Hawkins Place, Ohio
Morgan Lawrence juggled the oranges and the bananas, along with the box of fruity rice cereal, milk, and chocolate syrup, as he made his way to the checkout line. He hummed along to the country music playing from the public announcement system. The smell of cologne and old lady’s perfume hung in the air, drifting through his senses with each pass of another body, and he grinned when Mrs. Harris with her blue hair gave him a wink and a hip check before heading down aisle six.
He wasn’t a recluse; he just liked some space and usually didn’t see the inside of the grocery store after seven a.m. or before ten p.m. But today, work had ended early and, desperate for food, he’d broken his usual habits.
When one more woman bumped into him, he forced a smile and got into the first open checkout line.
“Hi.” A small girl sat in a cart in front of him. She grinned with sweet, chocolate-covered lips and lifted her tightly clasped fist. “Doughnut!”
Her eyes were an amazing blue that reminded him of a northern summer sky when he’d been stationed at Fort Drum. She offered him the doughnut.
“No, thank you, miss,” he declined, as his bananas wobbled in the crook of his arm.
The cart moved several inches forward.
Oops. He straightened, not realizing that he’d been crouched to the girl’s eye level, and smiled for the mother, quickly giving his attention to the magazine rack on his left.
But it wasn’t the magazines he saw.
The woman—graceful neck, toned arms, strong hands, and long fingers. Her dark hair, short and a little messy, made him want to run his hands through it. She had the same blue eyes as the daughter and was thin, way too thin for his liking, yet at the same time, seeing her punched him right in the gut, as if he should recognized her.
But he couldn’t quite place the face.
The wary, evil eye she sent his way made him scratch his chin to hide a grin. He hadn’t shaved in two days. He wore jeans with holes in the knees and an old Marlboro shirt that had turned gray and worn through.
He deserved the evil eye.
The woman was paying when he set his armload on the conveyer belt.
Morgan forced his attention to his own items when he really wanted to get one last look.
Woman with a kid! Probably married.
Interesting though, he hadn’t bothered looking in a long time. Years.
“Bye!” The energetic and captivating voice forced him to look up, and he couldn’t help but smile and wave back at the chocolate-covered hand flapping frantically in his direction.
The mother gave him her back, officially blocking his communication with her daughter. He studied the rigid line of her spine and the slight sway of almost nonexistent hips and wished he’d gotten a better look at her face.
Something about her pulled at a part of him he thought he’d buried long ago.
* * *
Samantha pulled to a stop in front of the rundown, double-wide trailer on the west side of Hawkins Place, Ohio, and her heart sank. Same as it did every morning, every outing, every danged time she let her brain think.
One short month since she’d left Philadelphia to come home, and she still fought the urge to cry. This place was not what she’d had in mind for her little girl.
But her father had failed to mention he’d sold their family home, the home she’d always thought would come to her some day. The home that had been in her mother’s family for almost a hundred years. The house had been her grandmother’s and then her mother’s…and it should have been hers.
Cancer had taken her mother. Had it taken her hope for a decent future as well? With only an old letter from her grandmother years ago, she doubted there was a legal leg for her to stand on. But she had to try, had to find out just how screwed she was… From the frying pan into the fire.
Still, living with her father was affordable, and for that, at least, she could be thankful.
Olivia had fallen asleep in her car seat so Sam left her there while she loaded her arms with bags and carried them into the small kitchen. A line of beer bottles glared at her from the windowsill above the sink. Dirty dishes from her dad’s breakfast waited on the counter to be washed.
She’d agreed to take on some household duties to live here rent-free. Dishes were a small thing, but after her trip to the store, in which Olivia would not shut up until she’d gotten a doughnut and nothing she’d needed seemed to be on the shelves—who didn’t have macaroni and cheese?—she wished for a fantasy to hide in. A resort where the sun was always shining and pool boys served pretty drinks with umbrellas.
She stepped back outside and the warm air embraced her. Taking a deep breath, she let the scent of the milled wood that wafted up from the river ease her mind. If she was completely honest, there was only one reason to be as bent out of shape as she was right now.
Morgan Lawrence hadn’t even recognized her. He’d looked good, darn good, too good even. She’d expected he would have put on a bunch of weight. But no, that would be asking too much. He was trim as usual, not tall, just a few inches or so over her five six. He hadn’t seen a razor lately, but instead of looking unkempt and disorderly, he’d looked rugged and handsome. His forearms had bulged slightly from the pushed-up thermal sleeves he’d had on under the rattiest-looking shirt ever.
And he’d smiled at Olivia and distracted her daughter from the multitude of sweet attractions that were bound to grab her attention in the checkout line.
Without trying, he’d earned a few bonus points.
He’d always been good at earning those points. His allure—and downright sexual appeal—had won her over years ago, and even after all this time, she’d never quite evicted him completely from her heart. Annoying.
Before opening the side door of the car, she peered into the glass. Had she really changed that much? She saw the same girl in the reflection, only this one had more baggage than the one Morgan had known. Maybe she was thinner and her hair was definitely shorter, but jeez…she would recognize herself.