Woman's World

Harlequin Mini-romance for Woman’s World

Meg was trying to move on with her life. Then a chance encounter changed everything . . .

- —Arlene James

The laughter surprised her. Most of the grief support meetings she’d attended in the past 15 months involved more tears than humor. Even more surprising, that laugh sounded familiar, like a musical phrase that didn’t quite fit a favorite song yet refused to leave her mind.

Her friend Kay promised this group was different. Meg looked at the paper in her hand. The meeting format was certainly different. Each one centered on a topic picked by the attendees. She wrote “binge eating” in the suggestion blank but left the volunteer speaker slot empty. Once she’d have volunteere­d to speak about running or surviving childhood abuse, confident she’d overcome the ghosts of her past, but any desire to hit the pavement and all confidence had died in a car wreck with her husband, Clark. Who else could love the mess she’d been and was again?

His unforgetta­ble blue eyes swept over her

She took a seat in the church hall across the aisle from a tall man with sandy hair and a heavily scarred arm. Meg wondered why he hadn’t covered his scars with long sleeves. She really didn’t look beyond that.

The evening’s speaker talked about parenting, extolling the virtues of her recently deceased mother. Meg’s own mother had been, at best, uncaring and often vicious. Meg long ago decided that she didn’t have the tools to be a good parent, but something the speaker said stuck with her.

“Knowing what not to do is as important as knowing what to do for a child.”

Well, she knew what not to do as a parent, but just how any of this was supposed to help her get on with her life, she’d didn’t know. With the waistband of her jeans cutting her in two, she decided to leave before the discussion portion of the meeting, but when she turned into the aisle, she came face-to-face with her past. “Allen?” They’d dated in college. When he joined the military upon graduation, she broke up with him. The last thing she needed was a man with a warrior mentality. His smile split his face as his unforgetta­ble blue eyes swept over her. She cringed inwardly, sure that he enjoyed seeing her like this. She was no longer the fit blonde with the winsome green eyes. “Meg! How good to see you!” Oh, sure, after the way she’d broken with him. Feeling every ounce of the thirty-something pounds she’d gained since Clark’s death, Meg went on defense. She looked pointedly at his arm and asked, “Iraq?”

“No, I was there, twice, but I got this in a house fire.”

A child, maybe 10 years old, ran up. “Can I have a doughnut?” “In a sec. My son, Steven.”

The boy’s face was a hairless mask of smooth, tight skin with ruffled lines of scarring. Meg didn’t know what to say other than the obvious. “Hello, Steven. You’ve been burned, too, I see.”

“Yeah.” He hugged his father’s waist. “But Dad got me out in time.” He looked up. “Can I have a doughnut for Brian, too?”

“Of course. Then go back to the playroom.”

Steven ran off, and Allen looked to Meg. “Thank you. Most people try to ignore the obvious.”

“Allen, I’m sorry,” Meg said.

“Me, too. Especially as we lost his mom that night. But let’s talk about you. I’ve thought of you so often. I assume you’ve lost someone, too.”

He said all the right words when she told him, then asked conversati­onally, “Where do you live?”

She told him where, and he smiled. “That’s near the marina where I row.” He flexed his arm. “Keeps things loose. Maybe you’ll come by one morning.” “Pastor!” someone called to him. “Pastor?” Meg echoed. “You were right,” he said, smiling. “Violence and war change people. Don’t misunderst­and. I’m glad I served, glad for the changes. Now, if you’ll excuse me . . . ”

The next morning, Meg decided on impulse to put on her running shoes. On the sidewalk, she turned automatica­lly in the direction of the marina. When she got to the gate, she was completely winded. Allen walked out to meet her, a smile on his face.

“Been here a while,” he told her. “I was afraid you wouldn’t show.”

“No rowing for me,” she managed. “Not today. Out of shape.”

“That’s all right,” he said. “Whenever you’re ready. I already know you’re worth the wait.”

Her eyes filled with tears, then something welled up within her. It had been many months, so her laughter surprised her, like a musical phrase in a favorite song that’d never again be forgotten.

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