For ten years, Hattie McCall has turned a deaf ear on her dad's sage advice. And for all those years she's found herself in a self-imposed prison. Unwilling to admit the mistake that cost her the love of her life, she's cloistered herself in her teaching. Now, her dad has died and she must return home to run the family store. Which means she has to face Brad Trimble, the young man she'd spurned all those years before. The man she still longs for in the heart she can't hear.
Nearly blinded by the afternoon sun, Hattie stood atop the footstool in the store window finishing the fall display. As she stretched precariously to place one last pin, the cowbell tinkled over the main door.
Intent on completing her work, she extended her arm as far as it would reach just as a familiar male voice boomed, "Well hello, Hattie McCall. Long time, no…"
"Ohhh!" she cried as she lost her balance and toppled off the stool. The man who'd startled her reached out and grabbed her from the air as though she were a feather.
"Gotcha," he said, triumphantly.
That voice! Could it be?
Embarrassed but somehow comforted in those big strong arms, she twisted her neck to look up into smiling hazel eyes. Eyes that had once charmed her out of her skull. Oh no! Not Brad!
The assistant store manager had heard the commotion and came running, his eyes big as silver dollars. "Miss Hattie, you okay?"
"Sure she's okay, Gerald," Brad said, "but I think she's falling for me. Again." He winked at the older man.
She gave him a withering scowl. "In your dreams, Brad Trimble. Put me down."
He placed the petite redhead on her feet and stepped back. "Sorry, Hattie. I didn't mean to startle you off your perch."
"Why should a single thing you do startle me?" She stuck her pierced finger in her mouth and glared at him. "I just jabbed myself with a pin. That's all."
Checking out the smiling man—the last person she ever wanted to see in her store — she could tell his eyes had mellowed, but even now were as mysterious as they'd always been. At first glance, he didn't really seem to have changed much. Still tall and trim as ever, his searing eyes never let one know what he was thinking.
"As I was saying, it's been a long time."
"It has, hasn't it?"
"Over ten years, if memory serves me correctly." He shuffled his long feet, the embarrassed flicker in his eyes confessing that he knew how long since their failed high school relationship, probably down to the minute. Just as she.
Hattie muttered, "Has it been that long? My, how time does fly." She shook her coppery curls, the sun's rays reflecting off them. No way was she going to let him know she'd also kept painful count of time. "So, what brings you to my store, Brad?"
"Nothing earthshaking. I'm editor of the Express now and your dad always did his store advertising with us. I thought it would be good to go over the account and set up your fall schedule. You know, now that you're in charge of the store."
"I see." As the new owner of Leadburg Mercantile, she should have known Brad would be coming. Something in the hesitating way he'd finished his statement caused her to stare into his eyes again. He was still smiling but something serious stirred inside him. She'd never been able to read his face when he was like that.
"Hattie, I'm really sorry about Harry's passing. Your dad was a wonderful man. I should have spoken to you at the funeral, but you were busy and it wasn't a good time."
Another look at those deceiving eyes and she knew her being busy wasn't the reason he'd avoided her at the funeral. "You're right. I realized Dad wasn't feeling well but I never dreamed he was that bad. I..." Her voice broke and tears rimmed her eyes as she took his offered hand.
"Harry was very special," Brad said softly.
"Um-hum. He was wonderful and I miss him so much." Only his bending down to retrieve the briefcase he'd dropped when catching her broke the awkward moment.
Finally, he offered, "So, you're the boss around the store now. I understand you were a teacher for awhile."
"I was. Down at Farmville. English." Hattie smiled, though she wished he'd stop staring. "Can you believe it? A Leadburg graduate teaching at our arch-rival school?"
"I hope you didn't tell them some of the things we used to call them up here."
"You kidding? It was all I could do to hold my tongue when the schools competed."
"How long were you there?"
"Five years. Ever since I graduated from the Cape." She used the silence that followed to move out of the blinding rays of the sun. "Let's go to my office, Brad. It's cooler up there."
She led him across the huge century-old store, past dry goods and hardware, and through the grocery section. They angled around the meat counter and up the worn wooden stairs to the room at the top where he followed her into the tiny air-conditioned office.