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Thirty-six minutes to go. And though Sarah West-erveld had been driving west for five days to get to her old hometown of Riverbend, she needed every second of those thirty-six minutes to compose herself before meeting her father.
She tapped her fingers on the steering wheel in time to the song blasting from the radio and waited at the town's single stoplight. Not much had changed in the six years she had been gone. The bakery, the bank, the drugstore and the flower shop still anchored the four corners of the main street. Just down from the bakery was her cousin's coffee shop, a rare new addition to Riverbend.
And the place she had arranged to meet her father. Since she had moved away, she had received an envelope from him on the first of every month, his decisive handwriting on the outside, a check inside.
And nothing else. No letter. No note. Nothing to show that this came from her father.
A few weeks ago, however, instead of the check, inserted in the envelope was a single piece of paper with the words "Come Home. I need to talk to you" written on it.
When she phoned to find out what he wanted, he kept the call short, as he always did, and businesslike, as he always did. He said he wanted to tell her what he had to, face-to-face.
Her father wanted to meet her at home, but after all this time, she had no desire to visit with him in that large empty house echoing with memories. So they had arranged to meet at her cousin Janie's coffee shop. Neutral ground, and not far from his office.
A horn honked behind her and Sarah jumped. The light had turned green. She gunned her car through the intersection and slid over the snow and into the lone parking spot down the block from her cousin's coffee shop. Obviously Mr. Kennerman, the street maintenance man, was still around, and still not on the job.
She wound her scarf around her throat and pulled out a toque, jamming it over her long, blond hair before stepping from the warm confines of her car into the crisp winter weather.
I missed this, Sarah thought, tugging on a pair of gloves. Missed the bite of the cold, the invigorating freshness of the chilly air. Sarah pulled back the cuff of her glove.
Thirty-five minutes to go.
She had planned to stay at her cousin's. Her father hadn't objected when she told him. Still, she wasn't sure if it was because he understood why, or because he simply didn't want her in the family house either.
Sarah locked her car and glanced down the road. The trees, now bare, reached farther over the street than she remembered. One of the older buildings in town had been renovated to its original glory. Flags, hanging from new streetlights, drifted in the cool breeze that scuttled rivulets of snow across the street.
The town was busy this early in the day. Busy for Riverbend, which meant most of the parking spots on Main Street were taken. A few people wandered down the sidewalks, their conversation punctuated by puffs of steam. Sarah shivered as she hurried along the path toward the coffee shop, anticipation fluttering through her at the thought of seeing her cousin after all this time.
The door of the coffee shop swung open and a man stepped out.
Dark was the first thought that came to mind. Dark eyebrows. Dark hair. A lean jaw shadowed by whiskers. Angular features molded in a look that both challenged and engaged all comers. His coffee-brown hair brushed the collar of a faded canvas coat open to reveal a denim jacket and sweatshirt. Brown eyes swept over her and Sarah's heart did a slow turn in her chest.
Logan of the scribbles in her notebook, the long, slow looks across the gymnasium and stolen kisses that still haunted her.
Logan of the Across the River Carletons of whom her father couldn't speak without risking a coronary. Which, in turn, had given the broodingly handsome Logan an additional forbidden appeal.
An appeal that only grew when they secretly started dating.
He still had it, she thought as she met the eyes she thought held no sway over her anymore. But old emotions flickered deep within her and the six years she'd been gone slipped away as easily as a young girl's tears.
Six years ago all he'd had to do was send her that crooked smile across the cab of his truck and her heart would do the same slow turn it just had.
Sarah put the brakes on those silly, schoolgirl thoughts. She was older now. Wiser. Harder. She had left Riverbend with tears in her eyes because of this man. Now, after all this time, just seeing him could bring forth feelings she thought she had reconciled into her past.
And then, thankfully, his mouth lifted in a faintly cynical smile negating the connection.
"Sarah Westerveld. So you've come back west." The tone in his voice was cooler than the freezing air.
"Hello, Logan," she said quietly. In a town as small as Riverbend, this first meeting was inevitable. She just hadn't counted on it being five minutes after her arrival. "You remembered who I am." He lifted one eyebrow in a mocking gesture. "I'm surprised."
His tone cut. But life and time away from River-bend had changed her. She wasn't the girl who longed for his approval. Needed his smile.
"I was sorry to hear about your father's death." She had stayed in touch with her friends and family here, so she knew.
Logan's eyes narrowed and for a moment she thought she had crossed an unseen line.
"Me too," he growled. "He had a hard life."
"That he did." And Sarah knew part of the blame for that difficulty could be laid at her father's door.
Nine years ago, Jack Carleton had been falsely accused of murdering his business partner. The lengthy trial had scandalized the community and, even though Jack had been exonerated, the verdict hadn't stopped Frank, Sarah's father, from canceling his gravel-crushing contract with Jack. This in turn created the animosity between Frank and Jack that Sarah grew up with but couldn't completely understand.
"I heard you took over your father's gravel business," Sarah continued, determined to act as if meeting Logan was no different than meeting any other high school acquaintance. She had a hard time looking at him, so she focused on the top button of his jacket. "How is that going for you?"
Logan gave a short laugh. "It's going to be better." Sarah couldn't stop her attention from flying upward at the harsh tone of his voice. "So how long are you around for this time?" he continued.
"I'm here to visit my father. That's all."
"That's all? I shouldn't be surprised, should I?" He held her gaze a heartbeat longer, then stepped past her and walked away.
Just as she had walked away from him six years ago.
As Sarah watched him, his hands tucked in the pocket of his canvas coat, his whole demeanor one of a man in charge of his world, she felt her heart twist with pain. Logan had always had a strong self-confidence, which had served him well amid the whispers and innuendos during his father's trial.
It was that self-assurance to which Sarah had been drawn. Unfortunately, Sarah had not possessed the same confidence while they were dating; she had insisted they keep their relationship secret. And they had. For the entire eight months. And then her father, who had never disguised his active dislike for the Carleton family, found out.
Sarah pushed open the door to the shop, shivering in the warmth and letting the welcoming scent of ground coffee beans draw her back to the present. She wasn't here to reminisce over old flames. She had a job to do, plain and simple.
As the door sighed closed behind her, she drew in a slow breath, willing her heart to stop its erratic beating.
"Sarah. You're here!" A high-pitched squeal pierced the low murmur of the customers in the coffee bar.
Janie Corbett threaded her way through the people perched at high stools and tables, her arms outstretched, her Westerveld blue eyes wide with excitement. With great relief, Sarah walked into her cousin's embrace, letting Janie's arms pull her tightly close.
Janie patted Sarah's cheeks, her smile threatening to split her face. "Look at you.All grown-up and even skinnier than ever. And I love the longer hairstyle," Janie said, flicking her fingers through Sarah's shoulder-length curls. "Looks elegant. Refined."
"Well, I'm not. Refined or elegant, that is."
"Not the way you play basketball." Janie adjusted the bandanna holding her own pale blond hair back from her face. "I heard that Uncle Morris and Ethan saw you in action in Calgary, at some university competition."
Sarah remembered and smiled. Seeing her uncle and cousin's familiar faces after the game had been a bright spot in her life. "That wasn't my best game."
Sarah followed Janie to the counter, glancing around the shop as she did. She saw a few familiar faces but could tell from the slightly puzzled frowns sent her way that her own face wasn't ringing any bells.
"They were still pretty impressed," Janie said, pulling out a large mug. She gave Sarah a quick smile. "I'm so glad you're here."
"I am too." Sarah released a gentle sigh as she perched on an empty stool. She folded her arms on the granite countertop as she took in the bright and cheery decor. "This looks great, Janie. You did a fantastic job."
"Well, Aunty Dot helped me with the design and Uncle Dan and Uncle Morris rounded up all the cousins to do the heavy work."
Sarah glanced up above the coffee machines to the chalkboard filled with pink and green swirling script describing the menu for the day. "And the good people of Riverbend are really ready for espressos, cappuccinos and flavored macchiatos?"
"Honey, they are lapping it up."
"From cups I would hope." Janie gave her a blank look, then laughed.
"You walked right into it." Sarah smiled and glanced at her watch while her stomach did another flip. Twenty-nine minutes left.
"You want something now, or do you want to wait for your dad?"
"I'll have a hot chocolate."
"And when are you coming over?"
"When I'm done here."
"Your dad wasn't really impressed with the fact that you're staying with me, but I told him that I wasn't going to get involved." With a hiss of compressed air and quick, practiced movements, Janie layered thick whipping cream on top of the steaming cup of hot chocolate and carried it around the counter. "Let's sit by the window."