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Hope Rowan sat in front of a state-of-the-art computer workstation and tried in vain to concentrate on the words on the screen in front of her, but that last telephone conversation with her client still dominated her thoughts. There was only so much she could do with modem and fax and networking. Not every collection of documents she needed to access was on-line. In order to complete several of her commissions, she'd need to visit the libraries and archives in person.
Easier said than done.
Shoulders hunched, Hope sat before the gently glowing word processor screen and ordered her eyes to scan the illuminated letters in front of her. First things first, she told herself sternly. The Tolliver genealogy was complete. All she had to do was write the cover letter and send the bill.
Ten minutes later she was muttering ominously under her breath. The words on the screen refused to cooperate. No matter how hard she tried, she could not seem to form them into coherent sentences.
Hope rubbed her eyes with the backs of her knuckles. The only sound in the small room was the steady hum of the computer. Even Angel, Hope's obstreperous white cat, was sleeping quietly for a change. No dream mice eluded her today, eliciting squeaks and burbles from the depths of slumber. She was curled into a tight ball in the room's one comfortable chair, oblivious to her mistress's growing frustration.
Hope lifted both arms over her head in a futile attempt to ease the ache between her shoulder blades. Her neck had a crick in it, too, and she didn't need a mirror to show her that her dark blue irises were surrounded by jagged red streaks. The parched-eyeballsensation that had been developing for the past hour meant they'd be bloodshot, just as the light-headed feeling at the top of her head warned her that a headache was simmering, ready to boil over at the least provocation.
Concentrate, she told herself firmly. Get this done. Once the pressure was gone she might be able to relax and enjoy the rest of the weekend.
She flexed her fingers, took a deep breath and began to type. She managed five words before she heard the familiar toot of the rural mail carrier's car horn. That meant he'd left a package in her mailbox, which meant Hope might as well give up on finishing the letter until she'd seen what it was. She did not admit, even to herself, that she was looking for an excuse to procrastinate. On the contrary, she concentrated on the fact that it was important that she get out of the house once in a while.
Hope punched the key that saved what little she'd done and stood. She bent her slim, five-foot-three-inch body double, twisting slowly in all directions as she reached for her toes. The exercise eased away some of the kinks, but not all, and it did nothing for her appearance. But it scarcely mattered what she looked like, Hope thought. She was not expecting company. The baggy gray sweat suit she wore for comfort when she worked would do for the evening, too.
Taking a cursory swipe at a wisp of pale yellow hair that had slipped out of its anchoring braid, Hope headed for the door. Young Barry, her next-door neighbor, wasn't due to stop by for another hour. She had plenty of time to get the mail, finish her work and even freshen up, though she was well aware she shouldn't look too good to the sixteen-year-old. He already had a terrible crush on her. Hope was trying to let him down gently.
Hope's office was located on the top floor of a graceful, late-nineteenth-century house. From its bow window she had a splendid view of both the winding two-lane road and Barry's parents? rooftop a half mile to the west. She descended two flights of stairs at a rapid pace, all the while steeling herself for the ordeal ahead. At her heavy front door she hesitated, then took a deep breath.
There was a reward out there. A package was waiting in her mailbox. She only had to go to the edge of the porch to get it. Surely she could do that much without triggering a panic attack. She'd done it before. More than once.
Taking yet another strengthening breath, Hope unhooked the chain, released the dead bolt and opened the door. She ignored the blast of cold December air that greeted her. All her concentration was centered on getting to the railing and the pulley arrangement, which she'd had installed there. With a sense of relief, Hope reached her goal and activated the mechanism that brought the mailbox up from the side of the road to the house.
Feeling quite pleased with herself, she'd just extracted the package and a half dozen letters and bills when she heard a vehicle pull into her dooryard. Curious, Hope stayed where she was, wondering who among her friends would be driving a van with a Pleasant Prospect Ski Resort logo on the side. She watched with only mild interest as the door opened and a man got out. But as soon as he turned to face her, Hope's heart began to race.
Hope could scarcely believe her eyes, and yet there he was, walking toward her, every bit as big and as blatantly masculine as she remembered.
She blinked, just in case she was hallucinating, imagining him only because she'd forgotten to eat breakfast or lunch. He was still there when she opened her eyes again, far too solid to be the product of a fevered brain. He stopped two feet away from her, on the sidewalk, a rakish grin on his face as he stared at her.
It had been years since Hope had last seen Cooper Sanford. At the least, the man should have gone to fat, or maybe lost some of that dark, wavy hair. Instead he'd just gotten sexier as he matured. The teenage heartbreaker she remembered had grown more devastatingly handsome with the passage of time.
Still stunned by his sudden reappearance in her life, Hope noted abstractedly that the mustache was gone. Together with a ponytail and carefully cultivated beard stubble, that mustache had made him stand out at their small, rural high school. It had been slightly shaggy and thick, and Hope had always imagined that it would be downy soft to the touch.
She ran the tip of her tongue over suddenly dry lips, unable to stop herself from recalling just how often she'd speculated about what it would feel like to find out. She'd often imagined that mouth on her own, that mustache tickling her skin. With an effort of will she forced herself to look away from Coop's bare upper lip. Her gaze shifted to a safe point just beyond his left shoulder.
Get a grip, she told herself, but old habits apparently died hard. Hope knew she'd wasted countless hours as a teenager just daydreaming about kissing this man. She felt a flutter of anticipation start deep in her abdomen and spread rapidly throughout her body and realized with growing dismay that she had no more control now over this frisson of sensual awareness, produced by being close to Cooper Sanford, than she'd had when she was a naive schoolgirl of fifteen. Her face began to flood with color.
That blush delighted Coop.
He'd been right. She was the one he needed, everything he'd hoped for. He'd been worried when he'd heard she'd been married and was now a widow, afraid that life might have changed her, but if she could still blush like that, she was the woman for him.
It had been fifteen years since he'd last seen her. Coop noted with approval that Hope was still as petite as he remembered, but the rather flat-chested tomboy he'd known in high school had long since been replaced by a decidedly curvaceous woman. Wisps of light yellow hair had slipped loose from a braid to frame her pale, heart-shaped face. Ethereal, he thought, and quite lovely.
"You're looking good, Hope."
Her eyes widened slightly, as if she couldn't imagine how he'd think so.
Suddenly self-conscious, she tugged at the bottom edge of her loose sweatshirt with one hand, as if to straighten fabric that was already perfectly aligned over her slim hips. The other hand clutched the mail she'd just collected.
"Clever device," Coop said conversationally, nodding toward the mailbox.
"Handy in bad weather." Hope's reply was automatic and followed by an awkward pause.
When she refused to look at him directly. Coop's eyes narrowed slightly. Awkwardness was to be expected. He told himself he mustn't read too much into her failure to greet him like a long-lost brother. She wasn't like the rest of them. She couldn't be. Not Hope.
She cleared her throat and clasped the letters and a package to her chest, almost as if she meant to use them as a shield. ?What are you doing here, Coop?"
"Why don't you invite me inside and I'll tell you," he suggested.
When she hesitated, he knew he could not afford to let her send him away without a hearing. If he had to force his way back into her life, so be it. He climbed the two steps to the porch, cutting the distance between them in half.
"You'll freeze if we do all our talking out here." Coop tried his best to sound non-threatening, to coax her into doing what he wanted, but he was fully prepared to insist that she listen to him. He was already looming over her.
Hope was aware of him, and she knew it was mid-December and the temperature was frigid. She was shivering in her fleece sweat suit, but when Coop moved toward her she had reacted without thinking, taking a step that had brought her perilously close to the edge of the porch.
Vertigo assaulted her, a warning that she was pushing her limit. She had to make a choice between two hazards, and just now Cooper Sanford was the lesser danger.
"Come in, then," she said, and hurried through the door before he could guess the extent of her panic. For reasons she could not clearly define, Hope did not want practically the first thing she said to Coop after all this time to be a confession: ?Nice to see you again. I suffer from agoraphobia." It did not seem an appropriate way to greet an old friend.
Except that he wasn't exactly an old friend. Hope heard him follow her inside and shut the door behind him. If she had any sense at all, she thought, she'd send him packing, but she'd always had a soft spot where Cooper Sanford was concerned, even after he'd broken her schoolgirl heart by eloping with her older cousin, Julie.
"Can I get you a drink?" she asked as she led the way to the living room and put the mail down on the coffee table. ?Hot chocolate? I don't have any beer."
An awkward silence settled between them. Hope was painfully aware of her disheveled appearance. It shouldn't matter, she told herself. Coop had seen her looking far worse, the time she'd tried mud wrestling, for example. But she'd only been ten at the time. Looking good to Cooper Sanford hadn't yet started to matter.
The room suddenly seemed too warm to her, and apparently it felt that way to Coop, too. He shrugged out of his heavy winter coat and draped it over the back of a chair. The cable knit sweater he wore beneath emphasized his broad, muscular shoulders and flat abdomen. Hope tried not to stare, but found it impossible to look away from her unexpected guest.
Cooper Sanford had always been trouble. He'd left a trail of broken hearts behind him when he left Norville, including her own. That memory alone should have been enough to keep her from feeling attracted to him.
It was not.
In spite of the warnings sounding in her brain, Hope's eyes continued their intimate survey. Well-worn, snug blue jeans revealed that his bottom half was in equally good shape. What high school football had begun to develop, activities in the years since had honed to perfection.
Hope realized that she had no idea what those activities might have been. She knew very little about his life since he'd left Norville, and that only as it related to her cousin. Julie's mother had made sure the whole town heard about it when Coop and Julie were divorced. Hope's aunt Penny claimed Coop had abandoned her precious daughter and Julie's child. She'd blamed Coop for Julie's death, too, even though they'd been apart for nearly three years by that time.
When Coop turned away, his attention caught by the entrance of Hope's cat, Hope had to blink and swallow hard. His movement had revealed a back view that nearly took her breath away. Damn, Hope thought. The man even has perfect buns.
Angel advanced on this newly arrived stranger with queenly hauteur, her snow-white fur fluffed out to make her appear even larger than she was. She took it as nothing less than her due when Coop extended a hand to be sniffed, then began to scratch behind her ears.
Hope's attention shifted to Coop's face. A well-remembered lock of thick, dark brown hair tumbled forward over his eyes as he bent to stroke the purring feline. Angel's rumble of approval grew louder.
In the old days, Coop had been constantly brushing that curl out of the way, or attempting to realign it with a toss of his head. Now he simply let it fall where it would.
At that moment Coop glanced up. Hope was transfixed by his glittering gaze. ?I'd forgotten how green your eyes are," she whispered.
For a long breathless moment their eyes locked, jade with sapphire. Hope felt like an infatuated teenager all over again. Part of her screamed that this was a ridiculous situation for a mature woman of thirty to find herself in. The rest of her didn't care.
"It's been a long time, Hope." Coop abandoned the cat and came closer to the woman. He seemed to tower over her and she remembered that he'd always claimed to be just a tad over six feet tall.
Nervously, Hope cleared her throat. In high school she'd frequently been tongue-tied around him. She refused to allow herself to be intimidated into another awkward silence.
"So," she began, pleased to discover that her voice sounded almost normal. ?You were going to tell me why you're here." She waved him toward a comfortable chair and seated herself on the sofa.
"Right." Coop sat, stretching those long, muscular legs out in front of him. He studied her intently again as he spoke. ?I came looking for you, Hope."
"Why?" Common sense told her it was not to renew a romantic relationship they'd never quite had, but she could not stop a little flutter of hope from stirring.
His expression softened. ?I've brought Maureen home. I want her to have all the advantages of growing up in a small town."
Maureen. Julie's child. Coop's twelve-year-old daughter. Hope had never met the girl and had, she supposed, blocked out the fact of her existence along with most of the rest of what she'd heard about Coop and Julie over the years. ?I was sorry to hear about Julie," she murmured.
Some strong emotion twisted Coop's features but Hope was certain it was not the pain of losing a beloved wife. ?Are you?" he asked. ?Funny. I don't remember seeing you among the mourners."
"I couldn't get to the services." Hope did not elaborate on her failure to appear at her cousin's funeral and was relieved when Coop dropped that particular subject.
"After Julie died, I got custody of Maureen. That's when I realized that I didn't want my daughter growing up in a city. She'll have a better life here in Maine, away from bad memories and bad influences."
"I'm not sure this is the safe haven you remember," Hope murmured, thinking of her own experiences "and you certainly can't claim that living in a small town kept either you or Julie out of trouble."
"But Maureen isn't at all like her mother. She's more like you were at that age." Coop leaned forward, reaching for Hope's hand. ?I'd like nothing better than to have her turn out just the way you did."
Hope jerked away before he could touch her. ?You don't know anything about the way I turned out."
"I know enough, and I knew you pretty well back then."
"You knew nothing! You were too busy getting into trouble to pay any attention to me." Irritated, Hope glared at him.
Coop's lips curved into a cocky smile. ?I remember that you had a crush on me in high school."
Hope bristled defensively. ?I was three years younger than you and very dumb."
"Sweet and innocent little Hope Bellamy."
He was teasing, but she couldn't relax and banter back. Too much had changed, whether he was willing to admit it or not.
"I'm hardly innocent these days. I've been married and widowed." The words sounded bitter even to her own ears.
Coop's expression instantly became contrite. He reached for her again. ?Hope?"
She cut short whatever he meant to say and evaded his grasp by springing up from the sofa and crossing to the window. ?You don't know anything about me as I am now," she repeated, staring out at the distant landscape "just as I don't know anything about you." In particular he did not know about her little problem with leaving the house, that since shortly after her husband's death she'd been subject to severe panic attacks that had altered her life.
She jumped, for he'd come up close behind her without her realizing it. When she turned, she very nearly collided with him. His broad chest was barely an inch away from the end of her nose when she caught her balance.
"You always did tend to run into things," he murmured.
For an instant, Hope was carried back to another time, another place. They were both backstage at their high school, negotiating a corridor of papier-mâché pillars. Seven students comprised stage crew for the annual dramatic production. There were six boys and Hope Bellamy.
She'd been so shy in those days that she'd jumped whenever anyone spoke to her. More than once, she'd turned around too rapidly and plowed right into one of the pillars. Coop had taken to walking with his arm around her, thrilling her to the core of her teenage soul. Unfortunately for that adolescent daydreamer, he'd only been touching her because he wanted to make sure the scenery stayed intact until after the performance.
He could take credit for her dedication to set building, Hope thought ruefully. She'd have scrubbed the floor with a toothbrush to work side by side with him. She didn't think he'd ever noticed because, except when he was playing football or working on stage crew, he'd always been out raising hell.
Even when he was supposedly busy with worthwhile pursuits, he'd still managed to get into trouble. A reluctant smile surfaced as she remembered how, when the director of the play had told them that he needed a stained glass window for one scene, Coop and his buddies had promptly gone out and liberated one from a church sixty miles away. By the time the curtain fell on their single Friday night performance, Norville's chief of police had been waiting in the wings to make an arrest.
"You look like your thoughts are a long way away," Coop said.
Hope came back to the present with a jolt. ?Long ago and far away," she admitted.
"Bittersweet. The teen years are vastly overrated. I think I liked being ten better. And now that I think about it, you weren't so bad yourself back then. It was only after you discovered girls that you got so obnoxiously full of yourself."
"Ouch." He winced convincingly at her assessment but he didn't deny it. ?We were friends once," he reminded her. ?Good buddies."
"I remember. Then we started to grow up."
"Hey, that part wasn't all bad, either."
He seemed strangely hesitant. Hope waited, expectant but not quite sure she wanted to hear whatever confidence he planned to share with her.
"The closer Maureen gets to puberty," Coop said "the more I've been praying she'll stay sweet and innocent, just like you were, instead of taking after her mother."
"Julie had help," Hope snapped. Even after all this time, it hurt to be thought the plain, boring Bellamy cousin. ?And for your information, good girls aren't usually good by choice."
Maybe she had been lucky he hadn't noticed her back then, but at the time, Hope remembered, she'd been envious of her older, prettier, bolder cousin.
Coop's eyes narrowed into twin jade daggers, sharp as the words he spoke. ?She had help," he agreed "but let me give you a few facts, Hope. It was Julie who wanted to elope, and it was Julie who walked out on me twelve years later, not the other way around."
This time when Coop reached for her he caught her arm, unaware he was setting off sparks as his fingers curled around it. The headache that had been threatening Hope earlier now arrived full force, adding to her difficulty in thinking clearly. Her reaction to Coop's touch confused her. Anger warred with an alarmingly sensual heat as she tried unsuccessfully to twist out of his grip.
Instead of releasing her, Coop brought the other hand up to grasp her shoulder. He didn't hurt her, but his fingers slid relentlessly along her collarbone to capture her braid and forcibly tilt her head until their eyes met.
"Listen to me, Hope. I've made my share of mistakes, but I'm not as bad as Julie and her mother have painted me."
He'd sounded sincere when he'd spoken of his desire to do what was best for his daughter, but now his face was hard, unyielding, and ultimately unreadable. Hope wondered if she should be afraid. At the same time, she found herself sympathizing with him. She'd been the victim of her cousin's vicious conniving more than once when they were children. She knew Julie had been capable of lying when it served her purpose.
Coop closed his eyes, as if his thoughts pained him. ?I know it's going to be an uphill battle for me every day that I live in this area, but I'd hoped I still had a few friends here. I need our old friendship, Hope. If not for myself, then for Maureen. She needs to have a sense of belonging somewhere, to know she has a family, flawed though it may be. There are only three of us left now. Julie's mother and me ...� and you."
This close to him, Hope was made forcibly aware of the heart-stopping physical appeal of the man. The faint, elusive scent of his after-shave had started the erotic images flowing again. To combat the weakening in her knees, Hope struggled to seem indifferent. He'd only come to her for his daughter's sake. He couldn't have made that much plainer. He had no more interest in her personally than he'd ever had.
As if he could read her thoughts and was put off by them, Coop abruptly released her. She would have fallen if he hadn't caught hold of her again, his hands surprisingly gentle as he righted her. When he released her the second time, he raked all ten fingers through his unruly hair in obvious frustration. A hint of apology lurked in his eyes, and his rueful voice mocked them both.
"You were right earlier, Hope. We don't know each other anymore. Could we start again? I'll even take you up on that offer of hot chocolate."
"Yes. Fine." What choice did she have but to agree? No matter why he'd come looking for her, Hope didn't want to lose Cooper Sanford again. Not just yet.
As he followed her toward the kitchen, she made a concentrated effort to regroup. Bright and chatty would be best, she decided. After all, he was looking for a friend for a twelve-year-old.
"So, you've returned to Norville," Hope said cheerfully. ?I haven't spent much time over there lately, and I haven't lived there since I left town to start college."
"We've been back just over a week," he said. ?Maureen's already making new friends. In fact, she's going to a sleep over tonight with some of them."
"I noticed the van you were driving. Does that mean you work at the ski resort?"
"Right. Best damn ski instructor they've got."
"Ski instructor," she repeated, trying to take that in as she heated water in the microwave. She remembered that he had skied in high school, though not a lot. It was an expensive hobby, and his family had not been rich.
In the past fifteen years, Pleasant Prospect had gotten even more exclusive, catering year-round to well-heeled, out-of-state tourists and employing local help only in the most menial jobs. ?I heard the place changed owners again last year," she said aloud "but that doesn't seem to have done a thing for the local economy. Ever since they built those ugly time-share condominiums next to the golf course and put in a second restaurant and a gift shop, no one bothers to leave the resort and shop in the village anymore. Even the gas stations aren't getting much of the tourist business."
Coop frowned and started to speak, then seemed to change his mind.
"Where are you staying?" Hope asked. ?Are you living at your parents? old house on Seger Street?" She remembered the place very well. Her family had been the Sanfords? next-door neighbors all the time she and Coop were growing up.
Coop shook his head. ?Maureen and I are in one of those ugly condominiums. Comes with the job," he added quickly, and went on before Hope could apologize. ?I'd been back in Norville only twice since I left, till now. Once to sell the house after my father died and then to bury Julie."
Hope's remarks left Coop feeling uncertain. As she opened two premeasured packets of cocoa, emptied them into ceramic mugs and added boiling water, he pondered the differences between Hope Bellamy, the one girl he'd known in his misspent youth who had been special to him, his friend rather than a potential conquest, and Hope Rowan, the woman that girl had become.
There had been a spark between them years ago. Coop could admit that to himself now, even admit that he had gone out of his way to make sure no fire got started. At eighteen he'd been afraid of what might happen, afraid he'd end up dragging Hope down to his level.
She'd been an innocent in rose-colored glasses in those days. His little buddy. The girl who lived next door and tagged along after him from the time she started grade school until the day she informed him that she was tired of being treated like one of the guys on stage crew and asked him to be her date to a church picnic.
He'd turned her down. He'd had to. He'd tried not to hurt her feelings, but he'd said no and he'd walked away from her. Not too long afterward, later that same summer, he'd walked away from everything.
And now he was back.
Coop knew that most things were different. He was no longer a hell-raiser. Hope no longer lived in Norville, Maine, but in Tardiff, the next town over, some twenty miles from his condo. He'd had little trouble tracking her down, though. Everyone still knew everyone else's business in these parts.
The other thing that hadn't changed was that spark. It was still there between himself and Hope. He was being drawn to her again, and again it was almost against his will.
He blinked. Hope Bellamy Rowan, widow, didn't need to be protected from that randy teenager she'd had a crush on. Not anymore. There was no reason he couldn?t?
Hope's voice startled him out of his musings and when he looked at her, he realized he still didn't have her figured quite right. She might have grown up and even been married, but there was still an unmistakable aura of the innocent about her. She could be hurt.
So could he.
They'd both changed. Yet they were both the same.
That very contradiction intrigued Coop even as it made him wary. She was right. He didn't know the woman sweet little Hope Bellamy had become. But he wanted to.
She was sitting at the table now, the two mugs full of hot chocolate steaming in front of her. ?Have a seat," she invited. ?Tell me what it's like to be ski instructor to the rich and famous. Did you have similar jobs somewhere else before you came here?"
Frowning, he took the proffered chair. Hope's tone was almost too breezy. Coop wasn't sure what to make of her attitude and that made him reluctant to reply with complete honesty.
"On and off," he drawled. ?There are worse ways to make a living than being a ski bum."
"I'm sure there are. Still, I expect Maureen would be glad to settle down in one place."
Irritation now kept Coop from revealing the full extent of his connection to Pleasant Prospect Ski Resort. Did Hope, like the majority of those who had known him fifteen years ago, judge him? It seemed she did if she thought a man of thirty-three could consider the seasonal job of ski instructor sufficient to provide for a child.
She pushed one of the mugs his way and he noted how careful she was being not to touch his hand. The bowl of fruit she used as a centerpiece now constituted a makeshift barrier between them, too.
Keep it light, he warned himself. This visit hadn't been for him, anyway. He'd come on Maureen's behalf.
Coop looked around him as he sipped the hot chocolate, taking in the cat decor of Hope's cheerful green and white kitchen for the first time. The walls were hung with pen and ink sketches by Kliban, except for the one titled ?Fat Kitty," which hung directly over Angel's food and water dishes.
Inevitably, the direction of Coop's gaze shifted to Hope. The intensity of his stare seemed to disconcert her. She took a nervous sip from her mug.
"You're surprised I came back," he said bluntly.
"Of course. Why should anyone who knew you then think you ever intended to return to Norville? You hated the place. Couldn't wait to get out." She took another sip of the chocolate, then glanced up at him again. ?No one blamed you for wanting to leave here, though, no matter what they said about your prospects at the time."
His laugh was short and humorless. ?I know what people thought. They were sure I'd end up in jail, like my uncle Brad, or turn into a mean drunk, like my father. Well, both of them are dead now and, for better or worse, my roots and Maureen's are here. That's why I had to come back."
"So how exactly do I fit in to this picture?"
"I want you to spend some time with my daughter. Let her get to know you. You may not like being remembered as sweet and innocent, but you were and are the sort of person who'd be a good role model for Maureen."
"I'd like to meet your daughter," Hope said carefully. ?She is my cousin."
"Great. Why don't we all go out somewhere for dinner? Or you could come to our condo. As a cook, I'm not half bad."
Hope's fingers clenched on the handle of her mug. She avoided his eyes even as she made an alternate proposal. ?Why don't the two of you come here for supper some evening instead?"
There was something wrong here, in spite of Hope's willingness to meet Maureen. She had tensed up at the thought of going out with them.
"Fine." She relaxed instantly, her relief that he'd agree to bring Maureen here so obvious that it made Coop wince. A nasty uncertainty nagged at him, a suspicion that Hope had made her alternate suggestion because she did not want anyone from Norville to know she'd agreed to befriend him. He drained his mug, scarcely taking the time to savor the rich chocolate flavor.
"How about next week?" Hope offered. ?Wednesday?"
"Done." Coop stood abruptly, deciding to quit while he was still ahead.
The saying went that it only took five minutes to get a reputation ... and twenty years to live it down. He'd come home prepared to accept that as true and be patient and work hard to redeem himself. But he hadn't counted on the possibility that Hope might share her aunt's opinion that he was worthless and irresponsible.
He hadn't counted on anything about his reaction to seeing her again. Being with Hope had triggered an excess of contradictory impulses. Coop didn't feel ready to deal with any of them just yet, especially not the one that was urging him to pull her into his arms and kiss her.
"I've got to be going," he said aloud.
He'd accomplished his purpose. It seemed best to get out of Hope's house before he said or did something to screw things up for Maureen.
By the time he'd retrieved his coat from the living room and shrugged into it, Hope was waiting for him by the front door.
Don't think about her as a desirable woman, he warned himself. She's Maureen's cousin. That's the important thing. But he was unable to resist entirely. On his way out, Coop dropped a light, almost brotherly kiss on Hope's forehead.
"See ya," he said� ...� and bolted.
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