USA TODAY bestselling author Allison Leigh introduces readers to a reluctant hero—and the woman who just might heal his wounded heart—in this newest addition to her popular miniseries, Return to the Double C!
Small town deputy Sloan McCray was making amends for his past. They called him a hero but only he had to live with the difficult choices he'd made. And he certainly wasn't prepared to fall in love again, not even with his beautiful—and innocent—new neighbor, whose very presence was a balm to his troubled soul.
There was no doubt in Abby Marcum's mind that Sloan was the guy for her. Though she'd moved to Weaver, Wyoming, to make a better life for her little brother, she saw her future with Sloan. Now she had to convince the man who felt unworthy of love that she and her heart were his for the asking….
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A frequent name on bestseller lists, Allison Leigh's highpoint as a writer is hearing from readers that they laughed, cried or lost sleep while reading her books. She credits her family with great patience for the time she's parked at her computer, and for blessing her with the kind of love she wants her readers to share with the characters living in the pages of her books. Contact her at www.allisonleigh.comExcerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The snow covered everything.
Everything except the clear strip down the middle of the street that had been plowed just that morning.
Looking out the front window of the house he'd been renting for the past six months, Sloan McCray studied that strip.
While the middle of the street was whistle clean, the displaced snow formed two-foot walls against the curb on both sides of the street, blocking driveways and parking spaces.
Generally speaking, Sloan didn't worry about the snow-plow job as long as it was done. It was his first winter in Weaver—the first snow had fallen in October and hadn't stopped since. He'd had two months to get used to it.
There were five houses on his street. Some of the folks occupying the homes had snowblowers—ancient ones kept running by ingenuity and stubbornness, and new ones that cost as much as Sloan's first motorcycle. He dealt with the annoying snow berm in front of his house the old-fashioned way—with a heavy-duty snow shovel and a lot of muscle. Not a problem for him.
He'd been well used to being physically active, even before he'd signed on as a deputy sheriff here in Weaver. Pitching heavy snow out of his driveway was a welcome task.
Kept the muscles working.
Kept the mind occupied with the simple and mundane.
Two good things, as far as he was concerned.
He wasn't sold on living in Weaver yet. His job was temporary; he had a one-year lease on the house. He needed to start thinking about what to do after the nine months he'd promised Max Scalise—the sheriff—were up. He should have been spending less time with the snow shovel and more time thinking about what the hell he was going to do with the rest of his life. But tackling that particular question was no more appealing than it ever was.
Standing inside the warmth of his living room, Sloan eyed the snow blocking the driveways. The small blue car had been sitting on the street in front of the house next door for nearly an hour. Footsteps in the snow trailed back and forth from the car to the house.
New neighbors. Moving in on the last day of the year.
He'd been watching them for a while. The woman was young, with shining brown hair that bounced around the shoulders of her red coat with every step. The little kid with her had the same dark hair.
He'd also noticed there wasn't a man in the picture. Not to help them unpack, anyway. Nor to clear away the snow blocking the driveway, much less shovel a path to the door.
He turned away from the window, grabbed his down vest and headed out the back of his house to the small shed where he stored his bike and tools.
It was the last day of the year and he'd spent too much time thinking already.
Time to start shoveling instead.
Balancing the heavy box in her hands, Abby Marcum glanced at her little brother. He was clutching the plastic bin containing his collection of video games against his chest, his wary gaze glued to the tall man striding toward them from the house next door. "Who's that man?" Dillon was whispering, but his nervousness shouted loud and clear.
"I don't know," she said calmly. "We'll meet lots of new people here in Weaver."
"I don't want new people." His pale face was pinched. "I want our old people."
She hid a sigh behind a smile. Her seven-year-old brother wasn't the only one with misgivings about moving to Weaver. But she wasn't going to show hers to him when he already had more than enough for them both. "We still have our old people," she assured him. "Braden's not so far away that we won't visit." Just not every day. Not anymore.
She hid another sigh at the thought.
Noticing that the man angling across the deep snow had nearly reached them, she looked at Dillon. "Take your box inside. You can think about where to put the television."
He clutched the bin even closer as he retraced his path from the car to the house, not taking his wary attention away from the man for a second.
Abby adjusted her grip on the packing box. She hoped that moving to Weaver hadn't been a huge mistake. Dillon had already endured so much. For two years, she'd tried to follow her grandfather's wishes. He was gone, but she was still trying. She just didn't know if moving Dillon away from the only place of stability he'd ever known had been the right thing to do or not.
The sound of crunching snow ceased when the man stopped a few yards away. "You're the new nurse over at the elementary school." His voice was deep. More matter-of-fact than welcoming.
She tightened her grip on the heavy box, trying not to stare too hard at him. Lines radiated from his dark brown eyes. His overlong brown hair was liberally flecked with grays. What should have been pretty normal features for a man who looked to be in his late thirties, but the sum of the parts made him ruthlessly attractive.
She'd grown up in Braden, which was the closest town of any size to Weaver. She knew how small-town grapevines worked, so she wasn't particularly surprised that he knew about her before she so much as opened her mouth. "I am. But I'll be splitting my time with the junior high." The schools were next door to each other, sharing their facilities. "I'm Abby Marcum." She smiled. "And you are…?"
"From next door." He stabbed the shovel into the snow.
She'd assumed that, given that he'd come from the house next door. "So that answers where." The muscles in her arms were starting to shake, so she started toward the house, her boots plowing fresh paths through the snow.
"What about who?"
"That looks too heavy for you."
"Does it?" She kept right on moving, passing him on her way toward the three steps that led up to the front door.
"Would have been easier if you'd cleared the driveway before you started unpacking."
Her fingers dug into the cardboard. "Probably," she agreed blithely and lifted her boot, cautiously feeling for the first porch step. She'd have needed a snow shovel for that, though, and that wasn't something she'd bothered trying to cram into her small car along with everything else. Weaver had hardware stores, after all. And neighbors who had shovels to borrow, too.
The man gave a mighty sigh, his bare hands brushing hers as he lifted the box out of her grasp. "The bottom's about to give way," he said and walked past her into the house.
She hurried after him. "Um, thanks." He was already setting the box on the narrow breakfast bar separating the small living room from the even smaller kitchen. One look at the cardboard told her he was right. The crystal inside could have crashed right through. She flipped open the box and pulled out a few of the glasses she'd wrapped so carefully in newspaper just to make certain they'd safely survived. "My grandmother's crystal."
"Mmm." He didn't sound particularly interested as he looked around the living room. She'd bought the house furnished. And while the furniture that occupied the room was dated, it was clean and in good condition. With the half-dozen boxes that they'd already carried in stacked on the floor against the wall next to the brick fireplace, the small room was almost full. "It's freezing in here."
"I know. Something's wrong with the furnace. I'll get a fire started, though, soon as I get the car emptied. And once the holiday is over, I'll call someone in to get the furnace going."
She smiled across at Dillon, who was perched nervously on the edge of the couch, watching them with big eyes. He still wore his coat. She'd bought it at a clearance sale last year expecting that he would have grown into it by now. But he still looked dwarfed in it. "A fire will have us toasty warm in no time," she told her little brother brightly.
"And then we get popcorn like you promised?" Dillon loved popcorn like almost nothing else. "Absolutely."
"You've got wood?"
At the deep-voiced question, she focused on the man and felt something jolt inside her. Lordy. He really was handsome. And vaguely familiar. "Um…no. No wood. But I'll get some." Along with that snow shovel. Having one of her own was better than borrowing.
"Stores are closed today and tomorrow for New Year's." His voice was even. Unemotional. "I've got plenty, though. I'll bring some over." He turned on his boot heel and left the house.
"Who is he?" Dillon whispered once he was gone.
"The neighbor. You can put away your games in the television cabinet. Soon as I finish with everything, I'll play a game of 'White Hats 3' with you." She'd gotten the latest version of the video game for him for Christmas and it was already his favorite. "Okay?"
He nodded and she went back outside.
The man had left the snow shovel sticking out of the snow banked against the side of the porch. She looked from it to the house next door. It was two-storied and twice the size of hers.
Definitely large enough to hold a wife and kids if Tall-Dark-and-Nameless had any.
She trudged back to the car and pulled the box containing their new television from the backseat. Her girlfriends from Braden had pooled their money together to buy it as a going-away present. It was mercifully lightweight, and she was heading up the steps with it in her arms when the neighbor appeared again bearing a load of wood in his arms.
She quickly got out of his way as he carried it inside.
He crouched next to the brick hearth and started stacking the wood. As he worked, he looked over at her brother. "What's your name?"
Dillon shot Abby a nervous look. "Dillon."
The man's face finally showed a little warmth. He smiled slightly. Gently. And even though it was directed at her little brother, Abby still felt the effect.
She let out a careful breath and set the television on the floor. Her girlfriends had also given her a box of Godiva chocolates before she'd left, with instructions to indulge herself on New Year's Eve—and share the chocolates with a male other than her little brother.
The chocolates were in her suitcase. She could give the box to her no-name neighbor and technically live up to the promise she'd made. Of course, he'd probably take the chocolates home to his wife. Which wasn't exactly what her girlfriends had in mind.
She shook off the silly thoughts and tried to focus on the television, but her gaze kept slipping back to the man, who was still looking at her little brother.
"You want to bring me some of that newspaper from your mom's crystal?"
"She's not my mom," Dillon said as he slid off the couch and retrieved the crumpled papers that Abby had tossed aside. He sidled over to the man, holding them out at arm's length.
She almost missed the speculative glance the man gave her before he took the paper from Dillon. He wadded it up and stuck it in the fireplace, between a couple of angled logs. "Got a match, bud?"
"Here." Abby quickly pulled a lighter out of her purse and carried it over.
"You smoke?" His tone was smooth, yet she still felt the accusation.
"You sound remarkably like my grandfather used to."
A full beat passed before his lips quirked. "My sister keeps telling me I'm getting old before my time," he said. "Must be true if I strike you as grandfatherly." He took the lighter and set the small flame to the newspaper. When he was sure it took, he straightened and left the lighter on the wood mantel.
"Abby's my sister," Dillon said so suddenly that she shot him a surprised look.
The man didn't look surprised. And he wasn't the least bit grandfatherly, though Abby didn't figure it would be appropriate to tell him so. He simply nodded at this additional information, not knowing how unusual it was for Dillon to offer anything where a stranger was concerned. He set the fireplace screen back in place. "What grade are you in?"
But her brother's bravery only went so far. He ducked his chin into his puffy down collar. "Second," he whispered and hurried back to the couch. He sat down on the edge of a cushion again and tucked his bare fingers under his legs.
Abby knew the best thing for Dillon was to keep things as normal as possible. So she ignored the way he was carefully looking away from them and focused on the tall man as he straightened. She was wearing flat-heeled snow boots, and he had at least a foot on her five-one. Probably a good eighty pounds, too, judging by the breadth of his shoulders. "Do you have kids?" Maybe a second-grader who'd become friends with Dillon.
"Nope." Which didn't really tell her whether there was a wife or not. "How much more do you need to unload?"
She followed him onto the porch. "A few boxes and our suitcases."
He grabbed the shovel as he went down the steps and shoved it into the snow, pushing it ahead of him like a plow as he made his way to the car.
"You don't have to do that," Abby said quickly, following in his wake.
"Somebody needs to."
Her defenses prickled. "I appreciate the gesture, but I'm perfectly capable of shoveling my own driveway."
His dark gaze roved over her. "But you didn't. And I'm guessing if you'd had a shovel in that little car of yours, you'd have already used it so you could get the car into the driveway."
Since that was true, she didn't really have a response. "My grandfather had a snowblower," she said. "I didn't really have a good way to move it here, so I sold it." Along with most everything else that her grandparents had owned. Except the crystal. Ever since Abby had been a little girl, her grandmother had said that Abby would have it one day.
And now she did.
The reality of it all settled like a sad knot in her stomach.
She'd followed her grandfather's wishes. But that didn't mean it had been easy.
They'd lost him when he'd died of a heart attack two years earlier. But they'd been losing her grandmother by degrees for years before that. And in the past year, Minerva Marcum's Alzheimer's had become so advanced that she didn't even recognize Abby anymore.
Even though Abby was now a qualified RN, she'd had no choice but to do what her grandfather had made her promise to do when the time came—place her grandmother into full-time residential care.
"So you'll get another blower," the man was saying. "Or a shovel. But for now—" he waggled the long handle "—this is it." He set off again, pushing another long swath of snow clear from the driveway.
She trailed after him. "Mr., uh—"
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