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Trish Clayborne sat in the warmth of her car at the stop sign, blinking away the tears filling her eyes. Home. She was almost home.
From the intersection of the county road and the main street of town, Desperation, Oklahoma, resembled something out of a foggy dream. Colorful, twinkling lights draped the storefronts, and giant red-and-white candy canes adorned each of the streetlights. A misty haze, caused by the remnant of the dusting of snow that barely covered the ground, created halos around the lights and gave the deserted street an eeriness that contradicted the friendliness of the town and its inhabitants.
Trish had grown to love Desperation and everyone in it after she and her sister, Kate, had arrived to live with their father's sister eleven years earlier. Aunt Aggie had quickly filled the void left by the death of their parents in a tornado, and the people had accepted them with open arms. The sisters had both thrived and become a part of the community. It was home, and Trish was grateful to be back after having been gone for six weeks on a book promotion tour that had seemed to last forever.
It wasn't until the flashing lights of a sheriff's cruiser filled the interior of her car that she realized she had been sitting at the intersection for more than several minutes. Dread filled every fiber of her being. The last man she wanted to see was probably behind the wheel of the cruiser.
The sheriff approached, casting a shadow into the car. Slowly, wishing she could disappear, Trish pushed the button to roll down her window. But instead of greeting the sheriff with a smile, she continued to stare at the misty scene before her, hoping the knitted cap she wore would hide her blond hair and her identity until she could stop her heart from racing.
"Having car trouble, miss?"
She turned slowly, wishing she could be anyplace but where she was.
"You're back," Morgan Rule said, his voice flat and matter-of-fact.
She tried her best to ignore his frown and the lack of emotion in his voice. "You knew I'd be home before Kate's wedding and Christmas."
"The wedding is a week away. You could have stayed and done some sightseeing."
She bit the inside of her cheek to keep the tears at bay. Not long ago, this man had loved her, had wanted to marry her. They'd planned a future together. But something had happened to change him. He wasn't a man who wore his emotions on his sleeve, but somewhere, sometime he had forgotten how to smile and apparently to love.
"Whose car is this?" he asked, stepping back and taking it all in with one long look.
"Mine. I bought it with money from the sale of my book." Money she had planned to spend on their wedding.
His dark eyebrows shot up as he turned his attention back to her. "I thought you couldn't drive."
"I've known how to drive since high school, I just never did. You know that."
"Yeah, maybe I do. Maybe I forgot. Easy to do when you're not around to remind me."
"Out of sight, out of mind?" she asked, and instantly wished she hadn't.
"Something like that."
He hadn't been out of her mind. Not for a minute. And now that they were alone, with no one to hear, maybe they could find a way to work things out. "Can we call a truce, Morgan? For the holidays, if nothing else."
"A truce? Are you saying you want to be friends? Is that it?"
She nodded, hoping to somehow regain what they had lost when she left. He was a good man, kind and gentle, a serious man who cared deeply for others, but rarely let it show. If only she could find that man who'd changed six months ago.
Placing his hands on the window opening, he leaned down, his dark gaze connecting with hers. "Our wedding was canceled. You had other things to do. I don't see a reason to be friends."
"I postponed our wedding," she pointed out, while attempting to remain calm. "You were the one who canceled it."
A flicker of emotion crossed his face, something she couldn't recognize, and was gone. His eyes betrayed nothing.
Without thinking, she laid her gloved hand on his. "Now that the tour is finished—"
"What's done is done." Pulling his hand away, he avoided looking at her.
She had hoped he would be more reasonable than he'd been six weeks ago, and it was breaking her heart that he hadn't changed. "But it doesn't have to be that way."
Taking a step back, he focused on her, his gaze intent. "When are you leaving again?"
The question caught her off guard. It was clear the subject of a truce and rediscovering at least their friendship if not their love was closed. "I don't know that I am," she answered.
His nod was short and curt. "To make this easier on both of us, here's what we do. I'll avoid you and you avoid me. There's no reason to get everyone in town talking—and you know they will, no matter what—so let's just be civil when we do run into each other."
Civil? Was this his idea of being civil? She didn't know what had happened back in June, but whatever it was, it had changed him. And she didn't like this man he had become.
Knowing that arguing would be useless, she shrugged her shoulders and stared out the windshield at the lights. "If that's the way you want it."
Her heart ached, but she wouldn't let him see how much she was hurting. "Then I'd better be getting home. Aunt Aggie and Kate are probably wondering where I am."
When he didn't respond, she slipped the gearshift into Drive, looked both ways and proceeded slowly across the street, headed for the Clayborne farm a few miles beyond town. Temptation drew her gaze to the rearview mirror as she rolled up her window, and she could see Morgan standing in the street where she'd left him. He wasn't watching her, just staring at the spot where she'd been. Stuffing his hands into the pockets of his jacket, he turned for the cruiser, its lights fading away behind her, adding to the eerie glow of the night.
With a sigh, she tried to focus on the road ahead, but her mind was on what needed to be done and just how she would do it. She had thought when she'd sold the children's book she'd written that life would be rosy. She'd been engaged to a wonderful and well-respected man, and they'd been planning their upcoming wedding.
And then her publisher had offered her the chance to promote her book with a book-signing tour. As far as she was concerned, it was a one-time thing, not something she planned to do again, and she had been excited, even though it meant taking a leave of absence from teaching her second-grade class. Morgan had instantly hated the idea and had threatened to cancel the wedding. The night before she left on the tour, after they'd made love, he'd announced that the engagement was off and he was canceling the wedding. She'd begged him to reconsider. When he wouldn't, she'd insisted that he at least tell her why, but he'd refused to give an explanation. She still didn't know the reason.
And now she needed him more than ever, but she hadn't decided how she would tell him the news she had. Not with him still feeling the way he had six weeks ago when she'd left town.
It had taken every bit of control Sheriff Morgan Rule had to keep from going after Trish and retracting everything he'd said to her. But he wouldn't do it. Not now, not ever.
He'd been so proud of her when her children's book had been bought by a well-known publisher, and he'd thought he'd finally found peace and happiness. He should have known better. Instead of peace, one incident with the town drunk had brought back the memories he'd thought he'd buried and reminded him that he could never have a life like most men. He hadn't meant to hurt Trish, but to save her. And now, because he didn't trust his heart, he had to say and do things he knew were hurtful—to both of them.
Morgan mounted the stone steps of what had once been a Southern mansion built in the wilds of Oklahoma long before it was populated. He opened the front door, hoping to slip quietly up the stairs to his apartment. He was lucky to live there, thanks to his uncle who managed the place. But luck had vanished when he'd realized the car he had stopped was Trish's. His uncle met him inside the front hallway of the Shadydrive Retirement Home, affectionately nicknamed the Commune by its residents.
"I thought I heard your car," Ernie Dolan said, hurrying around the corner from the large dining room. "Everybody's still at dinner, so if you're hungry, you can—" He stepped closer to study Morgan, his blue eyes revealing his concern. "Something wrong?"
Morgan shook his head, and then let out a long sigh. He might as well say it. Everyone would know soon enough. "Trish is back."
"She is?" A smile broke out on Ernie's face, but he quickly raised a hand to his short, graying beard, covering his chin to hide the grin. "I mean, how do you know?"
"I stopped to check out a car—"
"Did I hear someone say Trish is back?"
Morgan turned to see the newest of the residents closing the doors to the dining room behind her.
So much for quiet solitude in my apartment.
Hettie Lambert hurried toward them, her gray eyes sparkling with excitement. "She's back? Is she at Aggie's? Oh, it will be so wonderful to see her again and hear all the news about her tour."
Thinking of the blue Eclipse Trish had been driving, Morgan grunted. "There should be plenty of that, considering her new car."
Hettie clapped her hands together. "A new car! Good for her. She's been at the mercy of everyone else's schedule far too long."
Morgan didn't necessarily agree, but he kept his opinion to himself. He liked and admired Hettie, deferring to her sixty-plus years on most things. But they had butted heads over his cancellation of the wedding, and she still wasn't ready to accept that it was over between Trish and him.
Hettie nearly always held the winning hand, but she did it with her usual grace. The citizens of Desperation thought highly of her, and there was no reason not to. And although she would say it wasn't true, she was the matriarch of the town.
She had donated the Ravenel mansion, which had been built by her great-great-grandfather, Colonel George Ravenel, in the late 1800s, for use as the Shadydrive Retirement Home. It had been Ernie's idea to provide a place for those who no longer wanted the upkeep of a house, whether in their golden years or before. It was a grand addition to the small community, and the waiting list to acquire one of the seven apartments was long.
"Did the two of you get a chance to talk?" she asked, her voice lowered as if in a conspiracy.
"Yeah, we talked," he muttered.
"That bad, huh?" she asked. Sighing, she slowly shook her head. "Stubborn male pride."
Morgan pressed his lips together and said nothing, knowing that if he kept quiet, Hettie would give up. She loved an argument, even on those rare occasions when she didn't win. If he refused to talk, she would drop the subject—at least for a while—and that's all he needed for now.
"There'll be other times for the two of you to talk," she said with a smile and turned for the stairs. "Plenty of time during the holidays. I'll just give Aggie a call and find out the latest scoop on Trish's travels and how the tour went."
He watched as she continued up the stairs, fending off the dull ache he'd been feeling since he realized he couldn't go through with the wedding.
"Go on and get a bite to eat," Ernie said, turning back to Morgan when Hettie was gone.
"I'm not hungry," Morgan replied, and started for the stairs.
But his uncle stopped him. "Don't be hard on Hettie. She loves you both and wants to see you happy."
Morgan could only nod as a large lump formed in his throat. He'd told Ernie what had happened to his partner in Miami six years ago, but he had never told Hettie and never intended to. Nobody needed to know about it.
"It's Christmas, son," Ernie said, breaking into Morgan's thoughts. "A time of forgiveness."
Unwilling to discuss his problems, Morgan shrugged his shoulders as he continued up the stairs. "So they say."
He hadn't been in his tiny apartment on the third floor more than twenty minutes when someone knocked on the door. Kicking the boots he had removed out of the way, he went to see who would want to bother him. He wasn't in the mood for company.
Hettie stood smiling on the other side when he opened the door. "I have a favor to ask," she said.
Feeling guilty that he'd treated her badly earlier, he opened the door wider. "You know I'm always happy to help."
"You've always been a dear."
"So what is it?" he asked, not sure what the twinkle in her eyes meant and not sure he really wanted to know. But he'd committed himself, so backing out wasn't an option.
"You know how I hate bad weather. We've never had much snow here, and I hate to drive after dark."
A muscle twitched in his jaw. He had a feeling he wasn't going to like this favor. "What little snow there is out there wouldn't give you any trouble."
"That may be true, but these old eyes aren't what they once were, if they ever were," she said with a smile. "Especially after dark. So would you mind taking me out to Aggie's?"
He knew exactly what she was doing. "The matchmaking has to stop, Hettie. I can take care of myself."
"Of course you can," she said with a wave of her hand, the silver bracelets on her thin arm clattering. "Besides, there's no match to make. It was made long ago."
"And I already told Aggie I was coming."
"Ernie can take you."
"No, he's busy. Either you take me or I don't go, and I dearly want to see Trish."
But Morgan didn't. In a town as small as Desperation, avoiding someone was nearly impossible. It would be hard enough to see her in town again, where they would surely run into each other. Hadn't he finally come to the point where he had stopped expecting to see her around every corner? To hear her voice, her laughter, when he least expected it?
When he didn't reply, Hettie continued. "You don't have to talk to her. I know for a fact that Dusty is there. You two men get on well with each other, so you can just ignore us chatty females and have a nice visit of your own. I promise not to stay late."
He doubted it would be that easy, but he wouldn't deny Hettie her visit with Trish, no matter how much he didn't want to see her again. "All right," he conceded, "but just this once."