Born in a Small Town / Page 3

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Abbey considered arguing with him, but he was right and he knew it. “Don’t you remember how badly Scott wanted us to get married?” she asked, the years rolling away with the memory. Sawyer had originally proposed for what Abbey believed to be all the wrong reasons. It’d nearly broken her heart to turn him down, but with one failed marriage behind her, she couldn’t afford to make a second mistake. She’d already fallen in love with him, but his proposal had been motivated more by his fear that someone else might ask her first. Or so it had seemed to her. Loving him the way she did, afraid he didn’t really love her, she’d believed that the only sensible option was to protect her family—and her vulnerable emotions. She’d decided to leave Hard Luck. Then Scott and Susan had disappeared. Abbey had never known such panic as she’d felt that night.

Her husband reached for her hand, gently squeezing her fingers. “If not for Scott and Susan running away, I might have lost you. I was crazy about you then and I’m even crazier about you now.”

Abbey pressed her head to his shoulder, savoring the feel of his arms around her.

“Only, back then I didn’t know how to tell you,” Sawyer said, the frustration and anguish of that night evident even after all these years. “I didn’t know how to persuade you to stay.”

Abbey kept her head against her husband’s shoulder. “Now Scott needs our help,” she whispered.

“With Chrissie?”

Abbey nodded. “I’m afraid he’s more like you than you realize. He loves Chrissie, but he’s not sure how to proceed.”

“Are you suggesting I give him advice?” Sawyer asked, looking aghast at the prospect.

Abbey giggled. “Hardly. The situation calls for diplomacy.”

Her husband’s frown cut deep grooves in his forehead. “Like what?” he asked warily. “And please note that I’m ignoring the slur on my diplomatic abilities.”

Abbey smiled. “I think we should hold a welcome-home party for him. We have a lot to celebrate, don’t you think?”

“We do indeed.” Sawyer’s face relaxed. “And there’s someone you’re going to invite, isn’t there?”

“Shh.” Abbey brought her index finger to her lips.

“I don’t want to be obvious about it.”

“Right,” Sawyer said, sounding amused. “We wouldn’t want to be obvious.”

“We’ll make it a surprise party.”

“A surprise party?” Sawyer echoed. “But who do you intend to surprise? Scott or Chrissie?”

IT WAS ALMOST FOUR-THIRTY when Scott walked into the Hard Luck Café—too early for the dinner crowd. The restaurant hadn’t changed much over the years, and neither had Ben. To Scott’s eyes, Ben Hamilton had aged barely a year in the past ten. He was in his sixties now, his hair a little thinner on top but his welcoming smile as warm and wide as always.

“Scott!” Ben greeted him with unconcealed delight. “Hey, boy, you’re a sight for sore eyes.”

The two men exchanged hearty handshakes and then impulsively hugged.

“So you’re moving back to Hard Luck?” Ben asked.

“I am,” Scott confirmed, and slid onto a stool at the counter. He picked up a menu, although he wasn’t planning to order a meal. The menu was a lot more professional-looking than it used to be with its smudged type and cracked plastic coating. But fancy menus or not, the Hard Luck Café had been his favorite restaurant for years, and in his time away he hadn’t found any better.

“We got salmon on special. Mary poaches it in a lemon sauce that’s out of this world.” Ben extravagantly kissed his fingertips as he spoke.

In the old days, Ben had served everything loaded down with fat and extra calories. No more; his wife, Mary, had seen to that. Healthy food choices had started appearing on the menu when Ben married her, although the changes had been fairly subtle.

“Salmon sounds good, but Mom’s cooking me a feast. I’d better not disappoint her.” He closed the menu and tucked it behind the sugar canister. Ben automatically poured him a mug of coffee.

“So I hear you’re going to be flying with your dad and Christian.”

“I am.” His hands cupped the mug. Scott had earned his pilot’s license when he was sixteen. Whereas most teens hungered for their driver’s license, Scott had been far more interested in learning to fly. After his stint in the army, he’d worked for a flight service out of Utah, flying tourists over the Canyonlands. He’d been content during those years, enjoying his freedom and earning decent money. He’d had friends, lots of them, and a number of women he saw on a regular basis—but these relationships were all casual, without depth or commitment. He’d also been engaged once, but that had turned into a spectacular mess, and he hadn’t repeated the experience. Then, a month ago, he’d suddenly realized he’d been running away from what he wanted most, and that was his home and his family. He missed Alaska, regretted the anger of his youth and the pain he’d brought his parents. It was time to make amends. In fact, it was long past time.

And then there was Chrissie.

He smiled just thinking about their encounter that morning. When he announced that he’d merely come for legal advice, she’d looked like she wanted to crawl into a hole and die. He’d managed not to laugh then but he couldn’t restrain his amusement now. He chuckled, replaying the scene in his mind.

“Did I miss something funny?” Ben asked, sidling up to the counter and leaning against it just as he had for more years than Scott could remember.

“Not really,” Scott told him, suppressing his mirth. “Just something that happened this morning, soon after I got here.”

“Oh.”

Scott had stopped by Chrissie’s office on business, but he was willing to admit there was more to it than that. He’d wanted to see her and, in fact, had been anticipating their meeting for weeks.

Chrissie was one of the reasons he’d stayed away from Hard Luck and one of the reasons he’d come home.

“Seems just like the old days seeing you again,” Ben said.

“The old days,” Scott repeated. Back then, the Hard Luck Café had been the gathering place for the entire community. Men, in particular, used to meet at Ben’s the way some might socialize in a tavern. Not only that, many people in the community, if not most, had come to Ben at one time or another to talk through their troubles. Scott suspected they continued to do so.

“Do you still have that Frequent Eater program?” Scott asked.

“Nah,” Ben answered with a grin. “Don’t need it. These days I got more business than I know what to do with.”

Scott nodded; he wasn’t surprised that Ben’s remained popular. He knew that over the years a couple of other restaurants had opened, but the Hard Luck Café was—and deserved to be—everyone’s favorite. Ben was officially retired; however, he couldn’t quite keep his hands out of the business.

“I remember you as a youngster, sitting on one of those stools,” Ben said with genuine fondness.

“Only seems right to see you here now.”

“It used to be I could talk to you about anything,” Scott recalled.

“Still can, if you’ve got a hankering,” Ben assured him.

Scott was tempted. Many a time he’d talked out his problems with Ben Hamilton. Many a time he’d felt as if the world was against him. Few people knew it, but Ben was the one who’d suggested Scott consider enlisting in the military. A former navy man, he’d been disappointed when Scott chose the army. But not as disappointed as Sawyer that he hadn’t decided on the air force.

Back then, Scott had been downright contrary. Angry, too, only he didn’t know why or at what. Eventually he’d recognized that it wasn’t Sawyer he hated or even his biological father, a man who’d rejected his own wife and children. He knew now that he’d been old enough at the time of his parents’ separation to be aware of his father’s rejection and to be seriously hurt by it, to wonder if he was somehow to blame. The teen years had become increasingly difficult, and then Eagle Catcher, his husky, had died. The grief he’d felt over the loss of his dog—a grief he couldn’t share—had turned to anger. Hardly understanding himself, he’d lashed out at those he loved most. The things he’d said and done deeply embarrassed him now.

“Anything you want to discuss?” Ben asked, sounding eager. “It stays right here. Nothing you tell me goes any further.”

Scott hesitated, then decided to ask about Chrissie. Really, there wasn’t anyone else he could ask. Not Susan, who was guaranteed to run to her friend and repeat every word. Not the other pilots, either, or his uncles or aunts. No one in his extended family, that was for sure.

“Is Chrissie seeing anyone special?” he blurted out before he could stop to ponder the wisdom of showing his hand like this.

“Chrissie Harris?” Ben asked as if there were two Chrissies in Hard Luck. He averted his gaze. “As a matter of fact, she is.”

“I see.” So Chrissie was involved. It made sense that she would be; he knew she hadn’t married. Ridiculous though it was, considering their history, he’d hoped she’d be as interested in renewing their relationship as he was.

“I’ve never met him, mind you,” Ben continued.

“He’s in Fairbanks?”

“So I understand.”

“You hear anything else?”

“Some.” Ben was less forthcoming than usual.

Scott waited patiently.

“I don’t know who he is. I’m probably speaking out of turn by telling you anything.”

“I’d like to know,” Scott insisted. “I need to know,” he thought to himself.

“She visits Joel every second weekend. That’s all I know—Joel, Fairbanks, twice a month. Okay?”

“Does Joel have a last name?” Not that it mattered, but Scott was curious.

“Must have, but no one’s ever told me.”

There’d been a Joel Higgins a year behind him in school—a good athlete, well liked and well adjusted. Needless to say, Scott hadn’t cared for him and dismissed him as a male Goody Two-shoes.

“Every other Saturday morning Chrissie flies into Fairbanks and doesn’t return until Sunday afternoon. Generally she comes in here for a bite to eat before heading home. Once in a while she mentions Joel, but she’s pretty closemouthed about him. Let me add one thing, though,” he said, and paused, frowning heavily. “By the time she steps off that plane, she’s really dragging.”

Scott didn’t need Ben to say another word; he got the picture. Chrissie spent weekends with Joel and arrived in Hard Luck exhausted. He didn’t need to guess the reason, either. No wonder his sister hadn’t mentioned Chrissie’s involvement with someone else.

Sure as anything she knew, but she hadn’t so much as dropped a hint—because his finding out would ruin everything. Susan, the hopeless romantic, refused to let go of the idea that Scott and Chrissie belonged together.


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