World-weary detective Mark Kincaid is back in Whitehorn to brood in peace—not to be
tempted by do-gooder Darcy Montague's pumpkin bread and dinners for two. If he lets
himself fall, he could be hurt beyond repair. Is his adorable neighbor too good to be
true, or can she bring his heart back to life…just in time for Christmas?
Originally published in 2001
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"Western omelette, side of bacon, coffee," Mark Kincaid said without looking up from his morning paper. He hadn't slept the night before and he felt like roadkill. Of course he hadn't been sleeping since the shooting, so he should stop being surprised by the fact. Maybe one day he would get used to staring up at the ceiling for hours on end, trying not to relive the events that had nearly killed him.
"I don't think so."
At first he thought he'd imagined the soft voice, that the words were an editorial on his belief he might get used to not sleeping. Then he realized they'd come from the petite blonde standing next to his table.
He looked up at the waitress smiling at him. He didn't smile in return. "Excuse me?"
"I said no. You can't order that for breakfast. You get the same thing every day and it's not healthy. Four eggs, ham, cheese and bacon? It's enough cholesterol to choke a horse."
"Fortunately, I'm not a horse."
Her smile widened. Humor danced in her eyes. "Good point, Detective. Okay, it's enough cholesterol to clog the arteries of a living human. How about some oatmeal? Studies have proven that regular consumption of oatmeal can actually lower cholesterol levels, sometimes significantly."
Mark folded his paper and gave the waitress his full attention. She wore a white apron over a pale pink dress. Two butterfly clips held her short blond hair away from her face. She was pretty enough, he supposed, assuming a man was interested in that sort of thing. He was not.
He pushed his coffee cup closer to the edge of the table. She took the hint and filled it. He sipped the black liquid, nearly sighing when he felt it burn its way down his throat. Coffee improved his world view.
"Western omelette," he said firmly. "Side of bacon."
Her full lips pressed together. "How about a side of fruit, instead? It's fresh."
He stared at her, giving her the same look he'd used on the scum of the earth he'd encountered while he'd been a detective in New York. The waitress— Darcy her name tag read—should have run for cover. Instead she muttered something about some people being too stubborn for their own good and wrote on her pad.
"I have to tell you, I'm giving in against my better judgment," she told him.
"What happened to 'the customer is always right'?"
"Being right won't help you if you're dead."
She sounded too damn cheerful by half.
"It's a little early for such a philosophical discussion," he said. "Why don't you save it for the lunch crowd?"
She smiled. "Let me guess—you won't be in for lunch today, right?"
He shrugged. He did have plans elsewhere.
"I'll put this right in," she said, waving her pad, then turning on her heel and heading for the kitchen.
Mark returned his attention to his paper, but the words didn't make sense. Instead he found himself trying to remember what, if anything, he knew about Darcy the waitress. She was new in town. She'd shown up in the eight years he'd been gone. She was young, early twenties, attractive—not that he cared about that—and a born fusser. She bullied all her customers equally, touting the benefits of orange juice with its vitamin C, warning kids about cavities from sticky desserts and pushing salads instead of burgers. Everyone seemed to love the attention. Everyone but him.
Mark shook his head to clear it, then studied the paper in front of him. Gradually the room faded as he reviewed the scores from the previous day's football games. Maybe this year the Dallas Cowboys were going to go all the way. Maybe—
A small plate appeared in front of him. Three slices of something strange lay nestled against each other.
He glanced at Darcy.
"Don't bite my head off. It's compliments of the house," she said casually. "We're considering switching suppliers for our baked goods. This is a sample of one of the new products. What do you think?"
The slices had come from a loaf of some kind. But the color was faintly…orange? "What is it?"
He pushed the plate away. "I don't eat vegetables before noon."
Darcy glared at him as if he'd just won first prize in a stupid contest. "There are green peppers in your omelette. Besides, pumpkins aren't vegetables."
"Want to bet?"
"Okay, technically they are because of the seeds and everything, but we eat them in pie. That makes them an honorary fruit. Try it. It's really good."
He had his doubts. "Why pumpkin bread?"
"Because of Thanksgiving. It's this Thursday. Remember?"
He didn't remember, mostly because he didn't do holidays. Not anymore. When it had been only him and Maddie, he'd worked hard to make the holidays special. His sister had just been a kid when they'd lost their folks. But lately…what was the point?
"So the restaurant will be closed," he said, not asking a question. He'd have to fix his own breakfast. Actually, he'd probably not bother with food. Cooking was too much trouble.
Darcy's gaze narrowed. "Tell me, Detective, what exactly are your plans for the holiday?"
"Is my order ready yet?"
She nodded her head. "I knew it. You're the solitary type, aren't you? You'll spend the day by yourself, moping."
He glared at her. "I don't mope."
"But you will be alone."
He waved at the half-full Hip Hop Café "Don't you have other customers?"
She glanced around. "Not really, but thanks for asking. My point is, no one should spend the holidays alone. You need to get out."
He was saved by the bell—literally. The sharp ring cut through the diner and sent Darcy back toward the kitchen. Less than a minute later she appeared with his breakfast.
"I mean it," she said. "Solitude makes the holidays more difficult than they have to be. Don't you have any family in town?"
He thought about his sister, who would spend the long weekend traveling. "No."
"Then come to my place. I'm fixing a turkey with all the trimmings. Everything is homemade. There will be lots of people there. You'll love it. You won't even have to talk if you don't want to. Although it wouldn't hurt you to be a tad more chatty, if you ask me."
He groaned. The last thing he needed was to fall into the clutches of some health-nut do-gooder. She'd probably use tofu in her stuffing and want to talk about the importance of giving back to the community.
He opened his mouth to refuse her invitation, but she was gone. Seconds later, she reappeared with coffee, pouring quickly, then leaving.
For the next ten minutes, she took care of her other customers, argued about what they were ordering and avoided Mark's table. He had plenty of time to think up fifteen reasons he would refuse her invitation. Yet when she brought him his bill, he found himself unable to say anything to bring sadness to her bright, expectant smile.
"What time?" he asked, trying to sound gracious and failing miserably.
Her expression turned startled. "You're accepting?"
"Change your mind already?"
"No. Not at all. Say four? We'll eat at five." She hesitated. "Do you know where I live?" Instantly she blushed. "Dumb question."
For the first time that day, possibly for the first time in several days, Mark smiled. "Yeah, Darcy. I know where you live."
Darcy Montague leaned her head against the front of her locker and groaned. The good news was she could now nominate herself for idiot of the month. What on earth had she been thinking?
"Please don't tell me that you're banging your head against the wall," Janie Carson Austin, who managed the Hip Hop, said as she stepped into the small storeroom. "You're one of my most dependable staff members and if I think you're going off the deep end, it's going to put a crimp in my holiday spirit."
Darcy straightened and forced herself to smile at her boss. "No head banging. I promise. Just a reflection on the state of my life."
"Which is?" Janie asked.
Darcy ignored the voice in her head—even though it was telling her she was incredibly dumb for inviting Mark Kincaid to her house. Mark Kincaid—White-horn's answer to Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise all rolled into one. Argh! Had she actually told him he didn't have to talk to anyone while he was at her house, only to turn around and complain that he wasn't chatty enough? She'd babbled. It had been humiliating.
Janie leaned against the door frame. "Your pumpkin bread was a big hit. Maybe we should try something else next week."
Instantly Darcy's spirits lifted. "Thanks, Janie. I'll come up with something special. I really appreciate you giving me this opportunity."
Janie, a pretty, blond thirty-year-old, shrugged. "I try to be loyal to our longtime vendors, but I also owe our customers the best. If your next offering is as good as this one, and if the price is reasonable, I'm going to recommend we buy our baked goods from you."
"I won't let you down," Darcy promised.
"I have every confidence in you," Janie said, and left.
Darcy gave a silent cheer as she sat on the skinny bench in front of the lockers. I have every confidence in you. Who would have thought she would ever hear those words? For a long time she hadn't believed them herself. But now they were true. She was dependable, reliable and all those other lovely "able" words. Not bad for a former flake.
She was nearly as excited about the compliment as about the chance to expand business for Darcy's De-lectables. If she could land a contract with the Hip Hop Café, she would go a long way toward building up her minuscule savings account. Life was definitely taking a turn for the better.
Which meant she could indulge in a back-patting festival if she wanted…or she could deal with her more pressing problem, namely the fact that she'd invited Mark Kincaid over for Thanksgiving.
Her good mood did an instant crash and burn. It wasn't that she objected to having the man in her house. How could she? He was easy on the eye in a big way. Of course that was also part of the problem. She hadn't been on a date in five years. To be blunt, the man turned her on. The combination of great body, killer green eyes and sexy, barely there smile was pure temptation. Something she had no time for right now.
To make matters worse, he was completely single. And from what she could tell, he didn't date. Not that she spied on him or anything, but he did live next door to her. They shared a duplex on the far side of town. He'd moved in a couple of months after she had, and what with him being so very good-looking, he'd been impossible to miss. She didn't exactly monitor his movements, but she was the tiniest bit aware of his comings and goings.
It was a crush. There—she'd admitted it to herself. She had a crush on him and that's what had her scared. What if he figured it out? She would be too humiliated to live, and right now she couldn't afford to die.
"I won't be alone," she reminded herself as she rose and headed back to the diner. Eight other people were going to be at her place for dinner on Thanksgiving. She would barely notice Mark's presence. With a large people-buffer in place, she might even avoid making a fool of herself in front of him.
"I really hate to cancel on such short notice," Millie Jasper said the following morning. She tried to sound sad, but instead she beamed with pleasure.
"I understand," Darcy said, because she really did understand. She just didn't like it very much. "If your parents want you to come home for the holidays, that's a whole lot better than staying here."
Millie shifted two-year-old Ronnie to her other hip. "I'm hoping they're going to ask me to move back home," she confided. "Ever since Ron ran off with that bimbo of his, I've been struggling. So this is like a miracle."
Darcy knew that miracles didn't come around very often. She patted her friend's arm. "Go home. Make peace with your parents and see if you can start over. I'll miss you on Thanksgiving, but this is better."
"Thanks for being so sweet."
Millie gave her a quick hug, which meant Ronnie wanted to plant a sticky kiss on Darcy's cheek. Then the two of them waved goodbye as they left the café.
"Don't panic," Darcy murmured to herself. She reached for a clean cloth and began wiping off the counter. "There are still four other people coming to dinner."
Four people, plus him. Because she was now refusing to think about Mark Kincaid by name. Her insides had started acting very strange when she pictured him or said his name—her heart thumping when she thought about him, her stomach sort of heaving and swaying. It was scary and gross.
"I'm just doing a good deed," she reminded herself. "There's absolutely nothing personal going on."
It was a darned pitiful excuse for a lie.
Light snow fell Tuesday night as Mark jogged up the driveway toward the duplex. He'd pushed himself too far and felt the resulting pain in his side. With each step, still-healing muscles tugged and pulled, making him ache. He would pay for the extra miles in the morning when he would awaken stiff and sore. Assuming he slept.
At least he could go running and suffer the consequences, he reminded himself as he rounded the bend in the path. There'd been a time when he hadn't been sure he was even going to survive. Now he knew he would completely heal and—except for a few scars and a slightly more cynical take on the world—life would go on as it had before. Or would it? Could he ever trust a woman again…after what Sylvia had done to him?