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"Need some help up there?"
Hearing an unfamiliar drawl, Lisa Sawyer steadied herself against the bay window where she was perched trying to string Christmas lights. It was the Monday after Thanksgiving, and the staff of Ruthy's Place was in full-on holiday decorating mode. With the long cord in one hand and a dozen thumbtacks in the other, she wouldn't mind a little help.
Turning, she found a man standing behind her who reminded her of a Greek statue she'd seen on the Travel Channel. Maybe it was the granite-hard contours of his face. Maybe it was his razor-sharp crew cut, or the almost clear blue of his eyes. Or maybe it was the way his stained gray T-shirt rippled over muscles that ran from his shoulders to the tops of his paint-spattered work boots. Instinct told her he hadn't bought his ratty jeans that way. The way they bagged on his tall, lean frame made them look as if they belonged to someone else.
Wow was the first coherent word that popped into her head. Since she couldn't say that without looking foolish, she smiled. "Thank you"
"Seth" he said quietly. "Seth Hansen."
"Oh, Ruthy's nephew." Lisa filled in the blank with another, less impersonal, smile. "She said you were coming to help out with some maintenance in the diner and the apartments upstairs."
Reaching over, she held out her hand. "Lisa Sawyer."
Considering how strong his grip must be, she was amazed by how gentle his touch was. Careful, almost, as if he was afraid to hurt her. As the scent of fresh gingerbread wafted in from the kitchen, the ceiling speakers switched over to the opening chords of "All I Want for Christmas Is You." While she held up one end of the lights and Seth pegged in a thumbtack every six inches or so, Lisa sang along with the lyrics.
"You sing it better than she does," Lisa's helper complimented her as he pinned the last length of cord into place on the other side of the diner's glass-front door.
"Well, thank you."
The hard planes of his face creased into something like a grin, and he offered a hand to help her down. After she landed, they stood there looking at each other, and she realized he was waiting for her to say something.
"I was off this weekend, so I haven't seen you around," she said. "When did you get in?"
He didn't add anything more, and she couldn't decide if he was shy or rude. Then again, he'd been a total gentleman helping her the way he had, so rude was off the list. That left shy, and she could work with that. "Then welcome to Harland. How are you enjoying it so far?"
"Lisa Jean Sawyer," Ruthy scolded as she came out of the kitchen with loaded platters for two of their early-bird dinner regulars. "Are you grilling my favorite nephew?"
"Just a little," Lisa answered with a laugh. "He doesn't seem to mind too much."
Looking slightly awkward, Seth didn't say he minded, but he didn't say he didn't, either. The guy was so laid-back, he made a turtle look like an Indy driver. At least she wouldn't have to worry about fending him off, Lisa mused. Although she couldn't imagine any woman with a brain rejecting whatever advances he wanted to make.
Eyeing Lisa like he wasn't quite sure what to make of her, he turned to his aunt. "Which idiot jammed the fry skimmer down your sink?"
"Oh," she confessed without blinking, "that was me."
Grimacing, he shook his head. "Can I ask what you were thinking?"
"I was thinking there was something stuck in the disposal, and I had to get it out," she retorted as she poured coffee for her customers. "I'm sure they'll have whatever parts you need at Harland Hardware. Just ask for Gus and tell him who you are."
The expression that flashed across Seth's tanned features had only one name: terror. His jaw was clenched so tight, Lisa knew it must hurt, and her heart went out to him. He was obviously former military of some kind, and she'd expect someone like that to have nerves of steel. Something horrible must have happened to make this imposing guy so jumpy.
Apparently, Ruthy noticed it, too. Putting down the coffeepot, she took one of Seth's hands in both of hers and gave him a bracing look.
"Tell him you're my nephew and you're working on a project for me," she clarified. "He'll get you whatever you need and bill me for it."
Seth relaxed a bit and nodded. "Okay."
Reaching up, Ruthy pulled his head down to whisper something in his ear. Whatever she said must have been just what he needed to hear, because the tension left his face, and he grinned. He had a really nice smile, Lisa decided. She wondered what a girl would have to do to see it more often.
"So," he said with a little more confidence. "Where is this place?"
"Lisa's not busy right now," Ruthy replied casually. "She can go with you, introduce you to Gus."
They both glanced toward Lisa, and she smiled. "Sure. No problem."
Taking off her ruffly white apron, she draped it over the back of a chair and met Seth at the door. He glanced at the mistletoe kissing ball suspended overhead and shook his head again before opening the door for her. The silver jingle bells hanging from the knob alerted everyone in the diner that they were leaving.
Just as they were about to go, she heard the unmistakable sound of a camera shutter. Looking back, she saw Ruthy standing on the other side of the lunch counter, a digital camera in hand.
"What on earth are you doing?" Lisa demanded with a laugh.
"I always take a picture of the first couple under the mistletoe. Then I add it to the collage." Motioning to the frame beside the door, she added, "It's tradition."
Seth groaned. "We're not a couple."
"You're two people under the mistletoe," she argued.
"We just met, Aunt Ruth. We're not the kind of couple you're talking about."
"You could be."
When he glared at her, she gave up. "Fine. I'll delete it." Glancing down at the display, she sighed. "It's such a nice shot, though."
Four people sidled past them into the diner, with three more close behind. Lisa suspected that if she didn't do something, these two would argue so long the dining room would be overflowing by the time she got back to help.
"It's not a big deal, Ruthy. Just keep it."
She marched out, figuring Seth would follow quickly enough. He did, but out on the sidewalk, he looked down at Lisa and grumbled, "She jammed that disposal on purpose, didn't she?"
"Why would she do that?"
"My hunch is she wanted me to notice you. She invented a kitchen crisis to get me downstairs."
"I wasn't even in the kitchen," Lisa pointed out. "How could she know you'd see me out in the dining room?"
"Those swinging doors aren't that high. With you up in the window like that, I saw you right off."
"She's quite the matchmaker, so it sounds like something she'd do." Since he didn't seem seriously upset by his aunt's supposed meddling, Lisa laughed. "I can't imagine what she's thinking."
Being Lisa's godmother, Ruthy knew her better than most. Well enough to know this soft-spoken handyman was nothing like the brash, outgoing guys she enjoyed dating.
"Christmas lights and mistletoe," he replied grimly. "They make folks nuttier than usual."
"I think it's sweet, her wanting to set you up for the holidays. Of course, you should get to pick the girl," Lisa added to make it absolutely clear she wasn't even remotely interested in being his Christmas crush.
"I'm not real good at that," he confided quietly.
"Most guys aren't."
"She's just like my mom. They think I need somebody," he said, looking over Lisa's head as a tractor rumbled down Main Street.
As soon as the words jumped from her mouth, she regretted them. It was none of her business if he needed someone. Or no one. Still, she couldn't help being curious about why he constantly avoided her eyes. She also couldn't shake the feeling that there was more to his hesi-tance than simple shyness.
After a long pause, he shrugged. "I've always done fine on my own."
"I like my independence, too," she rambled to avoid another awkward silence. "Being the youngest, everyone was always telling me what to do. The best part of being a grown-up is finally getting to do my own thing."
"Independence is different from being alone." With an appreciative glance, he added, "Something tells me you're not alone all that much."
Her intuition told her he was trying to say something without insulting her, and she wasn't sure she liked his tone. "I have company when I want it, if that's what you mean."
"I don't doubt that for a second."
Irritated now, she had to admit his comment about being alone was dead-on. She hated it but she couldn't imagine how this stranger had picked up on it so quickly. Both of them seemed uncomfortable with the subject, so she decided it was better to switch to a less personal topic. Seth wasn't big on conversation, which left her pretty much on her own.
"What are your plans for the holidays?" she asked.
"Home with my family. After that.." He shrugged as if it didn't matter to him one way or another.
Having grown up in Harland, the baby in a large, loving family, Lisa couldn't begin to understand his careless manner. But God wired everyone differently for a reason, and she never questioned His logic.
As they headed down Main Street, she noticed everyone had gotten into the spirit. Garlands and multicolored lights framed every window and door, and wreaths hung from the vintage streetlights. Up ahead, she heard a Santa bell ringing, followed by a hearty, "Ho! Ho! Ho! Merry Christmas!"
After a few blocks that felt much farther, they reached Harland Hardware. The brick building was like all the others in town, old but well kept, with a blue-and-white-striped awning shading the glass-front door. Red, green and silver garlands were draped everywhere, and a set of speakers was pumping some kind of shop tool Christmas song out to the sidewalk.
"Now I've heard it all," Lisa commented with a giggle. "Did you know drills and saws could even play 'Jingle Bells'?"
She'd finally had enough of his distant manner. "Seth, do you think I've been pleasant?"
"And you don't hate brunettes or waitresses on general principle?"
She gave him a chance to elaborate, but he didn't take it. No one had ever treated her so coolly, and she was done putting up with it. Glowering up at him, she demanded, "Then what is it about me that you don't like?"
"Nothing. Honest," he added, as if that would help. "You could've fooled me."
Lisa huffed so hard, her bangs fluttered above her crystal-blue eyes. As she glared at him, Seth pitied any guy foolish enough to fall for her. Sweet as she appeared to be, behind that amazing smile was tempered steel. No man alive could possibly handle all that attitude.
Even though the top of her head barely reached his shoulder, she didn't seem the least bit intimidated by him. She also didn't seem inclined to end their pointless staring contest, so Seth broke it off.
Looking behind her, he was almost surprised to see the latest rechargeable power tools displayed in the store's large bay windows. A building like this seemed better suited to old-fashioned planes and handsaws. As he reached for the large brass handle on the door, his heart suddenly seized in his chest, and he could barely breathe.
Panic attack, he reminded himself, pulling away from the door to take a deep breath and give his nerves a chance to settle. Hard as he'd worked to get them under control, they still flared up when he found himself in unfamiliar territory. That was why he sometimes froze up when people talked to him. He'd made enough progress in his recovery to understand what caused the bizarre reaction. He just didn't know what to do about it.
A quick glance around showed him no one was paying any particular attention to him, which was a relief. Lisa's concerned look told him she'd noticed, though, and he forced himself to act as though nothing was wrong. To avoid her gaze, he looked into the other window, pretending to admire the latest in battery-powered drills.
The face reflected in the glass looked petrified, and he let out a disgusted sigh. It was a hardware store in a Podunk little town, run by a friend of Aunt Ruth's. Thinking of her gave Seth's confidence a much-needed boost. Honest errand or sham, she believed he could manage this, or she wouldn't have sent him. The last thing he wanted to do was disappoint her. Once his heart had settled into an uneasy trot, he reached for the handle again.
As he opened the door and stepped back for Lisa to go through, the bell overhead chimed in welcome.
"Is that Lisa Sawyer?" The gray-haired man behind the counter gaped in obvious disbelief. "Never thought I'd be seeing you in here, princess."
"My nickname," she muttered to Seth. "My big brothers think it's hysterical."
"Is it accurate?"
"What do you think?" she demanded in a haughty tone he thought matched her nickname pretty well.
"I think I'd rather not know."
"Smart man." As they reached the counter, she greeted the owner. "You should be nice to me, Gus. I brought you someone to talk shop with. Seth Hansen, Gus Williams. Seth is Ruth's nephew."
As the two men shook hands, Seth noticed the Semper Fi tattoo on Gus's forearm. Faded but still clear, he could tell it had been there a long time.
"I'm not much for tools and such," Lisa announced, wrinkling her cute little nose in distaste. "I'll be in the decorating section."
She went left, looking up at the aisle markers as she went. Gus chuckled and called out, "Head to your right, you'll find that stuff in the back."
With a melodramatic sigh, she changed direction and turned down an aisle advertising window treatments. Turning back to Gus, Seth was surprised to find the man smiling at him.
"Marines," he said proudly. "How 'bout you?"
Gus's quick assessment kicked his pulse up again, and Seth waited a beat to make sure he spoke normally. "How'd you know?"
"Son, it's written all over you."
Feeling awkward, Seth ran a hand over his crew cut. Maybe if he let his hair grow out, people wouldn't peg him quite so easily. Sure, and he could get an earring, too. His mother would love that.
"Oh, it ain't just the hair," Gus told him. Leaning in, he added, "It'll get easier, I promise."
Inexplicably, Seth blurted out, "It's been almost two years."
"Some recover quicker'n others." Gus frowned. "Some come home but never quite make it back, if you know what I mean."
"Yeah, I do."
Seth had seen a few of them when he was in the hospital. Staring vacantly at nothing, muttering to themselves, imprisoned by memories that might never let them go. Watching them had been the motivation he'd needed to push himself hard every single day, even when his body had protested. With relentless determination, he'd whipped through his rehab in record time.
However difficult normal life was for him, it was a cakewalk compared to others.
"I pray for 'em every day," Gus confided. "Those poor souls need all the help they can get."