Tonight, Chris Hammond is getting the truth, even if it means crashing the snowy gates of the Hawkridge School. Chris is convinced he's found his childhood sweetheart, a girl he loved and lost twelve years ago in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina. It's her, he's sure. Only…she doesn't seem to know him at all.
Jayne Thomas's past is a mystery, even to her. But as Hawkridge's headmistress, Jayne knows her future is clear. She'll be spending Christmas snowed-in with seven cranky students and an intrusive though quite attractive stranger. At least he's handy with an ax…and his lips.
Chris knows he can't force her to remember, or himself to forget. He must love Jayne for the woman she's become. Or risk losing her all over again…
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Chris Hammond had never thought of himself as a stalker.
But he needed to get another look at the face of the woman who'd entered the coffee shop just as he was leaving. They'd danced together on the threshold for a few seconds, trying to get out of each other's way. He'd backed up, finally, and held the door open for her. With a quick smile and a "Happy Holidays," she'd headed inside as Chris stepped out onto the sidewalk.
Now he turned toward the wide front window to find her again. The service counter ran across the back of the room, so all he could see of his quarry was an auburn ponytail fanned over the back of a heavy gray coat appropriate for the sub-freezing mountain weather.
Maybe the hair had triggered his memory. A long time ago he'd known a girl with a mane in that same polished mahogany color, with the same extravagant curls. He'd been a kid then, but coming back to Ridgeville, North Carolina, had brought those days closer to the surface.
That's why he hadn't been here in over a decade.
Chris didn't think the hair was the only resemblance, though. Something about her face had seemed familiar enough to stop his heartbeat for a second or two. He wanted to be sure he was wrong about recognizing those hazel eyes, the lightly freckled cheeks and pointed chin. Then he could finish grocery shopping for his granddad with a clear head.
So he lingered in front of the adjacent hardware store next to the coffee shop, waiting for the woman and hoping like hell she wasn't meeting a gaggle of friends for an hour's gossip over coffee. He'd have frozen to death by then, despite his new down-filled jacket. His last assignment, in equatorial Africa, had left him with a poor tolerance for cold.
Every time the bell on the shop door tinkled, he glanced that way from beneath the lowered brim of his baseball cap. Six times he was disappointed, but seven had always been his lucky number and proved so yet again—he saw the gray sleeve of her coat as she pushed the door open.
He tipped his hat back, wanting to get a good look as she approached. The coffee place was the last business at this end of Main Street. Surely she would come his way.
Instead, the woman walked straight to the curb, showing him only her profile. She checked both ways for traffic before stepping into the street, but he missed seeing her full face because that one glimpse of her tip-tilted nose and full lower lip had left him gasping for air, like he'd been sucker punched.
Such a likeness couldn't be an accident. What the hell was going on?
Using instincts refined by ten years spent in war zones around the world, Chris followed her. Chaos had replaced logic in his brain. He knew only two things. One—dead people did not come back to life. He'd seen enough of them to be absolutely certain of that. So she couldn't be the person he thought she was. But just in case…
Two—he wouldn't get a decent night's sleep until he made damn sure he'd never met this woman before.
With every passing minute, Jayne Thomas became more convinced. And concerned.
She was being stalked.
She'd noticed him first at Beautiful Beans, when she was going in as he came out. Well, what woman wouldn't notice him? Big, but not in the least fat, graceful yet at the same time unquestionably male, with piercing blue eyes and light brown hair curling at his temples and the nape of his neck. A respectable stubble of beard shadowed his square chin and sensual mouth. The man was, in the vernacular of her students, seriously hot.
Headmistresses of private schools did not deal in seriously hot men, however, so she'd resisted the impulse to invite him back into the shop for more coffee. Anyway, she had errands to run. She'd just wanted to warm up first.
As she waited her turn to order, though, she'd felt an itching between her shoulder blades. A backward glance had shown her the same man, now standing on the sidewalk, staring inside from underneath the brim of a Yankees baseball cap.
Surely not at her, though. She wasn't the type to draw attention from a man who could take his pick of the beautiful women in any room he entered. Especially here in Ridgeville, Jayne noted, as one of the young women seated at a table sent him a wink through the window, then pouted when he didn't notice.
Leaving the coffee shop, Jayne saw the man again, in front of Gibbs's Hardware. Waiting to take advantage of that flirtatious wink, after all?
No, because he followed her across the street and into Woolgathering. He did not look like the knitting type, but he appeared fascinated by the different wools along every aisle she visited. Though he never addressed her directly, time and time again Jayne felt the burn of his gaze.
Finally, she ducked into the back corner and cowered behind the mohair display, hoping to wait him out. As a result, she spent too much on needles and wool for a sweater she wouldn't have time to work on over the school's winter break. At least he'd left when she emerged.
He turned up again in Miller's Candy Kitchen about five minutes after she walked in. A coincidence, maybe, since the yarn shop was right next door. Then Jayne recrossed Main Street and stepped into Angela's Art Supplies and Gallery. The blue-eyed stranger appeared in the wide front window only seconds later, apparently consumed with interest in a papier-mâché crèche from Italy.
"He's waiting for me to come out," Jayne told Angela, as they pretended to examine the art pencils. "What am I going to do?"
"Leave by the back door," Angela suggested, in her precise English accent. "Give him the slip, so to speak."
She nodded. "Of course." She squeezed Angela's elbow with gratitude and made her getaway, hurrying along the alley behind the string of businesses to her real destination, Kringle's Toy Store.
Sitting at his desk in the back room, Mr. Kringle looked up from his account books as she slipped in the rear entrance. "A welcome, if unconventional, arrival," he said. "What can I do for you today, Miss Thomas?"
"I have five students staying at school over the break, and I want to have some new, enjoyable activities to keep them occupied."
"Of course." His German accent and courtly manner soothed her agitation. "I have just what you're searching for." He led the way to a shelf filled with bright holiday-themed boxes.
"These are the finest crackers I could order." He picked up a box with a cellophane window that showed one of the paper-and-cardboard containers called "crackers" in England. "Each contains a selection of candies and a variety of prizes— jewelry, games and so forth." He made a motion with his hands, as if pulling on the two ends of the cracker. "And a delicious pop! when they are opened." He leaned closer to whisper, "I tried one myself."
"They're lovely. But…" Jayne shook her head. "We don't make a fuss over the holidays. The girls tend to get homesick, even if they chose to stay at school, and celebrating makes them feel worse. I'll just look around for a while. We'll need games to fill the time, maybe some paint-by-number kits and puzzles. I want to keep them too busy to mope."
Mr. Kringle smoothed his long brown mustache. "It's a good thing you do. These girls are lucky they have you to care for them."
Jayne smiled at him, then spent an hour choosing diversions for her winter break boarders. As headmistress of the Hawkridge School, and with no family of her own, she stayed over the vacations with those students who would not be going home. Hawkridge provided a last resort for teenagers with emotional problems that threatened to ruin the rest of their lives through drug addiction, alcoholism, risky sexual involvements and other dangerous behaviors. Given the temptations offered by the holiday season, some parents couldn't face the prospect of coping with challenges not yet resolved. Less often, a girl would rather remain at school than return to an abusive or uncomfortable home.
Without exception, however, these troubled girls needed the haven. Hawkridge had never had a student fail to come back from the winter break.
With her purchases stowed in two heavy shopping bags, Jayne wished Mr. Kringle a Happy Hanukkah in response to his "Merry Christmas" as he opened the front door for her. Pausing in the sheltered entryway, she shifted one of the bags to her left hand, then turned to head up the sidewalk toward her car.
"Took you long enough."
Jayne gasped and jerked her head up. The stalker stood in front of her, blocking her way. She'd put him out of her mind in the cheery atmosphere of the toy shop. Now he loomed over her, seeming bigger than before, definitely more threatening. He wasn't smiling.
"Got a lot of kids to buy presents for, I guess?" His smooth, deep voice held an undercurrent of anger.
Chills shuddered down her spine, spreading fear to the tips of her fingers and the soles of her feet. The wind felt colder than it had earlier this morning. Main Street seemed more deserted.
But when she glanced around, Jayne saw that she erred in her impression of emptiness. There were still plenty of people going in and out of the stores nearby. No one could hurt her with all these folks watching.
The knowledge stiffened her shoulders and lifted her chin. "Yes, I do. Why are you following me?"
Instead of answering, he stared at her face. Jayne glared back at him while tightening her grip on the shopping bags. They were heavy enough to serve as weapons if she needed them.
"Jayne Thomas," he said, finally. "You say that's your name?"
"Yes. Why are you following me?"
He shook his head once, as if clearing a fly away. "Are you from Ridgeville?"
Her fear was giving way to irritation. "I don't owe you any information whatsoever. Certainly not until you identify yourself and what you want. Why are you following me?" She raised her voice this time, hoping to get the attention of someone nearby.
The man grabbed her upper arm and jerked her toward him. "Have you always lived here?" The set of his jaw hinted at violence.
Her heart pounded. "I—"
"Trouble, Miz Thomas?" Steve Greeley, one of the county's deputy sheriffs, came up beside her. "What's going on?"
The grip on her arm fell away. "Nothing," the stranger said. "I thought Miss Thomas was an old friend."
Jayne gazed at him through narrowed eyes. "You were wrong. I've never seen you before in my life."
After a moment, one side of his mouth twitched into a half smile. His gaze, however, remained steely. "Sorry. You look just like…well, somebody else." He glanced at Deputy Greeley. "I'm Chris Hammond, Charlie Hammond's grandson. I'll be staying with him for a few days. That's my bike on the other side of the street. You can watch me out of sight."
"I'll do that," Greeley promised.
Jayne, too, observed as Chris Hammond crossed Main Street and walked down the hill to a huge motorcycle parked at the curb. Black and chrome, the bike seemed to take up as much space as her own Jeep. The roar, as he fired the engine, rolled through her like an earthquake.
The noise died away once the bike topped the hill and headed down the other side. Steve turned to Jayne. "Are you sure you're okay?"
"I'm just fine. He worried me a little, following me around town. But if I looked like someone he knew, I guess that makes sense." She hunched her shoulders and relaxed them again. "I'd better get these bags to the car. My arms are starting to stretch."
"Here, let me." The deputy took the bags, walked with her to the Jeep and stowed them in the backseat. "Do you have anywhere else you need to shop, Jayne? I could go with you, in case that weirdo comes back."
"No, thanks. I've got to head back to the school. Tonight is our official end of term dinner—tomorrow the students leave for winter break."
"Well, y'all have a good evening, then." He slapped the hood of the Jeep. "There's snow coming, you know. Better put chains on your tires."
Jayne nodded. "A fairly big storm, from what the weather report said. We might get six or eight inches."
"I heard a foot," Steve said. "I'll drive by and check on you over vacation, be sure everybody's doing well."
"I appreciate it." Jayne lied with a smile, then put the Jeep into gear. Steve's personal interest was getting harder to discourage, though she couldn't help being grateful he'd stepped in this afternoon. Who knew what might have happened if the stranger had kept hold of her?
But he wasn't a stranger now. He had a name—Chris Hammond, grandson to Charlie Hammond. Neither name seemed the least bit familiar. But he had asked if she grew up in Ridgeville, which implied that the person she resembled had lived here. No one else in town had ever mentioned that she looked like someone they knew. Maybe Mr. Hammond was mistaken. Delusional. Drunk.
No, he hadn't been intoxicated. She would have smelled alcohol on his breath, they'd been that close. But Chris Hammond had smelled of soap and fresh air. She'd felt his body heat as she stared up at him for that moment, and sensed the strength in his hand. Strangely, she could still feel his touch, like a band of tender skin around her upper arm.
Though he seemed harsh, with his unruly hair and stubbled cheeks, she'd seen something desperate and sad in his eyes.
Bedroom eyes, her grandmother would have called them, with those lazy, drooping lids. He had a beautiful mouth. His smile would be intriguing. Irresistible.
She was so caught up in her thoughts she almost missed the school entrance, braking hard to avoid cruising right by.
"Since when do you spend time daydreaming about men?" she asked herself, slowing down for the drive through the forest surrounding the Hawkridge School. "You don't have time for romance, even the imaginary kind."
She'd seen three of her teachers fall deeply in love this past year, which probably accounted for the unusual direction her thoughts had taken. As the headmistress of a school housing three hundred girls, each with her own set of problems, plus the staff and faculty required to deal with those students, Jayne rarely had a spare moment to herself. She didn't waste time wondering about a different life or a family of her own. As far as she was concerned, Hawkridge gave her plenty of family and numerous children to look after. Getting involved with a man would simply mean another set of needs to meet.