"Trim up my eyebrows," Alfred said, wiggling his white, bushy brows as he spoke. "I want to look sexy."
Patience McGraw held in a smile. "Big night planned with the missus?"
"You know it."
A concept that would be romantic, if Alfred and his lovely wife were a tad younger than, say, ninety-five. Patience had to keep herself from blurting out a warning that, at their age, they should be careful. She supposed the more important lesson was that true love and passion could last a lifetime.
"I'm jealous," she told her client as she carefully trimmed his brows.
"You picked a piss-poor excuse of a man," Albert told her, then shrugged. "Excuse my French."
"I can't complain about you telling the truth," Patience said, wondering what it would be like to live in a bigger city. Where everyone didn't know every detail of your personal life. But she'd been born in Fool's Gold and had grown up with the idea that there were very few secrets between friends and neighbors.
Which meant the whole town knew that she'd gotten pregnant when she was eighteen and the "piss-poor excuse for a man" who'd been her baby's father had walked out on her and her daughter less than a year later.
"You'll find someone," Alfred told her, gently patting her arm. "A pretty girl like you should have them lined up for miles."
She smiled. "You're very sweet. If I didn't know better, I'd say you were flirting with me."
Alfred gave her a wink.
Despite his compliments, she managed to find herself amazingly man free. Fool's Gold wasn't exactly swimming with prospects, and as a single mother, she had to be especially careful. There was also the fact that most of the men she met weren't interested in other men's kids.
As Patience picked up the scissors to clip a couple of errant hairs, she told herself that she was very comfortable with her life. Given the choice, she would rather open her own business than fall in love. But every now and then, she found herself longing for someone to lean on. A man to care about, who would be there for her.
She stood back and studied Albert's reflection. "You're even more handsome than before," she said, putting down her tools and unfastening his cape.
"Hard to believe," Albert said with a grin.
She didn't recognize the male voice, but turned anyway. A man stood in the entrance of the shop.
Her mind registered several things at once. Albert was her last appointment of the day. If the guy was a walk-in, he wouldn't call her by name. The man was tall, with dark gold-blond hair and deep blue eyes. His shoulders were broad and he had the kind of face that would be happy up on a movie screen. Nice, but she had no idea who he...
She felt the cape flutter to the floor as she really looked at the man moving toward her. He was a few inches taller, a lot more muscular, but his eyes ... They were exactly the same. They even crinkled when he smiled at her.
She was fourteen again, standing in that empty house, more scared than she'd ever been in her life. There hadn't been any answers. Not then or since. No solution to the mystery. Just questions and a gnawing sense that something had gone terribly wrong.
"Justice?" she asked, her voice more breath than sound. "Justice?"
He gave her a slight shrug. The familiar gesture was enough to send her flying across the shop. She flung herself at him, determined to hang on this time.
He caught her against him and held on to her nearly as tightly as she held on to him. He was warm and solid and real. She pressed her head against his shoulder and inhaled the scent of him. A clean, masculine smell that had nothing to do with the boy she remembered. This wasn't happening, she thought, still dazed. Justice couldn't be back.
Yet he was. But the man was very different from the boy, and the moment got awkward quickly. She stepped away and put her hands on her hips.
"What happened? You left me! Where on earth did you go? I was so scared. The whole town was worried. I called the police and everything."
He glanced around the salon. Patience didn't have to follow his gaze to know they were the center of attention. She was used to the friendly interest of the shop, but Justice might find the attention uncomfortable.
"When can you take a break?" he asked.
"Five minutes. Alfred is my last client of the day."
"I'll be outside."
He was gone before she could stop him, moving with a combination of power and purpose. The second the door closed behind him, the other stylists and half the clients descended.
"Who is he?" Julia, her boss, demanded. "What a handsome man."
"I've seen him around town before," another woman said. "With that ballet dancer. He was her bodyguard."
"Has he moved here?"
"Is he an old boyfriend?"
Alfred cleared his throat. "Back away, ladies. Give Patience some room to breathe."
Patience smiled at him gratefully. He paid her for the cut and gave her a fifty-cent tip. She was so not getting rich working here, she thought as she walked him to the door and kissed his cheek.
With Alfred gone, she returned to her station and quickly cleaned up. Julia watched with unconcealed interest.
"You'll have details tomorrow?" she asked. "Of course."
Sharing was as much a part of the culture of Fool's Gold as showing up with a casserole when there was a birth, death or serious illness. She might not want to reveal every detail of her upcoming encounter with a man from her past, but that wasn't her decision.
Patience made a quick stop in the restroom to make sure she hadn't spilled anything on her black T-shirt. She released her long brown hair from its ponytail, thought briefly that she should have gotten highlights, and worn makeup and hey, maybe been something more exciting than ordinary, then shrugged. She was who she was, and nothing short of serious plastic surgery and/or a makeover was going to change her now.
She applied lip gloss and brushed the front of her "Chez Julia" T-shirt one last time. Two minutes later she had her purse and was walking out onto the sidewalk.
Justice was still there. All six-two of him. He wore a dark suit, blinding white shirt and a smoky-gray tie.
"You weren't this stylish a dresser fifteen years ago," she said.
"Which begs the question, what occupation? But that can wait." She looked at him, trying to reconcile the man with the teenager she'd known and loved. Well, maybe not loved, but liked a lot. He'd been her first crush. She'd wanted to tell him, to have him for her boyfriend and then he'd been gone. "What happened?"
He glanced around. "Can I buy you a cup of coffee?"
"Sure." She pointed down the street. "There's a Starbucks this way."
They started down the sidewalk. A thousand questions filled her mind, but she couldn't seem to grab any one to ask it. She was both curious and shy—a combination that didn't make for easy conversation.
"How long have you—"
"I would have thought you'd—"
They spoke at the same time.
She sighed. "We've lost our rhythm. That's just so sad."
"It'll come back," he assured her. "Give it a minute." They reached the Starbucks and he held open the door. She paused before stepping past him.
"You're here for good?" she asked. "Or at least a while?"
"No disappearing in the night?"
She nodded. "I didn't know what to think. I was so scared."
His dark blue gaze settled on her face. "I'm sorry. I knew you'd be worried. I wanted to say something, but I couldn't."
She saw a couple of older women approaching and ducked into the store. As she walked to the counter, she pulled out her Starbucks card, but Justice waved it away.
"I'm buying," he told her. "It's the least I can do after what happened."
"Ha. Sure, bring me out for coffee instead of a steak when you're doing apology buying."
He flashed her a smile that was so familiar she felt her heart constrict. At the same time, she experienced a very distinct "wow—handsome guy" tingle in the area just south of her belly button. It had been so long it took her a second to recognize sexual attraction.
She was pathetic, she thought as she ordered her usual grande skinny vanilla latte. This was the closest she'd come to dating in the past five or six years. She really needed to get out more. And just as soon as she had a little free time, she would work on that.
"Tall drip," Justice told the girl.
Patience rolled her eyes. "Very masculine. I'm not even surprised."
He flashed her another smile. "I don't strike you as the soy-chai-latte type?"
"No, but I'd pay to watch you drink one."
"Not enough money in the world."
They moved aside to wait for their orders, then took them over to a table in the corner.
"You probably want to sit with your back to the wall, right?" she asked, taking a seat that would allow him to do just that.
"Why would you think that?"
"Someone said you're a bodyguard. Is it true?"
He settled across from her, his broad shoulders and large frame seeming to challenge the space around them.
"I work for a company that provides protection," he admitted.
She sipped her coffee. "You can't just say yes?"
"The answer is yes. Wouldn't that be easier than telling me you work for a company that provides protection?"
He leaned toward her. "Were you this much of a pain in the ass when we were kids?"
She grinned. "I've mellowed with age." She raised her latte. "Welcome back, Justice."
Patience's brown eyes danced with amusement, just as Justice remembered. She'd gotten a little taller and had filled out in fascinatingly female ways, but otherwise she was the same. Sassy, he thought. Not a word he would have used as a teenager, but one that suited her perfectly now. The Patience he recalled had been all attitude and blunt talk. It looked as though that hadn't changed.
She glanced around the coffee place and sighed. "There are, what, five million of these across the country? We need something different."
"You don't like Starbucks?"
"No," Patience said as she sipped on her latte. "I adore Starbucks. We own stock and everything. But don't you think a town like Fool's Gold should have a local place, too? I would love to open my own coffee place. Silly, huh?"
"Why is it silly?"
"It's not a big dream. Shouldn't dreams be big? Like I want to end world hunger?"
"You're allowed to dream for yourself."
She studied him. "What do you dream about?"
He wasn't much of a dreamer. He wanted what other people took for granted. The chance to be like everyone else. Only that wasn't going to happen.
"Ending world hunger."
She laughed. The happy sound took him back in years to when they'd been kids together. He'd been forced to lie every second of every day. He'd been discouraged from making friends and fitting in too much, but he'd defied them all, claiming Patience as his own. Even then he'd known he was different, but he'd still wanted to belong. Being friends with her had been the only "normal" part of his life. He'd needed her to survive.
His choice had been selfish and she'd paid the price for his decision. When he'd had to leave, he hadn't been able to tell her why. Later, he'd known getting in touch with her would bring her into his world. He'd liked Patience too much to sully her with that.
So what was his excuse now? As he stared into her eyes, he knew he'd again chosen what he wanted rather than what was right for her. But he'd been unable to resist the call of his past. Maybe he'd secretly been hoping she wasn't as good as he remembered. Now he had to deal with the fact that she was even better.
She leaned toward him. "You've stalled long enough, Justice. What happened all those years ago? One second you were there and the next you were gone."
She still wore her brown hair long. He remembered the slight wave and how her hair had moved as she walked, swinging back and forth. Sexy.
He'd been too old for her then. At least that's what he'd told himself every time he'd been tempted to kiss her. An eighteen-year-old masquerading as a sixteen-year-old, to outwit the man who wanted him dead.
"I was in the witness protection program."
Her eyes widened and her mouth dropped open.
He let the words sink in and took a moment to study the cartoon hairstylist on the front of her black "Chez Julia" T-shirt. The drawn hairdresser was wielding scissors with comical intent.
"Are you kidding?" Patience asked. "Seriously?
"Where better than Fool's Gold?"
"That can't be real. It sounds like something from the movies."
"It was plenty real." He sipped his coffee and thought about his past. He rarely talked about it. Even his closest friends weren't privy to the details.
"My father was a career criminal," he said slowly. "The kind of man who believed the world owed him a living. He went from one scheme to the next. If he'd put half as much effort into working a steady job, he could have made a fortune, but that wasn't his way."
Patience's eyes widened as she held on to her cup. "Please don't make me cry with your story."
He raised one shoulder. "I'll do my best to stick to the facts."
"Because they won't make me cry?" She drew in a breath. "Okay, bad father. And then what?"
"When I was seventeen, he and a couple of buddies held up a convenience store. The owner and a clerk were killed and my dad was the one who pulled the trigger. The friends were caught and gave up my dad. Bart. His name was Bart Hanson." Justice had been born Bart Hanson Jr., but he'd rejected that name years ago. Had it legally changed. He'd wanted nothing that had belonged to his father.
"The local SWAT team came to take him in. Dad wasn't going without a fight. He'd planned everything and was going to take out as many officers as he could. I figured out what he was going to do and jumped on his back. I distracted him long enough for the police to get him. He wasn't happy with me."
An understatement, he thought. His father had cursed him, vowing to punish his son, no matter what it took. Everyone who knew Bart Hanson had believed he was more than capable of murdering his only child.
"That's so horrible. Where was your mother in all this?"
"She'd died years before. A car accident."
He didn't bother mentioning that the car's brakes had been cut. Local law enforcement had suspected Bart but had been unable to make the charges stick.
"When I testified against my father, his anger turned to rage. Right after sentencing, he broke out of jail and came after me. I was put into a witness protection program and brought here. That's when we met."
She shook her head. "That's amazing, and scary. I can't believe you went through all that. You never hinted or.." She looked at him. "Seventeen? You were seventeen? I thought you were fifteen. We celebrated your birthday when you turned sixteen."
Excerpted from Just One Kiss by Susan Mallery. Copyright © 2013 Harlequin Enterprises Limited. Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
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