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HE'D THOUGHT he was ready for this.
The years away should have inoculated him against the emotions surfacing now—loss, pain, guilt and the familiar edgy tension that Kendall Van Allen had always inspired. He thought he'd dumped the baggage he'd been carrying when he left Sturgeon Falls seven years earlier.
He thought he'd gotten on with his life.
He was wrong. Gabe rolled his BMW to a stop on the smooth driveway and studied Van Allen House. The fresh coat of creamy yellow paint, the green and rose of the contrasting trim and the flowers massed around the house all glowed in the sunlight. The house had certainly changed.
Had Kendall changed as much?
Would she welcome him? Or merely tolerate him? Maybe he should have stayed away from her. The dedication committee had made the reservation, but he could have declined. Maybe he should have booked himself into one of the other B and B's. Sometimes old wounds were better left alone.
No. He got out of the car and shut the door. He'd run away seven years ago, and he'd regretted it ever since. He was done with running away. The dedication of the high-school football stadium to Kendall's late husband, Carter, had brought him back to Sturgeon Falls, but that wasn't the only thing that was going to happen this weekend.
Kendall would need his help. Even though she didn't know it yet.
THE DOOR KNOCKER SOUNDED just as Kendall was
pulling on her black slacks. Shoving her feet into her image-enhancing Bruno Magli pumps, she finger-combed her short hair and then buttoned her blouse as she hurried down the stairs. The guest the dedication committee had booked into her bed-and-breakfast was right on time.
The tall, lean figure of a man was visible through the frosted-glass panels in the front door. Kendall took a deep breath, checked one last time to make sure all the buttons on her blouse were done up, plastered a smile on her face and opened the door.
"Welcome to Van Allen House," she said to her prospective guest's back. He was looking out over the expansive front lawn, hands in the pockets of his elegant charcoal slacks, apparently studying the formal garden.
Then he turned to face her. "Very nice, Kendall.You've done a lot of work. It doesn't look like the same place."
The shock of recognition hit her like a blow. Even after seven years, his black hair and blue eyes, his sensual mouth and beautiful face were unmistakable. Her smile vanished. "Gabe?"
Her hand curled around the door. "What are you doing here?"
"I have a reservation. Compliments of the dedication committee."
"You're my guest?"
"In the flesh."
She itched to shut the door in his face. But the bill for the hot-water heater she'd just replaced still sat on the desk in her office. Even though she wanted nothing to do with Gabe Townsend or the memories that clung to him like stubborn cobwebs, she stepped aside and opened the door wider. "Come in."
He strolled into the foyer, his curious gaze registering everything, from the slightly threadbare rug on the floor to the faint depression in the plaster left by her daughter's soccer ball to the pictures of ancestral Van Allens that lined the wall alongside the stairs.
She closed the door a little harder than necessary. "Why did you come here? What do you want?"
He dropped his leather suitcase. "Other than a room? A 'hello, Gabe' would be nice. "Welcome back to Sturgeon Falls' would be even nicer."
"If you came to Sturgeon Falls looking for a welcome from me, you're out of your mind," she said, moving to the small office she'd set up in a closet beneath the stairs. "There's nothing here for you."
"The committee made the reservation," he said.
"Maybe they thought it would be nostalgic."
"I'm not much for nostalgia." She studied him, noticing the confident way he held himself, registering his assumption that he belonged. "I didn't think you were, either."
He shrugged. "That's what this dedication is all about, isn't it? Old memories? Looking at the past through rose-colored glasses?"
"I don't want to look at the past at all."
"No choice this time," he said lightly. "You're coming to the ceremony, aren't you?" He set his credit card on her desk.
"Of course I am. The girls are thrilled about the whole stupid thing. They've been talking about it for weeks." Dragging her gaze away from his long, elegant fingers, she swiped Gabe's card through the reader so hard it flew out of her hand. She grabbed it and slapped it back down on the desk.
"Let's cut to the chase, Gabe. I know I'm not the only bed-and-breakfast in town with a vacancy on a Wednesday this early in June. You could have stayed somewhere else. Why here?"
She couldn't read his expression. His eyes were just as inscrutable as they'd always been.
"Staying at your B and B is business. And when I'm doing business, I like to keep it in the family," he said.
"I'm not part of your family."
"I'm Jenna's godfather. Doesn't that count?"
"I assumed you'd forgotten."
Gabe held her gaze. "I take my obligations seriously."
"We're not one of your obligations, Gabe. We never have been. I thought I'd made that clear a long time ago."
"Obligation or not, I'm here for the dedication. When the committee suggested I stay here, as ill-advised as they may have been, I agreed. Why spend their money anywhere else?"
"I've put the past behind me. You should have, too." He watched her for a long moment. "If you'd put the past behind you, Kendall, you wouldn't be telling me to find another place to stay."
Kendall took a deep breath, let it out slowly and then nodded. "You're right. Business is business.You can be sure I won't forget again." She was an adult now, a successful businesswoman. His money was as good as anyone else's. Pride wouldn't pay for a new hot-water heater. She completed the paperwork and smiled stiffly.
"Let me show you the main floor before I take you upstairs to your room. This is the dining room..."
Before she could continue, he asked, "Is that coffee on the buffet?"
"Yes. Would you like a cup?"
She poured two mugs and absently added cream to both before handing one to Gabe. He stared at it.
"You remembered how I like my coffee."
"I wasn't thinking." She forced herself to relax the tight grip on her own mug as she set it on the table. "I made it like mine."
He took a sip, never taking his eyes off her. "It's been a long time, Kendall. What have you been up to?"
She stirred her coffee, watching the dark liquid lighten as it mixed with the cream. "Raising my daughters. Running the B and B. Living. What about you?"
"I keep busy. My company demands a lot of time." Gabe wasn't any more eager to share his life story than she was. The swallow she took burned a path all the way to her stomach. "Now that we have the pleas-antries out of the way, I'll show you your room."
She pushed away from the table, picking up a key attached to a laminated plastic business card on her way up the stairs. Gabe was close behind her. She turned to the right when they reached the second floor and opened a white-painted wooden door.
"This room has an updated bath and a view of the backyard and the beach," she said in her best tour-guide voice as she gestured toward the window. "Will it be all right?"
"It'll be fine," he said without looking.
She stepped back, but Gabe made no effort to go in.
"Breakfast is from 7:00 until 9:00 a.m.," she said.
"I lock the front door each night at nine, but your room key will unlock it. The living room is a common area for everyone who's staying in the house, so please make yourself comfortable. Is there anything else I can get for you?"
"Not a thing."
She gave him a tight, impersonal smile. "Then, I'll see you at breakfast tomorrow."
He didn't move as she headed back down the stairs.
Pausing, she picked up the two abandoned mugs, carried them into the kitchen and emptied them into the sink. Like old dreams, the coffee swirled down the drain and disappeared.
A HALF HOUR LATER, Gabe walked into the living room
again. Kendall was nowhere in sight. He wasn't surprised.
Maybe she wasn't avoiding him deliberately. But she wasn't going to hang around, waiting to talk to him, either.
Running a bed-and-breakfast must be hard work, and Gabe was guessing that Kendall did it on her own. She'd always thrown herself completely into every job she'd undertaken, no matter how large or small it was.
And now she had an extra incentive for keeping busy. Being occupied and unavailable was much more graceful than simply telling Gabe to get lost.
He hadn't expected a warm welcome. She'd made it clear seven years earlier that she wanted nothing to do with him. He couldn't blame her. After all, as she'd pointed out at the time, he'd killed her husband.
The car crash had been an accident. The judge had ruled it an accident caused by icy roads and a snowstorm. But that didn't change the facts. It was Gabe's car. The police told her it had been going too fast. They told her Gabe had been driving. And Carter was dead.
Leaving her a widow with two young daughters and very little money.
Gabe poured himself a fresh mug of coffee from the thermos he found in the dining room and stared out the window as he sipped. The back lawn of Kendall's home sloped gently down to a secluded private beach on Green Bay. As a major Midwestern tourist destination, Door County, Wisconsin, was host to a tangle of traffic jams, packed beaches and crowded shops every summer from June until September. But even though Sturgeon Falls was at the epicenter, Van Allen House was a calm oasis.
Kendall had clearly worked hard to cultivate that image.