She'd pay for the cookie later. Power walking an extra mile or two at the gym might cover it. But she wouldn't think about that right now.
Lana tipped her head toward the offices. "It's hard enough to make tough money decisions. A little bit of gingerbread goes a long way toward keeping everybody happy." Purple-tipped hair, cut military short, gave the impression that the secretary was a little nutty. Add in the wheelchair and Lana was the poster child for unconventional. But Evie had never been anything but impressed by Lana's warmth and professionalism.
"Thanks for this," she said, turning toward the office area.
"Welcome. We've got all your papers filed, but remember to turn in the background check waiver."
Evie popped the last bit of deliciousness into her mouth and nodded. She wondered briefly if she would have any chance of stealing Lana away from the mission. Better pay, fewer hours, more vacation. Working at a big newspaper wouldn't be so different from what Lana was doing now, with coordinating all the paperwork and the staff.
Her whole body turned taut with anger as she caught herself. Old habits die hard. Plotting to steal away the Mission secretary might be a momentary bit of shallowness for some, but for her, with all the ugly past she carried, it burned like a searchlight on her weakness. Over and over she had made the very worst choices with only her selfishness as a guide.
And even now, years after she'd walked away from a miserable situation made by her own bitter jealousy, she caught herself slipping. Self-loathing and frailty, it all felt so familiar. She dragged in a breath, willing the chill to pass. All she could do was continue to ask for grace and hold on to hope. A girl with a past like hers didn't have much choice.
"Evie!" She knew even before she turned it was Jack, his cheery tone echoing around the lobby. He was half a foot taller and a hundred times more fun. Just the sight of him, with his energetic bounce, made her forced smile morph into something absolutely genuine.
"Wait up. I got stuck in traffic. Oh, and here's Gavin. Looks like everybody's late tonight." Jack motioned toward the entry and tugged off his ski jacket as he spoke.
A man with sandy blond hair stepped through the glass double doors. He didn't look up, gaze focused a few feet in front, mouth set in a line. More than preoccupied, he seemed to be carrying the worries of the whole city.
Evie cocked her head, watching him. So, this was the Gavin Sawyer who liked to snowboard with Jack up on Wolf Mountain. From what her brother had said, she'd gotten the impression Gavin was sort of an awkward science type, obsessed with viruses and germs. The man striding toward them was the furthest thing from a pale, nerdy lab rat that she could have imagined. Broad shoulders, strong jaw, he was classically handsome but for the little bit of a hunch to his shoulders, like he'd spent his life feeling too tall for the room. His suit fit well, the shirt pressed and tie straight.
This was not a guy who would be happy behind a desk all day, or in a cube farm. She gave him another head-to-toe survey, trying to pinpoint what it was that gave her that gut feeling. Athleticism, maybe. He was only a few feet away and still hadn't noticed them. He seemed to be in his own world. He looked down at his watch and she grinned. There was something bright on the face, like a cartoon, and the strap was cherry-red.
"Wow. Earth to Evie." Jack's comment was followed by a loud snort of laughter.
She turned, face already heating. "Sorry, what did you say?"
"Let me introduce you." He stepped directly in Gavin's path. "Wait, Jack. I don't" She gave up and let him go. Trailing behind her twin, she attempted to look collected and cool. Jack was the outgoing, popular one. Give her a frantic newsroom an hour before the paper went to press anytime, but small talk just wasn't her strong point.
Jack clapped a hand on Gavin's shoulder in greeting. "Hey, you made it. This is my sister, Evie. She's the editor of The Chronicle and our new board member."
He turned, face polite, perfect mouth lifted in a smile. But Evie saw a flash of something in his expression that made her catch her breath. A narrowing of the eyes, a thinning of his lips. It was dislike, clear and simple.
"Hi. Glad you've joined us." Gavin's deep voice caught her by surprise. His tone was perfectly pleasant, if a bit distant. Nothing there suggested the feelings she'd sensed just seconds ago.
"Thank you." She flashed a bright smile and focused on slipping out of her blue wool coat. She struggled to compose her thoughts, letting her hair hide her face for a moment. Had Jack told him an unflattering story? Was Gavin one of those naturally distrusting types? She could understand that, just a little. But the expression he'd had was more disdain. Her stomach dropped a few inches as she wondered just what he'd heard. Or seen.
"Gavin is our resident disease specialist so if you have any odd rashes, be sure to let him know," Jack teased as he walked to Lana's desk and took two cookies.
There was an awkward pause. She crossed her arms and looked at Jack, who was grinning at her. She wanted to smack him.
Gavin let out a deep chuckle and shook his head. Disease specialist didn't sound like a particularly fun job and certainly didn't fit with her first impression, but the guy took Jack's teasing in stride. Better than Evie, who barely resisted giving her brother the look of death.
"Thanks for the cookies, Lana," Jack called as he headed toward the Mission's locked office area.
"Consider it a bribe. Don't forget the Christmas tree is being delivered this weekend. I want you all to be there to help us keep the kids under control." The secretary grinned and pushed the button on the desk that unlocked the doors and Gavin waved Evie ahead.
He held the door and as she passed, the smell of fresh air and soap wafted her way. As if acting on instinct, Evie glanced at his hand to see if he wore a ring and then grimaced at her own blatant curiosity. Gavin was handsome, smart and smelled wonderful. He also seemed to have taken an instant dislike to her. She was here to help the Mission's finance board, not find a date.
As she started down the hallway, Evie caught the toe of her glossy black pump on a wrinkle in the old brown carpet, pitching forward. Strong hands quickly gripped her elbow, rescuing her from the headfirst trajectory.
"Careful. The Mission definitely needs new carpeting." His low voice in her ear held more than a hint of laughter.
Of course he would have to be a witness to that acrobatic turn. Jack was halfway down the hallway, oblivious. Evie blew out a breath, calming her pounding pulse. Nothing like a near miss with the floor to get your heart rate up. "Right. It's practically unsafe to walk around in here." She met his eyes, wishing it didn't matter how ungraceful she seemed.
Fine lines marked the corners of his brown eyes. His hands felt warm and sure against her arm, lending her a support she hadn't known she needed. Evie wanted to lean close, to soak in the strength, to let someone else make all the big decisions, just for a moment.
Instead, she drew her elbow back from his gentle grip. "We'd better get in there before they start without us."
Gavin nodded, the ghost of a smile still playing around his mouth.
Turning back toward the conference rooms, she steeled herself against the feelings that swirled in her heart. Besides the fact she was here to focus on the Mission, she wasn't the type of girl who spent much time on her social life. There were a lot of reasons, really. Potential candidates were meager, even in a city as large as Denver. Running a paper wasn't a nine-to-five job, either.
But mostly, if she was truly honest, it was the knowledge that in every relationship there would be the moment where she would have to be honest. Honest about her past and the person she had once been. That was enough to give her second thoughts about any man, even one as handsome as Gavin Sawyer.
Gavin moved on autopilot down the hallway, Evie just steps ahead. So, the new member of the finance board runs the local paper. Okay. Nothing he couldn't work around. He took a calming breath. They were here to help the Mission build a healthy financial cushion, not pry into each other's ugly secrets.
Jack had mentioned her and something about The Chronicle, but he hadn't realized she was the editor. And so beautiful. Her smile was infectious, with a quiet confidence that made him want to follow her anywhere. But with his sister on her way to Denver, that would be a recipe for certain disaster.
Besides, right now he had a lot more to worry about.
The old fear gripped him and he felt his heart grow cold. He'd promised to do everything he could to save lives, promised on the memory of his best friend. No child should ever die of a preventable disease. No family should ever have to suffer that kind of anguish. He fought back the remnants of old grief and focused on the moment ahead. Finance meeting, then back to work. Nothing else really mattered.
Evie stepped back in a hurry as Grant Monohan rushed out of the meeting room, cell phone in hand. The usually unflappable director looked a bit worse for wear.
"There you two are. Go ahead and get settled. I'm just going to call Calista and check on her." His voice was warm, ifjust a little anxious.
"Is she in labor?" Gavin asked. Grant's wife was due soon, maybe tomorrow.
"Three days overdue. She told me if she doesn't have this baby by Monday, she's going to stage a sit-in at the hospital until they induce her." He didn't crack a smile. Gavin didn't know Calista very well, but he'd definitely gotten the impression the woman liked her schedule nice and tidy. Babies just didn't work on schedules.
"Uh-oh. My cousin went overdue and we all tried to stay out of her way until that baby arrived," Evie said, her tone light.
"A few more days and I might wish I had that option." This time Grant laughed outright, his joy shadowing his words. "But for now a lot of foot rubbing seems to be keeping her happy." He held the door open and motioned them in.
The drab conference room was nearly empty. Evie chose a seat next to Jack, who promptly slung an arm over the back of her chair.
Seconds later, the door opened and another board member walked through. Her curly brown hair was pulled back from her narrow face, high arched brows framing bright eyes. She smiled, reaching out a hand. "You must be Evelyn. I'm Nancy Winkoff. I think we've met once before."
"I think we sat together at the fund-raising dinner for the Denver Children's Symphony last year," Evie agreed.