Nina Carlson knows all about Dillon Ward. Knows he served time in prison. Knows nobody put out the welcome mat when he moved to Serenity Springs. But that doesn't stop her from renting him a place to live. And when someone crashes into her bakery, he's just the man to fix the damage. And Nina isn't the only one who thinks Dillon's the perfect man for the job: her two kids have taken a shine to him. Still, she can't afford to get close to Dillon, even if he is tempting her to toss out her good-girl shoes. Because it's not that she doesn't trust him. It's that she doesn't trust herself.
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April 13, 2009
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Excerpt from A Not-So-Perfect Past by Beth Andrews
Aw, hell. Not "Jingle Bells."
Dillon Ward grit his teeth as he entered the brightly lit bakery. Red and green decorations and twinkling colored lights took up every inch of the large room. The effect was cheerful, bright and filled with so much Christmas spirit, it hurt his head.
He stomped his boots harder than necessary and brushed snow off his jacket. Luckily, the smells of yeasty bread and sweet pastries and chocolate helped ease the shock of the faux Christmas wonderland.
He scanned the room as he crossed to the front counter. Only two of the dozen or so small tables had customers, but Dillon figured that had more to do with it being twenty minutes before closing time on a Sunday afternoon, and less to do with the snow falling steadily outside.
It'd take more than an early December storm to keep the citizens of Serenity Springs, New York, from their donuts.
An elderly lady turned from the counter, her step faltering when she noticed him. She clutched her white bakery bag to her chest, lowered her head and scurried out.
Dillon took off his knit cap and pushed a gloved hand through his hair. Even though he'd lived here for almost two years, people were still wary of him. Still looked at him with the mix of curiosity, fear and revulsion usually reserved for circus acts.
He took off his gloves, stuffing them in his pocket. "This month's rent," he said, holding an envelope out to Nina Carlson.
From behind her cash register, the curvy blonde looked past him to the large picture window. "You didn't have to shovel the walk."
He shrugged. "It needed it."
Because she hadn't reached over for the rent check, and because he was tired of holding it out, he set it on the top of the pastry-display case and slid it toward her.
"Well, I appreciate it." She cleared her throat. "Why don't I get you some lunch? As a thank-you?"
Usually his cupcake of a landlord could barely meet his eyes, let alone stammer out a few words to him. Now she wanted to give him lunch? "Why don't I just take ten dollars off next month's rent? And we'll call it even."
Staring at the counter, she picked up the check. "Actually, I was hoping to talk to you..."
She blinked several times. "Just a few things. About the apartment."
"If you're raising the rent--"
"I'm not. It's more complicated than that. If you can't stick around until closing, I could come up to the apartment when I'm done working."
To his place? Alone? Wouldn't that go over well with Serenity Springs' moral majority? Sweet single mother Nina Carlson going to the lion's den.
Or in this case, the ex-convict's lair.
He doubted she even had the courage to climb the stairs.
Whatever she wanted to talk to him about must be important. And as always, his curiosity got the better of him. Never a good thing.
"I'll wait," he said, noting the relief on her face.
Dillon picked a table by the far window on the opposite side of the room from the middle-aged couple finishing their coffee. He sat with the window to his right, allowing him a clear view of the entrance, the kitchen and out onto the street.
Prison had taught him to protect his back.
A few minutes later, the kitchen door swung open and Nina came out, a coffeepot in one hand, a tray of food in the other.
She set the tray in front of him. "I'm finishing up with your sister in the kitchen--she's tasting wedding cake samples--and I thought I'd bring you something to eat while you wait."
He slouched in his seat and hoped Kelsey stayed in the kitchen. At least until he was gone.
Nina leaned over and poured a cup of coffee he hadn't asked for and didn't particularly want, and he caught a tantalizing glimpse of cleavage. He frowned. He'd bet his brand-new nail gun she'd run screaming from the room if she knew where his thoughts went at the sight.
"It's today's lunch special," she continued, placing a shallow bowl and a large plate on the table. "Tomato parmesan soup, a ham and provolone Panini on my honey wheat bread and a raspberry bear claw."
She tucked the tray under her arm and watched him expectantly. He almost refused the food, but his stomach chose that moment to remind him the only thing he'd eaten all day were two slices of cold, leftover pizza.
His resolve was nothing up against hunger. Or a pretty blonde.
Especially this woman, with her big gray eyes. She was wearing a pair of faded jeans that accentuated her generous curves and a bright pink, V-neck top that clung to her breasts like frosting on a cake. Knowing he was beat, he picked up his spoon, sampled the steaming soup and grunted in appreciation. She smiled, producing a small dimple in her left cheek. Her loose braid swung in time with her hips as she walked away.
He'd gotten the better part of this deal. Great food and a full stomach while all she'd gotten was a cleared sidewalk. He glanced out the window. A sidewalk that would be covered again within the hour.
Halfway through his sandwich, the nape of his neck prickled, telling him he was being watched. He slowly shifted his gaze to the left and stared into a pair of guileless blue eyes.
Emma Martin, with her soft halo of blond hair, grinned up at him. "Hi, Uncle Dillon," she said around a mouthful of chocolate chip cookie. "What're you doing here?"
He scowled at her. Not that it would deter Emma any. She was high-strung, affectionate and could talk you into a coma.
She also scared the hell out of him.
"I'm not your uncle," he pointed out gruffly.
"You will be," she said, "once Kelsey marries my daddy and becomes my mom."
The kid was a little young to be getting so technical about things, wasn't she?
"Where's your dad?" he asked, surprised to find the room empty except for him and Emma.
"Working." She wiped her hands on her legs leaving a trail of cookie crumbs across the light blue pants. Before he knew what she was doing, she nudged her way under his elbow and climbed onto his lap. "Me and Kelsey are picking out wedding cakes."
Dillon shifted his leg but she didn't budge. Over Emma's head he saw his sister's bright red hair through the small window into the kitchen. He opened his mouth but the mini-queen of gab kept right on talking.
"Kelsey said they couldn't have a Princess Barbie cake for the wedding but that I could get one for my very own when they got back from their honin' moon."
He glared at the top of Kelsey's head. Felt a trickle of sweat form between his shoulder blades. Come on. He didn't doubt Kelsey knew he was staring at her.
"I want to go on the honin' moon, too, but Daddy says I have to stay at Grandma Helen's, even though I promised to be real good and not bother them when they lock the bedroom door so they can make my baby brother."
His mouth dropped open. "What?" he croaked.
"I asked Daddy if they could make me a baby brother on their honin' moon," she told him patiently. "Daddy laughed and said it would take lots and lots of practice to make me a brother."
"I don't need to know any more," he said with a quick shake of his head.
"Kelsey just sort of made this weird sound, like she was choking." Emma widened her eyes and made gagging sounds. "Like she'd just tasted something really yucky like olives, but then Daddy whispered a secret to her and they kissed, so I guess she was okay."
Dillon sat frozen for a moment, wondering what the kid might tell him next. Abruptly he jumped to his feet, tucked Emma under his arm like a very large, very talkative football and stalked toward the kitchen.
"Are you sure she's okay out there?" Nina asked as she boxed up cake samples for Kelsey Reagan. Nina wished she could see how Dillon was handling his alone time with Emma but she didn't have a clear view of his table, only the front door.
"Emma's fine," the redhead assured her. "Besides, Dillon has to get used to having his new niece around."
Nina placed a square of German chocolate cake with coconut/pecan frosting into the box. "It's just that your brother doesn't seem like the type to be... comfortable around children."
Actually, the coolly enigmatic Dillon Ward didn't seem as if he'd be comfortable around anyone. From what she could tell, he seemed more likely to make people uncomfortable. And enjoy doing it.
Kelsey leaned back against the counter and waved Nina's concern away, the stunning diamond on her left hand catching the light. "Dillon's got tons of experience with little girls. He raised me, remember?"
Nina tucked in the flaps of the bakery box and taped it shut.
She didn't know all that much about her tenant--the tenant she'd acquired with her purchase of Sweet Suggestions six months ago from her grandparents when they'd retired and moved south. She knew Dillon lived alone. Paid his rent on time. Took care of any problems in the apartment. And except for the time he spent with Allie Martin, a local bar owner, he kept to himself.
Oh, yeah. She also knew Dillon had served prison time for killing his stepfather.
A fact which Nina became aware of before most people in town--including her family and ex-husband-- when Police Chief Jack Martin informed Nina and her grandparents of Dillon's past shortly after he moved in above the bakery. Her grandparents opted to let him rent from them anyway.
After all, her devoutly Christian grandparents had told her, to forgive is divine.
A sentiment that sounded good but was hard to pull off.
But, despite Nina's misgivings, Dillon hadn't caused any problems and had never been anything other than polite to her or her grandparents.
The kitchen door swung open and Dillon--a giggling Emma in tow--headed straight for his sister. "This yours?"
Kelsey tilted her head. "Hmm... might be. What are you willing to give me to take her off your hands?"
Nina couldn't believe Kelsey was teasing Dillon. He was so... hard. His work boots added two inches to his already impressive height, and the sleeves of his dark green chambray shirt were rolled up to his elbows revealing muscular forearms. His brown eyes, as usual, were guarded. And watchful. His mouth set.
She wondered if he even knew how to smile.
Of course Kelsey--with her confidence and bad-girl attitude--didn't seem the least bit fazed. Her multiple ear piercings and short, spiky hair proclaimed her a rebel. Really, she was everything Nina "the good girl" wasn't. And had long ago given up ever becoming.
Dillon attempted to set Emma down, but she giggled even louder and lifted her feet to keep them from touching the floor. "If you don't want her," he said, "maybe I'll just take her out back. Toss her in the Dumpster."
Kelsey shrugged and studied her cuticles. "Seems like a waste of a perfectly good kid, but if that's what you want to do..."
Nina started to laugh, but Dillon shot her a look so she cleared her throat and struggled to keep a straight face.
After another long, intense look at his sister, Dillon turned on his heel and crossed the kitchen, Emma shrieking in delight. He stopped at the back door without opening it--thank God. Not that she believed he'd toss Emma out into a snowbank or anything, but it was brutally cold out and Emma didn't even have her coat on.
Emma didn't waste the opportunity, squirming around and climbing up Dillon's back where she clung to him like a monkey. Uh-oh. This was getting out of hand. Why wasn't Kelsey stepping in?
"Kelsey," he said, a threat and--if Nina wasn't mistaken--panic clear in his low voice.
Which she didn't understand. If someone had messed with her ex-husband, Trey, this way, he would've lost his patience--and his temper.
"You know," Kelsey said, tapping a finger to her chin, "my wedding's in less than two weeks and I don't recall receiving your RSVP. You are coming, aren't you?"
While Nina couldn't understand how Kelsey stood her ground, she did admire the other woman for it.
"The kid," he muttered. Nina noticed he had one arm bent at an awkward angle behind him so Emma wouldn't fall.
"Yeah, Emma's a great kid." Kelsey clapped her hands. "Oh, I know. Emma, how would you like to hang out with Uncle Dillon for a while? We're not quite done here, are we, Nina?"
Brother and sister both stared at her. She was trapped, solidly stuck to the spot by Kelsey's shrewd green eyes and Dillon's hooded, flat gaze.
She hated being put in the middle almost as much as she hated confrontations. Whichever side she took would probably be the wrong side. Besides, she'd end up disappointing someone.
"Uh... no? I mean... we still have a few things to go over."
Kelsey's face lit up. "See? Much to do. Many, many cakes to sample and decisions to make. It could take as long as a few hours--"
"Okay," he said. "I'll be there."
But Kelsey didn't budge. Just raised an eyebrow. "Promise?"
Dillon pressed his lips together. "Promise."
Kelsey grinned and motioned for him to turn around. When he did, she pulled Emma off his back.
"It worked, Kelsey," Emma said wiggling with excitement in Kelsey's arms.
"It sure did. You were great." She hugged Emma and set her down.
Nina's jaw dropped. They'd set Dillon up. Not only that, but they'd just admitted it. In front of him. Her stomach cramped as she waited for the explosion of temper. When a man had been so neatly played, so easily boxed into a corner, he was going to lash out.
Except nothing happened. Dillon didn't curse or threaten or call his sister names. Didn't pick up the nearest object and throw it at the wall. He just shook his head in disgust.
He must not be as angry as she thought. Or else he had a better hold on his control than she'd realized. Which was good, seeing as how he probably wasn't going to be too happy with her once she told him her news.
Kelsey stuffed Emma into her coat, tugged a hat over the little girl's head and grabbed the box of cake samples for Jack. "The wedding's at two," she told Dillon. "Reception's at the ski resort."
"I got an invitation."
She winked at him. "So you did. See you there. Thanks for these," she said to Nina. "I'll let you know in the morning which one we choose."