Jason Sarantos sat heavily beside his sleeping son and dropped his head to his hands, digging his fingers into his temples. "Think, Jason," he said aloud, his voice echoing through the crumbling café that he'd bought sight unseen and moved three hundred miles to run, so his son would have a chance at a normal life. But this place was nothing like what he'd thought. Nothing. What the hell had he done? "There has to be a way to make this right."
"Of course there is," a woman said, her melodic voice drifting across the dust-filled café. "A fresh coat of lilac paint on the walls and maybe a blue-green turquoise on the ceiling, don't you think?"
Jason jerked his head up at the intrusion, and then froze when he saw who had spoken. It wasn't the old lady with cookies that he'd imagined when he'd decided to move to this rural New England town. He'd been off by several decades and a whole lot of femininity.
She was leaning against the doorway to his shop, her brown eyes sparkling with merriment he hadn't felt in years. Her dark brown hair tumbled around her shoulders with a reckless abandon that spoke of a spirit that would never be tamed. Some of the curls had been woven into a yellow and green braided scarf that seemed to disappear into her thick hair. From each earlobe dangled several pairs of earrings, gold wire twisted into designs so intriguing he wanted to stride right over to her and see what they were.
She was wearing a pair of faded jeans that showed womanly curves that he hadn't thought about in way too long. The delicate straps of her pale yellow tank top rested across her collarbones, revealing a smooth expanse of skin that shot right to his core.
But it was her smile that he couldn't look away from. It was so full of life and vitality, that it made him want to grab her and yank her into his store so she could inject the dying place with her energy.
Her eyebrows arched up, and there was no mistaking the glint of interest in her eyes. "So, should I take your lack of response as a statement that you disagree with the lilac paint suggestion but you're too polite to tell me that? Or maybe you're just overwhelmed by my mind-numbing beauty and stunned into disbelieving silence?"
Shit. He was staring? Jason swore and quickly stood up, brushing the dust from the store off his jeans. "My name's Jason Sarantos. I bought the place."
Her smile widened, lighting up her eyes even more, like this great gust of relief breaking through the gloom trying to consume him. "Jason, everyone in this entire town knows your name, that you bought the store, and that it was twelve minutes after three when you drove your Mercedes SUV past Wright's General Store when you arrived in town, not to mention the fact you were drinking a coffee as you went by." She set her hands on her hips and tilted her head, giving him a teasing grin. "Everyone was pretty offended you didn't stop in to buy your coffee at Wright's and introduce yourself."
Jason blinked, suddenly thrust back into the past, into his childhood, into the small town in Minnesota he'd grown up in, where his mother had found out about his first kiss before he'd even lifted his lips from those of Samantha Huckaby. That was why he'd been drawn to Birch Crossing: because it reminded him of everything he liked about his home and his childhood, yet it had the appealing bonus of being two thousand miles away from the sixteen cousins, five aunts and uncles, and four sisters that had driven him east to find his own path. "Shit. Sorry. I wasn't thinking."
She laughed, a beautiful, melodic sound that went right to his gut. God, when was the last time he'd seen anyone effuse such life? He was riveted by her, by the irreverence of her smile, by the fire in her eyes. This was a woman who was so damn alive that nothing could bring her down. He wanted that. He needed that. God, he needed that.
"Don't worry about it. The town will have you trained in no time, trust me." She raised her eyebrows. "I don't suppose you're dialed into the gossip chain enough to know my name?" She wrinkled her nose, and he thought he saw a flash of vulnerability in her eyes. "I tend to be fodder for talk in this town. I'm not always a fit."
Yeah, he could imagine. She seemed to carry the kind of spunk that might knock an old New England town on its ass. Jason grinned, and he was almost surprised to realize he still knew how to smile. It felt like a long time since he'd smiled, and actually meant it. "Yeah, sorry, I figure I need at least twenty-four hours to recognize everyone in town by sight."
"I'll be back to quiz you in twenty-four hours." She inclined her head and held out her hand. "Astrid Monroe. My brother Harlan is the one who sold you the shop. He's out of town, so he asked me to stop by and see if you needed anything."
Instinctively, Jason reached out to shake her hand. "Nice to meet you. Thanks for the offer." Yeah, he knew what he needed. He needed a damned angel to sweep into his life and fix everything that he'd screwed up, to make this okay for his son. He needed—
Then as he felt the warmth of her palm against his, the light touch of her fingers on the back of his hand, his gut knew what he needed.
He needed her.