Cover of the new book "Love Me Tender"

Holiday In Your Heart

 

Excerpt from Holiday in Your Heart

Chapter 1

Outside the window of the bus, Mo Kincaid saw a sign with a stylized caribou and the message Welcome to Caribou Crossing. It was a fancier sign than the faded one he had walked past when he left almost twenty years ago. Seemed the town had changed. Well, so had he.

He figured he’d be about as welcome here as a dead car battery in the middle of a mid-January snowstorm, but here he was all the same. Compelled, driven, maybe obsessed. Selfish or honorable? Hell if he knew.

Unable to sit still now, he rose, grabbed the battered backpack that contained all his worldly goods, and made his way up front. “Can you let me off here?” he asked the stocky, middle-aged female driver.

“Don’t want to go all the way downtown?”

“No, ma’am.” Not quite yet. He’d left Caribou Crossing on foot, his thumb out, hoping for a ride. Somehow it felt right to reenter town striding along the dusty shoulder of the road, one purposeful step at a time.

“It’s against the rules to make an unscheduled stop.” She cocked a bushy brown eyebrow, waiting to see if he’d try to persuade her.

He gave her the lazy smile that women seemed to like. “Aw now, what’s the fun in always following the rules?” He’d never had much time for rules. When he was younger, there’d been plenty of women willing to break theirs for him, and he guessed not much had changed because the driver’s foot shifted over to the brake.

She grinned, the mirth in it lending her face an unexpected beauty. “Good point, mister.” With a wink, she added, “Promise you won’t tell on me.”

“I surely won’t. Much obliged.” He tipped his head to her and went down the steps.

When both feet were planted on the ground, he stood there as the driver waved and drove away. The bus disappeared and still Mo stood, alone on a nondescript country road in the middle of British Columbia, wondering if he was a damn fool. He could cross the narrow two lanes, stick out his thumb. No one would know that he’d almost come to town, but had turned around before getting anywhere near his ex-wife or his son.

Mo would know, and he’d beat himself up for it. He’d already debated this trip for a good two years before quitting a decent job in Regina, shoving his belongings in his pack, and heading to the bus depot. Real men were supposed to be decisive, but then real men didn’t let booze get the best of them; they controlled their anger; they didn’t hit women or kids. It had been a very long time since he’d done any of those bad things, but they still weighed on his conscience. The doing, and the weighing, those were the reasons he would not cross that road. He couldn’t change the past, but he could, at long last, stop running from it and try to make amends.

He buttoned his heavy denim jacket against the chilly, early November air, hoisted his pack, and set out along the broad shoulder of the road into town. A sullen gray sky threatened snow, but so far the ground was clear. Beyond a wooden fence lay ranch land scattered with grazing cattle. After a passing glance, Mo’s focus wasn’t on the scenery but on his thoughts.

He’d never liked Caribou Crossing. Never liked any of the dusty dots on the map that he and Brooke and Evan had lived in back in the old days. But then he hadn’t liked much of anything. He’d been too damned pissed off at the world and at how his life had turned out.

He had fumed every step of the way out of town until he’d hit the highway and a trucker picked him up. It was one thing to skip town as a matter of choice. But when the police had showed up at his and Brooke’s door that day, he’d figured he had no choice but to leave.

Mo hated the man he’d been back then. An asshole who, when he was pissed off, got drunk and riled up. There were no excuses for the things he’d done. It didn’t matter that his young, pretty wife drank too much herself and ragged on him for ruining her life. It didn’t matter that she spent much of her time either partying herself senseless at the Gold Nugget Saloon, or holed up in bed with the covers over her head, or engaged in screaming matches with him.

Whatever the folks around him did, a man was responsible for his own actions. Way too late in life, Mo had come to that realization.

So now here he was, dragging his sorry ass back to the town his wife and kid had called Hicksville, to apologize. Much too little, much too late, and they would probably—and deservedly—want to plant a boot square on his backside and kick him straight back out of town.

If they did, maybe he’d go. But maybe he wouldn’t. He used to walk away when the going got tough. But taking responsibility meant not taking the easy way out.

When the compulsion had hit him to reconnect with Brooke and Evan, he’d wondered if he would even be able to locate them. Caribou Crossing was the only place he’d known to start, and the online Caribou Crossing Gazette had given him the surprising news that both were still in town.

Brooke was married again, to a man named Jake Brannon. When Mo’d seen the guy’s occupation, he’d done a double take. Brannon was the Royal Canadian Mounted Police detachment commander for Caribou Crossing. Did that mean Brooke had stopped drinking and causing a ruckus?

As for Evan, the boy had been smart as a whip and always insisted he was going to go to some fancy college and build a successful career in a high-powered place like New York City. He’d had the dreams, the smarts, the drive, yet now he was a small-town investment counselor. Poor kid; having parents like Mo and Brooke had probably doomed him.

Traffic had increased enough—meaning three or four cars and trucks in succession—to make Mo refocus on his surroundings. He’d reached the outskirts of town. A nicely maintained barn, paddock, and hitching rails belonged to a business called Westward Ho! It advertised trail rides and horse boarding both long term and short. It seemed Caribou Crossing was still all about horses.

Him, he was better with machines than with animals. Not that he didn’t like animals. It was just easier to understand machinery and to fix whatever went wrong. And when it came to people . . . Well, it was ironic that he could repair anything with an engine, but had almost destroyed the lives of the two people he cared about the most.

In an odd counterpoint to his thoughts, a medium-sized light brown animal ran around a corner and headed straight for him. At first he thought it was a fox, but when it pulled up a couple of feet short of him, he saw it was a dog with a broad, wedge-shaped head. It didn’t bare its teeth in a threat nor wag its tail, just stood there watching him.

A dark-haired girl, late teens maybe, burst around the same corner, and then slowed when she saw the dog. Panting for breath, she approached slowly. Above the collar of a puffy green jacket, her cheeks were pink from exertion. “There you are,” she said to the animal.

It edged a foot closer to Mo, making him wonder if the creature had been abused. God knew, Mo had reason to recognize that kind of wariness.

The girl stood back a few feet, tugging a striped toque more securely down over her shoulder-length hair. “I’m from the animal shelter,” she told Mo, “and he’s our resident escape artist.”

“He was abused?”

“We don’t think so. There were no physical signs of it. He’d been well looked after, he’s definitely been trained, and we found him with his leash tied to the railing by the shelter’s door. We figure he was abandoned because he wasn’t the kind of pet the owner wanted.”

Mo glanced again at the dog, which was staring up at him with its ears cocked forward. The whitish face and chest contrasted nicely with the pale reddish-brown coat. The dog’s body was lean and fit, and it had a bushy, longish tail. For some reason, Mo felt defensive on the animal’s behalf. “What’s wrong with him? He looks fine to me.”

“Want to adopt him?” she asked promptly.

He grinned at her. “Nice try. No, thanks. But seriously, why wouldn’t someone want him?”

“He’s a New Guinea singing dog.” The girl inched closer to the animal. “The first one any of us had ever seen. We had to look him up. They’re called singing dogs because they have a unique kind of howl. They’re a lot like the Australian dingo. A wild dog, though the ones that are bred in captivity can be trained.” She glanced at Mo, her expression earnest. “Like, a wild dog would naturally prey on cats, but Caruso’s been trained to leave them alone. All the same, singers aren’t your typical pet dog. They’re, like, total free spirits. Independent. More like cats. If someone wants a dog that fawns all over them, a singing dog isn’t right for them.”

Mo was liking the creature more and more.

The dog had moved to sit on his left, about ten inches from his well-worn work boot. Mo squatted. “Hey, Caruso. I’ve never heard a dog sing. Want to give me a demonstration?”

As he spoke, the girl moved closer. While the dog gazed at Mo, not opening its mouth, she clipped the leash to its collar. Caruso shot both of them a dirty look. Mo tried not to feel guilty.

“Come on, Caruso,” the girl said. “It’s time to go home.”

Home. An animal shelter. Well, at least the creature would have food and be warm and dry. Seemed it didn’t want anything more than that—like affection—anyway. Mo and Caruso did have a lot in common.

“You sure you don’t want to adopt him?” the girl tried again.

Mo shook his head. “I’m a wanderer.”

“So’s Caruso. You’re perfect for each other.”

“Nope. Not happening. I’ve got enough on my plate.”

As she led the dog away, it cast a glance at Mo over its shoulder. Not begging, not hopeful, not even blaming this time. Just a glance.

Mo resumed his own walk, knowing exactly where he was headed. Thanks to the Internet, he knew that Hank Hennessey still ran his vehicle and farm equipment repair shop, and it was still the only one in town. Hank would be getting on now, in his mid-sixties. He must have an assistant or two. Likely he didn’t need Mo’s help—and wouldn’t take him back even if he did—but what the hell, a guy had to start somewhere.

As he covered the few blocks, Mo noted changes. When he’d lived here, the town had a used-up feel. Way back in the 1860s, the gold rush had made it a boomtown. After a few years, the gold ran out and the place almost became a ghost town, but a few ranchers kept it going and it slowly grew into a little community. Back in Mo’s day, it was a backwoods off the main highway that meandered the interior of British Columbia in a rough vertical line.

Since then, Caribou Crossing had obviously gone through a revival. Even on a chilly, gray Monday afternoon, people bustled around looking cheerful. Businesses and homes were spruced up and old buildings had been restored. There were picturesque touches like bright awnings, planters full of bronze and yellow chrysanthemums, and stylized wire-frame animals that he figured were supposed to be caribou.

Hennessey Auto Repair, when he reached it, looked much the same. There wasn’t a lot you could do to make an automotive repair shop look picturesque. As usual, the parking area held a motley assortment of cars, trucks, and farm equipment. One of the doors to the service bays was partially open. The whirr of a drill sounded from inside, competing with Johnny Cash on the radio singing “Folsom Prison Blues.” Nope, not much had changed here.

Mo followed the whine of the drill to find a stocky, overall-clad back bent over a workbench. No one else appeared to be around. The drill shut off. Johnny Cash finished up the song, wishing for a train whistle to rid him of his blues.

Mo said, “Mr. Hennessey?”

The man turned, shoving protective goggles up over thin gray hair. “Yeah?”

“Wondered if—”

“Mo Kincaid?” Hank asked, stepping toward him and narrowing his eyes. “That really you?”

“You recognize me?” He’d worked for Hank for not much more than a year and it had been a long time ago. But Mo’s looks were distinctive, his blue-green eyes a contrast to his brownish skin and black hair. His birth name was Mohinder McKeen, the first part coming from his South Asian mother and the second from his Irish-American dad.

“You were a good mechanic.” The shorter man studied Mo’s face.

“You fired me.” After Mo showed up late for work, hungover, one too many times.

“I’m a businessman.”

“I know.” Hank had been a fair employer and a decent man. While Mo had faced some small-town racism, there’d never been a hint of that from Hank. “And that means you don’t likely want to give me another chance,” Mo continued. He’d known this was a long shot, but he’d worked out what he wanted to say to this man.

“You’re looking for a job?” Hank asked disbelievingly.

“I am. I used to be a good mechanic, and I’m better now. And I’m a changed man, Mr. Hennessey. I can’t promise I’ll stay for long because my plans are, uh, a little uncertain. But as long as I’m in town, I’ll work hard and I’ll show up on time. You don’t have to pay me much, only enough to cover rent and groceries.” Mo had saved money over the years, and this was less about earning a salary than about his desire to keep regular work hours and do something useful with his time.

The older man’s blue eyes were faded, but still piercing as he kept them on Mo’s face.

Mo went on. “I used to have a drinking problem, but that’s a long ways in the past.” At one point, he’d gone to some A.A. meetings. He’d realized he wasn’t an alcoholic, but at those meetings he’d figured out that he was a bitter, angry man who was weak enough to seek solace in alcohol. He’d seen that booze never offered a solution; as with the alcoholics, drinking made his problems worse. Blaming fate or other people wasn’t constructive, and he’d managed to let go of his anger and make peace with the world he lived in. He’d also decided that, even if he wasn’t an alcoholic, it was safest to stay away from booze. “I haven’t had a drink in years. For the last five years, I managed an auto repair business in Regina. I can give you a phone number and you can check with them.”

“Uh-huh. Well, I just fired an assistant last month. Idiot couldn’t be bothered with diagnostics, just threw parts at the problem.” Hank’s gaze remained steady on Mo’s face. “You say your plans are uncertain. Mind sharing those plans?”

Mo swallowed. He wasn’t a guy who opened up to anyone about his personal shit. But it was a fair question, given how he was asking Hank to take a chance on him. “I hope to see my ex-wife and my son. I know I can’t make things right, but I owe them an apology.”

“Yeah, you do. But they’ve built good lives for themselves. What if they don’t want to see you?”

And there it was. The worry that kept Mo awake at night.

Was he here for Brooke and Evan, as the honorable, responsible thing to do, or was he being selfish? He kept telling himself he had to own up to his sins, offer a sincere apology, and see if there was any way he could make amends. But he had no right to mess up their lives just because he wanted to make peace with himself and feel a little less of a shit. “I don’t know. I honestly don’t know. Maybe this is a bad idea.”

“But?”

“But for the past two or three years, I’ve had this compulsion. I can’t ignore it any longer.”

[continued at top of right column]

 

 

 

 

[con't from bottom left column]

“Your gut talking to you,” Hank said.

More like his conscience, but he’d said enough already.

“My gut talks to me,” the other man went on. “Now it’s telling me to hire you.” He held out his hand. “Don’t make me regret listening to it.”

***

“Aside from your age, you’re an ideal candidate,” Dr. LaTisha Jones told Maribeth Scott on Wednesday afternoon. “The lab test results are all great. You’re healthy and physically active. And thirty-nine really isn’t all that old these days.”

“Thanks for that,” Maribeth said dryly to the petite younger woman with her neatly cornrowed black hair. It was in fact Maribeth’s age and her insistent biological clock that had brought her to the women’s health clinic to discuss artificial insemination. As far back as she could remember, she’d known she was destined to be a mom. It was part of her identity, even more than her red hair.

She’d assumed she would meet the love of her life and everything would fall into place: marriage, building a happy home, having a handful of kids. But, to her bafflement and frustration, she’d never even reached the first step. Though she’d dated tons of men, most of them pretty great guys, she’d yet to feel that magical “click” and know that this was the person she wanted to build a future with. And no way would she settle for anything less than true love.

Next year she’d turn forty. The longer she waited, the lower her chance of getting pregnant and the higher the risks. It was time to pursue a different route. Although her social conscience nagged that she should adopt an underprivileged baby or child, her dream had always been the full experience: carrying a baby within her body, giving birth, holding that warm, sweet little body in her arms moments after he or she first emerged into the world. Of course in that dream, there’d been a loving man at her side through every—

“You’ve already gone off birth control.” Dr. Jones’s voice interrupted Maribeth’s musing. “Eat healthily, take the prenatal vitamins, cut down on or even better eliminate alcohol and caffeine, and keep up with your yoga and other exercise. This first time, we won’t use ovulation stimulation medication. We’ll see how you do without it. Your period started on Sunday, so come back next Monday and we’ll check for signs of ovulation, but more likely it won’t occur for another week after that. Most women ovulate around day fourteen of their cycle.” The doctor flashed a saucy grin. “And most important, find that perfect sperm donor.”

“I can’t wait to start looking through the profiles.” Maribeth had thought seriously about the men she knew, some of whom were really quite wonderful. But it was such a huge thing to ask of a friend, and then what if he wanted to be involved in the baby’s life? That definitely wasn’t her dream, raising a child together with a man she didn’t love and didn’t live with. Besides, one day Mr. Right would come along, they’d get married, and he’d step into the role of dad.

So she would do her shopping online and find a donor who’d remain anonymous. Dr. Jones had given her a code to access the online site for a sperm bank the women’s clinic was affiliated with.

“Let me know as soon as you decide on a donor,” the doctor said, “so we can order the sperm and have it ready for you when you’re ovulating. But remember, if you’re not ready this month, we’ll do it in January. This is a decision you don’t want to rush into.”

Dr. Jones was so right. Maribeth felt the weight of the responsibility. She’d be choosing the biological father of her child. Yet now that she’d made the decision to proceed, she was eager to get on with it. If insemination worked this month, she would be pregnant at Christmas. It would be such an amazing gift. Of course, even if she got pregnant in the next two or three months, there’d still be a little one sharing the next Christmas with her. And then Maribeth would probably have—or maybe this time adopt—a second baby. Being an only child was lonely, as she well knew. Of course, it was possible that her first pregnancy would result in twins, and wouldn’t that be a blessing?

As she closed the clinic door behind her, a twinge of regret slowed her steps. She’d been dating since she was thirteen. Though her friends teased that she was super picky, that wasn’t true. Falling in love wasn’t a rational decision; it was about that gut-level, heart-level certainty that this was the one person you were destined to be with. Your happily-ever-after person with whom you’d create babies the good old-fashioned way.

She shook her head, deliberately shoving the regret from her mind. When she was a little girl longing for a sibling, her mom had told her it wasn’t going to happen. When she was orphaned at the age of nineteen, she’d had to come to terms with the fact that she’d never be able to hug her parents again or hear them tell her they loved her. She couldn’t have a brother or sister and she couldn’t have her parents. She could still have love, and one day the right man would come along.

But for now, if she didn’t move quickly, having a baby would fall into the “can’t have” side of the equation—and no way was she letting that happen. It was time to stop waiting and wishing, and to start being proactive. She was going to be a mom and give her child—children, hopefully—the best, most loving, happiest life that she possibly could.

Checking her watch, she saw that it was past five. There wasn’t much point heading back to Days of Your. Running her own business, a thrift shop, gave her flexibility in terms of setting her hours, though she generally tried to keep regular ones: ten until six, Tuesday through Saturday. It was a rare occasion when she shut early, as she’d done this afternoon.

She was eager to get home and start checking out sperm donor profiles, but first she had to walk over to Hennessey’s and pick up her car. She had dropped it off first thing that morning for an oil change and tune-up, and to get snow tires put on.

Maribeth turned up the collar of her tweedy black-and-white coat against the brisk November air, put on red leather gloves, and hitched her Kate Spade tote over her shoulder. With the two-inch heels of her leather ankle boots clicking on the sidewalk, she set off toward the garage. She loved pretty clothes, and running a thrift shop gave her first pick from a wide selection of items. It was amazing how many nearly new clothes, shoes, and bags, some with designer labels, were donated.

As she walked, she exchanged greetings with a few townspeople. Caribou Crossing was small and she’d lived there all her life, which meant she had at least a passing acquaintance with many of the residents. Once she got pregnant, there would be gossip, but she’d ride it out. Folks liked her and they’d be sympathetic. Her child wouldn’t suffer as a result of her decision to be a single parent. As for male companionship and role models for her little one, she knew loads of great guys, some of them married to good friends of hers, who’d provide that.

Hennessey Auto Repair, on the outskirts of town, had the usual half dozen cars parked outside, including her red and white Mini Cooper. The doors of the auto bays were closed against the cold, but light shone through the windows. As she approached the building, a cinnamon brown dog skittered away and ran under one of the parked cars. Unleashed; maybe a runaway? If it was still there when she came out again, she’d call the shelter. The temperature was dipping below freezing these nights, and the animal shouldn’t be fending for itself.

Maribeth went in the front door to the office and reception area, which was deserted. No surprise. Like her, Hank ran his business single-handedly much of the time. His two kids had chosen other careers, and though he sometimes hired an assistant, things never worked out for long. She had to wonder what the town would do when the aging mechanic decided to retire, since his was the only repair shop in town.

Knowing Hank would be in the auto bays working on a car, she went on through. That distinctive machine-shop scent of oil and metal filled her nostrils, and as usual the radio was playing. Jason Aldean was telling his lady friend that they were just getting started. Raising her voice so it would carry over the music, she said, “Hank?”

A muffled grunt was her response.

Following the sound, and unbuttoning her heavy coat, she stepped carefully around a big-wheeled truck to see overall-clad legs protruding from under a green car so ancient that it had fins. A couple of clangs came from under the car, and then the man began to slide out on one of those roller-tray thingies.

But was that Hank? The legs were awfully long and the waist very lean for the stocky mechanic. A torso in grimy overalls slid into sight, and then finally—no, that definitely wasn’t Hank. Maribeth stared at a strikingly handsome face framed with longish, wavy black hair.

“Hey,” the man said, swinging up from the rolling mechanic’s board and getting lithely to his feet, giving her a slow-breaking smile that flashed white against brown skin.

Wow. That smile scored higher on “dazzle factor” than Tom Cruise’s. “Hi. So Hank has a new assistant.”

“Just started today. I’m Mo.”

She read male appreciation in his eyes, which wasn’t the least bit unusual. What was less common was the responding ripple of heat through her blood. The man truly was hot. “Maribeth,” she said. “Also known as MB. So, where’s Hank?” Had he left a brand-new assistant in charge of the shop?

“Some family thing came up and he was needed at his daughter’s house. What can I do for you, Maribeth?”

His voice was purely masculine with a slight rough edge like callus on fingertips. It distracted her so that she barely caught his actual words. “I came to pick up my car. It’s the Mini parked outside.”

“Sure. Let’s see if we can find your keys and an invoice.” He gestured toward the office.

She walked ahead of him and rounded the counter to stand on the customer side.

He took a small key ring from his pocket, unlocked a cabinet behind the counter, and rummaged inside. “This’ll be yours.” He produced her spare key.

As she took it from him, she studied him more closely. Normally, Hank’s assistants were young guys, but this man was at least her age. Maybe that was why he’d made her think of Tom Cruise. A few strands of silver threaded that wavy black hair, and lines cut lightly into the skin around his eyes and between his nose and mouth. His skin was medium brown, something other than a suntan left over from summer. She guessed he was mixed race, maybe part South Asian or Native Canadian. His eyes were unexpected, a mix of blue and green that was stunning against that darkish skin. Black stubble shadowed his jaw, and a smudge of grease on one strong cheekbone made her finger itch to smooth it away. To be honest, her fingers, her entire body, itched to touch him all over, even though he was greasy and smelled like a machine shop.

She’d dated a lot of good-looking guys, but had she ever felt this kind of immediate chemistry?

It seemed as if the feeling might be mutual, because he’d more or less frozen, staring at her face. She smiled, flexing her feminine power. Guys had always been drawn to her red hair, sparkling green eyes, and full lips.

He grinned back, the lines running from his nose to his lips turning into dimpled clefts.

Maribeth liked men. Always had; probably always would. Just because she’d decided to become a single parent, that was no reason not to enjoy being with a particularly attractive guy. One who drew her with an almost magnetic appeal. “You’re new in town,” she said.

“That’s not a question,” he noted.

“A guy like you, if you’d been in Caribou Crossing long, I’d have known.” The words themselves were neutral, but the way she said them wasn’t. She was flirting and making no bones about it.

He laughed. “You’re not shy, are you?”

“Not for a single day of my life. Seems to me it’s a waste of time.”

The humor faded from his face, leaving him looking older. “Since you don’t like wasting your time, I should tell you that I’m not, you know, looking to date.”

Her eyes widened with surprise. Well, that certainly told her where she stood. Except that she could have sworn he was attracted to her. “Married?” she guessed. “Or involved?”

He shook his head. “And don’t want to be.”

The hottest guy she’d met in forever, and he was turning her down. She shouldn’t feel such a jolt of disappointment. After all, she had better plans for the evening anyhow: shopping for a sperm donor. “I should pay my bill.”

“Sure. Let me see if I can find it on the computer.” He jiggled the mouse, clicked some keys, and asked, “Last name?”

“Scott.”

A moment later, he said, “Got it.” Another click, and a printer hummed to life. He took the page and handed it over. “Look about right?”

She leaned over the invoice and curls tumbled into her face. Her hair, thick and wavy down past her shoulders, was getting unruly. Shoving it back with an impatient “pfft,” she muttered to herself, “I need to call Brooke and make a hair appointment.” She scrutinized the bill and then took a credit card from her wallet. “This looks fine.”

Mo didn’t seem to notice the card. He was staring at her face. “Brooke?” His voice croaked. “Brooke, uh, Brannon?”

She nodded. “Do you know her?”

“Do you?” he countered.

Frowning in puzzlement, she said, “She’s a good friend as well as being my hairstylist. How do you know her?”

“I, uh . . .” He finally took the credit card she’d been holding out and ran it through Hank’s machine, taking more time than the task required. And not answering her question.

Weird.

Mo handed the card and two copies of the receipt to her. “Sign this one, please. So, do you know her son, too? Evan?”

“Sure.” She signed the merchant copy and handed it back. “He manages my money.” When Maribeth’s parents had been killed in a bus crash during a holiday in Austria, she’d been shattered, but had found herself quite well off, financially. Still in her teens, she’d inherited not only the family home but also her parents’ fair-sized investment portfolio and the proceeds of their life insurance policies. When Evan Kincaid had opened his business in Caribou Crossing a few years back, Maribeth had transferred her portfolio to him, and he’d done exceedingly well for her. “Why are you asking about Brooke and Evan?”

Mo’s handsome face was marred by a frown and he didn’t answer for a minute or two. Then he said, “I wonder if I could talk to you.”

“I thought we were talking.” This guy might be gorgeous and sexy, but he was getting annoying.

“Sorry. I mean about, uh, something private.”

“Something that involves Brooke and Evan?”

He nodded.

“I guess so,” she said slowly. “But this is all very mysterious.”

“I’m sorry. Let me buy you a drink and I’ll explain.”

This man, a stranger to town, didn’t want to date her, but he wanted to buy her a drink and talk about two of her friends. Well, there was only one way to find out what was going on. “Okay,” she agreed. “Do you want to meet somewhere later?” Though she had no reason to trust the guy, no harm would come to her if they met up at one of the town’s bars. She’d be bound to know at least half the people in the room, and they’d watch out for her.

He glanced at his watch. “It’s time to close up. Could you give me five minutes, and I’ll be ready to go?”

“Why not?” Too warm in her coat, she shrugged out of it and tossed it on one of the guest chairs.

Mo’s eyes widened. Her figure—unfashionably curvy, but she was happy with it—tended to have that effect on guys.

She tugged down the hem of the long emerald sweater-top she wore over thick black leggings, and sank down in the other chair. Crossing one leg over the other, she swung a booted foot back and forth. “Five minutes,” she reminded the glazed-eyed man.