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Authors: Kay Stockham

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BOOK: Man with a Past
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“We can't,” Joe informed him gruffly. Rage, the senseless loss, bombarded him at once. “We'd all change the past if we could.”

Hal nodded, his head down. “I'll do what I can to help you,” he continued. “Set things as right as I can. Try to make up for…everything.”

Joe accepted the offer with a tense nod, knowing it would do no good to voice the responses in his head. He was willing, desperate, for the past to finally be over. And now that it seemed
it might possibly be, he was also afraid he'd wake up. Afraid he'd dreamed the whole thing.

Believe.

Ashley stiffened, lifted her head from his shoulder and looked around them curiously. “Did you hear something?”

Joe kissed the top of her head and took in the many rows of headstones, the one where the wildflowers lay already wilting. He blinked, barely breathed, narrowed his gaze when he thought he saw a little girl holding hands with two women. Two women who looked amazingly like his mother and Melissa's.

“Joe?”

He didn't look away until the image faded into nothingness. Then he swallowed, felt a peacefulness he hadn't ever had before.

“Joe?” Ashley said again. “Are you ready to go home now?”

He pulled her close, hugged her too tight and buried his nose in her hair. “Yeah,” he whispered, inhaling the scent of her. “I'm home.”

EPILOGUE

A
SHLEY WAS EXTREMELY
conscious of Joe's proud gaze when she and the mayor of Taylorsville cut the ribbon marking the official opening of Willow Wood Bed & Breakfast. Max squirmed in Joe's arms to get down and she watched with a wince as he took off running and immediately stumbled.

Big tears filled her son's eyes, and her heart tugged with love as Max turned to Joe for help. Several murmurs of approval sounded around her as Joe righted Max, brushed off his tiny hands and then had Max smiling soon after.

She sighed. Things just kept getting better.

Since the choking incident, she hadn't worried as much about being accepted or forcing herself on people. Partly because she'd realized the best way to go about things wasn't to put herself in uncomfortable situations, but to simply be herself. Instead of a stranger, she was now a neighbor, a friend. When she went to the store, people greeted her by name—the same at the library, the gas station, the post office. Once she'd gotten over her fear of
being rejected and placed her concentration solely on being a good, friendly person, things had changed. She had changed.

All she'd had to do was take the first step. Smile, pitch in to help someone in need. Little things that meant more than she'd ever dreamed they could. Maybe in the beginning her reasons for helping were selfish, but now, well, now she couldn't imagine not helping out the people who brought such happiness to her life.

Bryan, Melissa, Hal and Mrs. Hilliard had also seen to it she and Joe were invited to a multitude of gatherings. Even Mr. Thompson had come around, and as though sensing her perusal, he lifted an obliging hand in greeting where he stood talking to the mayor.

Smiling at the turnaround and still amused at his earlier begrudging praise on how nice her house looked, Ashley swung around to find her fiancé only to discover him closer than she'd thought. In a blink she stood nose to chest with Joe just like that first night after the storm.

Her smile widened and as a result, Joe bent his head and kissed her, a hot, sensual caress that made her knees weak each and every time it happened.

“Wow,” she whispered when he lifted his head. “Trying to boost my confidence over the ribbon-cutting or convince me to sneak inside?”

Joe's chest rumbled beneath her ear while he
hugged her close. “I think it's a great turnout. Exactly what I predicted each of the hundred times you asked,” he teased. They both looked around at their guests, the evening twilight giving the party a special warmth. “But there's one thing that could make it even better.”

She blushed. “Joe, I was kidding. We can't sneak inside now.”

“Sure about that?”

Ashley leaned against him, loved the strength of him surrounding her. She'd been on her own for so long. But not anymore. She had a family now.

“We've worked too hard getting ready for this,” she chided, smiling. No matter how badly she'd like to join him inside behind a locked door, she wanted to savor every moment of the evening.

“So let's stay outside and make this really special.”

She glanced up at him in question.

“We've already bought the rings. You've got a dress.” He nodded over her shoulder. “The mayor's here.” He paused. “And I sort of took it upon myself to have him bring a license with him.”

Her mouth parted. “You mean…
now?

“Why not?” He took her hands in his. “You asked me to give you a walk in the moonlight once, now I'm asking you to marry me in the moonlight. Tonight.”

She gave him a teary smile. “On the porch steps with all the flowers blooming around us?”

Her soon-to-be husband laughed as he squeezed her. “Wherever you like.”

Excitement rose amongst their guests and now that she paid attention, she realized quite a few already knew what Joe asked. Small towns were like that. People always knew what you were thinking before you thought it. Asking questions that would have offended her at one time, but now made her feel welcome. Cared about.

“Well, Joe?” Hal York's voice echoed throughout the yard.

Ashley glanced around at their guests, at their expectant, encouraging faces. Hal and Melissa York. Bryan. Joe's father, Ted, and Wilson. Mrs. Hilliard and the whole gardening club, their families. Taylorsville city officials. Even Nam—short for Not A Mutt—lurked in the shadows with his shiny new dog tags listing Willow Wood as his home. The only person missing was Jack. A flicker of protective anger seared her before she squelched it. Joe's brother would come home one day. And when he did, she'd be ready for him.

“Is that a yes?”

Her arms tightened around Joe's neck, her gaze locked on his. She might not be from Taylorsville, but she lived there now and she'd protect her family no matter what. “Yes.”

“Do I still get to give you away, missy?”

“I get to stand up with Joe,” Ted added.

Ashley tilted her head back and laughed, happier than she'd ever been in her life. “And Max is the ring bearer,” she said softly. She bit her lip nervously, one small detail left. “Mrs. H., would you be my Matron of Honor?”

The older woman eagerly stepped forward while the ladies in the gardening club flew into motion and set about making a bouquet from the various plants blooming around the yard.

Ashley watched as everyone pitched in, rearranging chairs, gathering up potted plants and adding them to the stairs where she and Joe would stand. Wilson hurried inside to get a tie.

A shiver raced through her. She'd found home.

“Look okay to you?”

She stared up at Joe, fingered his lips and smiled when heat flared in his eyes despite their audience. “It looks absolutely perfect.”

And exactly how she'd pictured a home to be.

ISBN: 978-1-4268-8018-9

MAN WITH A PAST

Copyright © 2006 by Dorma Kay Stockham

All rights reserved. Except for use in any review, the reproduction or utilization of this work in whole or in part in any form by any electronic, mechanical or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including xerography, photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, is forbidden without the written permission of the publisher, Harlequin Enterprises Limited, 225 Duncan Mill Road, Don Mills, Ontario, Canada M3B 3K9.

All characters in this book have no existence outside the imagination of the author and have no relation whatsoever to anyone bearing the same name or names. They are not even distantly inspired by any individual known or unknown to the author, and all incidents are pure invention.

This edition published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.

® and TM are trademarks of the publisher. Trademarks indicated with ® are registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office, the Canadian Trade Marks Office and in other countries.

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