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Excerpt of Tin Angel:
Alice ran her hand over the black lace outfit lying across her bed. If it hadn’t been for that sweet little sales clerk, she never would’ve bought it. Thank goodness she had, because here she was getting ready for a date with Jack. Jack Billings—her friend, and an extremely attractive man. A tremor of fear soured her excitement. She had to be careful tonight. What if he recognized her? How could she possibly explain that she was really Alice? Would he believe her if she told him an angel had granted her wish to be young again? Of course not. He’d think she was insane.
Many times throughout the day, she’d come close to canceling their date. Even now, she was tempted to tell him she couldn’t make it, but she’d waited so long to look into a man’s eyes and see desire…to hear her name whispered like a caress… No, she wasn’t about to risk losing that chance, even if it meant she had to be on guard. She might have little time to live life, but she intended to do just that. Maybe…just maybe…she’d fall in love. And this date would be good practice. Lord knew she needed the practice in case Mr. Right did appear.
She glanced in her dresser mirror. Surprisingly, she’d done a good job with her hair and makeup. She’d even managed a straight line with her eyeliner. She dressed quickly, sprayed some eau de parfum, then gave her hair a fluff. At eight o’clock on the dot, she heard a knock at her door. Jack never failed to be punctual. It was one of the many things she liked about him. She grabbed the little black bag the girl at Lorelle had insisted she buy to go with her outfit and rushed to the front door.
Alice tried not to gasp when she saw Jack, but was there ever a more beautiful man? His jet hair skimmed the collar of his camel-colored overcoat. Beneath it she caught a glimpse of a charcoal suit. She breathed a sigh of relief. She’d been afraid she might be over dressed; after all there weren’t many fine restaurants in Silvercreek, and, for all she knew, he could have been planning to take her to Mac’s Diner.
He seemed pleased with the way she looked as well. His gaze traveled slowly over her, stopping briefly at the curve of her hip, then again at the top of her scooped-neck blouse. Her skin grew warm, as if he’d touched her. His eyes locked with hers, and what she saw caused her heart to thunder. There it was. The look she’d been waiting for. Desire. And he made no attempt to disguise it.
“You look gorgeous,” he murmured.
She smiled shyly. “So do you.”
Grabbing a black velvet coat—another purchase from her shopping spree—from the hall closet, she let Jack help her into it. He took hold of her hand, wrapping his fingers around hers, and led her outside to his car. She sank into the soft leather seat. Her knees quivered. She hadn’t been on date in…well, she hated to even think about how long. Calm down, she told herself. You’re out with Jack, not some stranger. But that only made her legs shake more.
She watched as over six feet of hard-bodied man slid behind the driver’s seat. A shadow of stubble, which she found very sexy, covered his chin and upper lip. She had a strong urge to run her fingertip across his face, but common sense took over, and she turned her attention to the road. Jack wound his Acura around the streets of Silvercreek as if he’d lived there his entire life.
“Where are we going?” she asked, unable to suppress her curiosity.
He flashed her a smile as bright as one in any toothpaste ad. “It’ll be more fun if it’s a surprise.”
Alice wanted to say, I don’t care where we eat. I’m happy just to be with you. Instead, she stared silently through the window into the dark. The moon’s silvery light danced over snow-covered trees, making her feel like they were driving through an enchanted forest. “Thank you,” she whispered, hoping the tin angel could hear her. If she had only this one night with Jack, it would be enough. A tear threatened to spill onto her cheek, but she blinked it back.
They drove in silence, leaving Silvercreek behind, and headed toward Hartford. She was glad Jack wasn’t one for idle conversation. She didn’t want anything to break the spell she was under. When she stole a glance at his handsome profile, her skin prickled into gooseflesh. She was on a date…a date with Jack. She needed the reminder it was real and not a dream. Up ahead, the lights of the city gleamed brightly. A few minutes later, Jack pulled into a parking lot. Overhead, a huge neon sign with Mario’s Restaurante spelled in purple and pink fluorescent letters lit up the sky. Alice waited for Jack to come around and open her door. He offered his arm, and she stepped gracefully onto the pavement.
“Ah, old-fashioned values?” He smiled down at her. “I like that.”
If only he knew just how old-fashioned, she thought.
With his hand on the small of her back, they crossed the parking lot. Upon entering the restaurant, a tingle of excitement coursed through her. She never imagined she’d dine in a restaurant with Jack. Large, exotic-looking plants lined the entrance. Dimly lit, with dark wood paneling, the atmosphere inside was rustic and homey. Not at all what she’d expected.
They were given an intimate table in the back. After listening to the maître de recite the specials, she opened her menu. Her brow wrinkled at the many choices offered. How would she ever decide? Dinner at home was zapping something frozen—usually macaroni and cheese—in the microwave.
When she looked up, Jack was studying her. “Shall I order for you?”
She sighed, appreciative of his insight. “Yes, please. That would be wonderful.”
“You take after her,” he said softly.
“Your aunt.” He reached across the table and lifted her hands, studying them. “They’re slender and graceful, just like hers. It’s amazing. And to think you barely know her.”
Alice pulled her hands back and stuck them under the table. “Some things can’t be helped.”
“Such a shame. She’s a wonderful woman.”
Alice noticed the sparkle in Jack’s eyes. He obviously admired her.
“And your father. Is he like her too?”
She dropped her gaze from his intense blue eyes. She hadn’t expected him to bring up her imaginary father. “No, he wasn’t. He’s not…much like her. Tell me about yourself. What is it you do for work?” she asked, quickly changing the subject.
His face lit up as she’d expected. Jack loved his work—especially the children—and she knew it was a subject he could talk about for hours. Many nights after he’d had dinner at her place, he’d stay past midnight, talking about school and the children.
“I teach music over at the elementary school. Music is my passion,” he said.
“M—” Alice bit back her words. She’d been about to say, Mine too, then realized her mistake. She couldn’t appear too similar to a woman she was supposed to barely know.
“Merchandising,” she spouted, looking down at her skirt. “Fashion merchandising. That’s what I do.”
The sparkle left Jack’s eyes. “And I’ll bet you’re quite good at it too.” From his tone, she knew he hadn’t meant it as a compliment. She’d better be careful, or Jack would become more suspicious of her than he already was.
Thankfully, the waiter arrived. “Are you ready to order?” he asked, putting an end to that uncomfortable conversation.
“Yes, we’ll each have the braised beef short rib,” Jack said, “and bring us a bottle of your best red wine.”
She watched him over the rim of her water glass. The copper lamp in the center of the table cast a warm glow over his swarthy complexion. His raven hair glistened. Oh no! Her thoughts were beginning to wander to places they shouldn’t. She’d best control her reaction to him, at least until they were through with dinner. She lowered her lashes and studied the tablecloth’s red-and-white-checked pattern.
“Is something wrong?”
When she looked up, worry shadowed his expression. He was a compassionate man, one who didn’t deserve to be deceived, but it was impossible for her to ignore the powerful feelings churning inside. “I was just thinking how happy I am to be here with you.” At least that wasn’t a lie.
The lines creasing his forehead disappeared. He rested his elbows on the edge of the table and leaned in toward her. “I’m enjoying your company too.”
Although she didn’t doubt his sincerity, she couldn’t help but wonder if, given a choice, he wouldn’t rather be with Alice. How odd that she should feel that way. After all, she was young and beautiful—the object of every man’s desire. So why in the world would she think he’d prefer the company of an old woman? Deciding to ignore such crazy musings, she accepted his compliment with a wide smile.
“That boyfriend, the one you left back in New York, must be crazy to have let you go.”
A heated blush stole up her neck. He did desire her. For a sinful moment, she wondered what it would feel like to spend the night wrapped in his arms.
With impeccable timing, the waiter interrupted with the wine. He popped the cork, poured Jack a glass, and waited silently while Jack swirled, sniffed, and sipped. When Jack nodded his approval, the waiter poured a glass for Alice.
She brought the goblet to her lips, then quickly set it back down, nearly splattering wine over her lap. Doc Brooks was headed toward their table. In his mid-sixties with a mop of white hair swept to one side and slicked down with hair spray, the short, heavy-set man moved with amazing agility.
“Charlie, great to see you,” Jack said, springing to his feet and shaking the doctor’s hand.
“My wife and I love this place. We don’t miss a week.” He glanced at Alice through thick bifocal lenses. “Pleasure to meet you…”
“I’m sorry, this is Ally, Alice’s niece,” Jack said.
Doc Brooks frowned. “That’s funny. I’ve known Alice for years, and she never mentioned a niece.”
Both men stared at her. Her knees began to shake. “I hadn’t seen my aunt since I was a child.” She hoped her nervousness wasn’t taken as a sign she was lying.
“I see. How’s Alice doing?” the doctor asked, his tone anxious.
“She’s spending the holiday with my dad.” Alice prayed Doc Brooks would hurry up and leave.
“That’s odd. She never said a word.”
“Not to me either,” Jack chimed in. “Ally’s father took sick. She left suddenly, isn’t that right?”
Her fingers trembled in her lap. “Yes.”
“I hope she’s careful. Alice has such trouble getting around.” Doc Brooks’ small, round eyes focused on her face. “It’s nice to have met you, Ally is it? Quite a striking resemblance.” He scratched his ear as he walked back to his table.
When Alice turned to Jack, he was still staring at her. “What?” she asked, her defenses on high alert.
His sensuous mouth turned up into a smile. “You look amazing tonight.”
A nerve twittered at the side of her cheek. “Thank you.”
He took hold of her hand and rubbed his thumb over her skin. Electricity seemed to arc through her. A man hadn’t touched her that way since Tom. She’d forgotten how wonderful it felt. She closed her eyes, and her nervousness evaporated. She was beautiful, and Jack desired her. All the feelings she’d kept bottled up inside were dangerously close to erupting. She wondered what his kiss would feel like. Would it be soft or deep and sensual? The all too vivid image of him pressed hard against her made her mouth go dry. She moistened her lips with the tip of her tongue. What had happened to her common sense? She mustn’t have these kinds of daydreams.
Alice opened her eyes. The look on Jack’s face brought back all her worries. Was that suspicion she saw? But when he realized she was watching him, his expression changed to one of warmth.
The waiter set a plate in front of her. She lifted her fork and took a bite.
Jack filled her wineglass to the rim. “Tell me, what do you think of Silvercreek?”
She set down her fork and looked over at him. His eyes were friendly, not probing as they had been a few moments ago. “I haven’t seen much of it, but the people I’ve met are charming.” She held his gaze.
He smiled, and she liked the way his eyes crinkled at the corners. “Allow me to remedy that by becoming your tour guide.”
She took a quick drink of wine to calm her rapidly beating heart. “I’d like that.”
The delicious dinner and glass of wine combined with Jack’s charm put Alice at ease. By the time they’d polished off a wonderful dessert and were sipping coffee, she was getting the hang of being her alter-ego, Ally. She’d produced an answer to each of Jack’s politely probing questions.
“How long have you been teaching?” she asked, directing the conversation away from herself.
He took a drink of coffee, then set down the cup. “This is my first year at Silvercreek Elementary. I taught at a school in Boston for nearly four years but began my career at the school I attended as a child. I was there for a while, then got the itch to try big-city life.”
“How did you like it?” she asked.
Jack leaned back in the chair. “Shock and awe about sums it up. Boston’s only an hour from my hometown, but they’re worlds apart.”
Alice sipped her coffee. Although she knew his feelings about the city, she enjoyed listening to him talk.
“Growing up, I knew most everyone in town,” he continued. “When you’re young, you don’t necessarily see that as a good thing. I sure didn’t. Having the whole town know my business made me long to be anonymous. I’m sure you can relate to that.”
She arched a brow in surprise.
“To the anonymous part,” he explained. “You’re just visiting here. You can do whatever you want, and no one will know or care. That’s got to be appealing.”
She shifted her gaze away from him and stared into her drink. Being so shy, she’d never had many friends. She didn’t socialize—never had until she met Tom, but then her whole world collapsed when he died. Her fingers tightened around the cup.
“I’m sorry. Have I upset you?”
Beneath his concern, she thought there was a slight change in tone, maybe even a faint hint of sarcasm, but she couldn’t be sure. Had his suspicion of her resurfaced? Why?
Alice looked over at him and forced a smile. “No, no. I’m fine.” To keep him talking about himself she asked, “How did you end up here?”
Jack shrugged and waited while the waiter refilled their cups before answering. “The nightlife wasn’t for me, neither was the traffic or the stress that went along with it. I longed for a small town—one like where my Aunt Stacy lives. As a boy, I spent my summers with her. She’s the complete opposite of my mother.” He raked his hair off his forehead. Alice knew this was a difficult subject for him. “My parents liked to travel…without a child to cramp their style. So I want what Stacy has…a life where family comes first.”
Alice poured some cream in her coffee, then stirred it with a spoon. “She sounds wonderful.”
“Indeed,” he answered. His eyes darkened, and she knew he was missing her.
A few moments later, his mood seemed to brighten. “Alice keeps me from getting too homesick,” he said with a smile. “She reminds me of my aunt. There’ve been many nights I’d sit in Alice’s parlor, listening to music and playing gin rummy with her.”
She remembered those nights fondly. Jack was almost as good at the game as she.
“Do you play cards?” There was no misreading the hopeful gleam in his eyes.
She ran her hands over the napkin on her lap and tried to rid herself of the ridiculous thought that he might be able to read her mind. “A little.”
“We should play sometime. But I have to warn you, although I’m not a sore loser, I like to win.”
“Do you always?” she asked.
The waiter brought over the check, and Jack handed it back along with his credit card. “What? Win?”
He laughed. “It seems only when Alice lets me.”
Her mouth twitched. She fought hard to hold back a smile. How did he know she would sometimes throw a game? And she’d thought she’d done such a good job keeping it from him. “It seems like you’ve settled in here.”
Jack slipped the credit card the waiter returned to him into his wallet, then scribbled his name on the receipt. “I love this town. I could see myself spending my life here. Now, all I need is to find that special someone.” His gaze locked with hers.
The warmth in his eyes grew to a steady heat that echoed through her and made her wonder where this night might end.
“We should probably get going,” she said softly.
Jack rose and stepped around the table to pull out her chair. His hand brushed her arm, and a tingle ran up the back of her neck. She hurried through the restaurant, suddenly feeling the need for fresh air, but before she could reach the door, her heel caught on something. She started to fall forward. Grasping for anything to keep her balance, her fingers locked on to one of the decorative trees flanking the entrance. As she careened headfirst into the plant, strong arms encircled her waist, putting her back on her feet.
“Darn these shoes,” she muttered under her breath. She should’ve known better than to try to wear three-inch heels. She’d nearly lived in slippers for decades. A little practice at home before venturing out in public would’ve been smart.
“Are you hurt?” Jack held her firmly, his vivid blue eyes flicking over the cleavage showing from the top of her scoop-neck blouse, then up to her face.
“I’m fine, thank you.” But that wasn’t true. She thought she might die right there of embarrassment.
His breath tickled her neck. He was holding her a little too close. She began to tremble and didn’t know whether it was from the accident or his nearness. Either way, she needed air. “Please, may we go now?”
His eyes glistened dangerously, and he tilted his head in toward her. Oh Lord. He was about to kiss her. She parted her lips slightly and waited. With his arm still wrapped around her waist, he spun her around and led her out the door. If she’d been embarrassed before, it was nothing compared to how she felt now.
She kept her gaze on the pavement as he guided her to his car. There was no way she could look at him. Maybe he hadn’t noticed how desperately she wanted him. Wishful thinking. She couldn’t have been more obvious if she’d kissed him herself.
Jack opened the car door and helped her in. She slid down into the seat, wishing she could disappear. She watched him walk around the front of the car but turned her head to look out the side window when he climbed into the driver’s seat. He started the engine, and they were heading back to Silvercreek. An uneasy silence loomed between them, so different from the comfortable quiet they’d shared when driving to dinner. Alice wrung her hands in her lap. He was probably regretting this date.
She watched as they left the lights of the city far behind. The scenery changed as they entered her small hometown. Hartford’s large gray buildings were gone, replaced with charming old homes billowing smoke from their chimneys. She imagined families sitting before roaring fires, telling stories. A sense of loneliness washed over her. She’d missed out on so much.
As they wound down Main Street, she spotted her old Victorian. Its blue paint was cracked and peeling, but the house was still magnificent despite showing its age. She was glad to be home.
Jack pulled the car in the driveway. After he turned off the engine, he placed his large strong hand over hers. She risked a glance at him, and what she saw in his eyes set her heart pounding. With a look more intimate than she’d ever seen, he leaned over, and this time, he kissed her.
Soft at first, his kiss deepened into a passionate expression of feeling Alice hadn’t expected. The tips of her toes tingled. She curled her arms around his neck, despite her inner voice warning her to be careful. His lips seared a fire over her skin, moving from her trembling mouth to the curve of her neck.
She pressed him close. Her doubts were lost in a deep pool of desire. A soft moan of delight escaped her. He caressed her throat, then moved his tongue along her ear. While her pulse raced, tiny pangs of guilt began to take root, forming a knot in her stomach. What if Jack’s feelings matched hers? What then? How could she be so selfish? She knew her fate, but Jack had no idea what was going to happen come New Year’s Day if she hadn’t found true love. And how in the world could she hope to build any kind of relationship with him based on secrets and lies?
Alice pulled back and ran a finger over her lips. “I’m sorry. I can’t do this.” She swung the door open and bolted toward the house without looking back.
Once inside, she headed straight to the parlor and sank wearily into the overstuffed armchair. She stared at the top of the Christmas tree where the tin angel used to sit and said, “I’m such a fool. I can’t imagine what Jack must be thinking. All he did was kiss me, and I ran away. He has no idea of the guilt I’m feeling. He must think I’m an idiot, or worse, that I’m not interested in him.” She covered her face with her hands.
“And rightly so.”
She fanned open her fingers. “What?” Her startled gaze scanned the parlor, but the voice seemed to come out of nowhere. “Who said that?”
“Open the door. I’m in the closet.”
Alice flew across the room, then into the hall and yanked open the coat closet. Inside, the tin angel fluttered like a moth trapped in a jar.
“What are you doing in there?” she asked with surprise.
“I don’t always land exactly where I plan to.”
“Great. I’ve got an angel who can’t tell direction for my guide. I hope when my time’s up, you take me to the right place.”
The angel’s melodious laughter chimed. “Don’t worry, heaven and hell are far enough apart that even if I’m off a bit, the worst that can happen is you’ll wind up in purgatory, and they don’t keep you there very long.”
“Well now, that’s reassuring.”
The angel giggled again. “I’m glad to see you’ve kept your sense of humor.”
“I never knew I had one of those,” she said glumly.
The angel floated nearer. “Don’t put yourself down like that. You’re a wonderful person; however, you’re doing a fine job of confusing Jack.”
“I know,” Alice moaned. “But I don’t know what to do.”
“Tell him the truth. You’ve never been one to lie.”
She opened her eyes wide. “How can I? He’ll never believe it.”
The angel’s brow furrowed. “How do you know that?”
“Because he doesn’t trust me.” She began to pace the floor. “Sometimes he looks at me with such scorn…”
“And why do you think that is?”
“Use your intuition.” The angel studied her intently. “What is your heart telling you?”
Alice hesitated a moment before answering. “I don’t know. At times I don’t think he likes me much, and at others, well… Maybe I’m wasting my time on Jack. I’m not even sure if he’s the one.”
“You won’t know if you keep running away. Remember, you only have until New Year’s Day to find true love. Time is slipping away. Use what’s left wisely. Take chances and enjoy yourself.”
She stopped pacing and stood in front of the angel. “You make it sound so easy. I’ve been alone so long I don’t know how to let my guard down. How to let a man get close to me.”
“Just be yourself, and everything else will come.”“Thank you,” Alice said softly. She reached out to touch the angel, but the gossamer wings fluttered, and an instant later, the tin angel was gone.