First impressions, p.7
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       First Impressions, p.7

           Nora Roberts
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  watching Benji? Isn’t she still in school?”

  “No, she graduated this summer. Right now she’s hunting for a new job.” With a contented sigh, Donna sat back. “She was planning to go to college part-time, but money’s tight and the hours she’s working right now make it next to impossible.” Her brow creased in sympathy. “The best she can manage this term is a couple of night classes twice a week. At that rate it’s going to take her a long time to earn a degree.”

  “Hmm.” Shane stared into her cocoa. “Pat was a very bright girl as I remember.”

  “Bright and pretty as a picture.”

  Shane nodded. “Tell her to come see me.”

  “You?”

  “After the shop’s set up, I’m going to need some part-time help.” She glanced over absently as the wind hurled rain at the windows. “I wouldn’t be able to do anything for her for a month or so, but if she’s still interested, we should be able to work something out.”

  “Shane, she’ll be thrilled. But are you sure you can afford to hire someone?”

  With a toss of her head, Shane lifted her drink. “I’ll know within the first six months if I’m going to make it.” As she considered, she twisted a curl around her finger—a gesture Donna recognized as nerves. She drew her brows together but said nothing. “I want to keep the place open seven days a week,” Shane continued. “Weekends are bound to be the busiest time if I manage to lure in any tourists. Between sales and bookkeeping, inventory and the buying I have to do, I won’t be able to manage alone. If I’m going down,” she murmured, “I’m going down big.”

  “I’ve never known you to do anything halfway,” Donna observed with a trace of admiration vying with concern. “I’d be scared to death.”

  “I am a little scared,” Shane admitted. “Sometimes I imagine this place the way it’s going to look, and I see customers coming in to handle merchandise. I see all the rooms and records I’m going to have to keep …” She rolled her eyes to the ceiling. “What makes me think I can handle all that?”

  “As long as I can remember, you’ve handled everything that came your way.” Donna paused a moment as she considered Shane carefully. “You’re going to try this no matter how many pitfalls I point out?”

  A grin had Shane’s dimples deepening. “Yes.”

  “Then I won’t point out any,” Donna said with a wry smile. “What I will say is that if anyone can make it work, you can.”

  After frowning into her cocoa, Shane raised her eyes to Donna’s. “Why?”

  “Because you’ll give it everything you’ve got.”

  The simplicity of the answer made Shane laugh. “You’re sure that’ll be enough?”

  “Yes,” Donna said so seriously that Shane sobered.

  “I hope you’re right,” Shane murmured, then shook off the doubts. “It’s a little late in the game to start worrying about it now. So,” she continued in a lighter tone, “what’s new besides Justine or Samuel?”

  After a moment’s hesitation, Donna plunged ahead. “Shane, I saw Cy the other day.”

  “Did you?” Shane lifted a brow as she sipped. “So did I.”

  Donna moistened her lips. “He seemed very … ah, concerned about your plans.”

  “Critical and concerned are entirely different things,” Shane pointed out, then smiled as the color in Donna’s cheeks deepened. “Oh, don’t worry about it, Donna. Cy’s never approved of any of my ideas. It doesn’t bother me anymore. In fact, the less he approves,” she continued slowly, “the more I’m sure it’s the right thing to do. I don’t think he’s ever taken a chance in his entire life.” Noting that Donna was busy gnawing on her bottom lip, Shane fixed her with a straight look. “Okay, what else?”

  “Shane.” Donna paused, then began running her fingertip around and around the rim of her cup. Shane recognized the stalling gesture and kept silent. “I think I should tell you before—well, before you hear it from someone else. Cy …”

  Shane waited patiently for a few seconds. “Cy what?” she demanded. Miserably, Donna looked up.

  “He’s been seeing quite a lot of Laurie MacAfee.” Seeing Shane’s eyes widen, Donna continued in a rush. “I’m sorry, Shane, so sorry, but I did think you should know. And I figured it might be easier hearing it from me. I think … well, I’m afraid it’s serious.”

  “Laurie …” Shane broke off and seemed to stare, fascinated, at the water dripping into the pot. “Laurie MacAfee?” she managed after a strangled moment.

  “Yes,” Donna said quietly, and she stared down at the table. “Rumor is they’ll be married next summer.” Donna waited, unhappily, for Shane’s reaction. When she heard the burst of wild laughter, she looked up, fearing hysterics.

  “Laurie MacAfee!” Shane pounded her palms on the table and laughed until she thought she would burst. “Oh, it’s wonderful, it’s perfect! Oh God. Oh God, what an admirable couple!”

  “Shane …” Concerned with the damp eyes and rollicking laughter, Donna searched for the right thing to say.

  “Oh, I wish I had known before so I could have congratulated him.” Almost beside herself with delight, Shane laid her forehead on the table. Taking this as a sign of a broken heart, Donna put a comforting hand on her hair.

  “Shane, you mustn’t take on so.” Her own eyes filled as she gently stroked Shane’s hair. “Cy isn’t for you. You deserve better.”

  The statement sent Shane into a fresh peal of laughter. “Oh, Donna! Oh, Donna, do you remember how she always wore those neat little coordinates to school? And she got straight A’s in home economics.” Shane was forced to take deep breaths before she could continue. “She did a term paper on planning household budgets.”

  “Please, darling, don’t think about it.” Donna cast her eyes around the kitchen, wondering if there were any medicinal brandy in the house.

  “She’ll have her own shoe trees,” Shane said weakly. “I just know it. And she’ll label them so they don’t get them mixed up. Oh, Cy!” On a new round of giggles, she pounded a fist on the table. “Laurie. Laurie MacAfee!”

  Almost frantic with concern, Donna gently lifted Shane’s face. “Shane, I …” With a jolt she saw that rather than being devastated, her friend was simply overcome with amusement. For a moment, Donna stared into round dancing eyes. “Well,” she said dryly, “I knew you’d be upset.”

  Shane howled with laughter. “I’m going to give them a Victorian whatnot as a wedding present. Donna,” she added with grinning gratitude, “you’ve made my day. Absolutely made it.”

  “I knew you’d take it badly,” Donna said with a baffled smile. “Just try not to weep in public.”

  “I’ll keep my chin up,” Shane promised, then smiled. “You’re sweet. Did you really think I was carrying a torch for Cy?”

  “I wasn’t sure,” Donna admitted. “You were … well, an item for so long, and I knew how crushed you were when the two of you broke up. You’d never talk about it after that.”

  “I needed some time to lick my wounds,” Shane told her. “They’ve been healed over for a long while. I was in love with him, but I got over it. He put a large dent in my pride. I survived.”

  “I could have killed him at the time,” Donna muttered darkly. “Two months before the wedding.”

  “Better than two months after,” Shane pointed out logically. “We would never have made a go of it. But now, Cy and Laurie MacAfee …”

  This time they both broke out into laughter.

  “Shane.” Donna gave her a sudden sober look. “A lot of people are going to be thinking you still care for Cy.”

  Shane shrugged it off. “You can’t do anything about what people think.”

  “Or what they say,” Donna murmured.

  “They’ll find something more interesting to talk about before long,” Shane returned carelessly. “Besides, I have too much to do to be worried about it.”

  “So I noticed from the pile of stuff on the porch. What’s under that tarp?”

>   “Lumber and materials.”

  “Just what are you going to do with it?”

  “Nothing. Vance Banning’s going to do it. Want some more cocoa.”

  “Vance Banning!” Stunned, then fascinated, Donna leaned forward. “Tell me.”

  “There’s not much to tell. You didn’t answer, me,” Shane reminded her.

  “What? No, no, I don’t want any more.” Impatiently, she brushed the offer away. “Shane, what is Vance Banning going to do with your lumber and materials?”

  “The carpentry work.”

  “Why?”

  “I hired him to do it.”

  Donna gritted her teeth. “Why?”

  “Because he’s a carpenter.”

  “Shane!”

  Valiantly, Shane controlled a grin. “Look, he’s out of work, he’s talented, I needed someone who’d work under union scale, so …” She spread her hands.

  “What have you found out about him?” Donna demanded the right to fresh news.

  “Not much.” Shane wrinkled her nose. “Nothing, really. He doesn’t say much.”

  Donna gave her a knowing smirk. “I already knew that.”

  A quick grin was Shane’s response. “Well, he can be downright rude when he wants to. He has a lot of pride and a marvelous smile that he doesn’t use nearly enough. Strong hands,” she murmured, then brought herself back. “And a streak of reluctant kindness. I think he can laugh at himself but he’s forgotten how. I know he’s a workhorse because when the wind’s right I can hear him hammering and sawing at all hours.” She glanced out the window in the direction of the path. “I’m in love with him.”

  “Yes, but what—” Donna caught her breath and choked on it. “What!”

  “I’m in love with him,” Shane repeated with an amused smile. “Would you like some water?”

  For nearly a full minute, Donna only stared at her. She’s joking, she told herself. But by Shane’s expression, she saw her friend was perfectly serious. It was her duty, Donna decided, as a married woman starting on her second child, to point out the dangers of this kind of thinking.

  “Shane,” she began in a patient, maternal tone, “you only just met the man. Now—”

  “I knew it the minute I set my eyes on him,” Shane interrupted calmly. “I’m going to marry him.”

  “Marry him!” Beyond words. Donna could only come up with sputters. Indulgently, Shane rose to pour her some water. “He—he asked you to marry him?”

  “No, of course not.” Shane chuckled at the idea as she handed Donna a glass. “He only just met me.”

  In an attempt to understand Shane’s logic, Donna closed her eyes and concentrated. “I’m confused,” she said at length.

  “I said I was going to marry him,” Shane explained, taking her seat again. “He doesn’t know it yet. First I have to wait for him to fall in love with me.”

  After setting the untouched water aside, Donna gave her a stern look. “Shane, I think you’re under more strain than you realize.”

  “I’ve been giving this a lot of thought,” Shane answered, ignoring Donna’s comment. “Number one, why would I have fallen in love with him in the blink of an eye if it wasn’t right? It must be right, so number two, sooner or later he’s going to fall in love with me.”

  Donna followed the pattern of thought and found it filled with snags. “And how are you going to make him do that?”

  “Oh, I can’t make him,” Shane said reasonably. Her voice was both serene and confident. “He’ll have to fall in love with me just as I am and in his own time—the same way I fell in love with him.”

  “Well, you’ve had some nutty ideas before, Shane Abbott, but this is the top.” Donna folded her arms over her chest. “You’re planning on marrying a man you’ve known barely a week who doesn’t know he’s going to marry you, and you’re just going to sit patiently by until he gets the idea.”

  Shane thought for a moment, then nodded. “That’s about it.”

  “It’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard,” Donna stated, then let out a surprised laugh. “And knowing you, it’ll probably work.”

  “I’m counting on it.”

  Leaning forward, Donna took Shane’s hands in hers. “Why do you love him, Shane?”

  “I don’t know,” she answered immediately. “That’s another reason I’m sure it’s right. I know almost nothing about him except he’s not a comfortable man. He’ll hurt me and make me cry.”

  “Then why—”

  “He’ll make me laugh too,” Shane interrupted. “And make me furious.” She smiled a little, but her eyes were very serious. “I don’t think he’ll ever make me feel—inadequate. And when I’m near him, I know. That’s enough for me.”

  “Yes.” Donna nodded, giving Shane’s hands a squeeze, “It would be. You’re the most loving person I’ve ever known. And the most trusting. Those are wonderful traits, Shane, and—well, dangerous. I only wish we knew more about him,” she added in a mutter.

  “He has secrets,” Shane murmured, and Donna’s eyes sharpened. “They’re his until he’s ready to tell me about them.”

  “Shane …” Donna’s fingers tightened on hers.. “Be careful, please.”

  A little surprised by the tone, Shane smiled. “I will. Don’t worry. Maybe I am more trusting than most, but I have my defenses. I’m not going to make a fool of myself.” Unconsciously, she glanced out the window again, seeing the path to his house in her mind’s eye. “He’s not a simple man, Donna, but he is a good one. That much I’m sure of.”

  “All right,” Donna agreed. Silently, she vowed to keep a close eye on Vance Banning.

  For a long time after Donna left, Shane sat in the kitchen. The rain continued to pound. The steady drip from the ceiling plopped musically into the pan. She was aware of how reckless her words to Donna had been, yet she felt better having said them out loud.

  No, she wasn’t as blindly confident as she appeared. Inside, she was terrified by the knowledge that she loved so irrationally. She was trusting, yes, but not naive. She understood there was a price to pay for trust, and that often it was a dear one. Yet she knew her choice had already been made—or perhaps she’d never had one.

  Rising, Shane switched off the lights and began to wander through the darkened house. She knew its every twist and turn, every board that creaked. It was everything familiar and comforting to her. She loved it. She knew none of Vance’s twists and turns, none of his secret corners. He was everything strange and disturbing. She loved him.

  If it had been a quiet, gentle love, she could have accepted it easily. But there was nothing quiet in the storm churning inside her. For all her energy and love of adventure, Shane had grown up in a slow, peaceful world where excitement was a run through the woods or a ride on the back of a tractor at haymaking. To fall suddenly in love with a stranger might seem romantic and wonderful in a story, but when it happened in real life, it was simply terrifying.

  Shane walked upstairs, habitually avoiding the steps that creaked or groaned. The rain was a hollow, drumming sound all around her, whipped up occasionally by the wind to fly at the windows. Her bare feet met bare wood with a quiet patter. A small bucket caught the drip in the center of the hall. Expertly, she skirted around it.

  Who was she to think all she had to do was to sit patiently by until Vance fell in love with her? she asked herself. After flipping on the light in her room, she went to stare at herself in the mirror. Was she beautiful? Shane asked her reflection. Alluring? With a half laugh, she rested her elbows on the dresser to look closer.

  She saw the dash of freckles, the large dark eyes and cap of hair. She didn’t see the stunning vitality, the temptingly smooth skin, the surprisingly sensual mouth.

  Was that a face to send a man into raptures? she asked herself. The thought amused her so, that the reflection grinned back with quick good humor. Hardly, Shane decided, but she wouldn’t want a man who looked only for a perfect face. No, she hadn’t the face or fig
ure to lure a man into love had she wanted to. She had only herself and the love in her heart.

  Shane flashed the mirror a smile before she turned away to prepare for bed. She’d always thought love the ultimate adventure.

  Chapter Six

  Weak sunlight filtered through the bad-tempered clouds. The creek was swollen from the rainfall so that it ran its course noisily, hissing and complaining as it rounded the bend at the side of Shane’s house. Shane was doing some complaining of her own.

  The day before, she had moved her car out of the narrow driveway so that the delivery truck could have easy access to the back porch. Not wanting to ruin the grass, she had parked in the small square of dirt her grandmother had used as a vegetable
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