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She shouldn't have come back.
The thought raced through Zoey Decker's mind the moment she spotted a square, unassuming green road sign sprouting from the snow-covered ditch.
Mirror Lake3 miles.
Spots began to dance in front of her eyes and she stomped on the brake, wrestling the Jeep onto the side of the road. Maybe she should get out of the vehicle for a few minutes. Stretch her legs.
A bracing March wind pinched Zoey's cheeks as she bailed awkwardly out of the driver's seat and started down the road, fatigue adding weight to her limbs.
For the past few hours, she'd been telling herself that she'd made the right decision. Nowonly a few minutes from her destinationshe was having second thoughts.
Zoey's gaze locked on the sign again.
What was that old saying?
You can't go home again?
But Mirror Lake had never been home. Not really. It just happened to be the town where her grandparents had retired. The place her parents had dumped her off because they didn't know how to deal with a full-blown case of teenage rebellion.
And even though Zoey had only lived in Mirror Lake two short yearswhich must have seemed more like a lifetime to her sixty-five-year-old grandparentsshe had definitely made her mark.
A black one
"Are you lost?"
Zoey whirled around at the sound of a voice behind her. A low, masculine rumble that had her questioning her impulsive decision to stop on a quiet stretch of road sandwiched between two imposing walls of towering white pine. With not a house in sight.
She hadn't expected to see anyone. Not this early in the morning. And especially not a man, who'd materialized seemingly out of nowhere.
Zoey caught her lower lip between her teeth as she considered the six-foot-tall obstacle that now stood between her and the safety of the Jeep. Chiseled features, tousled dark-blond hair. The lean but muscular frame of someone who probably earned his living outdoors.
Under ordinary circumstances, someone of his size shouldn't have been able to sneak up and catch her unawarebut then again, nothing about the last twenty-four hours had been ordinary. Zoey had spent most of the night navigating miles of national forest, where white-tailed deer far outnumbered the population of the towns she'd driven through.
The guy didn't look like a criminal. But how was a woman supposed to know who she could and couldn't trust these days? And if Zoey was completely honest, she knew her track record in that department hadn't always been the best.
He shifted his stance, a subtle movement that positioned him closer to the vehicle.
Had the action been deliberate?
Zoey suppressed a shiver and rolled her hands up in the hem of the oversized, hand-knit sweater that had been a gift from her grandmother many Christmases ago.
The man noticed the gesture and his eyebrows dipped together in a frown. "Are you lost?" he repeated.
In a different situation, the question might have made Zoey smile. "It depends on who you ask."
The frown deepened. He obviously didn't understand her wry sense of humor. "Is something wrong with your car?"
"No." At least, Zoey silently amended, nothing that could be fixed on the side of the road. She cast a fond look at the eggplant-purple Jeep, decorated with its contrasting pattern of rust, intricate as a henna tattoo. It had outlived its warranty by at least a few thousand miles and yet somehow managed to get her from Point A to B. That was good enough for her. "I'm fine. My car is fine, too."
Zoey inched forward, silently gauging the distance between them and the vehicle.
He was closer.
"That's good to know." The corners of the man's lips kicked up into a smile and, stranger or not, Zoey could feel her heart doing an impromptu tap dance in her chest. Which only proved she could use a few hours of uninterrupted sleep. "I was out for a run and saw your car parked by the side of the road. I just wanted to make sure everything was okay."
A good Samaritan.
Now Zoey noticed a detail she'd missed the first time. When you were staring at his face. He wore a standard runner's uniform. Black sweatpants, a fleece-lined sweatshirt with a faded college logo across the front and tennis shoes.
"I appreciate your concern." However misplaced. "But I just needed to get out and.stretch my legs for a minute."
Stretch her legs. Gather her courage. Postpone the inevitable.
All one and the same.
"Stretch your legs." The thread of doubt in the husky voice made Zoey wince.
Right. Most people would have probably chosen to do that at a rest area or gas station. A place with heat.
"That's right." Zoey lifted her chin. "Now, if you'll excuse me." She took another step closer to the Jeep.
So did he.
Zoey's breath hitched in her throat, but all he did was reach out to open the car door for her. And then went still.
Obviously much more observant than she was, he'd immediately spotted the mound of clothing, which happened to be the entire contents of Zoey's closet, along with an eclectic jumble of her earthly possessions heaped onto the backseat. All evidence of the haste in which she'd left the night before.
To make matters worse, Zoey's stomach decided to remind herquite loudlythat it had been more than twelve hours since she'd eaten. She could have grabbed a snack at some point along the way, but she decided that nothing in the deli case of a gas station would peacefully coexist with the butterflies that had taken up residence in her stomach.
A blush added another layer of color to her already-pink cheeks as the man's gaze cut back to her. His eyes, a warm palette of green and brown that brought back memories of summer walks through the woods, searched hers. Looking for.something.
Afraid of what he might find there, Zoey looked away.
"There's a cafe in town. It's called the Grapevine," he said after a moment. "Could I buy you a cup of coffee? Maybe some breakfast?"
Disappointment arrowed through her. She should have known better. "Does that line usually work?"
" He caught himself. "I mean, no, it isn't a line. It's an
offer." His gaze dropped to her hands, still balled up in the bright cocoon of her sweater, before flickering over the mountain of clothing once again. "I'm not even inviting myself along. It would be my treat."
Zoey frowned a little.
He was offering to pay for her breakfast? That didn't make any sense. Yes, it did.
He thought she was down on her luck, like a stray kitten who needed food and shelter from the cold.
Zoey stifled a groan as she tried to see herself through his eyes. She hadn't bothered to change clothes after her evening performance at the dinner theater where she worked, but he wouldn't know that what she wore was a costume. All he would see were paisley-patterned tights peeking through the slashed knees of her faded jeans. Pink canvas tennis shoes, meant for summer instead of snow. A misshapen patchwork sweater that had definitely seen better days.
And Zoey wasn't even going to think about what her hair looked like.
Mortified, she slipped past him and dove into the driver's seat. "No thanks, but I appreciate the offer. Really."
He stepped back as Zoey pulled the door shut and turned the key in the ignition, hoping the temperamental engine would start. It did, after a brief but grating shudder of protest.
When she finally gathered the courage to glance in the rearview mirror, the man was standing in the exact spot where she'd left him.
Watching her drive away.
"You have to actually drink the coffee, not stare at it, in order for the caffeine to kick in, Pastor."
Matt Wilde glanced up and saw Kate Nichols, the owner of the Grapevine cafe, standing next to the booth, armed with a coffee pot. He flashed a rueful smile in her direction. "Sorry. I was somewhere else."
"It must have been somewhere pretty far away," Kate observed. "Usually you're on your third cup by now."
Not so far away, Matt thought. In fact, just a few miles from town.
Corduroy Road had been part of his regular route for over a year. It was a quiet back road that looped around the east side of Mirror Lake. He could have run it blindfolded. And other than the squirrels and birds that chattered at him from the trees, he usually had it all to himself.
Until this morning, when he'd rounded the corner and saw a purple Jeep parked at an angle alongside the road. One look at the rust creeping around the wheel wells and over the bumper like a bad rash and Matt guessed it had broken down.
Then he saw her.
A slight figure marching up and down the road, head bent against the wind. The baggy sweater she wore a kaleidoscope of color against a backdrop of gray and white.
Matt had assumed she was a teenager. Until she turned around.
Dark curls framed a face made up small, sharp angles. Her eyes, which by all rights should have been brown, were a pearl gray that reminded him of the lake just before dawn. A dusting of freckles across her nose made her beauty more winsome than exotic.
He hadn't been able to put her out of his mind. Maybe because you bungled things so badly? Matt couldn't dismiss the inner voice. Not when it was right.
First he'd startled her. Then he'd insulted her.
He closed his eyes briefly, the memory sawing at his conscience. Instead of understanding that his impulsive offer to buy her breakfast stemmed from compassion, she'd thought he was hitting on her. Hence the hasty departure. The rusty Jeep had lurched forward, the loose tailpipe belching exhaust as she drove away.
"Hey! You left again." Kate waved the order pad in front of his face, amusement sparkling in her eyes. "Your breakfast is coming right up, by the way."
"I didn't order breakfast."
"It's the most important meal of the day." Kate topped off his cup and flitted away.
Matt couldn't summon a smile even though it was a standing joke between them. He would come into the Grapevine and order coffee before going to the church. Kate would return with a plate weighted down with her famous "Lumberjack Special," a mountain of hash browns topped with scrambled eggs and sausage, surrounded by a moat of maple syrup tapped from a local sugar bush.
When she deposited the plate in front of him a few minutes later, Matt shook his head. "No wonder I have to run five miles."
Kate grinned. "Enjoy."
As he ate he thought about this crazy insistence on feeding him that his church members had. Everyone joined in. His congregation at Church of the Pines thought that his bachelor status meant he didn't know how to fry an egg.
He did, but he never turned down a dinner invitation. Jesus frequently went to peoples' homes and built relationships around a table. Matt saw no reason not to follow his Savior's lead.
A blast of cold air rolled into the cafe as the door swung open. Matt's head jerked up. Maybe the woman on the road had decided to take him up on his offer
and give him an opportunity to apologize. But instead of a waif-like young woman with enormous gray eyes, he saw Harold Dinsman, one of Kate's regulars, shuffling toward the row of vinyl-covered stools to stake his claim at the old-fashioned soda counter.
"Is there something wrong with your breakfast this morning, Pastor?" Kate stood next to the booth again, staring down at the plate of food he'd barely made a dent in.
"Not a thing. I just decided to surrender earlier than I usually do." Matt waved a white paper napkin in the air to prove it.
Kate fished the bill out of her apron pocket and handed it to him. "Are you heading over to the church now?"
"Not yet. I'm going to stop by Liz Decker's house and check on her. She sounded tired when we talked last night."
Kate began to collect the dishes. "I heard she was released from the hospital yesterday. How is she?"
"Stubborn." Affection for the older woman, one of Church of the Pines most beloved members, curved Matt's lips into a smile.
"That's what everyone loves about her." Kate smiled back. "So far, she's been refusing to allow some of us to bring in meals or clean her house because she doesn't want anyone to 'fuss' over her. I hope she changes her mind. She's supposed to be taking it easy."
"And that's what I plan to talk to her about." Matt glanced at the bill and thumbed through his wallet. "Pray for me."
Kate chuckled. "With no family in the area, Liz is going to have to let her church family help out. She's the first one to show up when someone else is in need."
In the year and a half that Matt had known Liz Decker, he'd certainly found that to be true. Her husband, Jonathan, had passed away from a heart attack before Matt moved to Mirror Lake but she continued to remain active in the church. Not only was Liz the choir director, but she had also volunteered to serve on the search committee the congregation had formed to interview prospective candidates after their former pastor retired.
Unfortunately, the members of that committee had quickly discovered that a church with an average attendance of less than a hundred, located in a small town surrounded by thousands of acres of national forest, didn't draw a lot of interest, no matter how charming and picturesque. The congregation finally agreed to send out letters of inquiry to several seminaries, hoping to hire a recent graduate to serve as an interim pastor until Church of the Pines found someone who met their requirements.
Matt, with the ink still wet on his diploma and needing the experience, had applied. Liz Decker had been the one who called and offered him the position. Matt had looked at the opportunity to serve as pastor as more than a temporary positionit had been an affirmation. A sign that God had a place and a purpose for him during the times of doubt when Matt wondered if the emotional fallout from a failed relationship hadn't ruined his chances for both.
At the end of the summer, the elders had asked if he would consider staying on. So far, Matt hadn't regretted his decision. He'd fallen in the love with the areaand its close-knit communityalmost immediately.
The entire congregation had gone out of their way to make him feel at home, especially Liz. The woman had become a combination cheerleader, surrogate grandmother and spiritual advisor, offering plates of homemade treats as often as she offered encouraging passages of scripture.
Matt welcomed the opportunity to take care of her for a change.
"Give Liz my love and remind her that tomorrow is pecan pie day. I'll drop off a piece on my way home from work," Kate said before turning her attention to a family settling into the next booth.
"Will do." Matt shrugged his coat on as an image of the young woman by the road flashed through his mind again.