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By Jillian Hart
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2005 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe jingle of the bell above the door announced a late customer to the diner.
Amy McKaslin glanced at the clock above the cash register that said it was eight minutes to ten, which was closing time, and sized up the man standing like a shadow just inside the glass doorway.
He wasn't someone local or anyone she recognized. He was tall with a build to match. He wore nothing more than a flannel shirt unbuttoned and untucked over a T-shirt and wash-worn jeans. He had that frazzled, numb look of a man who'd been traveling hard and long without enough rest or food.
Road exhaustion. She'd seen it lots of times. He wasn't the first driver who'd taken this exit off the interstate. It happened all the time. With any luck, he'd be a quick in-andout, looking for nothing more than a shot of caffeine and a bite before he got back on the road.
That was a much better prospect than last night, when a half dozen high-school kids had piled into a booth. Amy enjoyed the teenage crowd, but it had been nearly midnight before she could lock up and head home. Not good when her son was waiting for her, and she was paying a baby-sitter by the hour.
Tonight, Westin would be waiting, too, and on a school night when little boys should be fast asleep. He was an anxious one, always worrying, and she prayed the lone stranger had somewhere he had to go, too. Someone who was waiting for him. She turned the sign in the window to closed before any teenage clique decided to wander in.
Forcing a smile after being on her feet since 6:00 a.m., she grabbed a laminated menu. "Table or booth?"
The loner shrugged, looking past her as if he didn't see her at all. His eyes had that un-focused look drivers got when they'd been staring down pavement and white lines for too long, and the purple smudges beneath spoke of his exhaustion.
Yep, me too, buddy. She led him past the row of tables, washed and prepped for morning, to the booths in the corner, where the night windows reflected the brightly lit dining area back at her. Already she was thinking of home. Of her little boy's after-supper call.
"Come home, Mommy," he'd said in that quiet way he had. "I told Kelly not to read me any more of my story. You were gonna tonight, remember?"
She remembered. Nothing was more serious than the promises she made to her little boy. Almost there, she thought, as she watched the clock's hands creep another minute closer to ten. Aware of the man behind her making less noise than a shadow, she slid the menu onto the corner booth.
She whipped out her pad. "What can I get you to drink?"
Haggard. That was one word to describe him. The overhead light glared harshly on his sun-browned skin and whisker-stubbled jaw as he folded his over-six-foot frame behind the table. "Coffee."
"Leaded or decaf?"
"I want the real thing. Don't bother to make fresh. If you got something that's been sitting awhile, I'd rather have it." He pushed the menu back at her. "A burger, too. With bacon if it's not too much trouble."
"Sure thing." As she scribbled up the ticket, already walking away, something drew her to look one more time.
He had gone to staring sightlessly out the window, appearing tired and haunted. The black night reflected back the illusion of the well-lit cafe and his hollow face. The man wasn't able to see through the windows to the world outside. It was within that he was looking.
Her heart twisted in recognition. There was something about him that was familiar. Not the look of him, since she'd never met him before, but it was that faraway glint in his eyes. One that she recognized by feel.
She, too, knew what it was like to feel haunted by the past. Life made a mark on everyone. She didn't know how she saw this in this stranger, but she was certain she wasn't wrong. The regrets and despair of the past yanked within her, like a summer trout caught on a fishing hook. As she grabbed the carafe from the burner, where it had been sitting since the end of the supper rush, she risked another glance at the man.
He sat motionless with his elbows braced on the table's edge and his face resting in his hands.
Hopelessness. Yeah, she knew how that felt, too. Pain rose up in her chest, pointed like an arrow's tip, and she didn't know if it was the stranger she felt sympathy for or the girl she used to be. Maybe both.
Excerpted from Sweet Blessings by Jillian Hart Copyright © 2005 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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