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Sylvie Carson pushed the door to the family cafe open and made a beeline for the washrooms located at the front of the restaurant. She locked herself in a stall and thrust her head down between her knees. Breathe. She counted to seven before letting out her breath, blood rushing to her head.
Second breath. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven. And out. The door to the washroom burst open.
"They're taking bets out there on how many months along you are, and who the father is. Oliver's in the lead." Sylvie heard the scrape of a match as Teressa, head cook and childhood friend, lit a cigarette.
"No smoking in here," Sylvie croaked. She sat up and braced her hand against the side of the stall as she waited for her equilibrium to even out.
"Like you're going to fire me. You have a better chance of finding an available man who can support himself in this village than a professional cook. Unless you want to do my job. You'd have to learn how to boil water first, though." Teressa snickered.
Sylvie pushed the stall door open with her foot. "Very funny."
"For someone who has the perfect life, you're sure acting like you're at death's door a lot." Teressa frowned at her in the mirror. "Please tell me you're not pregnant. It would ruin my day. You're the golden girl, and golden girls do not mess up. Although having to marry the scrumptious Oliver " Her friend looked away from her reflection in the mirror long enough to take another drag off her cigarette. "Hard to feel sorry for you, Syl."
Teressa had two small children to support, both from different fathers, which made her life a scheduling nightmare. So, yes, from Teressa's point of view, Sylvie's life probably looked pretty good. She was single, made enough money that she didn't have to worry about it and had even achieved a small amount of fame.
And it had all come to a crashing halt six months ago.
The curvy redhead took one last look at herself in the mirror and turned to face Sylvie. "No offense, but I don't get why you're still here. If I had your life, I'd be out of Collina like a shot. Your dad's getting stronger every day. He's out in the kitchen right now, trying to tell us all how to run a restaurant. You should stop torturing yourself and go back to Toronto and your cushy life."
Sylvie sighed. Cushy life. Why did people think being an artist was easy? "Wait 'til everyone finds out that I'm not pregnant that I'm just whatever."
Every day, that first step inside the cafe, the oh-my-God-what's-happened-to-my-life moment, stole the breath right out of her body. She'd tried blaming the whole fiasco on her father's heart attack and having to move home six months ago. Six months! Normal, well-adjusted people did not let their lives become gridlocked because their father got sick.
The first signs that her life had derailed came the day after her father's heart attack. She'd gone into her studio, picked up a brush and painted mud. Okay, not mud. She was a skilled craftswoman, after all. But the tingle of magic she'd always felt had been absent, and it showed.
She and Oliver, her agent boyfriend, had tried to keep her problem under wraps, but rumors were starting to circulate about her inactivity. Oliver insisted she needed to return to Toronto, but Sylvie didn't know if she'd be able to paint, orworseif she even wanted to. Either way, she wasn't leaving until her father felt a hundred percent better. Then maybe they could discuss the real problemthe secrets her family had kept from her all these years.
Teressa stuck her cigarette under a stream of water, chucked it in the garbage and started washing her hands. "Well, boss, I came to tell you the customers are packing in for breakfast, and sweet little Tyler is hiding God knows where. I think he's been alley-catting all night again. If his mother wasn't the only decent hairdresser in town, I'd beg you to fire him. And, lentil soup, Sylvie? Again? Your father had the heart attack, not the entire village. We're going to have a revolution on our hands if you put too much healthy stuff on the menu." She stopped on her way to the door. "If I knew how to fix things for you, sweetie, you know I would, but I'm afraid you're on your own with this one. Oh, and there's a big bruiser of a guy waiting at the cash register. Haven't seen him around before. He'll start growing roots if he stands there much longer."
Sylvie rubbed her hands over her face and levered herself off the toilet. "I'm right behind you. I'm good now." But Teressa was already gone, the door swishing shut behind her.
Sylvie stood at the sink and scrubbed her hands. The panic attacks may have started after her father's heart attack, but having to move home for a while hadn't helped her being blocked and not able to paint. She knew her family and friends had her best interests at heart but she wished to God they'd stop asking if she had started painting again. Nothing like having your failure thrown in your face every day.
If she went back to Torontowhen she went back to Toronto Her lungs seized up. Would it all come back to her? Her talent? Her bright, shining future? She'd lived and breathed painting for seventeen years and without it, she was lost.
Hell, at the moment she could hardly talk herself into leaving the washroom. Returning to Toronto seemed as inconceivable to her as swimming across the frigid Bay of Fundy that sat outside her door. No, for once in her life she had to make a decision completely on her own. She needed to stay home in Collina and figure out who she would have been if painting hadn't become the central focus of her life.
When she dragged herself back into the dining area, Tyler was leaning his forehead against the cool, stainless steel soda machine, ignoring the man waiting at the cash two feet behind him.
Sylvie hurried across the room. She felt sorry for Tyler, nineteen and nothing to look forward to but more of the same. It was enough to drive anyone to drink. But she couldn't afford to sympathize too much. Tyler had to pull his weight, or Pops would insist on spending even more time here. The heart specialist had been explicit last week, Pops was to work no more than two hours a day, and that was pushing it.
She was already desperate to find a second cook. But even though good help was slim pickings in the village, that didn't mean she could let Tyler get away with too much. And God forbid her family let her work in the kitchen or try her hand at bookkeepingnot the talented Sylvie Carson. They thought they were freeing her up to pursue her dreams, but every time they said no, she felt more and more limited as to what she could do. Instead she was expected to sit and stare at an empty canvas and pray for inspiration.
"Be with you in a second," she said to the man standing at the cash register. She huddled with Tyler in the corner. The tall, wiry teenager looked like he'd fall over if she breathed on him. "We're busy, Ty. I need your help."
He shot her a sheepish look. "My stomach's all jumped up this morning."
"Right." She sighed, checked out the guy at cash again. He looked like he was trying not to grin. Another tourist soaking up the local color. She lowered her voice. "Go tell Pops. He'll fix you up with his secret concoction. It'll probably burn your toenails off, but it'll settle your stomach."
Summoning a smile, she scooted over to the cash register. "Sorry to keep you waiting. What can I do for you?"
As she looked up at the man, his tawny gaze caught hers and pulled her in. He was tall and lean, his jean jacket outlining broad shoulders and a narrow waist. With an artist's eye, she automatically studied the way he held himself, as if taking care not to disturb the air around him. His nose had been broken at least once. She was guessing more than once. He didn't have the bright-eyed, ain't-life-grand look most visitors wore when they walked in the door. A stranger, but not a tourist.
"What's the fifty-fifty draw for?" The man's voice was soft and deep, and she caught herself wanting to lean closer to him.
He nodded at the glass gallon jar that sat beside the cash register. "The draw, what do you have to do to win?"
"Oh." Her cheeks heated up. "You have to guess what's been added to the mural." She waved a hand toward the back wall, where she'd painted a scene of the village. Folk art was not her usual style, and after years of treating art as a discipline, she'd felt like a kid with a new box of paints when she'd tackled the mural.
The fifty-fifty draw had started when she realized she'd forgotten to include the Hacheys' boat in the mural. Worried someone would interpret the omission as a sign of bad luck, she'd added the minor detail early one morning before the cafe opened. No one on earth was more superstitious than fishermen. Beanie, the local plumber, had noticed the change a few days later. It hadn't taken long for people to start placing bets on who could spot the newest addition. Not that she'd planned or wanted to keep adding to the mural, but it had been so good for business, she'd have been stupid not to run with the idea. Yet every time she looked at the damned thing now it was like a slap in the face. The mural was the last half-decent thing she'd painted. And it was folk art.
He squinted toward the back wall. "You'd have to spend a lot of time looking at it to see what had changed."
He shot her an admiring look. "Who's the artist?"
"Me. So. Breakfast? Coffee? You can have it to go if you want. The coffee, that is." She tried holding his gaze, but felt herself being pulled in again and broke the connection. So he had pretty eyesa solid band of black circled his gold-flecked, hazel irises. She already had an acceptable boyfriend. She may have only seen Oliver twice in the past half year, but they hadn't broken up yet.
"Coffee to go would be great. Black, with a half teaspoon of sugar."
She spun around, slid a paper cup off the stack and grabbed the fresh carafe of coffee.
"I actually came in to ask for directions," the man said to her back.
A tourist after all.
"Two Briar Lane. Do you know where that is?" Hot coffee spilled over her hand as surprise jolted through her.
"Hey, are you okay?"
"Yes." She thrust the coffeepot onto the hot plate and looked over her shoulder. "You wouldn't be the new owner, would you?"
He did the stillness thing again, like he was holding his breath. "That's right."
They'd often joked about who'd bought the old rundown house next to her family's house. One of the best things about returning home, other than watching her father grow stronger every day and the occasional romp with her brothers, was living on Briar Lane with no neighbors. Apparently life wasn't going to stand still for her, not even in Collina. What a pity.
Sylvie forced a smile as she turned back to the man and held out her good hand. "I'm Sylvie Carson. We're neighbors."
Adam Hunter felt calluses on the woman's palm as they shook hands. Her hands belied her appearance. He'd never been good at describing things, but to him she looked like an angel. Almost. More like a tarnished angel, which was a helluva lot more appealing than a perfect one. It was her curly, white-gold hair that made him think of angels. And her sky-blue eyes. But that's where it stopped. Her mouth was too pouty, too full and ripe, and her body Adam pulled his hand away from hers and doused the heat that flickered through him. Tarnished or not, she was somebody else's angel. He'd bet on it.
"Adam Hunter," he said. She probably hadn't lived beside his gram's house all those years ago. He'd have remembered, wouldn't he? Or maybe not. At eight years old, he'd been a lot more interested in snakes than girls.
"We've been wondering who bought the old Johnson place. Took you a while to get here." She slid his coffee across the counter.
He'd have arrived a day earlier if he'd had the sense to stop and ask for directions. Instead, he'd spent the night in Lancaster, the closest city. But she probably meant the nine months that had lapsed since he'd inherited his gram's summerhouse.
Adam's stomach knotted when she avoided looking him in the eye. He knew the place was run-down. He'd visited only a handful of times when he was a kid, and the house had been old then. If it was beyond repair, he didn't know what he would do. The promise of moving to the small fishing village, of restoring the old house and making a home, had kept his head above water for the past few months.
In a few minutes he'd see for himself what shape it was in, but it was just as important to get a feel for the village and the people living here. The cafe seemed like a good place to start. "Interesting place. Are you the owner?"
"My family owns it."
People were eating breakfast in the first half of the room. Past the crowded tables and chairs, several comfortable armchairs and a couch were loosely arranged around a woodstove with a glass door on the front. Everywhere he looked there were stacks of books; in columns leaning against a support beam, on several small tables positioned around the room. Two laptops stood open and ready for use on a long table in another corner. Available Wi-Fi. Great. It would probably take a while before he could get his systems up and running. In a little nook near the back was a kid's corner with a knee-high table holding paints and crayons and more books.
The morning sun spilled in through the large front windows that looked out on the street, and apart from the colorful mural, the walls had been painted a warm gold color. It was a room that tempted people to use it, and judging by its warm, lived-in look, people had accepted the invitation.
"How much for the coffee?" When his voice echoed through the suddenly hushed room, he kept his smile in place. He imagined small towns had their own set of rules, and one of those would be knowing your neighbor's business.
"First one's free." The angel smiled.
"Thanks, I appreciate it."
"You have a family?" she asked.
Not one he planned to tell anyone about. "Just me and my dog. So, Briar Lane?"
"Go back to the main street, turn right. Turn right again at Seaman Street. Briar Lane's at the end. We're the only two houses on it."