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He couldn't handle it.
Ryan Clay stared into the black depths of his coffee mug, wishing it were whiskey—except he'd given that up a year ago—and thought about all the ways he could escape.
The simplest way, of course, would be to just disappear. Again.
It had worked before. For a while. The fact that he still felt guilty for letting everyone who loved him think the worst was beside the point. Better for them to have thought he'd perished doing the honorable thing—living up to the Clay family standards—than knowing the truth.
That he'd walked away from a mission without finishing it, and he'd done it with blood on his hands.
But if he really believed that, then why the hell had he come back at all? He could have stayed right where he was… in a corner of the world surrounded by people equally miserable as he.
He hooked his boot heel over the rung on his counter stool and lifted the coffee mug. Grimaced as he swallowed.
"You sure you don't want a refill?" Tabby Taggart stopped on the other side of the counter, holding the coffee carafe aloft. "You've been nursing that cup for an hour now, Ryan. Gotta be cold."
Cold and bitter.
Pretty much just like he was.
"No. Thanks," he tacked on. The last time he'd seen Tabby, she'd been a high school kid. It didn't seem as if she'd changed much. She was still a kid to him, seeming aeons younger than his thirty-seven, but he knew she was already out of college. Waiting tables at Ruby's while she tried for some fancy position at an Italian museum.
Nor had Ruby's Diner changed much in all the years he'd been coming there. Not since his mother had moved themto the small town of Weaver, Wyoming, when he'd been nine.
The chrome-padded stools at the counter were still topped with shining red vinyl. The booths lining the square room were still full of people. The most popular item, though, wasn't even on the menu.
He could just imagine what the wagging tongues would end up making over his presence here in the diner. Alone. Again.
Like he'd been at Colbys bar the night before. And the night before that.
They could add it to the oddity of him staying at the Sleep Tite motel since he'd come back to town, instead of staying with his folks or any one of his plentiful relatives.
He pressed a fingertip to the pain throbbing behind his right eyebrow. Closing his eyes for a minute, he tried to block out the clatter of flatware against sturdy white crockery, the tinny Christmas carols and the conversations—mostly seeming to focus on what so-and-so was doing or the town's upcoming Holiday Festival. There'd been a time when he could turn off every distraction and focus only on a single thought, a single quest, a single goal.
"Hey there, Chloe." He heard Tabby's cheerful voice and opened his eyes again to stare into his black coffee. He was vaguely aware of the dark-haired little girl who'd come up to the counter to stand a few feet away from him. She'd been sitting in the corner booth with a small-framed old woman with white sausage-curls covering her head.
"Grammy and I want to take Mom a piece of pie," the kid was saying. "That one." She pointed a slender finger at the glass-enclosed pie case that was draped with silver-and-red garland, but Ryan could feel the sideways glance the kid gave him as Tabby assured the child that she'd wrap up the slice, and began pulling the pie out of the case.
"She don't like pumpkin," the kid told Ryan as if he had indicated some interest. "It's a surprise."
He managed to twist his lips into a smile that he hoped wouldn't scare her.
She was cute—dressed in purple from head to toe with the exception of her lime-green snow boots—and he'd had enough in his lifetime of scared little girls.
"If she likes pecan pie, she'd probably like the cinnamon rolls here, too." From the corner of his eye he caught the glance Tabby gave him. She looked only slightly less surprised at his comment than he felt. "They're loaded with pecans."
"Dr. Keegan's already discovered them," Tabby offered, sliding a small pink box across the counter toward the little girl, along with an easy smile. "I think she might like them almost as much as you."
The little girl—Chloe—turned her bright eyes toward Ryan again. The edge of her small, white teeth nibbled at her pink lower lip as she looked at the lone mug sitting in front of him. "Arntcha hungry? There's still some left." She pointed at the remaining pie that Tabby was putting back into the case.
It's what he got for giving an opening. Pint-size conversation. "No." He tried softening the terse word with a smile of sorts and probably failed miserably, judging by the way the kid started chewing her lip again.
"So the pie is a surprise for your mom?" Tabby filled the silence before it could turn awkward and the girl nodded as she pulled a wad of crumpled cash and a few coins out of the front pocket of her purple jeans.
"Uh-huh." This time when the tip of Chloe's tongue appeared between her lips, it was in concentration as she smoothed the dollar bills and carefully counted out the change. "She hadda work even on a Saturday. So Grammy and I were Christmas shopping."
Tabby leaned her arms on the counter, smiling conspirato-rially. "Where'd you go?"
"All over." The kid bounced up and down on the heels of her snow boots. "But the bestest place was the thrift store in Braden. I got Mom's present there and still had allowance left." She slanted Ryan a look. "I gotta earn it dusting," she confided. "I saved every week." Chloe's thin shoulders went up and down in a huge sigh. "It wasn't 'nuff, though. Not to get the video game I wanted, too. It's the new Purple Princess. Right there at the thrift store. It was only twenty dollars." Her wide eyes still held amazement. "It's over fifty at the regular store."
"Christmas is in three weeks," Ryan couldn't help pointing out. "Put it on your letter to Santa." He figured she was still young enough to believe in that particular Christmas miracle.
"My birthday's before Christmas." She held up seven fingers, managing not to drop the cash wadded in her palm in the process. "I'll be seven. But Mom says it's still too 'spensive. I'm going to have a birthday party, though. With seven of my new friends. I never had a birthday party before."
"Chloe, dear." The white-haired woman from the corner booth was waiting near the door. "You've visited long enough and your mama's probably waiting by now. Come on now."
"Comin' Grammy." Chloe fumbled with the cash, pushing it into her pocket before scooping up the pie box. "Thanks, Tabby." She shot Ryan a look. "Nice t'meet you, mister." She turned onher toes with a squeak of her rubbery boots. "Looks like you dropped something," she added in a rush before she joined her grandmother at the door and scooted out into the afternoon.
Ryan frowned a little, watching the elderly woman and the child for a moment before turning back to his cold coffee. But the clatter of crockery and impossibly cheerful Christmas music suddenly felt like a fine edge cutting into his brain and he dropped a bill on the counter beside it and slid off the stool. "See you later, Tab."
Already busy pouring coffee for another customer, she lifted her free hand in a wave.
He didn't notice the dollar bill by his boot on the floor until he hooked his jacket off the empty stool beside his and turned toward the door.
He stared at it for a moment. He knew he hadn't dropped it. The smallest bills in his pocket were twenties.
The brown-haired, blue-eyed girl had dropped it. Claimed it to be his.
He ran his hand down his jaw, absently aware of the rasp of whiskers. Shaving hadn't been high on his list lately.
He looked bad enough that an innocent kid figured he needed a handout and was cagey enough to mask the charity out of her hard-earned dusting money.
He swallowed an oath and leaned over to swipe up the dollar in his fist, then turned back to the counter. "Tabby. The little girl. Chloe. What do you know about her?"
Tabby shrugged and wiped her hands on a damp towel. "Her mom is Mallory Keegan. The O.B. who's filling in over at Doc Yarnell's practice while he's on sabbatical. The office is over on Sycamore," she added when he gave her a blank look.
The street he knew. The name of the doctor, he didn't. Ryan could remember a time when his mother was the only doctor in the area. Now she ran the Weaver hospital, and the town had enough obstetrical needs to support a doctor who could go on sabbatical.
Some things did change.
"Thanks." He shrugged into his jacket and left.
Outside, the afternoon was cold, the sky overhead heavy with gray clouds. Looking one way, he could see the sheriff's office. For more years than Ryan could remember, his father had been the sheriff. He'd retired several years ago—back when Ryan had been MIA—but he couldn't look at the brick building now, without thinking about his dad.
Both of Ryan's parents had been plainly happy when he'd returned from the dead. As had the rest of the family. To them, it had been a miracle.
Ryan, though, still felt dead.
He pulled out a cigarette, lighting it as he turned the opposite direction from that stalwart brick building of law and order and flipped up his collar. Sycamore was just two streets down from Main, but it was a long street—and God only knew where the doctor's office was. It could be close—here in the original, older part of Weaver. Or it could be out in the newer part of town where a crop of apartment buildings had sprung up during the years of his absence, along with a giant Shop-World and a gaggle of other stores.
Some things hadn't changed in Weaver. And some things had. But Ryan was willing to bet that he'd be able to find Chloe Keegan by the time the afternoon was out.
He'd spent three years trying—and too often failing—to save girls not all that much older than Chloe from being sold off to the highest bidder. The last thing his conscience needed right now was the additional weight of some little kid with a soft heart.
Mallory Keegan lifted her head at the hollered greeting, only to smack it smartly against the inside frame of the cabinet she was presently tucked halfway inside. She muttered an oath even as the wrench slid out of her hand, clanging loudly against the water pipe.
The pipe that she had just managed to get to stop leaking.
So much for that.
She swiped her hand over the fine mist of water that spurted anew from the pipes, spraying her right in the face and backed out of the cupboard.
"Upstairs," she yelled back down to her daughter as she grabbed the bath towel off the rack on the wall behind her. She dashed it down her face and then tossed it over the thin but copious spray.
She collected Pap smears and delivered babies.
She did not fix plumbing of this sort at all.
Which meant she'd have to add a plumber's repair bill to the budget that month. A budget that was already tight, particularly with Chloe's birthday and Christmas looming.
She could hear her daughter's boots clomping rapidly up the stairs but the long day—an unexpected cesarean for a third-time mom and a miscarriage for a first-timer—had her tiredly sitting back on her heels and just waiting.
It didn't take long.
Chloe careened around the corner of the bathroom, a small pink bakery box clutched against the midriff of her purple sweatshirt. Her boots slid a little, squeaking against the hardwood floor that still bore the dampness that Mallory hadn't succeeded in wiping away.
The sight of her daughter's face, wreathed in smiles, was enough to counter her exhaustion, though, and she opened her arms just in time to stop Chloe's momentum in a hug. The feel of her daughter's strong, sturdy little body was enough to melt her frustration.
The bakery box knocked against Mallory's head as Chloe's arms wound around her neck. "Didja have any babies today?"
Long used to Chloe's bursts of speech, Mallory laughed a little. "I delivered a baby today," she said, and caught the box that was in danger of being crushed altogether. "What's this?"
Chloe straightened. "Pie." She stuck her head under the sink. "Is it fixed?"
"Don't move the—" Mallory could tell the moment Chloe's curiosity prompted her to move the towel from the pipe, because she squeaked and jumped back out of the indoor sprinkler "—towel," she finished.
Her daughter wasn't a large fan of water in her face. She tolerated her baths out of necessity, but anything more— swimming, splashing in a sprinkler on a hot, summer day— was mostly out of the question.
But Mallory hadn't temporarily uprooted her family from New York to settle in this small Wyoming town for the purpose of getting Chloe over her fear of water.
Her reasoning had been much more involved.
"Here." She pushed aside the disquiet that was all too willing to coil anxiously in her stomach these days, and handed Chloe another towel off the towel rack.
She dropped the wet towel back over the leaking pipe and pushed to her feet. "It's going to take a person who actually knows what they're doing to fix it, I'm afraid."
She steered Chloe out of the bathroom toward the stairs and peeked into the bakery box at the enormous pecan-laden wedge of pie. Her mouth watered. Between the hospital and the leaking pipe, she hadn't managed to find time for a decent meal. "Looks delicious." She leaned down and kissed the top of Chloe's nut-brown hair, spotting her grandmother when they reached the foot of the stairs and turned to the kitchen. "Thank you," she told them both.
"Thank her." After less than two decades in the United States, Kathleen Keegan's voice still held plenty of her native Ireland as she waved at Chloe. "She paid for it out of her allowance."
Mallory set the pie on the narrow breakfast bar and found a fork in the drawer. "Did you have fun shopping before you stopped for lunch?" Kathleen was notorious for finding bargains in the oddest of places.
She looked up as she sank the fork into the rich dessert and caught the secretive glance Chloe and Kathleen shared. "All right, you two. What'd you buy?"
"Nothing." Chloe's voice was innocent, but her eyebrows were riding an inch above normal, hiding beneath the tousled bangs covering her forehead. "I found a Purple Princess game, though. The new one. It was only twenty dollars!"