|Perfect. Just perfect.|
Amanda Gardner pulled onto the side of the deserted country road as what she'd assumed was steam took on the alarming smell of smoke. To be on the safe side, she shut off the engine and popped the hood release. Not that she'd know what she was looking at, she thought as she left the disabled car. But maybe opening the hood would dispel some of the heat and the engine would start again in a little while.
Sure, she grumbled to herself as she looked through the crack for the rusty latch. And pigs could fly like hummingbirds.
When she touched the hood with her palm, she realized something was very wrong. It felt hot enough to cook eggs over easy, and she instinctively pulled away. Good thing, too. As she backpedaled on her Italian heels through the dusty gravel, the engine burst into flames.
A few months ago, she'd had a promising career in advertising and public relations, and a splashy condo in Malibu. Now, here she stood, completely incapable of doing anything but stare. She was vaguely aware of a strong arm pushing her aside and someone stepping in front of her with a large fire extinguisher. When she recovered enough to get a good look at the man who'd come to her rescue, she gasped in surprise. John Sawyer.
The rangy farm boy who'd lived in her memories all these years had grown into an Adonis dressed in faded jeans. She thought he'd actually gotten taller, and the pale blue T-shirt he wore sculpted its way around muscles the guys she'd known in Los Angeles couldn't have built in a year at the gym. Those kinds of muscles you could only get working your entire life on a farm. And this guy had them to spare.
The girls had drooled over him during high school, and now he was absolutely irresistible. He must have to fend off every unattached woman within ten miles. Not that John would even think of refusing female attention, she amended with a little grin. If she remembered correctly, her childhood best friend had always taken all that very much in stride.
Once the flames died down, her rescuer flung open the hood and doused the engine with the last of the foam.
"Whew! That was close." As he looked at her, she saw no hint of recognition in his summer-blue eyes. "Are you all right, ma'am?"
"Ma'am?" she echoed with a laugh. "Are you serious? You've known me since we were four."
He studied her for a few seconds, then cocked his head like a confused hound. "Amanda?"
The humor of the situation dispelled some of the terror she'd felt watching the car she'd just been sitting in erupt in flames. "I know it's been a while, but I can't believe you didn't recognize me."
After assessing her from head to toe, he came back to her face with a disapproving frown. "You look a lot different than the last time I saw you."
Thirteen years ago, she recalled sadly. The day she hugged him goodbye and got on a plane, headed for UCLA.
"I guess so." Shoving the bittersweet memory aside, she asked, "How have you been?"
"Fine." He gave her wheels a skeptical look. "Where'd you get this heap?"
"From a girl in California," Amanda replied as vaguely as possible. Although she was looking directly at John, it was hard not to notice that he was focused on the car. She had a feeling he wasn't any more pleased about their unexpected reunion than she was.
"Hope you didn't pay her too much."
It had cost her a valuable vintage watch, but Amanda thought it was best to keep her dire financial straits to herself. For now, and maybe forever. She hadn't decided yet. "She gave me a good deal."
Obviously uncomfortable, he glanced around before meeting her eyes. "So, what brings you by?"
"I had an interview in Kenwood and was on my way back to that cute new B and B outside of Harland."
"It's been there ten years."
Amanda felt a flush creeping over her face, but she forced a smile. "It's new to me."
After an awkward silence, he asked, "How'd your interview go?"
"I was overqualified," she confessed with a sigh. "Just like yesterday and the day before."
John gave her a long, hard stare. She wasn't fishing for sympathy, but she didn't know what to make of his nonreaction. She'd known him most of her life, and she'd never seen him this closed-off. No, she corrected herself. She'd once known him very well, but she'd been gone a long time and hadn't gone out of her way to keep in touch. They might as well have been strangers.
To avoid his cool gaze, she glanced around at the fields surrounding them. The tractor he'd obviously driven up on sat across the road from her car. It was mid-May, and green shoots of various crops stretched out for what seemed like miles. The buzz of more tractors floated in on the warm breeze, and she took a deep breath of air scented with the first cutting of hay. Accustomed to the exciting, nonstop pace of L.A., she'd forgotten how it felt to stand somewhere and just breathe.
"The place looks great," she complimented him. "You must be really proud."
Folding his arms, he pinned her with a suspicious glare. She couldn't recall his ever being anything but wide open and friendly, and she had a feeling she was one of the few who'd ever seen that scowl on his sun-bronzed face.
"We're scraping by," he said curtly. "Some folks prefer hard work to glitz and glamour."
"I'm done with all that, and the advertising and PR agency, too. I'm coming home." Not completely by choice, but she had no intention of discussing that with him.
"I don't care if you believe me or not. It's the truth."
"Whatever." When she glowered back at him, he shook his head in typical male bewilderment. "You look a little flushed. We should get you in outta the heat."
The thoughtful suggestion soothed her frayed nerves, and she gave him a grateful smile. "Sounds good to me."
She opened the back door to get her one bag. A noname duffel, it made her long for her matching set of Louis Vuittons. Then again, you didn't need Louis when you'd sold most of your clothes. At least she'd managed to keep the gorgeous Prada shoes she was wearing. Custom-made, they wouldn't have fit anyone else. Still, she'd worn them to the auction, just in case any of those bargain-hunting divas got any bright ideas.
After slamming the door closed, she realized that her bag smelled like smoke. That meant all the clothes inside did, too. Considering the endless string of horrible circumstances she was currently mired in, she should be glad they hadn't been reduced to ashes. Fortunately, her suit had escaped the worst of the smoke, which meant she could avoid the cost of dry-cleaning it. Although pickings were proving to be very slim, she was hoping she'd need it for more interviews.
John held out his hand, and she couldn't imagine what he wanted. "What?"
"I know you've been in the big city awhile," he answered with a crooked grin, "but around here, guys don't let ladies carry heavy bags."
"Oh." She blinked, then said, "It smells awful."
"That's okay," he replied as he swung it onto his shoulder. "So do I."
They both laughed, and John saw some of the tension leave her shoulders. As he started across the open field, she stopped him with a disgusted noise.
"You're kidding, right?" she demanded, as if he'd suggested they walk to the moon.
He pointed toward the house in the distance. "It's quicker to cross lots."
"Not in these." She angled her ridiculously high heels so he could see what she meant.
"So take 'em off."
"And drag these gorgeous Armani trousers through the mud? I don't think so."
"It's half a mile if we walk up the road." She gave him a chiding look, and he sighed. "Fine. Whatever."
John changed course and fell in step beside her. She seemed preoccupied, which gave him a chance to assess this near-stranger who had interrupted his plowing.
He didn't like what he saw.
As if the shoes weren't enough, her navy pantsuit was cut pretty close to the bone, giving her an angular, almost masculine appearance. Maybe it worked in L.A., but John didn't think much of it. For some crazy reason, she'd flattened her natural curls so she resembled a blond version of Cleopatra. Then there was the makeup. Applied with a trowel, it was photo-shoot perfect but covered the dusting of freckles that used to pop up on the bridge of her nose.
Even her personality seemed to have changed. He didn't remember her being so fussy, but spending years in a big, hectic city like Los Angeles would probably do that to anyone. Since he'd never lived anywhere but Harland, he wouldn't know.
When he realized they'd trudged along in silence for quite a while, he searched for something to say. "How're your parents liking Arizona?"
"Fine. Dad's dropped six strokes off his golf handicap. He says if he'd retired sooner, he'd be headed for the Champions Senior Golf Tour by now."
"And your mom?"
"Is the activities director at their condo's community center. She knows everyone and everything that's going on there, so she's happy."
Something in Amanda's tone seemed off to him, but they hadn't seen each other in so long, he couldn't be sure about it. And even if he was right, it was none of his business.
"Yeah, she always did throw a good party. Is your brother out there, too?"
"He and his family live in Wisconsin. How about the Sawyers?" she asked. "Are you all still around here?"
"Yup. You remember Caty McKenzie?" When she nodded, he went on. "Well, she married Matt, and they had Hailey a couple months ago. Marianne married his best man, Ridge Collins, last year, and now they're adding twins to the two kids she already had. And Lisa married Ruthy's nephew, Seth, last month. They're in Europe on their honeymoon right now."
"Wow! There's been a lot going on." After a few moments, she paused and pulled him to a stop. "I heard Ethan passed away a few years ago. I'm so sorry."
Coming out of the blue that way, her sympathy hit John like a truck. The latest in a long line of farmers, he wasn't the type to fret about things beyond his control. You worked hard and planned, then you adjusted when life threw you a curveball. There had been plenty of those in the last three years, starting with his father's wrenching death from a heart attack.
The tragedy had affected the Sawyers in some remarkable ways. Matt finally came home and mended fences with Marianne, then settled in Harland for good. It made Marianne rethink her priorities, and she was one class away from earning her master's in teaching. It even encouraged baby sister Lisa to use her artistic talent to start an interior-design business.
John hadn't changed, though. He was still trying to come to grips with the fact that if he'd been paying more attention during that long, hot day of haying, their father would still be alive. Matt and the girls kept telling him he couldn't have known anything was wrong, and he had to quit blaming himself. So far, he hadn't been able to manage that.
When he realized Amanda was watching him, he jerked himself back to the present. "Thanks."
"I know how much he meant to you. It must have been really hard."
Sympathy shone in her vivid blue eyes, coming through the phony makeup with an honesty that told him his childhood best friend was still in there somewhere.
Sure, he scoffed silently. The friend who had flown across the country the day after graduation and promptly forgotten all about him. No phone calls, no letters, no emails, nothing. It was as if she'd kicked the dust of Harland off her fancy shoes and never looked back.
Being a Sawyer boy, he'd appreciated girls for as long as he could remember. Tall, short, slender, curvy, blonde, brunette or redheadit really didn't matter to him. He enjoyed them all, and they returned the favor. John wasn't in the market for anything serious, and he was always up-front about that.
Amanda Gardner had been different. His best friend, the one who always listened when he talked, even if he didn't say things quite right. The one he confided in when his latest girlfriend baffled him. He and Amanda had been close for so long, he'd thought she'd always be in his life somehow.
Until the day she wasn't.
He'd waited for her to contact him, give him an address to send letters to, something. Anything. As the years went by, he wondered about her less and less, until he finally decided she was gone for good. Of all the girls he'd known, it was the one he'd trusted most who had hurt him. Girlfriends came and went without causing all that much damage.
Losing his best friend had broken his heart. Since it looked as if she was actually moving back to Harland, he had to make sure that didn't happen again.
When John fell silent, Amanda felt horrible for upsetting him. Ethan's death seemed long ago to her, but obviously for John the pain was still very fresh. Expressing her condolences was appropriate, she reminded herself, the polite thing to do. She hadn't meant to make him sad. Still, she felt awful about it.
Sensing that John was angry with her didn't help at all. Not that she could blame him for that, since it was her fault they'd grown apart. She wondered if everyone in Harland would give her the same kind of cool reception he had. With a mental sigh, she resolved to be patient and do her best to restore the connections she'd allowed to lapse. It had been easy to let them go when she'd been so far away. Now that she was back, rebuilding those neglected relationships could mean the difference between success and failure.
Finally, in the shade of an oak tree, Amanda saw the hand-carved sign that had stood in the same spot since long before either of them was born.
Those two simple words brought back a flood of wonderful memories, and they turned onto a dirt lane shaded by a canopy of ancient white oaks. Weathered split-rail fences bordered the winding driveway that led to a rambling white farmhouse. With broad, welcoming porches, it was framed by gardens filled with every kind of flower that grew in this part of North Carolina.
Just walking toward that house made Amanda feel that things might actually work out for her. Eventually.
They went up the back porch steps, and John dropped her smoky bag on the bench near the door. "That's seriously all your stuff?"
Questions sparked in his eyes, but to his credit he didn't voice any of them. "You used to take more than that to church camp."
It had been ages since she'd even thought about church, so John's mention of those simple, carefree times made her squirm. "I travel a little lighter now."