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Kelly Logan closed the textbook with a huff and blinked hard to bring the Christian bookstore where she worked into focus.
Math. It was so not fair that she, a twenty-four-year-old college student, had to take the required course so she could graduate. She intentionally hadn't thought about quadratic equations since high school, which was six years ago. Hello? Who would want to have to think about this stuff? Unfortunately, she was paying good tuition money to have to think about this stuff. She rubbed her forehead in the hopes that her equation-induced headache would go away.
No such luck. Pain pounded against her temples as though someone was inside her skull, beating her with a mallet. Lovely. She'd been studying algebra for thirty minutes in the quiet lull of a Friday afternoon. Thirty minutes was all it took for her neurotransmitters to quit working in protest. Not that she blamed them. Definitely time for a study break before her head imploded. She leaned a little to the left over the counter to check on the store's only customer, busily browsing in the devotionals display. "Do you need any help, Opal?"
"Any more of your help and I'll break my budget, honey." Elderly Mrs. Opal Finch wandered away from the decorated table with a small book in hand. "I got this one. The one you recommended. I see one of your bosses put up a written recommendation on it, too."
"Katherine has exquisite taste."
Opal slipped the book onto the counter.
"Since when have you two steered me wrong? It's such a pretty cover, I couldn't resist."
"Neither could I. I bought it today--payday." Kelly gestured toward the identical small pink book next to her textbooks before sherang up the sale. "I already took a peek at it. The first day's devotion is awesome."
"Wonderful. Are you going to want to see my identification? That new girl did last time I was here."
"Nope, I know your account number by heart."
"That's not what I meant." Opal's merry green eyes sparkled with amusement. "So you can verify my senior citizen discount! It's a hoot, that's what it is, questioning my age. Oh my, it's good for the soul."
"You look eighty-three years young to me," Kelly assured the lovely octogenarian as she scribbled down the purchase on an in-house charge slip.
"Bless you, dear, I surely appreciate that. And I don't need a bag, sweetie. Conservation, you know." She opened her wide paisley-patterned purse, hanging by sturdy straps from her forearm.
Kelly leaned over the counter to slip the book and receipt into the cavernous purse. "Thanks for coming by. You stop in and tell me how you like the devotional, okay?"
"I most certainly will." Opal snapped her purse shut, her smile beaming and her spirit shining through. "Don't study too hard. An education is important, but don't you forget. There are greater blessings in this life."
In yours, yes. Kelly filed the in-house copy of the charge slip in the till and held back the shadows in her heart. She feared that a happy family may not have been in God's plan for her. Sometimes it was hard to accept, to see the reason why she'd been given the parents she had.
Some days it was all she could do to have faith.
"Kelly, dear," Opal called over her shoulder on the way to the door. "Be sure and tell Katherine good-bye for me. That girl works too much!"
"I'd tell her that, but she won't listen." The bell over the front door chimed cheerfully as it swung open with a force hard enough to keep the bell tinkling a few extra times.
"Let me hold the door for you, ma'am." A man's rugged baritone sounded as warm as the intense August sunshine, and the bell jingled again as he stepped aside, holding the door wide as Opal passed through.
Something puzzled her. His voice. There was something about it. Kelly couldn't see him well because of the glare of bright sunlight slanting through the open window blinds lining the front of the store.
All she saw of the newcomer was his silhouette cutting through the strong lemony rays of the western sun. It was a silhouette cut so fine, everything within her stilled, awe-struck by the iron-strong impression of his wide-shouldered outline.
"Why, thank you, sir," Opal's genteel alto rang with admiration. "You're a fine gentleman."
"You have a nice afternoon, ma'am." He stepped out of the touch of the light. His shadowed form became substance--a fit, capable soldier dressed in military camouflage, who looked as if he'd just walked off the front page of the newspaper and into the bookstore.
Wow. Definitely, one of the good guys. "Good afternoon." The soldier removed his hat, the floppy brimmed kind that was camouflage, too, revealing his thick, short jet-black hair. He nodded crisply in her direction.
"Uh. G-good afternoon." Was that really her voice? It sounded as if she had peanut butter stuck in her throat. Totally embarrassing. "Do you need any help?"
"I might. I'll let you know." He stood too far away for her to see the color of his eyes accurately, but his gaze was direct and commanding.
And familiar. There was something about him. It wasn't uncommon for soldiers to find their way in here, down from the army base up north.
Could he be a repeat customer? She considered him more carefully. No, she sure didn't think he'd been in before. His face was more rugged than handsome, masculine and distinctive with piercing hazel eyes, a sharp blade of a nose and square granite jaw.
Kelly, you're gawking at the guy. Again, a little embarrassing, so she went in search through her backpack instead. Her aspirin bottle was in there somewhere--
"Hey, I know you. You're Kelly, right? Kelly Logan?" The handsome warrior grinned at her, slow and wide, showing straight, even white teeth. Twin dimples cut into lean, sun-browned cheeks. "South Valley High. You don't remember me, do you?"
Then she recognized the little upward crick in the corner of his mouth, making the left side of his smile higher than the right. Like a video on rewind, time reeled backward and she saw the remembered image of a younger, rangy teenage boy.
"Mitch? From sophomore math class. No, it can't be--" Like a cold spray from the leading edge of an avalanche, she felt the slap and the cold. The past rolled over her, and she deliberately shut out the painful blast and held onto the memories of the man standing before her. The shy honors student who'd let her, the new girl, check her homework answers against his for the entire spring quarter.
"Yep, it's me."A very mature Mitch Dalton strode toward her with a leader's confidence.
"How are you?"
"Good." A sweet pang kicked to life in her chest. She remembered the girl she used to be. A girl who had stubbornly clung to the misguided hope that her life would be filled with love--one day. Who had still believed in dreaming. "You have changed in a major way."
"Only on the outside. I'm still a shy nerd down deep."
"You don't look it." She glanced at the pile of textbooks on the counter. She, on the other hand, was still a shy bookish girl--and looked it.
"You haven't changed much." Mitch halted at the edge of the counter, all six feet plus of solid muscle, towering over her. "I would have known you anywhere."
"Why? Because--wait, don't answer that." She saw the girl she'd been, so lost, so alone, in and out of foster care and relatives'homes. She belonged nowhere, and that had been a brand she'd felt as clearly as if it had been in neon, flashing on her forehead. She still did.
Forget the past. Life was easier to manage when she looked forward and not back.
Mitch jammed his big hands on his hips, and the pose merely emphasized his size and strength. "It's been a long time since we sat in Mr. Metzer's advanced algebra class."
"Math.You had to go and remind me of that particular torture. I was lost until you took pity on me and gave me a little help. I wouldn't have passed Algebra Two without you."