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"We're not open."
Logan Warren tried to keep frustration from his voice. Someone had left the front door of Amy's Elite Treats unlocked, and now he would have to face his first customer before he'd even located the cake order forms. He almost asked himself if the day could get any worse, but the last week had proven to him that any day could. And had.
A few headaches at his mother's bakery were nothing, anyway, when compared to what Amy Warren was facing. Her image slipped into his thoughts. His mom looked so different lying in that hospital bed. The stroke had ravaged her body and stripped her face of expression.
Logan squeezed his lids shut and took a deep breath. She would survive—he realized how blessed his family was—but nothing could remove the mammoth lump in his throat, choking him from the inside out. He'd made a mistake in coming here this morning. He should have stayed at Markston Area Regional Hospital, continuing to keep vigil with his brothers. He should—
Logan stopped himself. She needed him at the bakery, too. Someone had to keep the business running for her. He'd been desperate to do something. Anything. It didn't matter that his mother made her living making wedding cakes and he didn't even believe in marriage. Running her bakery was one thing he could do.
Continuing past the huge ovens and industrial-sized mixers, he pushed through the swinging door to the dining area where bright May sunshine already poured into the store's windows.
"I'm sorry. We're not—" The word "open" fell away before he could speak it. "Caroline?"
Sure enough, the woman standing in the shop's doorway, finger-combing her mass of chestnut-colored hair, was Caroline Scott. He would have recognized her anywhere, even if her two younger sisters didn't happen to be engaged to, or married to, his two older brothers. And even if her high cheekbones and full lips didn't brand her as one of the Scott sisters.
She shoved all that hair behind her ears and lifted her gaze to meet his. "Oh. Hi."
"Hello?" The word came out sounding like a question because it was one. He rounded the counter to face the woman whose presence was no less perplexing than the unlocked door had been. Chicago was four hours from here. Would she have come all the way to Markston, Indiana, just to visit his mother at the hospital?
"You didn't say why…" Letting his words trail off, he indicated the room with a sweep of his hand.
"Oh, why am I here?"
Instead of answering his question, she stepped around the room, looking at the ice cream parlor tables and bakery cases as if they were the most interesting things she'd ever seen.
Now she really had him curious, even more so than when he'd been a nosy ten-year-old boy studying the older woman of fourteen. Caroline wasn't even the most beautiful among the lovely Scott sisters, but she was hands down the most intriguing. Even at twenty-eight, that hadn't changed. She had the most fascinating eyes, the darkest blue and almost impossible to read.
Those eyes turned back to him now and widened before she found something important to study on the tile floor. What was he doing staring at her, anyway? He had too much on his plate right now to be looking at any pretty woman, let alone Caroline Scott. Unavailable didn't begin to describe how out of the dating market her mother had said she'd been for years.
"This place looks great," she said, still not looking at him. "It's changed since the last time I was here."
"It's been a while."
"I guess it has."
She chuckled, gripping her hands together in a gesture that seemed uncharacteristic for the take-charge Caroline he remembered. Come to think of it, many things about Caroline were different today. She wore jeans and a T-shirt when she was usually a khakis-and-sweater-set type, and her hair was loose down her back instead of in its usual too-tight bun. Where were the intensity and confidence she usually exuded like perfume?
"You know, we don't open for another two hours," he said to fill the awkward silence. "Someone must have forgotten to lock the door—"
She dangled the keys in front of her to explain how she happened to be inside the building. The door hadn't been left unlocked after all.
"I don't understand." And then he did. At least he thought he did. "They couldn't have."
But because it was entirely possible that his mother and Mrs. Scott had been up to another one of their schemes, Logan rolled his eyes. The two best friends were notorious matchmakers who'd had this crazy idea of arranging marriages between Trina Scott's three daughters and Amy Warren's three sons. Crazy like a fox maybe. Because God had a sense of humor, their matchmaking plans hadn't turned out exactly as they'd expected, but they could still claim two successes. Matthew and Haley were happily married, and Dylan and Jenna were engaged.
Could his mother and Mrs. Scott have planned a ruse to bring their last two single children together and have forgotten to cancel it in the chaos following his mother's stroke?
"Oh, I don't think—" She stopped herself, but her cheeks flamed a pretty pink.
"It shouldn't surprise us, you know."
Caroline stared back at him. He knew he should look away, but he couldn't. Though he had yet to turn on the overhead lights, electricity filled the room. From the way her pupils enlarged and she chewed her bottom lip, he could tell that she sensed it, too.
"Logan, that's not why I'm here."
"What?" He blinked, trying to clear his thoughts.
She worked the keys between her fingers. "Mom asked me to help you run the bakery until your mother gets better."
"Right. I knew that." He swallowed, trying to look as natural as possible for a guy who'd just made a fool of himself. That was what he got for letting a pretty woman distract him from more important matters.
"You didn't think…?"
"Of course not." But he had thought Mrs. Scott and his brothers supported his offer to run the bakery alone, and he'd been wrong about that, too. "Our mothers would know better than to try that matchup. City-girl corporate climber with Nature Boy, as you've called me?"
She chewed her lip, but she didn't snap at the bait as he would have expected. Witty banter was standard fare in their two families.
"They should know better." She breathed an audible sigh of relief. "I promised to put myself up for adoption if they ever even thought about trying to set me up again. After being set up with both of your brothers, I've hit my lifetime quota."
She was agreeing with him, but her apparent relief that their mothers weren't matchmaking annoyed him. The look between them that she'd made no effort to break, the black of her pupils as they'd stretched over her blue irises. Since when did he misread the signals of attraction, anyway? Usually his instincts with women were spot-on—and he'd dated enough of them to know—so it baffled him that this time he'd read the signs all wrong.
As if she'd already forgotten the uncomfortable moment, Caroline stepped toward the display case again and studied the price list on the wall. "We'll have this place in shape in no time."
Logan sighed. Wasn't it enough that he'd practically had to arm-wrestle his brothers, a pregnant sister-in-law and a future sister-in-law for the opportunity to run the bakery? It exhausted him to think that Mrs. Scott's other daughter was going to argue with him over the job, as well.
"Look, I appreciate your coming all the way from Chicago, but I have things under control here."
He expected an argument, so her sad expression surprised him.
"I was sorry to hear about your mom's…illness."
"Stroke," he corrected.
"Right. Stroke." She winced at the word. "Mrs. Warren's an amazing lady. I'm sure she'll be just fine."
The tears in her eyes convinced him not to mention the long rehabilitation his mother had ahead. It touched him that Caroline seemed to really care about his mother. And even if what she'd said was a platitude like those so many others had spoken this past week, he desperately wanted to believe she was right. He just wanted his mother back.
"Well, you'll probably want to get to the hospital for visiting hours. Mom will love seeing you." He paused, searching for the right words to show her he appreciated her compassion even if he didn't need her help. "Would you like me to call your mother and let her know you're coming?"
"But my mom said—"
Because she stopped herself, Logan guessed he wouldn't appreciate whatever her mother really had said. "Caroline, I'm sorry you went to so much trouble, taking off work and all to come here—"
"It wasn't any trouble."
Clearly, she wasn't going to make this easy. He cleared his throat. "Anyway…I hate that you've wasted your time, but your mother must have misunderstood what we needed here. I already took leave from my job, and I want to do this for Mom."
"Since we're both here, why don't we work together?"
"Together? Like a team? " He tilted his head to study her. "I hate to tell you this, but you're not the best team player. You have to be captain or camp counselor or even head honcho like you are at that mega-mall."
She coughed into her hand. "I'll just stay until you get your sea legs. That would be okay, wouldn't it?"
Logan stared at her. "Why are you insisting on this? Your mother probably had to beg you to take off time from work, and now I'm letting you off the hook."
"I don't need to be let off the hook. I'm letting you off the hook. Isn't this messing with your busy social calendar, anyway?"
"Nothing could be more important than this," he said. "How did you get time off, anyway? Your mom's always complaining that you hardly ever can get away from work."
"Well, I did this time," she said and then cleared her throat. "And I happen to have a lot of experience with running a business. You know, purchase orders and employee benefits and such. Just like you have in your type of job. All the outdoorsy stuff you do as Ranger Logan."
Logan couldn't keep his jaw from tightening, but this wasn't the time for him to clear up her confusion about his job because he had a more important point to make. "So, exactly how many wedding cakes have you made?"
"Just as many as I have."
This time she rolled her eyes at him just the way she used to when they were kids and he told one of his knock-knock jokes. "You don't have to be able to decorate the cakes to run this kind of business."
Logan tapped an index finger against his cheek. "So I should do just fine by myself."
"Why are you being so stubborn? You're being just like you were when you were six, and you didn't want to wait for your turn for board games. It's almost June, the biggest wedding month of the year in Markston, and you're wasting time arguing with me instead of working with me."
She took a few steps toward him, pinning him with a look that would have made him straighten up and fly right when he was a kid. But because they were adults now and he towered over her, Logan only stared her down.
"Yes, I know what June is." He didn't try to hide his irritation. "I've been around this business a long time. You're wasting my time when I need to be getting up to speed on things. I told Mom I would do this, and I'm going to do it…alone."
She fisted her hands at her sides. "You must be the most infuriating person who ever lived."
"No, I think there are two of us."
"I think you're both right."
At the sound of the third voice, Logan turned to look at the glass door that Caroline had unlocked. Trina Scott stood just inside it, her crossed arms over her chest.
Logan sighed. None of the employees had even arrived, and it was already looking as if he wasn't cut out for the job he'd promised to do. But his brothers, Mrs. Scott and even Caroline were wrong to doubt him. Somehow, with God's help, he planned to make this work.
Caroline stared at the floor avoiding her mother's gaze, her cheeks burning. She was so shaken that several seconds had passed before her pulse slowed. It didn't make sense. In the business world, she'd always been cooler than a cucumber on ice. No one had been able to get a rise out of her. Now, infuriatingly stubborn Logan Warren had done it without breaking a sweat.
Why couldn't he just be gracious and accept the help he so obviously needed? In a bakery, a park ranger would be like a bull in a china shop anyway. But instead of being grateful for her offer, he'd insisted on asking questions about why she had the free time to come to Markston.
She'd hoped in the confusion regarding his mother's health crisis that no one would have time to wonder about her sudden availability. She hadn't expected Logan Warren to be the observant type, but nearly as soon as he'd seen her, he'd zeroed in on the point she'd most hoped to hide.
What surprised her even more was she'd been tempted to share her whole humiliating story with him. Something about the way he'd studied her with those bright green, penetrating eyes had made her wonder if he could see how lost she felt. Maybe he understood because they shared that feeling of uncertainty in common.
"Will one of you explain what's going on here?"
Her mother's words pulled Caroline back from her strange thoughts. Where had they come from, anyway?
Logan had enough on his mind with his own family crisis for him to concern himself with her problems. And for her to imagine that she had anything in common with ne'er-do-well Logan Warren demonstrated just how off-kilter she'd been the last few days.
"It was nothing," Logan answered for the both of them. "Just a disagreement."
"I can see that." Trina tucked her chin-length brown hair behind her ears with all the care of someone who had a huge mane of it—or someone waiting for a better answer.
"What are you doing here, anyway?" Caroline asked.
"Refereeing apparently. I had hoped you two would work this out together, but…"
That her mother was standing inside the bakery rather than the hospital's critical care unit made it clear she hadn't trusted the two of them to find a way to work together.
"I'm sorry, too." As Logan bent his head, his light brown hair fell across his eyes. "I know you were trying to help when you called Caroline, but—"
Trina shook her head to interrupt him. "Logan, stop right there. Your mother's facing the crisis of her life, and all you can do is spend time arguing about whether you need my daughter's help at the bakery?"