Born in a Small Town / Page 26

Page 26


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He made a pleased sound that sent a pleasant frisson tiptoeing up her spine. “Well, Melanie, we’d better keep moving.”

“I can’t imagine a four-year-old boy climbed up here.”

“I can’t, either.” A grimace tugged his mouth.

“This kid sounds like an adventurer, though. Let’s hope…”

She knew what he hoped: that four-year-old Brandon had ventured into the woods and not onto a slippery rock in the river. She was glad not to be in the group that had followed the Deschutes downstream.

He headed toward a giant fallen ponderosa riddled with insect holes, Melanie toward a lava outcrop. No small boy snoozed in a cranny. Looking up, she spotted the man searching on her other side. They exchanged waves and a few shouted words.

The trees grew larger as the ground leveled, their rough boles sufficient to hide a child. She kept glancing to her left, where Kevin McNeil moved quietly through the woods, never a branch popping under his feet. He walked lightly, with a contained grace, no extraneous swing of the arms or bob of his head. A natural woodsman. It was easy to imagine him in buckskins and moccasins.

Several times, in the slow progress through the woods, Kevin came near enough for them to talk briefly.

“Not very many women in the search-and-rescue group,” he commented once.

“I don’t mountain-climb,” she said somewhat defensively, “but I’ve always loved hiking, so I thought I could help in this kind of search even if I’m not strong enough to carry an injured man.”

“I didn’t mean that as criticism.”

“But you did feel you needed to help me over a rough bit.”

She’d have sworn his eyes darkened even as his voice deepened. “Needed? No. It just seemed like a good excuse.”

He was flirting with her, the mother of an eight-year-old. She didn’t have the experience often.

“Oh,” she said inanely.

Obviously she didn’t have the experience often enough, Melanie thought ruefully.

She was immediately annoyed at herself for worrying about something so frivolous when a child was missing.

A brief smile touched Kevin McNeil’s eyes and mouth, but he turned away when a shout came from his left.

“Well, will you look at that?” he murmured.

She looked, and felt a burst of elation. John Clooney, who owned Elk Springs’s major furniture store and who had been part of the group, was striding toward them with a sleepy boy cradled in his arms.

Shaking his auburn head in wonderment, Kevin put his whistle to his mouth and blew three short sharp blasts, the signal to gather. Then he took the walkie-talkie from his belt and spoke briefly into it.

In the distance Melanie heard other whistles.

“Hello, Brandon,” Kevin said, when John had reached them. “Your mommy has been looking for you.”

The boy buried his face shyly in John’s chest. The adults laughed. When the whole party had gathered, they started down, taking turns carrying Brandon, who woke up and began to enjoy himself, bouncing on the men’s shoulders and chattering.

“That,” Kevin said to Melanie, “is one kid who needs to be kept on a leash. I’ve never approved of leading a child around like a dog, but there’s an exception to every rule.”

She had been very aware that he was right beside her in the descent. “Thank God my daughter’s timid!” she exclaimed. “The worst she ever did was hide inside a clothing rack at the Emporium.”

“What’s she like?” he asked, matching his steps to hers. “Does she look like her mother?”

“A little.” Angie’s hair was a shade darker, her brown eyes a shade lighter, but she had Melanie’s round face and snub nose. “Although she’s going to be taller. Like her father. Right now, she’s skinny, shy and sweet. Angie is the kind who stands up for a classmate when other kids are making fun of him. She has a good heart.”

“Something tells me she gets that from you, too.”

Flustered, Melanie stopped and let others pass on the narrow trail. “You’re flirting with me.”

“You noticed.” For the first time, his lean tanned face looked wary. “You’re not flirting back.”

“I’m a mom! I don’t know how.” Now she felt incredibly stupid.

“But you’re not married.”

Someone else brushed past them. Melanie shook her head.

“Engaged?” When she shook her head again, he said, “Seeing someone?”

“No.” Now she sounded as shy as her daughter.

“Ah.” He had a way of investing that drawn-out sound with a rumble of satisfaction that brought warmth to her cheeks. “Well, then, Melanie Parker, would you have dinner with me some night?”

“But…I don’t know you.”

“I was hoping to remedy that.” He took pity on her. “I’ve just started teaching at the community college. My brother is general manager at the Juanita Butte ski area. Scott McNeil?”

She’d read his name in the newspaper.

“I’m respectable,” he promised, in that velvet-deep voice he used when he was looking straight into her eyes.

She did sometimes dream of finding a man she could love, of remarrying, of perhaps even having another child. But the odds had never seemed very good, given that she was thirty now and the good men her age in Elk Springs were generally married.

And she was not leaving Elk Springs, no matter what. She’d decided that some time ago. She’d had a lifetime of wandering. This was home. Angie would grow up in the rambling old house Melanie had inherited when Nana died. She would never have to tearfully leave her friends behind or walk into a new school midterm, facing a roomful of mocking strangers. Angie, Melanie had vowed four years ago when she’d come home to Elk Springs for good, would always know where she belonged.

But Kevin McNeil was apparently single, incredibly sexy and established right here in Elk Springs. Dreams did come true, a small inner voice whispered.

“Okay.” She sounded gruff rather than sultry, but her throat seemed to be constricting her vocal chords.

“Yes. I’d like to have dinner with you.”

“Good.” His smile was slightly crooked, almost tender and heart-stoppingly sexy. “Now that we have that out of the way, let’s go watch a reunion.”

CHAPTER TWO

“WELL, WELL, WELL.” Kevin rotated on his heels, gazing in wonder at the racks and heaps of fantastic, colorful costumes that filled the room like Aladdin’s cave.

“You didn’t ask what I did for a living.” Melanie watched him from the doorway.

When he’d seen the sign outside her old house, the one arching above the white picket fence that bounded her yard, he’d asked to see some of the costumes. Somehow, he hadn’t pictured such…profusion. Or the exquisite detail that made these garments light-years from the cheap Halloween costumes sold to kids for trick-or-treating.

“I couldn’t picture what you did for a living.” Something physical, he had guessed, despite her pale silky skin, a delicious contrast to her warm brown hair. But she was slim and fit and moved well. Besides, not that many women joined the search-and-rescue group. She might own a nursery or work for the county parks or make cabinets. “But I wouldn’t have guessed something so…”

She folded her arms. “Outlandish?”

“Unusual,” he corrected, eyeing an elaborate green velvet dress that might have been Elizabethan in style. With her smooth long hair and tall slender figure, Melanie would look gorgeous in it.

Unusual wasn’t the first word that had come to mind, however. It was domestic, and this bothered him. The women he’d been involved with were biologists, park rangers, oil geologists. They were outdoorswomen, with lives often as nomadic as his.

But what difference did it make? he asked himself. He and Melanie Parker didn’t have a relationship; they were going on one date. The future wasn’t an issue.

She looked around now, too, her expression reminiscent, even bemused. “It started small. The granddaughter of one of Nana’s friends was getting married. She complained about how mundane all the wedding dresses she saw were. She didn’t want to look like every other bride, she said. I asked what she wanted to look like. She ended up with a Renaissance theme. Her dress was white and gold and absolutely glorious, if I do say so myself. The bridesmaids all wore deep-blue silk over gold embroidered underskirts, the bodices really low cut…” Unselfconsciously, she gestured at her own bosom, making all too vivid the picture she drew. “Slashed fines-trella sleeves…” She blinked, apparently realizing she had probably lost him. “Anyway, the dresses were a hit. I’d been job-hunting, but I was asked to make the gowns for another wedding and then another. Eventually I branched out into other types of costumes. Now I rent, as well as sell. Obviously—” she touched an exotic Gypsy-style dress hanging beside her “—this is my busy time of year. Usually more of these costumes are packed away.”

Kevin hadn’t dressed up for Halloween in twenty years. Yet interestingly, most of these costumes were in adult sizes.

“What will you be for Halloween?” he asked, tilting his head.

“Me?” Melanie wrinkled her nose. “A seamstress trapped behind my sewing machine making last-minute alterations. Somebody is sure to show up at the last possible second saying his costume doesn’t fit.” Her pursed lips barely hid her sudden merriment. “Now, you…why, I think you have the legs to be a Regency dandy. Or maybe you’d prefer a seventeenth-century French getup with bloomer breeches fastened below the knees with garters. Striped breeches. Say, red and gold. Crimson tights work well below that. They accentuate the calves—”

Kevin recoiled. “In your dreams.”

She pretended to look thoughtful, a smile playing around her generous mouth. “I’ve never made chain mail, but I could try, if that’s more your thing…”

He grinned. “I can’t say my tastes have ever been that kinky, but if that’s what you’re into…”

Melanie gave a startled giggle. She slapped her fingers to her lips. “Oh, dear. I sound like Angie.” Her pretty brown eyes reproved him. “Maybe we should go.”

He rubbed a hand over the jaw he’d shaved only half an hour before. “Maybe so. Although I’m beginning to wish we were going to a costume ball. So I could see you in that dress.” He nodded toward the green velvet number.

She glanced down at herself. What she was actually wearing was a short black skirt, black tights and a V-neck snug-fitting sweater the color of a ripe plum. She looked Bohemian, a young poet ready to go to a coffeehouse for deep and lengthy discussions about politics and art and love.

Hell, Kevin thought, forget the Elizabethan getup; he kind of liked her the way she was, hair swishing over her shoulder in a ponytail that had started atop her head and was already sliding down from its own weight. The other day, when he should have been focused on nothing but finding a four-year-old in green corduroy, his head had kept turning until he spotted Melanie Parker with that leggy distinctive walk. Bands of late-afternoon sunlight had broken between the pines above, awakening a quiet glow in her hair that had been tumbling from its confines then, too. It had looked like heavy silk.


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