Home to Montana Charlotte Carter Ëèòàãåíò HarperCollins EUR Where The Heart Leads Staying in one place was never Nick Carbini’s plan. When his troubled past leads him to Bear Lake, Montana, single mom Alisa Machak makes him consider putting down roots. Alisa doesn’t have a problem letting Nick work in her diner, but when he starts edging his way into her heart, she has to draw the line.He reminds her too much of her son’s father, another drifter who abandoned them both. Nick wishes he could be there for them, but believes he’s not fit to be a husband. When his worst fears come true one night, it’s up to Alisa to show him the perfect recipe for a forever romance. Where The Heart Leads Staying in one place was never Nick Carbini’s plan. When his troubled past leads him to Bear Lake, Montana, single mom Alisa Machak makes him consider putting down roots. Alisa doesn’t have a problem letting Nick work in her diner, but when he starts edging his way into her heart, she has to draw the line. He reminds her too much of her son’s father, another drifter who abandoned them both. Nick wishes he could be there for them, but believes he’s not fit to be a husband. When his worst fears come true one night, it’s up to Alisa to show him the perfect recipe for a forever romance. Two weeks. Could he hang on for that long? He wasn’t sure. He was about to say No, thanks when the image of Alisa popped into his head. The thought that she might give him an honest smile, more than her overly practiced, the-customer-is-right smile, gave him a jolt. He had no business thinking about that. Or wanting it. He was definitely tired of being on the road. A clean room with a shower and free meals had a certain appeal. Foolishly, he knew the real appeal was Alisa. He doubted she’d feel the same about him. Not if she knew the truth about how he’d spent the past three years. He didn’t have to feel pressured to stay. Slowly he stood. “Okay, I’ll take your job.” CHARLOTTE CARTER A multipublished author of more than fifty romances, cozy mysteries and inspirational titles, Charlotte Carter lives in Southern California with her husband of forty-nine years and their cat, Mittens. They have two married daughters and five grandchildren. When she’s not writing, Charlotte does a little stand-up comedy, “G-Rated Humor for Grownups,” and teaches workshops on the craft of writing. Home to Montana Charlotte Carter www.millsandboon.co.uk (http://www.millsandboon.co.uk) Many nations will come and say, Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the temple of the God of Jacob. The law will go out from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He will judge between many peoples and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid, for the Lord Almighty has spoken. —Micah 4:2–4 To all the men and women in uniform who so bravely serve our country around the world, and to those who wait for them at home, you have our heartfelt thanks. Special thanks to Kara Lennox and Mindy Neff; you always make my books better. Contents Chapter One (#u7b3a3277-28fd-528d-bd8d-4c189ddd04ab) Chapter Two (#u147798fb-b7c0-539f-b681-150e81508c98) Chapter Three (#u7e4cfb3e-883e-5c94-8902-78fbe9766f9c) Chapter Four (#ub4c5dabd-1b91-5f4c-acad-de1037b36b67) Chapter Five (#u23499d6b-0fdd-5e9f-949f-5d7293300687) Chapter Six (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Seven (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Eight (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Nine (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Ten (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Eleven (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twelve (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Thirteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Fourteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Fifteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Sixteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Seventeen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Eighteen (#litres_trial_promo) Epilogue (#litres_trial_promo) Dear Reader (#litres_trial_promo) Questions for Discussion (#litres_trial_promo) Excerpt (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter One “A pretty lady like you shouldn’t have to chop your own firewood.” Alisa Machak nearly sliced off her foot with the ax. She whirled toward the sound of the deep masculine voice. The stranger stood in a column of sunlight that slid between the pine trees, highlighting his unkempt ebony hair, a matching beard and his equally disreputable dog sitting beside him. He wore old jeans and a khaki jacket that looked like it had come from an Army surplus store years ago. A ripple of recognition stole through her, and a shiver raised the hair at her nape. A drifter. Drifters passed through the town of Bear Lake, Montana, on a regular basis, some heading to Glacier National Park up Highway 93. Some with no particular destination in mind. None stayed long. She’d learned that lesson ten years ago, a painful lesson she would not soon forget. Flashing him the friendly smile she used with strangers, she hefted the ax. “Someone has to make kindling for the fire.” She and her mother owned the Pine Tree Diner and the adjacent Pine Tree Inn. Unfortunately, their handyman, Jake Domino, had gone to stay with his daughter while she recovered from an auto accident. He’d be away at least a couple of weeks. So Alisa was chopping wood, among other chores that had to be done. The stranger strolled toward her, all long legs and a gait that seemed a little uneven. “I’m pretty good with an ax. I’d be glad to help out. You wouldn’t have to pay me.” She cocked her head in disbelief. This guy was a drifter with a silver tongue, the kind of man who Alisa had learned to keep at a distance while doing her smiling welcome-to-Pine-Tree-Diner shtick. “If the diner has some scraps for Rags, I’d appreciate that.” His baritone voice sounded as smooth and rich as homemade gravy. That stopped her. “Rags?” “My dog.” He patted his thigh. The dog stood looking up at him waiting for his next command. “I figured when I found him that he looked like the old rag bag my mother used to have. She used the rags for cleaning and scrubbing the house.” “You found the dog?” She’d heard that some pickup artists used a dog to put a woman at ease and get her off guard. Vulnerable. But surely a man like that wouldn’t go out of his way to look so scruffy. Maybe his angle was playing for sympathy. She wasn’t going to bite on that gimmick either. “Found him a week or so ago. I pulled into a rest area to sleep. In Colorado, I think. Nobody else was around except Rags. No tags on him. No collar. And he was pretty hungry.” Casually, he patted the dog’s rough, ragamuffin coat colored in shades of wheat and tan. Floppy ears hung down on either side of an imposing head. “Guess you could say we sort of adopted each other.” He’d evidently been on the road a while. Just drifting, Alisa gathered. She supposed she ought to give him credit for taking care of a stray dog. The affection between the two seemed genuine. Two lost souls? Maybe. Or maybe not. Not that it was any of her business. She looked toward the back of the diner, a building three stories tall, painted a bright pink, with family living quarters in the top two floors. Planter boxes filled with pots of colorful geraniums were placed in front of the second floor windows. They’d have a big crowd tonight at the diner for their Thursday night special. Alisa had plenty of work to do inside, setting up for the evening while her mother, who everyone called Mama, handled the kitchen preparations. She really didn’t have time to chop kindling for the big fire pit in the outdoor patio. September evenings had begun to turn cool. She swung the ax, imbedding the blade in the chopping stump. “Okay, mister...?” “Nick. Nick Carbini.” “You’ve got yourself a deal, Nick. I’m Alisa Machak, half owner of the diner and motel next door. You make us a big pile of kindling, and I’ll make sure your dog gets the best scraps in the county.” His dark beard shifted as he smiled, revealing a row of perfect white teeth. She noticed he had incredibly blue eyes, the color of the sky on a clear winter day. Squint lines fanned out at the corners. Yet she also saw a hint of sadness in those clear eyes. A shadow of loneliness she sometimes saw in her own mirror and had learned to ignore. She forced down her curiosity about where he had come from and why he had no place to go. That was none of her business either. From her perspective, he was simply another tourist passing through town. “When you’re done, stack the kindling under the lean-to by the kitchen. There’s a wheelbarrow you can use.” She gestured vaguely toward the woodpile. “No problem. I’ve got it covered.” Based on his over six-foot height and the breadth of his shoulders, he’d be able to turn a whole cord of wood into kindling without breaking a sweat. At least that would save her from developing calluses on her palms for one day. She turned, her steps light as she walked back to the kitchen entrance, her senses vividly aware of the chunk, chunk of the ax on a pine log. Aware of the stranger’s strength. The power of his arms. His tempting smile. And determined not to acknowledge how thoroughly he’d stirred memories she’d rather forget. In the kitchen, three big pots of water steamed on the stove ready for Mama to drop in the loaves of bread dumplings for tonight’s paprika chicken house special. A recipe Mama had learned from her own mother in Czechoslovakia. Meanwhile, Hector Gomez, their short-order cook and kitchen helper was serving up buffalo burgers and fries and cold sandwiches for the midafternoon crowd. The scent of baking bread, grilled meat and aromatic spices were as familiar to Alisa as a mother’s perfume. She’d grown up here in the kitchen. First in a playpen safely away from spattering grease and well out from under the hurrying feet of the waitstaff. Later, standing on a chair so she could reach the prep tables, she’d rolled dough for biscuits and grated potatoes for potato pancakes, another Czech specialty. Served with apple sauce or sour cream, they had been a staple in Alisa’s life. Her father had done most of the cooking when Alisa was young while Mama worked the front of the diner. But he had passed away ten years ago, leaving Mama and Alisa to manage the diner. This was her home, the place that held her heart and consumed the vast majority of her waking hours. The regular customers she served were her extended family. Old-timers who had lived here most of their lives. New folks who had more recently found a home under the wide Montana sky. Mama turned and smiled. Her once blond hair was dulled now by streaks of gray. Her perpetual smile had formed permanent parentheses around her mouth. “You finished making kindling already?” Alisa shrugged out of her jacket and hung it on a coatrack near the door. “Nope. A drifter came by and offered to do it for me. All he asked in return was some scraps for his rather shaggy-looking dog.” “What? You didn’t offer him a few dollars? A little supper?” “He didn’t ask.” Everyone in town knew Mama was a soft touch, although the locals rarely took advantage of her. Drifters weren’t always so thoughtful. “I imagine he’ll be hungry by the time he’s through.” She washed up in a nearby sink, tied her hair back and went out front to see that they were ready for the evening rush. * * * Nick split another log, gratified by the growing pile of kindling by the stump. It felt good to use his muscles. He’d been cooped up in his pickup for too long. Driving and sleeping under the camper shell whenever and wherever he stopped. Maybe he’d stay a few days in Bear Lake, camp somewhere nearby, hike the trails through the forest, check out the house where he’d been born. The house where his mother had died some twenty years ago. His throat tightened on the memory of his mother so sick she couldn’t get out of bed. So pale it was like all of the blood had been sucked out of her. He’d only been ten years old when the ambulance came to take her away forever. Not long after that his dad had piled their few possessions in his old, beat-up truck. They’d gone east and south, moving a dozen times whenever his dad lost his job or got restless. Finally, when Nick had managed to get a high school diploma he’d bailed on his father and joined the army. He’d been out now for nearly four years. A couple of weeks ago he’d tried to reconnect with his dad. His father had tossed him out of his house in Baton Rouge, or more accurately his dad’s current girlfriend had insisted he leave. She didn’t want an ex-con living in her house. Nick’s old man hadn’t ever been much of a father so he sided with the girlfriend, who doubled as his drinking buddy and sometimes, Nick suspected, his punching bag. Nick hadn’t had a destination in mind when he left Baton Rouge. He’d simply gotten in his truck and headed north. But the farther north he drove, the more the thought of Bear Lake drew him. He couldn’t tell if it was God who was leading him or his own childhood memories of home. Maybe both. He swung the ax again. Two pieces of kindling jumped from the stump onto the ground. He paused long enough to take off his jacket and look around. Sweat edged down his spine. Nice layout Ms. Alisa Machak had here. A good business. Even in the middle of the afternoon there were a fair number of cars parked out front. He hadn’t lied about her being a pretty lady, either. Hair a honey blond that skimmed her shoulders. Shoulders much too slender to wield an ax with so much strength. Or maybe she was working on a heap of determination more than sheer muscle power. Nice eyes, too. A dark blue like the deepest part of a lake. But she hadn’t smiled much, not at him. He didn’t blame her for that. He must look pretty rough after a couple of weeks on the road. Rags came trotting back from wherever he’d been with a stick in his mouth. “You’d better stay close by, buddy. If you hang around, you’re gonna get some really tasty scraps. That pretty lady promised you’d get the best in the county.” Tilting his head, Rags looked up at Nick with his big, brown eyes and whined. Trying to sucker Nick into throwing the stick. “No, I can’t play now. Gotta turn all this split wood into kindling. Maybe later, huh?” Nick hung his jacket over a tree limb and got back to work. Three more whacks, and another split log became kindling. “Hey, mister. Is that your dog?” Rags stood and stretched, the branch still in his mouth. Nick rested the ax head on the stump. A blond kid with a head full of cowlicks and a backpack slung over his shoulder stood a few feet from him. He looked to be about nine or ten. “Mine ’til he decides otherwise,” Nick said. “Is he friendly?” “Friendly enough. You want to pet him?” The boy ditched his backpack on the ground and rushed forward, dropping to his knees. “Does he have a name?” “I call him Rags.” “Hiya, Rags.” Cautiously, he petted the dog’s neck and back. Rags’s tail began an upbeat tempo that wobbled his whole rear end. “Does he like to play fetch?” “Give it try. See what happens.” Nick knew from experience that Rags could wear out a man’s arm before he’d quit fetching any old stick. He watched with amusement as the boy gently took the branch from Rags. Alert, Rags was already into the game when the boy tossed the stick a few feet away. Rags had it back to the youngster in milliseconds and lay down waiting for the next go around. His tail semaphored his readiness. “You might want to toss it a little farther,” Nick suggested mildly. The youngster shot it toward a wooded area, and soon boy and dog were running around full blast. Laughter and barking filled the clearing where Nick wrestled split logs onto the stump. In that moment, an emotion so powerful he almost dropped the ax rose up in Nick. A sensation of loneliness so stark and desperate he had to close his eyes. He wanted to run away. To forget the past. Start over. But that wasn’t possible. * * * Alisa heard the ruckus outside and stepped to the kitchen door. Her breath caught in her lungs when she saw her son playing with the stranger’s dog. No! Don’t get attached to the dog. The drifter will take him away. That’s what drifters do. They leave. “Greg! It’s time to come in.” Panic raised her voice to a shrill note. “But Mom, I’m playing with Rags now.” “Now, Greg. Come get a snack and start your homework.” “Just two more minutes.” Alisa took a step out onto the porch toward her son, planted her fists on her hips. “One, two...” Greg’s shoulders slumped. He tossed the stick he’d been playing with aside and trudged toward the house while the dog looked on with the stick once again in his mouth. Her heart broke for her little boy, but in this case she knew she was right. She had to protect her son from smooth talking men who broke promises and left plenty of heartache behind. She only wished she’d known that ten years ago. After Greg washed up, Alisa shooed him over to the last stool at the counter out front in the diner. She brought him a bowl of fresh-picked wild blackberries and a slice of toast spread with peanut butter. “How was school today?” “Okay, I guess.” “Anything exciting happen?” “Pete Muldoon had to go to the principal’s office again.” “Why this time?” Poor little Pete seemed to be perpetually in trouble. Greg took a big bite of toast, chewing while he spoke. “We were playing tag at recess. He was it and followed Tammy into the girls bathroom to catch her.” Alisa suppressed a grin. “Oh, dear.” “Tammy wasn’t mad or anything. I think she likes Pete.” But maybe not so much in the restroom. “You do your homework after you finish your snack. If you need help, let me know.” “’Kay.” He spooned a blackberry into his mouth. Juice dribbled out around the corners. “Mom, could we maybe have a dog someday?” She and her son had had this conversation any number of times. “I can’t have a dog inside the diner, honey. You know that. And there are too many wild animals around to leave a dog outside all the time.” “We could keep him upstairs with us.” Reaching across the table, she pulled her son’s head toward her, kissing him on the crown. “Sorry, munchkin. No dogs for us.” Dogs were for families with a mother and father and two-point-five children who lived in houses with white picket fences. Not for single moms who worked double shifts and often smelled like grilled hamburger meat at the end of the day. * * * Nick stacked the last of the kindling under the lean-to and grabbed his jacket. “Come on, Rags. Let’s see what kind of table scraps Ms. Alisa has come up with.” Maybe there’d be a few scraps suitable for a hungry man too, he mused, his stomach growling. He knocked once on the kitchen door but stopped when he heard a woman inside yelling. Not Alisa’s voice. Someone older. And far angrier. “What you mean, you can’t come ’til tomorrow? We got two hundred people coming tonight. I’m not going to—” After a moment of silence, the woman ran off a string of words that Nick couldn’t understand but guessed were an expression of her frustration. He took a step back from the kitchen door. “I think we ought to wait a while for those scraps, buddy.” But before he could get away, the door flew open. An older woman, her cheeks flushed with anger appeared, her eyes burning with fury. “What do you want?” “It’s okay, ma’am. Just wanted you to know the kindling—” “You know anything about fixing a dishwasher?” The abrupt question stopped him. He blinked. Beyond the woman he could see the shine of stainless steel prep tables and refrigerators. He caught the scent of garlic, onions and paprika. Heard the clatter of pans and sizzle of meat on a grill. Sweat formed on his brow and dripped down his neck. His breathing became labored. Automatically, he dug his hand into his pocket and began to rhythmically squeeze the rubber ball the prison chaplain had given him. It was supposed to relax and distract him. Don’t lose it. There’s nothing to be afraid of. Think of something else. They’re only memories. It isn’t happening now. “Mister, I’ve got a busted dishwasher that’s full of dirty dishes. If I don’t get it fixed in a hurry, we’re going to be hand washing every single dish in the place. Now...” She put her fist on her hip in much the same way as Alisa had earlier. “You know anything about fixing machines or don’t you?” “I, ah...” He did have some idea. And he sympathized with the woman’s problem. But fixing the dishwasher would mean going inside the kitchen. Being surrounded by reflections that flashed and sparked off the stainless steel equipment, bringing back memories he struggled to forget. Images he couldn’t ignore. Afghanistan. An attack on his outpost. A shiny kitchen turned into a bloodbath. His crew dead or dying. He clenched his teeth. Squeezed the ball harder. Don’t think about it. Alisa, the blonde who’d been chopping kindling slipped up behind the older woman. “What’s going on, Mama?” “The dishwasher is busted. I called Samson. He can’t come ’til tomorrow.” A frown etched Alisa’s forehead, matching her mother’s. “Guess we’ll just have to make-do somehow.” Helplessly, Mama threw up her hands. “It must be God’s will.” “I can try to fix it.” Nick didn’t know why he’d spoken. Maybe it was the mention of God. Or the thought that the Lord had brought him here for a reason. To fix a dishwasher? He nearly choked on how ridiculous that sounded. Mother and daughter both gaped at him. “You know how to fix a dishwasher?” Doubt deepened the grooves in Alisa’s forehead. “I’ve fixed a few. No guarantees.” “Come on inside, young man.” Mama opened the door wider. “Give it a try. We’ve got nothing to lose.” He signaled Rags to stay. Using every ounce of courage he had, Nick crossed the threshold into the shining bright world of a commercial kitchen. Blackness oozed in around the corners of his mind. The scream of bullets and crying men assaulted his ears. He fought to keep them at bay. This was the world that had once been his to command. A place where he’d felt at home as the top chef. After Afghanistan, would that ever be true again? Chapter Two Nick gritted his teeth. He could do this. All he had to do was keep focused on the present. The mission. Find the dishwasher. Figure out what was wrong. And fix it. Plus keep his eyes averted from shiny surfaces that inevitably awakened horrific memories. He forced himself to remember his mother’s kitchen. The smell of oregano and tomato sauce simmering on the stove. The laughter they’d shared when she taught him how to make fresh pasta. The good times before she got sick. Alisa’s mother marched ahead of him. He watched her feet, her black leather granny shoes treading on the spotless, blue-gray, antiskid tile floor. A well-kept kitchen. A-rated and ready to pass muster with the toughest health inspector. She stopped so abruptly, Nick almost ran into her. “This is the creature that has decided to plague me.” She slapped her palm on the side of the upright stainless steel dishwasher. Clearly an older model, probably prone to problems. Nick used the sleeve of his jacket to wipe the sweat from his brow and squinted to minimize reflections. “What’s wrong with it?” “She won’t start. Hector, he pushes the button. Nothing happens.” She thumbed toward the fry cook working at his station, a small guy who looked young enough to be a new enlistee. “I push the button. Nothing happens.” The rhythm of her voice spoke of foreign roots. The washer not starting meant the problem could be anything from being unplugged to a motor that had burned out. Frowning, he looked along the back of the machine. “Do you have a flashlight?” Almost instantly, Alisa thrust a heavy-duty flashlight toward him. “Here. I thought you might need one. We lose power pretty often in the winter so we’ve got these positioned all around the diner. Summer lightning storms can knock out the power too.” Their eyes met as he took the flashlight from her hand. The depth of her blue eyes and her furrowed frown told him she was dubious he could fix anything. He wasn’t all that confident either. He checked behind the machine, handed her back the flashlight and grabbed hold of the dishwasher. “I need to move it out from the wall a few inches so I can get a better look.” “It’s heavy,” she warned. “Yeah, I figured that.” Rocking it side-to-side, he inched the dishwasher far enough forward to get a better look but not so far that he’d mess with the drain or water hoses. He took the flashlight again and squeezed up against the wall. The machine was plugged into a power strip along with neighboring equipment. While he couldn’t reach the plug, he had no reason to think it wasn’t providing power. Everything else was working. He fussed with the connection at the back of the machine. It seemed solid. “You’re sure you know what you’re doing?” Alisa asked. He glanced over his shoulder. With her blond hair pulled back, she looked younger than she had outside. No blemish marred her fair complexion. “I’ve eliminated the two most obvious reasons it won’t work. Your mother’s electrician would’ve charged her a hundred bucks for doing that. I’m saving her money.” “Very thoughtful of you.” “I’m that kind of guy.” “Glad to hear it.” Her overly friendly smile didn’t quite reach her eyes. He sensed her distrust and turned back to the machine, opening the door. Racks of dirty dishes were stacked inside. He pressed the latch on the door. “Try starting it now,” he requested. “The door has to be closed before it will start.” “Unless the latch is the problem.” “Okay,” she said, still dubious. She punched the start button. The motor hummed and water spewed onto the dirty dishes. Nick shut the door and the action came to a stop. He grinned. Good guess, Carbini! “How did you do that?” Alisa asked, her eyes wide with surprise. Mama scurried across the kitchen. “You got it fixed already?” “Not yet, ma’am.” He opened the door again. “Looks like I’m going to need a screwdriver.” Fortunately, the only problem was that the latch had loosened and didn’t make a solid electrical contact. Thus the machine wouldn’t work. It wasn’t the first time Nick had seen that particular problem. The heavy use of equipment in a 24-7 military kitchen meant lots of parts broke. He’d had to learn to keep things going with whatever he could find. From somewhere Alisa produced a screwdriver. With a few twists, Nick tightened down the latch. He closed the door and stepped back. “Okay, try it again.” The motor hummed. The water whooshed. Mrs. Machak threw her arms around Nick and kissed both of his cheeks. “You’re a genius! Thank you! Thank you!” She patted his face, which was now hot with embarrassment. “It wasn’t that hard to do, ma’am.” “You call me Mama. Everyone does. I’m going to bring you a big plate of my special chicken and dumplings. Alisa will show you a nice place to sit out front—” “I really can’t—” He figured he looked a mess, his face streaked with sweat from fighting the memories that were reflected in the stainless steel. Even without that, he was pretty dirty from chopping wood and being on the road so long. “My dog’s outside. I was hoping he’d get some table scraps.” He glanced at Alisa. She nodded. “I’ll fix Rags a dish.” “Thanks. And if you don’t mind, Mama. I appreciate your offer of supper, but I’d just as soon eat on the porch with my dog. Looking the way I do, I think I’d scare off your customers if I ate out front.” Being outside would also get him away from the reflections. Give him some space to breathe again. Mama narrowed her eyes, appraising him. “Trust me, we’ve seen worse. But if that’s what you’d like, it’s fine with me.” He made his way out the back door and walked halfway into the yard, his leg more painful than usual, before he could draw a comfortable breath of cool, fresh air. He supposed the prison chaplain who counseled him about his post-traumatic stress disorder would say it was a good thing he’d done. He’d gone into a kitchen without having a full panic attack like the one he’d had when they’d assigned him to prison kitchen duty. They’d transferred his work detail to the prison laundry in a hurry. Good thing or not, he was still shaking on the inside. Rags did a couple of circles around Nick. He knelt and wrapped his arms around the dog. A calming sensation eased his nerves. The tight muscles of his neck and shoulders relaxed. More than one night since he’d found Rags, the dog had awakened Nick before his recurring nightmare had a chance to send him screaming out into the cold. Instead, he’d buried his face in the dog’s fur, holding on while the bloody images faded. “Your dinner’s on the way, buddy.” His voice was hoarse, his mouth dry. “Sorry it took me so long.” The back door opened. Alisa stood backlighted on the porch with two plates in her hands, her slender figure revealed in silhouette. He pushed up to his feet. “You really could eat inside,” she said. “We get hikers and fishermen who’ve been out in the wilderness for weeks that look worse than you do.” “I’m fine here, thanks.” He took Rags’ plate and put it down at the foot of the steps. “Here you go, buddy.” Tomorrow he’d have to find a grocery store and stock up on dog food. He didn’t usually take handouts, but he had to admit the paprika smell of the chicken was enough to make his mouth water. Rags didn’t have any objection to the chunks of steak on his plate, either. “We do appreciate you fixing the dishwasher. I was afraid Mama was going to blow a gasket if we had to do without until our electrician could get here tomorrow.” “Glad I could help.” Alisa hesitated for a moment before handing him the plate of chicken. “Just bring your dirty plates inside when you’re done.” He nodded and watched her walk back into the kitchen. An ache of loneliness rose inside him, and he wished he could follow her into her world. A world that used to be his. He’d be a fool on any number of levels if he acted on that impulse. She’d be worse than a fool if she let him. He bent over his plate, said a silent grace and dug into the chicken. The mixture of sour cream, paprika and garlic in the sauce slid across his tongue giving his taste buds a treat. He chewed the fork-tender chicken thoughtfully. Mama Machak sure knew how to cook. * * * Alisa shook her head as she returned to the kitchen. The man was a puzzle. Scruffy and unkempt, a drifter but well-spoken. A man who worried about his dog before eating his own supper. Normally she’d find that admirable. In this case, she’d put it down to her quixotic quirk that made her a sucker for the underdog. “You get that young man his dinner?” Mama plated two chicken specials and added a serving of steamed julienne vegetables. “He’s eating on the porch with his dog. Just like he wanted.” “He’s a good man. I can tell.” “Why? Because he fixed a switch on our dishwasher?” If she’d known what was wrong, she could have fixed it herself. “No, it’s in his eyes. They’re honest eyes.” Alisa thought they were intense eyes. Penetrating. Almost mesmerizing. She didn’t know about honest. And wasn’t about to volunteer to test Mama’s intuition. “You think he’s looking for a job?” Mama asked. “I doubt he’ll stay around that long.” Mama slid the two plated dinners under the heat lamp where the waitress could pick them up. “What’s his name?” “Nick. Carboni? Caloni? Something like that.” Cocking her head, Mama frowned. “There used to be a family here. Carbini, I think it was. The mother was sickly all the time. The father worked summers at the mill and got drunk all winter. There was a cute little boy—” Alisa gasped. “Nick Carbini! I remember him from third grade. He had a neat smile and told knock knock jokes and dumb riddles until we were all sick of them. But he couldn’t be the same—” This Nick rarely smiled. She doubted he was into telling jokes. There was too much sadness about him. Still, as she remembered her classmate’s eyes... “When the mother died, the old man took the boy off with him,” Mama related. “I wondered sometimes if the youngster would be all right with his father. He wasn’t a good example for the boy.” She tossed two New York strip steaks on the grill, and they sizzled. “Maybe,” Mama mused, “your young man has come home to stay.” “He’s not my young anything.” Mama pulled off her disposable gloves and tossed them in a nearby trash container. “You watch the steaks, sweetie. I’m going see if young Mr. Carbini would like a job.” “Mama! What kind of a job? You don’t know anything about the man. He could be a criminal for all you know. Just because you knew him as a boy and felt sorry for him, doesn’t mean you can trust him as a man. It doesn’t sound like he came from a very good family.” “Not everyone is as lucky as you were to have a nice mama and papa. From what I’ve seen, Nick Carbini knows enough to fill in for Jake for a couple of weeks.” Mama grabbed her sweater from the coatrack, tossed it around her shoulders and stepped out onto the porch. Alisa rolled her eyes. Nick might have had a rough life, but he was still a drifter. She didn’t want him or his dog around, not when Greg was so obviously drawn to the pair. Not when she knew her own weakness. If Nick decided he’d take the job, she’d have to make sure to keep her distance. How she’d manage to do that with him working around the diner was beyond her. * * * Nick looked up as Mama stepped out onto the porch. At the same time, Rags lifted his head and his tail began to swipe through the air. Greedy as he was, he was probably hoping for another plate of scraps. “This chicken is great. Wonderful flavor,” Nick said. “I’ve never had dumplings like these either.” Mama beamed. “My mama taught me. It’s a Czechoslovakian dish. Some people use water for the dumplings, but milk is better.” “Gives it more flavor and body.” “Yes, absolutely.” She sat down on the step beside Nick. “So, young man, are you looking for a job?” Petting Rags, he frowned. “I don’t plan to hang around long.” He had no idea where he might go next. But he would leave as soon as his flashbacks returned. The nightmares that woke him in a cold sweat. Then he’d move on. Trying to outrun them. So far that hadn’t worked. “How ’bout for two weeks? Our handyman’s gone,” Mama said. “Jake’s daughter was hurt real bad in an accident in Spokane. He plans to come back when she’s able to manage on her own.” Two weeks. Could he hang on for that long? He wasn’t sure. He was about to say “no thanks” when the image of Alisa popped into his head. The thought that she might give him an honest smile, more than her overly practiced, the-customer-is-right smile, gave him a jolt. He had no business thinking about that. Or wanting it. “The job comes with a rent-free room at the motel next door. We own it like we own the diner,” Mama added. “You get Sunday and Monday off, unless there’s a crisis. And all you can eat here at the diner plus an hourly wage.” She named a figure that made sense to Nick. A tempting offer. “I’ve got my dog.” “I can’t let him in the diner, and I wouldn’t want him running loose around the grounds. But you can have him in the room with you as long as he behaves himself. On a leash otherwise.” Considering the job, he scratched his beard. He was definitely tired of being on the road. A clean room with a shower and free meals had a certain appeal. Foolishly, he knew the real appeal was Alisa. He doubted she’d feel the same about him. Not if she knew the truth about how he’d spent the past three years in prison for a barroom brawl. One of the many fights he’d gotten into, part of his battle with PTSD. “I sometimes get restless and need to move on. I wouldn’t want to leave you in the lurch.” Shrugging, Mama grabbed the porch railing and pulled herself up. “If you don’t steal me blind in the meantime, and I don’t think you will or I wouldn’t have offered you the job, I won’t be any worse off than I am now with Jake gone.” That was true. He didn’t have to feel pressured to stay. Slowly, he stood. “Okay, I’ll take your job.” She smiled, and he had the feeling she wanted to pat his cheek again or hug him. It had been a long time since anyone had wanted to do that, which made him feel strange and oddly vulnerable. “I’ve got a retired couple managing the motel. Frank and Helen Scotto. You’ll be doing some work for them—changing lightbulbs, maybe a few repairs, nothing heavy. And if I have anything break down here at the diner, I’ll let you know.” “Sounds good.” “Tell Frank or Helen to fix you up with a room. You can start work in the morning after breakfast.” He scratched his beard again. “Could I start a little late tomorrow? I’d like to get some of this fur off me.” “Good idea. Guess we’d all like to see what you look like under that mop you’re wearing.” Her eyes, the same deep blue shade as Alisa’s, twinkled, and she laughed. “Ned Turner’s the barber. He’s a block up the road on the left hand side. He’s got one of those red-and-white poles out front. Opens at eight.” “I’ll find him.” She stooped to pick up his plate and the dog’s. “I’ll see you in the morning.” “Thank you, Mrs. Machak. I appreciate the job. And supper.” Her brows rose. “Mama, remember?” He chuckled low in his chest. “Yes, Mama.” As Mama vanished into the kitchen, his laughter evaporated and a knot of fear twisted in his stomach. He knew he didn’t dare get too comfortable here in Bear Lake. He’d be moving on soon, a residual problem left over from his abbreviated tour in Afghanistan along with the irrational fear that drove him. Chapter Three Nick pulled open the drapes on the sliding glass door in the motel room. On the second floor at the back of the building, it had a small balcony and an angled look at the diner and a clear view to the west. A perfect place to watch the sun go down, and with the drapes open he wouldn’t feel like the walls were closing in on him. He turned back to scan the room. A queen-size bed covered with a forest-green quilt. Two pinewood end tables and a matching low chest of drawers. A small flat-screen TV. Pretty standard motel fare but he’d stayed in worse. Like an eight-foot by eight-foot prison cell. “What do you think, Rags? Home sweet home?” For a few days. Maybe a couple of weeks. It couldn’t hurt to stay put for a while. Without responding, Rags did his sniffing thing. In every new spot they’d stopped, the dog had to investigate the area thoroughly. Nick had no idea what Rags expected to find, but he sure was looking hard for it. Maybe he was searching for the trail of the family who had left him stranded in Colorado. Nick knew where his own family was, what was left of it anyway. He had no plans to track his father down again. He should have known better than to try. His old man had never had time for him. And Nick had learned to keep his distance when his dad was drinking. At least until he was old enough and big enough to hold his own. After that, his old man had left him alone. Opening the sliding glass door, he stepped out onto the balcony. Rags followed him and sat down, peering across the parking lot at the diner. The faintest hint of hamburgers on the grill drifted on a light breeze. Nick wondered which of the upstairs rooms belonged to Alisa. She sure hadn’t wandered far from home. And where was her son’s father? He hadn’t seen any sign of a husband around the place. Maybe he worked somewhere else. Or maybe he’d moved on. She wasn’t wearing a ring. None of your business, Carbini. “Come on, Rags. Let’s get our gear from the truck and then we’ll go looking for some regular dog food for you and a regular leash instead of that ol’ rope I’ve been using.” Rags whined. “Yeah, I know. You’d rather run around on your own.” He shooed the dog back inside and closed the door. “But Mama says that’s a no go. She doesn’t want you running off her customers.” He didn’t think Alisa wanted Rags playing with her son either. He’d guess Greg would think otherwise. * * * The Thursday night crowd at the diner had thinned by eight-thirty. “Good night, Alisa.” Larry Cornwall, the high school football coach, tipped his cap as he was about to leave. “I’m still waiting for you to say yes to going to the Harvest Festival with me.” She shot him a grin. “Larry, you know how busy I am on Saturday nights.” He’d been asking her out ever since he moved to town three years ago. For reasons that annoyed Mama, Alisa had always refused his invitations. “The festival’s a good cause. Football team needs your support.” “I’ll make sure to get a check in the mail to you soon.” Frowning, he shook his head. “One of these days I’ll wear you down, and you’ll say yes just to get rid of me.” She laughed. “Have a good evening, Larry.” Alisa waved goodbye to him. She turned to straighten the menus and slipped them into place beside the cash register. “I’m going to call it a night,” she said to Jolene, who was working the evening shift. An attractive woman in her thirties with two children and a husband who worked for the state highway system, Jolene was unfailingly chipper. In addition to her, Tricia, a sweet teenager who worked part-time, was waiting tables. The two of them could handle the thinning crowd. “Time to put Greg to bed, huh?” Jolene asked. “Working the number of hours I do, bedtime is about the only chance I get to spend with him.” A reality that gave her a large dose of guilt, yet she couldn’t seem to figure out how to change the situation. She couldn’t leave Mama to run the whole diner. There had been signs lately that her mother’s arthritis was beginning to bother her. “Whatever you’re doing, he’s a great little kid. Smart as a whip, too.” She dumped out the coffee from the old pot and started to make a new one. “I chalk that up to being very lucky, not to my parenting skills.” Being a single parent had many disadvantages including the lack of enough time to give her child the attention he deserved. Of course, all of the staff and most of the regulars doted on him. But she wasn’t sure that made up for her inattention. “I’ll see you tomorrow. Say hello to Fred for me.” “Will do.” Jolene shot her a bright smile. “And if you’re asking, I think Larry would be a good catch for some woman. He’s good-looking. Has a decent job.” “Guess I’m just not that woman.” As nice as Larry was, she hadn’t felt any spark with him. Without a spark, there couldn’t be love. She wasn’t going to settle for less than the real deal. If that meant she’d never have the kind of relationship her mother had had with Papa, so be it. As Alisa took the stairs to the second floor, she removed the band that held her ponytail and shook her hair loose. Her aching feet loudly announced it had been another long day. Maybe she ought to promote Jolene to shift manager and hire an additional waitress. Then she could take on some of Mama’s load in the kitchen. The fly in the ointment would be the increased employee salaries they would have to pay. The profit margin for a restaurant was slim under the best of circumstances. These days the increasing price of food from the wholesaler kept the diner on a financial razor’s edge. The second-floor living quarters had three bedrooms, a cozy sitting room with a television rarely watched by anyone except Greg, a small kitchen and eating area. Considering they had a huge kitchen downstairs and ate most of their meals there, the upstairs kitchen didn’t get used much. Greg’s cereal for breakfast or a popcorn treat at night were about the limit of its use. In the early days, before they’d bought the motel next door, Mama had rented out the rooms on the third floor. Now it was mostly unused except for storage. She found Greg sprawled on the floor watching the Disney Channel. The arrival of satellite TV had been both a blessing and bane. She tried hard to limit Greg’s TV time and the programs he saw. She wasn’t always successful. “Hey, buddy, how’s it going?” Without looking away from the TV screen, he said, “Fine.” Little boys were often inarticulate and very adept at ignoring their mothers. “So I’m planning a trip to Africa. I’m leaving in the morning. Want to come along?” A pair of matching frown lines formed above his eyebrows. Belatedly he glanced up at Alisa. “Uh? Where are you going?” She chuckled, sat down beside him on the floor and ruffled his curly hair. “Nowhere. But you’re going to go get your pajamas on and get ready for bed.” “Ah, Mom. Can’t I watch the end of this? It’s almost over.” “How about you get your pajamas and change in here? When the show’s over you can brush your teeth.” “Can I wait until the next commercial?” Alisa rolled her eyes. Her son was going to grow up to be a big-time negotiator, maybe even someone who negotiated treaties with foreign countries. He always wanted to get a little more of whatever was being discussed. He usually got his way, too. Of course, that was her fault. She hated to deny him anything. She wondered if it would be different if he had a father who set the rules. Not that Ben, the drifter who had deserted her, would have provided much of a role model or been a disciplinarian. She’d had word a few years ago that he’d been killed in a rodeo accident. Although she felt bad that he had died so young, he never would have been a factor in Greg’s life anyway. His loss. The commercial started. Good to his word, Greg hopped up and dashed into his room. Alisa stood as well. She strolled over to the window to close the curtains. Lighted windows in the Pine Tree Inn across the parking lot indicated they had nearly full occupancy. Idly she wondered which room was Nick’s. And how long he’d stick around. Not long, she imagined, giving the curtains a hard tug. No way was she going to build a fantasy of happily-ever-after with another drifter. The curtains hung up on something. She was about to give them another jerk when she saw the figure of a man standing behind the motel. Squinting, she realized two things. First, despite the shadows she recognized the man was Nick. Second, he had balanced a stick or bar between two trees and was doing chin-ups one after another. His dog sat nearby watching Nick’s every move. A moment later, he dropped to the ground and started doing push-ups. One, two, three... No wonder Nick seemed so strong, his arms so muscular. He was seriously into physical fitness. Shaking her head, she finished closing the curtains. What was it, she wondered, that drove a drifter to push himself so hard physically? * * * Nick finished his workout. Despite the cool air, he was sweating from every pour. His muscles screamed from the exertion. He barely had enough energy to get to his feet. Physically exhausted, he’d take a shower and hit the sack. Maybe with a firm mattress beneath him and clean Montana air to breathe, he’d sleep through until morning. Assuming the titanium rod and screws in his left leg didn’t put up a battle. “Come on, Rags. Let’s call it a night.” They climbed the stairs to the second floor. Nick let the dog into the room and threw the deadbolt on the door. It didn’t take him long to shower and get into bed. He smiled at the feel of the crisp sheets, the stack of pillows beneath his head and the silence outside the sliding glass door. You’re coming up in the world, Carbini. After making a few revolutions in order to pick exactly the right spot, Rags settled down on the floor next to the bed. Not much time had passed when the dream started. Distant explosions. Small arms fire. Men shouting orders. Running feet. Bullets coming closer. Fear burning in his gut. Screams of pain. Nick turned restlessly on the bed. He couldn’t run. He couldn’t leave his men. They were injured. Dying. He had to help. He bolted upright, fully awake, covered with sweat. Rags with his paws on the bed, whining pitifully. He wrapped his arms around the dog. “Good dog,” he whispered, his voice husky with residual fear. Rags had awakened him before the worst of the dream could overwhelm him. The memory of his cowardice. Lying back down, he stared up at the ceiling as his breathing slowed. Idly, he tangled his fingers in Rags’s fur. He’d be all right now. The worst was over. Until tomorrow night. * * * The following morning, Nick got up at dawn to run with his dog, the air clear, the temperature autumn-crisp. Invigorating. He showered and walked into town. He found the barbershop easily. Waiting for the shop to open, he tied Rags’s leash to a streetlamp. “Sorry, buddy. You have to stay outside.” At that moment, Ned Turner arrived to unlock the door. “You coming in for a haircut, sergeant?” “That’s the plan.” “Bring your dog inside. No need for him to stay out here all by himself.” A tall, slender man with graying hair, Ned opened the door wide. “Welcome to Bear Lake.” “Thank you.” It wasn’t often Nick had been called sergeant in the past few years, although the insignia of his former rank was obvious on his jacket. When Nick saw the military insignias plastered all over the barbershop walls and photos of army platoons, plus a shelf full of coffee mugs with unit insignias, including one mug with the chaplain’s cross, he realized why. Ned was former military himself and easily recognized the staff sergeant stripes on his army jacket. Nick looped Rags’s leash over the arm of one of the chairs that lined the wall. “Stay.” Rags sat. His eyes remained alert, riveted on Nick. “What was your unit?” Ned flipped on the lights. Nick shrugged out of his jacket and hung it on a coatrack. “Fifth Infantry. Stationed at Kandahar.” Until the army decided to send him to an outlying camp to feed the troops. When al Qaeda overran the camp, Nick got an unplanned flight out to the U.S. hospital in Germany. He was luckier than most of the guys he worked with who went home in a box. Including his best buddy, Hank. He squeezed his eyes shut momentarily to banish the image of smeared blood across stainless steel kitchen appliances where so many had died. Ned gestured toward the barber chair. “I’m First Infantry. Served in ’Nam from ’68 to ’70.” “That was a tough war.” “They all are.” He placed a cape around Nick’s shoulders and ran a comb through his hair. “So what’ll it be? Trim?” “The whole shebang, shave and a haircut. I’m helping Mama out at the diner for a week or so as handyman. Figure I ought to at least look respectable when I’m working around the place.” He smiled slightly. Alisa might appreciate a cleaned-up handyman, too, though she was unlikely to admit it. “If you’re working for Mama Machak, you better toe the line,” Ned commented. “She’s a pretty special lady around Bear Lake. Her daughter, too.” “I’ll try to remember that.” Nick didn’t doubt for a moment that the townspeople would take Mama’s side if a stranger tried to cross her. Maybe that’s what made Bear Lake a good place to live. Except he wasn’t looking for a place to settle down. As Ned began working on him, a couple of fellows came into the shop. One began making a pot of coffee without asking. The other gave Rags a couple of pats then picked up the morning newspaper. “Mitchell there behind the newspaper served in Iraq,” Ned said, snipping at Nick’s hair with his scissors. “The guy with the coffee habit is Ward. He’s a marine, but we let him hang out with us army types anyway.” Ward shot a look over his shoulder. “Only ’cause you know I could take you out with my hands tied behind my back.” Mitchell and Ned laughed. “We got ourselves our own veterans group.” Ned brushed loose hair off Nick’s shoulders. “Nothing formal, you understand. We meet every Wednesday night in my back room. Half a dozen or so, some who are still shaking off the memories of whatever war they were fighting. ’Nam, Iraq, Afghanistan, it’s all the same for us grunts when we come home. If you’re around next Wednesday, come on by.” Surprised by the invitation, Nick said, “I’ll keep that in mind.” He wasn’t sure he’d be in Bear Lake that long, or whether he’d want to sit in with a bunch of vets who probably spent their time complaining about the government. But the chaplain at the Louisiana State Prison where he’d spent three years for assault in a barroom brawl had put together a cadre of vets. They were like him—still having flashbacks. It had helped to know he wasn’t the only one. But it hadn’t changed anything. Still, he hadn’t figured out what God’s plan was for him. Or if it had anything to do with coming back to Bear Lake. A half hour later, Nick left the barbershop. His face felt naked, and he was ready for one of Mama’s hearty breakfasts. He hated to do it, but knew he had to tie Rags up this time. Mama’s orders. So he secured the leash to a post at the side of the diner and told the dog to stay. * * * Alisa grabbed a menu as a stranger walked into the diner. She greeted him with her usual smile. “Good morning. Would you like a table? Or would you rather sit at the counter?” Men alone often wanted to eat at the counter so they could visit with the waitress as she passed by. “The counter will do.” Alisa’s mouth dropped open. She knew that voice but not the face. “Nick?” Her voice caught. He flashed her a set of white teeth. “Early morning visit to the barber.” “Y...yes, I can see that.” From the third grader she’d known, Nick Carbini had grown into a striking man with a strong jaw, full lips and a classic nose. His beard and shaggy hair had been hiding a man who could cause a woman’s heart to flutter. Well, most women, she supposed. But not her. Absolutely not her. All business, she gestured toward the counter. “Take your pick.” Walking behind the counter, she placed a menu in front of him. “Coffee?” “Please. Black.” She hesitated, staring at him longer than necessary, noting the teasing glint in his incredible eyes, before wheeling around to the get the coffeepot. Now that he’d shaved and had his jet-black hair cut in a way that emphasized the natural waves, he was more dangerous than ever. What woman wouldn’t be tempted to weave her fingers through his hair? “Here you go.” She poured a mug of coffee and set it in front of him. “You work long hours,” he commented. “Through the dinner hour last night and now up for the breakfast shift.” “We get a pretty big rush until ten o’clock. Then I take a break until it’s time to set up for dinner.” “Unless you have to chop wood.” “Well, yes. Things do come up.” After years of serving customers, she suddenly didn’t know what to do with the coffeepot she still held in her hand. She licked her lips. Set the pot down on the counter. “Do you know what you want for breakfast? Or do you need a minute?” She was the one who needed a minute to get her head on straight. Whatever was wrong with her? “How ’bout a couple of over easy eggs, hash browns and wheat toast?” “Coming right up.” She returned the coffeepot to the warmer and started to write up Nick’s order. Her pencil poised over the order pad, she stopped. Her mind had gone blank. Totally empty of everything except his eyes and how he’d looked at her. For the life of her, she couldn’t remember what he’d ordered. She gnawed on her lower lip. There was no reason for her to go brain-dead simply because the man had gotten a shave and a haircut. Her face flamed as she turned to ask him to repeat his order, and that’s when her brain finally shifted back into gear. Over easy eggs, hash browns and wheat toast. She quickly wrote down the order and passed it through to Billy Newton, the morning short-order cook. Plucking up the coffeepot, she skirted the counter—and Nick—refilling customers’ cups and chatting with the regulars. A large booth near the kitchen door was permanently reserved for the “old duffers” group, men whom she’d known all of her life and were now retired. They came in to visit and gossip, drinking gallons of coffee and putting together thousand-piece jigsaw puzzles that remained spread out on the table until they were completed. “Good morning, gentlemen.” She held up the coffeepot, and two of the four men seated at the table slid their mugs toward her for refills. “How’s the world today?” “State’s talking about widening the back road to Plains to make an alternate route for tourists.” Ezra Cummings was the senior member of the group, still agile and mentally quick at the age of ninety-two. “Ain’t worth it,” Abe, a retired lumberman, complained. “Ought to save the tax money and send them tourists back where they come from.” “Don’t send them all back, Abe.” Alisa set the pot down, picked up a piece of the puzzle, studied it a moment then fit it in right where it belonged in the waterfall part of the woodland scene. “Remember Mama and I need those tourist dollars to keep afloat.” She spied another puzzle piece and dropped it into place. The old duffers nodded their approval. Alisa had been doing jigsaw puzzles for as long as she could remember. By now, finding the right spot for the oddly curved and angled puzzle tiles was instinctive. She carried the pot over to Dr. McCandless, who had been her pediatrician when she was young and now was Greg’s. He was sitting alone in a booth. Sometimes Mama came out to join him for breakfast. “Good morning, doctor. Can I fill it up for you?” “Just halfway. My doctor says I should ease up on the caffeine.” “We do have decaf, if you’d rather.” “Can’t see the sense of drinking coffee if it doesn’t have a little kick to it.” His youthful smile crinkled the corners of his pale blue eyes and made them twinkle. A longtime widower, it was amazing some woman hadn’t latched on to him by now. By the time she returned the coffeepot to the warmer, Billy had Nick’s order ready. She considered asking Dotty, who was serving the table section, to deliver Nick’s breakfast to him at the counter. But her pride, a stubborn streak much like her mother’s, wouldn’t let her succumb to acting like a coward. “Two eggs over easy, hash browns and toast.” She slid the plate in front of him. “Ketchup’s right here on the counter. Jam too.” She slid the jam closer to him. “Anything else you need?” “It looks good. I could use a coffee refill if you have time.” “No problem.” Of course she had the time. He could see no one else was sitting at the counter. So why did he have to be so nice and polite? He’d been polite as a kid, too. Never teasing the girls or chasing them like some of the boys did. One time he’d even picked up a book that she had knocked off her desk onto the floor. After that the girls had all started dropping their books or pencils or some silly thing to get his attention. He’d been unfailingly kind even though he’d known what they were up to. Shaking her head, she tried to wipe away the memory. Just because he’d been a polite kid didn’t mean anything to her now. People changed a lot in twenty years. Mama came out from the kitchen wearing a butcher apron and her graying hair in a net. “Alisa, have you seen Nick?” She spied him at the counter. “Well, now, aren’t you the handsome thing without all those whiskers.” His cheeks deepened to a rich shade of red. He dipped his head, focusing on scooping up a bit of egg yolk with his toast. “No rush, young man,” Mama said. “Finish your breakfast. Then I’d like you to try to fix those loose boards on the back steps. I noticed last night that they were wobbly. Don’t want anybody to fall, particularly when they get iced up this winter.” “I’d be happy to give it a try.” “Alisa, honey, you can show Nick where we keep the tools when he’s ready.” Her stomach sank. Perfect. Just what she wanted to do. Spend more time in Nick’s company. Not. Chapter Four Excruciatingly aware of Nick and his dog following her, Alisa led them to the equipment shed behind the diner. She heard his footsteps on the gravel. Caught the faint scent of his tangy aftershave on the breeze. Felt his eyes boring a hole into her back. Straightening her spine, she gave her hair a little toss as she keyed the padlock open and slid the door aside. There was nothing to be nervous about. She’d been in this shed for one reason or another with Jake Domino any number of times. Nick Carbini wasn’t any different. They were both handymen. Or so she told herself as Nick brushed past her into the shed, planting himself in the dim light at the center of the garage-size structure. Rags stretched out his leash to investigate on his own. “You’ve got lots of equipment,” he commented, checking out their four-wheel drive Jeep and the old aluminum fishing boat on a trailer beside it. Her father had named it Dreamer because of his dream to own his own business. She turned on the overhead lights. “We use the Jeep to clear our own parking lot when it snows and to get around town when we need to in winter. In the summer, we can drag a tiller for the small garden where we raise fresh vegetables.” “Ah, that’s why the julienne squash tasted so good last night. Nothing beats from-garden-to-table fresh vegetables.” “We’re pretty much at the tail end of the vegetable garden now.” It surprised her that he’d noticed the fresh produce. Most men wolfed down their meal without even tasting it. Apparently Nick took a little more time with his dinner. “The hand tools are to your left.” Hammers, hand saws, screwdrivers, and pliers hung neatly on a Peg-Board. “Have you done much carpentry work?” “One summer when I was a teenager I got on a construction crew as a helper.” “Is that what you do for a living? Construction?” She could have bitten her tongue for asking, but the words had simply popped out of her mouth. Her curiosity had gotten the best of her. He poked around checking out the power tools next to the workbench and hefted a power saw. “Not usually. I only lasted on the job for a couple of weeks. I dropped a load of two-by-fours on the boss’s foot. He wasn’t real happy with me.” “Guess that was long after you moved away from Bear Lake.” He turned slowly to look at her. “You know I used to live here?” Trying for casual, she leaned back against the Jeep and crossed her arms. “We were in the same third-grade class.” He returned the power saw to its place and crossed the shed to her. He studied her face, but there was no recognition in his eyes. An irritating sense of disappointment tightened her lips. “That was a long time ago,” he said. “Mama remembered your family.” He snorted a disparaging sound. “And she still hired me?” “She remembers you being a nice kid.” So did Alisa, although she wasn’t about to admit that. He looked at her again and shook his head. “I’m sure if I’d stuck around here a few years longer, I would have remembered you. You’re not a woman a man would easily forget.” But boys rarely remembered skinny girls with stringy hair and massive gaps between their front teeth, which Alisa eventually eliminated with braces. She stepped aside, trying to put more space between them. Far enough so that she couldn’t feel his eyes skimming over her face making her cheeks flush and her breath catch. “Well, help yourself to whatever tools you need to fix the steps. Just be sure to lock up the shed when you’re done.” “You got it.” Exiting as quickly as she could, she hurried back to the diner. Not a woman a man would easily forget. Did he mean that? Or was he simply being polite? A throwaway compliment? What difference would it make either way? She liked her life the way it was. Things were comfortable. Predictable. Perfect for her. During the prelunch lull, she found her mother at her desk in the kitchen working out her order for the next day from the restaurant supply delivery service. “I wish you hadn’t hired that man,” she said. Mama glanced up at her. “What man?” “You know what man I mean. Our new handyman.” “Ah, you mean Nick. Why should I not have hired him?” “Well, because...” Unable to think of a logical reason, she plopped down in the chair beside the desk. “Because he makes you nervous?” Mama provided. “Of course not. It’s just that... Well, he doesn’t really have any construction experience. He won’t have any idea how to fix the steps.” “He’s a smart man. He’ll figure it out.” Leaning back in the chair, Alisa sighed. “What is it, my little princess?” Mama asked softly, using the words Alisa’s father had called her. “Is it that you are attracted to Nick?” “Certainly not.” She folded her arms across her chest. “He only showed up yesterday. He’ll be gone soon. Why would I be attracted to a man like that?” Another drifter. Looking at Alisa with a mother’s probing eye, Mama said, “I think you are afraid to feel something for a man.” “That’s nonsense.” “Ever since Ben, you will have nothing to do with any man. You ignore them. Or you put on a phony smile and laugh off their advances. You’re thirty years old. At your age, you should be thinking about—” “Mama, I’m perfectly happy just as I am. I don’t need a man. I’ve got Greg and I’ve got you. That’s all the family I need.” Her voice shaking, she stood. “As for the men around here, they’re either married, divorced or can’t manage an intelligent conversation for more than two seconds.” “Larry Cornwall is a smart man. He has a college degree.” “He’s a jock, Mama. He talks about fullbacks and tailbacks and running the end around something. He spends his spare time watching reruns of college games. That hardly makes for an intellectual conversation.” “So you say. But it may be that Nick Carbini is different than other men you have met. Maybe there’s a reason God brought him back home.” “Don’t count on it. Besides, drifters don’t have a home.” Without saying another word, Alisa marched out of the kitchen. What a ridiculous thing for her mother to say. That she was afraid of men? Not for a moment. She could do anything a man could do. Chop wood. Plow snow from their parking lot. She could probably fix the porch steps if she were so inclined. It was just that Nick made her...nervous. She’d strayed from God’s path once, which left her with a heartache and a child born out of wedlock. Although she would never regret having Greg, she had no intention of making that mistake again. Which was precisely why Nick made her so nervous. If she weakened even a little, she might not be able to stop from making another serious error in judgment. A woman didn’t fall into a man’s arms simply because she was attracted to his dark good looks and the hint of loneliness in his eyes. That would only lead to heartache. * * * Wood rot was the problem on the bottom two steps. Not simply the bolts that held the step in place loosening. Nick had found some wood that matched the existing steps and cut it to length. There had even been a jar full of the bolts in the shed that he needed. Now he was drilling holes for the new bolts. “Hey, mister.” Silencing the drill, Nick looked up. “Hey, Greg. You can call me Nick, if you want.” “’Kay.” “How was school?” “Same ol’. What’re you doing?” Nick sat back on his haunches. “Fixing these steps. They were wobbly.” The boy eyed the new wood. “Can I help?” Nick gave some thought to whether Alisa would approve or not. “Maybe when I put the sealer on the new wood you could help.” A boy needed to feel useful, not ignored. The youngster shifted from one foot to the other, then eased over to Rags, who was tied up a few feet away. “Maybe I could play with Rags while I’m waiting.” Nick’s lips twitched into a smile. “I think Rags would like that a lot.” “Great.” He tossed his backpack aside and dropped to his knees, roughing up Rags’s coat and scratching him behind his ears. Eager to return the greeting, Rags licked Greg’s face, which resulted in high-pitched giggles. Unhooking the leash, Greg said, “Come on, boy. Let’s find a stick.” Smiling, Nick watched the two of them race off, Rags in the lead, happy at last to be able to run free. He’d never had a dog as a kid. The closest he’d come to having a pet was a goldfish he’d won at a school carnival. The poor fish—he’d named him Oscar—hadn’t lasted long. One morning Nick had found him on the floor. Oscar had apparently jumped out of his bowl during the night. Nick had wanted to bury him in the backyard, but his dad made him flush the fish down the toilet. It didn’t matter. Either way, Oscar was dead. Nick wasn’t allowed to cry. He wrestled the new steps into place and tightened down the bolts. The newly cut wood smelled clean and fresh. He could understand why a man would want to work with his hands building things. Things that lasted. Alisa stepped out onto the porch and hesitated a moment checking out Nick’s work. Then she let her gaze travel to Greg and Rags who were romping through the high grass. “Greg! Time to come in.” The boy circled around before racing Rags back to the diner. He slid to a stop, breathing hard. Rags dropped to the ground panting. Both boy and dog had worn themselves out. At least momentarily. “I was worried about you,” Alisa said. “You were late getting home.” “I was playing with Rags.” “So I gather. Come on in. You can have a snack before you do your homework.” “It’s Friday, Mom. I don’t have any homework.” “Well, come in anyway, honey. I’ll find you—” “I can’t, Mom. Nick said I could help him put sealer on the step.” Her gaze dropped pointedly to Nick, who was squatting on the bottom step. “He did?” He lifted his shoulders in a casual shrug. “The bare wood has to be sealed or it will absorb rain and snow. You’d have to replace the steps all over again in a couple of years.” “I know that.” Nick grinned. “Of course you do.” She glowered at him. Nick figured she didn’t like to be teased, but it was kind of fun anyway, seeing her get all flustered. Her cheeks turned pink with a blush. “If he’s going to help,” Nick said, “might be good if he changed into old jeans and a shirt. Sealer can get pretty messy.” Greg snatched up his backpack. “Can I, Mom? Can I?” She sighed in defeat. “I suppose.” “Thanks, Mom.” The boy leaped up the steps and burst in through the door. Resting her hand on the railing, she shook her head and frowned. “It’s all right if he helps you some, but I don’t want my son to get...attached to you.” A sharp pain of regret stabbed Nick in the chest. “You don’t have to worry. I won’t be around that long.” Her gaze skittered away from Nick. “I know. That’s exactly why I don’t want him to get too friendly with you.” “Guess your husband would object, too.” Her gaze snapped back to him. She bristled. “I don’t have a husband.” “I wondered about that.” It didn’t seem right that such a good-looking woman didn’t have a husband. A father for her son. “Guess the guys around here are all blind and half-stupid for not latching on to a good thing when it’s right in front of their noses.” She brought herself up to all of her five-feet-five height and lifted her chin. “Mr. Carbini, I’ll have you know I am not the kind of woman who latches on to any man who just happens to be handy. Nor do they latch onto me. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to see that Greg changes into something appropriate for painting the porch steps.” Doing an abrupt about-face, she marched into the diner. Thoughtfully, Nick tilted his head. She was one proud lady. Chances were good all that pride was hiding one giant hurt that hadn’t ever healed. If Nick knew for sure who had done the hurting, he’d be happy to take the fellow into the woodshed and do a little attitude correcting on Alisa’s behalf. Except chances were also good that she wouldn’t appreciate him being the one standing up for her. Not if she knew about his past. Nick got back to work, and it wasn’t long before Greg reappeared at the back porch. “I’m ready!” He wore jeans with a tear in them, a faded blue T-shirt and an eager smile. “Okay, Greg. Let’s see if your mom has a can of sealer and some paintbrushes in the equipment shed.” Nick hadn’t put Rags back on his leash after Greg went inside to change. Now the dog trotted beside the boy, probably in the hope a suitable fetch stick would appear. “You know where your mom keeps the paints?” “In the back.” The boy dashed ahead, Rags on his heels. Nick sauntered after them. Gallon paint containers lined four shelves across half the back wall. Scanning the labels, Nick found what he was looking for, a half-full can of sealer. He pried open the lid. “Looks good. Now, how ’bout brushes?” Greg picked out a couple of nice, wide brushes, and they carried the paint and brushes back to the steps. While Nick was stirring the sealer, Greg said, “Want to hear a joke?” Nick lifted his brows. “You sure it’s a good one?” “Yeah, everybody laughs. Why did the elephant paint her toenails red?” Suppressing a groan, Nick said, “I don’t know, kid. Why did the elephant paint her toenails red?” “Because she wanted to hide in a field of strawberries.” Nick’s groan escaped, followed by a chuckle. “That’s pretty good. Now, how ’bout we get to work.” Starting Greg at one end of the upper step, Nick showed the boy how to brush on the sealer without letting it drip. He started on the other end working toward the middle. As he worked, he remembered as a kid he used to tell silly jokes. He was pretty shy, and telling a joke helped him not to feel like a dork. “Okay, I’ve got a joke for you,” Nick said, pulling up an old groaner from deep in his memory. “Knock knock.” Greg grinned. “Who’s there?” “Woo.” “Woo who?” “Now don’t get so excited. It’s just a knock knock joke.” Greg laughed out loud. “That’s a good one, Nick. I’m going to tell that one to Mom.” “You do that, son.” Nick smoothed the sealer across the step. He’d like to see Alisa laugh. Her smile would light up the whole Bear Lake valley like the sun rising over the mountains. Idly he wondered when he had stopped telling jokes and became a loner instead. Maybe when he and his dad moved away from Bear Lake. * * * On Friday nights, Alisa let Greg stay up later than on school nights. After he put on his pajamas, he came and plopped down on the couch next to her where she’d been trying to read a book. “You wanna hear a joke, Mom? Nick told me a new one.” She tensed and closed her book. “Nick told you a joke?” “Yeah. While we were painting the steps. I think he likes me.” Swallowing hard, she finger-brushed his hair, trying to tame the cowlicks. “Of course he likes you. Everybody likes you.” Squirming away, he looked at her with troubled eyes. “If everybody likes me, how come my dad didn’t stick around? How come he left before I was even born?” His chin trembled ever so slightly. “Sweetie, your father—” A man she’d come to think of as no more than a sperm donor. “—He didn’t leave because of you. He left because he didn’t want to take responsibility for anyone except himself. He was too selfish to be a good daddy. Because of that, he’s the one who missed out on seeing you grow into such a smart kid. A handsome one, too.” Greg wrinkled his nose. “Nick is a responsible man, isn’t he? I mean, he’s fixing the steps for Mama and all.” Mentally, she grimaced. Her son was already falling under Nick’s spell. “Greg, honey, Nick is just filling in for Jake. He’ll be gone soon. You know that.” “Well, he might stay.” His lower lip pushed out. “If he liked it here a lot, he’d stay, wouldn’t he?” Tears burned at the back of her eyes, and she hugged her son. “If he leaves, it won’t be because of you. I promise.” It will be because a drifter can’t stay in one place too long. It’s part of their nature. Greg pulled away from her. “So do you want to hear the joke he told me?” “Sure. Let me have it, munchkin.” To her dismay, it was one of Nick’s old knock knock jokes from their grade-school days. She laughed but her heart wasn’t in it. Hadn’t the man learned anything new in the last twenty years? And why did it hurt so much to know he and his silly jokes would be moving on soon? * * * Alisa had put Greg to bed nearly an hour ago. There was nothing on TV she wanted to watch. The book she’d been reading wasn’t holding her interest, and the jigsaw puzzle spread out on the kitchen table wasn’t calling her. Mama had already retired for the night. The hum of customers downstairs had quieted to a low murmur. She could go down, see if any locals were around, join them for a cup of coffee and some conversation. Unfortunately, she was too restless to even consider that option and it bugged her. It was all Nick’s fault! Why on earth had he told Greg that silly knock knock joke? All it did was make her remember him as a boy eager to get the approval of his classmates. He’d already had her approval, which he hadn’t even noticed. In spite of her best intentions, she pulled the living room curtain aside to peek outside. He was there again, standing out beyond the end of the motel, his back to the diner, doing chin-ups on the bar stuck between two trees. “This is ridiculous.” Grabbing a jacket from the closet, she headed downstairs. She’d find out why he was so into muscle building. Then she’d be able to sleep without thoughts of Nick Carbini running around in her head. Chapter Five Alisa walked across the parking lot, approaching Nick quietly. She couldn’t imagine how many chin-ups he’d already done. Still he moved steadily, like a valve in a well tuned engine. With each lift, his biceps flexed. Sweat dampened the back of his shirt. The soft sounds he made when he pulled himself up again and again spoke of a determination to never quit. As she drew closer, the dog spotted her and alerted. Slowly, Nick turned his head toward her. Shadowed by the trees, she couldn’t read his expression as he dropped to the ground. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to interrupt your routine.” Of course, if she’d been thinking at all, she would have known he’d stop when she invaded his privacy. “It’s okay.” He bent at the waist to catch his breath. Rags trotted over to greet her. She scratched the top of his head, which got his tail wagging even faster than usual. “You work out so hard,” she said. “Are you planning to try out for Mr. America?” He coughed what was meant to be a laugh. “Hardly. I try to wear myself out at night so I can sleep better.” She tugged the sides of her jacket together, although she wasn’t that cold. “Does it work? There are nights when I could use a little help with that.” Particularly since Nick arrived in town. Her comment was greeted with such a long silence, she was about to tell him good-night and get back to where she belonged. “Learning to do chin-ups and push-ups isn’t so hard. You start easy. Do what you can, and each time you make yourself do a little more.” He paused for a moment. “I could help you if you want.” His voice was a mere whisper, no louder than the faint breeze in the treetops, and surprisingly intimate. Êîíåö îçíàêîìèòåëüíîãî ôðàãìåíòà. Òåêñò ïðåäîñòàâëåí ÎÎÎ «ËèòÐåñ». Ïðî÷èòàéòå ýòó êíèãó öåëèêîì, êóïèâ ïîëíóþ ëåãàëüíóþ âåðñèþ (https://www.litres.ru/pages/biblio_book/?art=39926410&lfrom=390579938) íà ËèòÐåñ. Áåçîïàñíî îïëàòèòü êíèãó ìîæíî áàíêîâñêîé êàðòîé Visa, MasterCard, Maestro, ñî ñ÷åòà ìîáèëüíîãî òåëåôîíà, ñ ïëàòåæíîãî òåðìèíàëà, â ñàëîíå ÌÒÑ èëè Ñâÿçíîé, ÷åðåç PayPal, WebMoney, ßíäåêñ.Äåíüãè, QIWI Êîøåëåê, áîíóñíûìè êàðòàìè èëè äðóãèì óäîáíûì Âàì ñïîñîáîì.