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The bad boy was back. The town of Antietam was buzzing over it, passing fact, rumor and innuendo from one to another, the way the guests at a boardinghouse passed bowls of steaming stew.
It was a rich broth, spiced with scandal, sex and secrets. Rafe MacKade had come back after ten years.
Some said there would be trouble. Bound to be. Trouble hung around Rafe MacKade like a bell around a bull's neck. Wasn't it Rafe MacKade who'd decked the high school principal one spring morning and gotten himself expelled? Wasn't it Rafe MacKade who'd wrecked his dead daddy's Ford pickup before he was old enough to drive?
And surely it was Rafe MacKade who'd tossed a tableand that fool Manny Johnsonthrough the plate-glass window of Duff's Tavern one hot summer night.
Now he'd come back, a-riding into town in some fancy sports car and parking, bold as you please, right in front of the sheriff's office.
Of course, his brother Devin was sheriff now, had been for five years last November. But there'd been a timeand most rememberedwhen Rafe MacKade spent more than a night or two in one of the two cells in the back.
Oh, he was as handsome as everso the women said. With those devil's good looks the MacKades were giftedor cursedwith. If a female had breath in her body, she'd look twice, maybe even sigh over that long, wiry build, that loose-legged stride that seemed to dare anyone to get in the way.
Then there was that thick black hair, those eyes, as green and hard as the ones in that little Chinese statue in the window of the Past Times antique store. They did nothing to soften that tough, sharp-jawed face, with that little scar along the left eye. God knew where he'd gotten that.
But when he smiled, when he curved that beautiful mouth up and that little dimple winked at the corner, a woman's heart was bound to flutter. That sentiment came directly from Sharilyn Fenniman who'd taken that smile, and his twenty dollars for gas, at the Gas and Go, just outside of town.
Before Rafe had his car in gear again, Sharilyn had been burning up the phone wires to announce the return.
"So Sharilyn called her mama, and Mrs. Metz got right on her horse and told Mrs. Hawbaker down at the general store that Rafe maybe plans to stay."
As she spoke, Cassandra Dolin topped off Regan's coffee. The way snow was spitting out of the January sky and clogging streets and sidewalks, there was little business at Ed's Café that afternoon. Slowly Cassie straightened her back and tried to ignore the ache in her hip where it had struck the floor after Joe knocked her down.
"Why shouldn't he?" Smiling, Regan Bishop loitered over her mulligan stew and coffee. "He was born here, wasn't he?"
Even after three years as a resident and shopkeeper of Antietam, Regan still didn't understand the town's fascination with comings and goings. It appealed to and amused her, but she didn't understand it.
"Well, yeah, but he's been gone so long. Only came back for a day or so at a time, once or twice in ten whole years." Cassie looked out the window, where the snow fell thin and constant. And wondered where he had gone, what he had seen, what he had done. Oh, she wondered what there was out there.
"You look tired, Cassie," Regan murmured.
"Hmm? No, just daydreaming. This keeps up, they're going to call school early. I told the kids to come straight here if they did, but.."
"Then that's what they'll do. They're great kids."
"They are." When she smiled, some of the weariness lifted from her eyes.
"Why don't you get a cup? Have some coffee with me?" A scan of the café showed Regan there was a customer in a back booth, dozing over his coffee, a couple at the counter chatting over the stew special. "You're not exactly overrun with business." Seeing Cassie hesitate, Regan pulled out her trump. "You could fill me in on this Rafe character."
"Well." Cassie nibbled on her lip. "Ed, I'm going to take a break, okay?"
At the call, a bony woman with a frizzed ball of red hair stuck her head out of the kitchen. Sparkling-framed glasses rested on her scrawny chest, above her bib apron. "You go ahead, honey." Her low voice rasped from two packs of cigarettes a day. Her face was carefully painted from red lips to red eyebrows, and glowed from the heat of the stove. "Hey there, Regan. You're fifteen minutes over your lunch hour."
"I closed at noon," Regan told her, well aware that her clocklike schedule amused Edwina Crump. "People aren't looking for antiques in this kind of weather."
"It's been a hard winter." Cassie brought a cup to the table and poured coffee for herself. "We're not even through January, and the kids are already getting tired of sledding and making snowmen." She sighed, careful not to wince when the bruise on her hip ached when she sat. She was twenty-seven, a year younger than Regan. She felt ancient.
After three years of friendship, Regan recognized the signs. "Are things bad, Cassie?" Keeping her voice low, she laid a hand over Cassie's. "Did he hurt you again?"
"I'm fine." But Cassie kept her eyes on her cup. Guilt, humiliation, fear, stung as much as a backhand slap. "I don't want to talk about Joe."
"Did you read the pamphlets I got you, about spousal abuse, the women's shelter in Hagerstown?"
"I looked at them. Regan, I have two children. I have to think of them first."
"Please." Cassie lifted her gaze. "I don't want to talk about it."
"All right." Struggling to hold back the impatience, Regan squeezed her hand. "Tell me about bad boy MacKade."
"Rafe." Cassie's face cleared. "I always had a soft spot for him. All of them. There wasn't a girl in town who didn't moon a few nights over the MacKade brothers."
"I like Devin." Regan sipped at her coffee. "He seems solid, a little mysterious at times, but dependable."
"You can count on Devin," Cassie agreed. "Nobody thought any of them would turn out, but Devin makes a fine sheriff. He's fair. Jared has that fancy law practice in the city. And Shane, well, he's rough around the edges, but he works that farm like two mules. When they were younger and they came barreling into town, mothers locked up their daughters, and men kept their backs to the wall."
"Real upstanding citizens, huh?"
"They were young, and always seemed angry at something. Rafe most of all. The night he left town, Rafe and Joe got into it over something. Rafe broke Joe's nose and knocked out a couple of his teeth."
"Really?" Regan decided she might like this Rafe after all.
"He was always looking for a fight, Rafe was. Their father died when they were kids. I'd have been about ten," she mused. "Then their mama passed on, right before Rafe left town. She'd been sick nearly a year. That's how things at the farm got so bad around then. Most people thought the MacKades would have to sell out, but they held on."
"Well, three of them did."
"Mmm " Cassie savored the coffee. It was so rare to have a moment just to sit. "They were barely more than boys. Jared would have been right about twenty-three, and Rafe's just ten months behind him. Devin's about four years older than me, and Shane's a year behind him."
"Sounds like Mrs. MacKade was a busy woman."
"She was wonderful. Strong. She held everything together, no matter how bad it got. I always admired her."
"Sometimes you need to be strong to let things go," Regan murmured. She shook her head. She'd promised herself she wouldn't push. "So, what do you think he's come back for?"
"I don't know. They say he's rich now. Made a pile buying land and houses and selling them again. He's supposed to have a company and everything. MacKade. That's what he calls it. Just MacKade. My mother always said he'd end up dead or in jail, but."
Her voice trailed off as she looked through the window. "Oh, my," she murmured. "Sharilyn was right."
"He looks better than ever."
Curious, Regan turned her head just as the door jingled open. As black sheep went, she was forced to admit, this one was a prime specimen.
He shook snow from thick hair the color of coal dust and shrugged off a black leather bomber jacket that wasn't meant for East Coast winters. Regan thought he had a warrior's facethe little scar, the unshaven chin, the slightly crooked nose that kept that mouth-watering face from being too pretty.
His body looked hard as granite, and his eyes, sharp green, were no softer.
In worn flannel, torn jeans and scarred boots, he didn't look rich and successful. But he sure looked dangerous.
It amused and pleased Rafe to see Ed's place was so much the same. Those could be the same stools at the counter that he'd warmed his seat on as a child, anticipating a sundae or a fountain drink. Surely those were the same smellsgrease, frying onions, the haze from Ed's constant cigarettes, an undertone of pine cleaner.
He was sure Ed would be back in the kitchen, flipping burgers or stirring pots. And sure as hell that was old man Tidas snoring in the back booth while his coffee went cold. Just as he'd always done.
His eyes, cool, assessing, skimmed over the painfully white counter, with its clear-plastic-topped plates of pies and cakes, over the walls, with their black-and-white photos of Civil War battles, to a booth where two women sat over coffee.
He saw a stranger. An impressive one. Honey brown hair cut in a smooth chin-length swing that framed a face of soft curves and creamy skin. Long lashes over dark and coolly curious blue eyes. And a sassy little mole right at the corner of a full and unsmiling mouth.
Picture-perfect, he thought. Just like something cut out of a glossy magazine.
They studied each other, assessed each other as a man or woman might assess a particularly attractive trinket in a shop window. Then his gaze shifted to land on the fragile little blonde with the haunted eyes and the hesitant smile.
"Son of a bitch." His grin flashed and upped the temperature by twenty degrees. "Little Cassie Connor."
"Rafe. I heard you were back." The sound of her giggle as Rafe plucked her from the booth had Regan's brow lifting. It was rare to hear Cassie laugh so freely.
"Pretty as ever," he said, and kissed her full on the lips. "Tell me you kicked that idiot out and left the path clear for me."
She eased back, always fearful of wagging tongues. "I've got two kids now."
"A boy and a girl. I heard." He tugged the strap of her bib apron, and thought with some concern that she'd lost too much weight. "You're still working here?"
"Yeah. Ed's in the back."
"I'll go see her in a minute." Resting a hand casually on Cassie's shoulder, he looked back at Regan. "Who's your pal?"
"Oh, sorry. This is Regan Bishop. She owns Past Times, an antique and decorating store a couple doors down. Regan, this is Rafe MacKade."
"Of the MacKade brothers." She offered a hand. "Word's already traveled."
"I'm sure it has." He took her hand, held it, as his eyes held hers. "Antiques? That's a coincidence. I'm in the market."
"Are you?" She'd risk her dignity if she tugged her hand from his. From the gleam in his eye, she was sure he knew it. "Any particular era?"
"Mid-to-late-1800severything from soup to nuts. I've got a three-story house, about twelve hundred square feet to furnish. Think you can handle it?"
It took a lot of willpower for her to keep her jaw from dropping. She did well enough with tourists and townspeople, but a commission like this would easily triple her usual income.
"I'm sure I can."
"You bought a house?" Cassie said interrupting them. "I thought you'd be staying out at the farm."
"For now. The house isn't for living in, not for me. After some remodeling, restoring, I'll be opening it up as a bed-and-breakfast. I bought the old Barlow place."
Stunned, Cassie bobbled the coffeepot she'd fetched.
"The Barlow place? But it's"
"Haunted?" A reckless light glinted in his eyes. "Damn right it is. How about a piece of that pie to go with the coffee, Cassie? I've worked up an appetite."
Regan had left but Rafe had loitered for an hour, entertained when Cassie's kids burst in out of the snow. He watched her fuss over them, scold the boy for forgetting to put on his gloves, listened to the big-eyed little girl solemnly relate the adventures of the day.
There was something sad, and somehow soothing, about watching the girl he remembered settling her two children at a booth with crayons and books.
A lot had stayed the same over a decade. But a lot had changed. He was well aware that news of his arrival was even now singing over telephone wires. It pleased him. He wanted the town to know he was backand not with his tail between his legs, as many had predicted.
He had money in his pocket now, and plans for the future.
The Barlow place was the heart of his plans. He didn't subscribe to ghosts, under most circumstances, but the house had certainly haunted him. Now it belonged to him, every old stone and brambleand whatever else it held. He was going to rebuild it, as he had rebuilt himself.
One day he would stand at the top window and look down on the town. He would prove to everyoneeven to Rafe MacKadethat he was somebody.
He tucked a generous tip under his cup, careful to keep the amount just shy of one that would embarrass Cassie. She was too thin, he thought, and her eyes were too guarded. That weary fragility had been thrown into sharp relief when she sat with Regan.
Now there was a woman, he mused, who knew how to handle herself. Steady eyes, stubborn chin, soft hands. She hadn't so much as blinked when he offered her a shot at furnishing an entire inn. Oh, he imagined her insides had jolted, but she hadn't blinked.
As a man who'd earned his keep on the wheel and deal, he had to admire her for it. Time would tell if she'd hold up to the challenge.
And there was no time like the present.
"That antique place, two doors down?"
"That's right." Cassie kept one eye on her children as she brewed a fresh pot of coffee. "On the left. I don't think she's open, though."
Rafe shrugged into his jacket and grinned. "Oh, I bet she is."
He strolled out, hatless, jacket open, his footsteps muffled by the cushioning snow. As he'd expected, the lights were on inside Past Times. Instead of seeking shelter inside, he studied her window display and found it clever and effective.
A sweep of blue brocade like a pool of shimmering water flowed over varying levels. A bright-eyed porcelain doll sat on a child-size ladder-back rocker, an artful tumble of antique toys at her feet. A snarling jade dragon curled on a pedestal. A glossy mahogany jewelry box stood open, glittery baubles spilling out of its drawers as though a woman's hands had slid through them in search of just the right piece.
Perfume bottles were arranged in pretty sunbursts of color on an enameled shelf.
Put the sparkles up front, he thought with a nod, and rope the customers in.
Sleigh bells hung on the door tinkled musically when he opened it. The air inside was spiced with cinnamon and cloves and apples. And, he realized after a deep breath of it, of Regan Bishop. The subtle and sultry perfume he'd noted in the café just teased the air.
He took his time wandering. Furniture was meticulously arranged for traffic patterns. A settee here, an occasional table there. Lamps, bowls, vases, all doing double duty as display and decoration. A dining room table was gracefully set with china and glassware, candles and flowers, as if guests were expected any moment. An old Victrola stood open beside a cabinet filled with 78s.
There were three rooms, each as polished and organized as the last. Nowhere in her inventory did he notice a single speck of dust. He paused by a kitchen hutch filled with white stoneware dishes and blue-tinted mason jars.