In The Stranger's Arms

“Don’t you want me?” she asked. Of course Wade Garrett wanted her. He’d wanted Pauline Mayfield ever since he’d convinced her to rent him a room in her house. But he wasn’t sure if he was ready to trust women again. Especially one who until recently seemed so intent on keeping their relationship platonic in order to avoid small-town gossip.Still, he couldn’t deny their attraction and, if Pauline was ready to take their relationship to the next level, he wouldn’t say no, even if it meant putting his heart on the line!
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In The Stranger's Arms

   

   She allowed herself a moment’sindulgence to study him.

   Awareness sizzled through her, followed by a shiver of caution. A man like him bore a warning label as clearly as if he’d had Danger embroidered across his rear in red. She hadn’t noticed that he had turned to watch her over his shoulder, but now his grin was smug.

   She had been wrong about one thing. Being strongly attracted to him wasn’t the worst thing that could happen.

   Having him know it was.

   To Frank, my own romantic hero, who supports

    and inspires me each day, and to everyone

    who reaches out to the rest of us with tolerance,

    acceptance, kindness and love.

   PAMELA TOTH

   USA TODAY bestselling author Pamela Toth has written romance for over twenty years. She was born in Wisconsin but has spent most of her life near Seattle, where she’s raised two fantastic daughters, Erika and Melody, and a parade of Siamese cats.

   Pam is married to her school sweetheart, Frank. They live in a home with a view of Mount Rainier. When she’s not writing, she enjoys travelling and antiquing with her husband, reading, quilting and doing counted cross-stitch. She’s been a member of Romance Writers of America since 1982.

   Fans may write to her at PO Box 436, Woodinville, WA 98072, USA or visit her at www.specialauthors.com.

   

   Dear Reader,

   The Pacific Northwest, where I’ve spent most of my life, has been blessed with some of the most beautiful scenery on earth. One of my favourite places to explore is the Olympic Peninsula, with its craggy mountains and rocky beaches, rain forests and tidal pools. There are Victorian B&Bs and lavender farms, Indian casinos and antique malls, aircraft carriers and car ferries. The coastline is bordered on three sides by an ocean, a foreign country and a crowded metropolis.

   It’s here that I’ve set the small town of Crescent Cove, filled with residents whose stories I hope to relate in this and future books.

   Before I started writing, I was a dedicated reader of romance novels with two growing daughters and dreams of my own. The ways that people with their quirks and imperfections relate to each other, romantically and otherwise, have always fascinated me. When it comes to heroes, Prince Charming was never as compelling as the lion with the thorn in his paw, the beast who must learn to trust and to love.

   My characters are not unlike the people we all know: our neighbours, family and friends. They have hopes and dreams and flaws, needs that must be met, problems that must be overcome and empty spots in their lives that must be filled. It is my pleasure and my passion to tell their stories in order to entertain my readers and, hopefully, to tug at their heartstrings.

   Pam Toth

In the Stranger’s Arms

   PAMELA TOTH

   

   Chapter One

   Pauline Mayfield tossed and turned in her darkened room as the late spring storm howled outside her house. The Victorian structure had withstood similar storms for more than a century, she reminded herself silently, and it would stand up to this one, as well. As the rain battered her bedroom windowpane like pellets from a shotgun, she pulled the covers over her head and tried to sleep.

   Suddenly there was a loud cracking sound from outside, followed by an explosive crash. Her eyes flew open and she sat bolt-upright, afraid to breathe, but all she could hear was the wind and the rain.

   Heart thudding, she hurried to the window. Her breath fogged the glass, making it impossible to see into the night. Worried that a tree might have flattened her SUV, she threw on her bathrobe. When she reached the hall, another door opened and an elderly woman poked her white head out from her bedroom.

   “What was that horrible noise?” she demanded, her British accent more pronounced than usual. “For a moment I thought I was back in the blitz.”

   “It’s okay, Dolly.” Pauline barely paused to give her a reassuring smile. “I’ll check outside.”

   “Take an umbrella so you don’t get soaked,” Dolly replied before she shut her door.

   When Pauline reached the laundry room, she thrust her bare feet into a pair of rain boots. Muttering a quick prayer, she flipped on the outdoor light. From the back porch, she saw her undamaged SUV, but her relief was short-lived.

   She grabbed the flashlight from its hook inside the door and clumped down the steps, clinging to the porch railing so the boots wouldn’t trip her.

   The strong wind blew open her robe, and the rain soaked the front of her thin nylon gown. The wet fabric pressed against her bare skin, chilling her as she belted her robe. Shivering, she fumbled with the latch on the backyard gate.

   Her boots threatened to slip off her feet with each step she took, and the wind blew her wet hair into her eyes as she aimed her flashlight beam at the garage. A fallen limb from the towering cottonwood tree lay sprawled on the roof.

   Pauline felt as though a ball of yarn had risen into her throat. Swallowing hard, she told herself that the damage to the former carriage house might not be as bad as it appeared.

   Assessing the damage or tarping the roof before morning was more than she could manage. Meanwhile, she was getting soaked for nothing. Fighting back tears of frustration, she returned to the house, where she struggled with dripping hair and stubborn boots.

   Dolly appeared in the kitchen doorway and handed Pauline a towel. “Could you see anything?” she asked.

   Thanking her, Pauline wrapped the towel around her head. “A limb fell onto the garage roof,” she said through clenched teeth. “I’ll call Steve Lindstrom in the morning and see if he can check it out.”

   “You’re soaked,” Dolly exclaimed. “Go take a hot shower while I make you some tea.”

   Pauline doubted she could swallow anything, but she didn’t want to be rude. “Good idea,” she replied. “Thanks.”

   To Dolly, tea was a sure cure for just about anything. But Pauline just wanted to wake up and find out this was all a bad dream.

   Early the next morning Pauline stood in her driveway and shielded her eyes against the May sunshine that seemed to mock her with its brightness. She watched as her contractor buddy, Steve Lindstrom, stepped down off the ladder he’d propped against her garage. He’d come right over when she’d phoned him even though he must have gotten a dozen other calls.

   “I hope you’re going to tell me the damage isn’t as bad as I thought and that it won’t cost me a big bag of money,” she implored, exhausted from her sleepless night.

   Steve picked up his clipboard and straightened, towering over her in his heavy boots. His solid build might have been intimating if she hadn’t known him since high school, when he and her little sister had been a hot item.

   Pauline had always been immune to the younger man’s hunky charm. His sun-streaked hair—badly in need of a trim, as usual—poked out from under his red baseball cap. Beneath his thick mustache, his smile was sympathetic. “You know, I wouldn’t be doing my job if I lowballed the cost,” he replied. “Have you called your insurance agent?”

   “He promised to stop by later, but he warned me a while ago that I was underinsured,” she admitted.

   “I don’t suppose you listened,” Steve guessed.

   Pauline shook her head. “Worse than that, I jacked up the deductible to save a few bucks on the premium.”

   “By how much?” he asked.

   When she told him, he whistled softly. “Oh, boy, that bites. But you know I’ll do the best I can to be fair.”

   “I know you will,” she told him as she led the way through the side garage door.

   He looked around carefully, muttering to himself and making notes with a pencil stub, while she trailed after him. Perhaps the damage looked worse than it really was.

   “What’s the bad news?” she asked as soon as they got back outside.

   He studied his clipboard with an unreadable expression. “Remove the limb and haul it away, repair the roof, fix the water damage to the inside, repaint…”

   “I’ll do the painting and whatever else I can,” she said quickly. The last thing she needed right now was a huge bill eating up the money she had painstakingly scraped together.

   He jotted down another note before sticking the pencil back into the pocket of his faded flannel shirt. “This is really rough, you understand. I’ll have a better idea after I make some calls and run the numbers, but replacing those cedar shakes won’t be cheap. You know they won’t match the rest until they have a chance to weather. There are some composite shingles on the market that look authentic, if you want to put on a new roof instead.”

   He glanced toward the street. “No one would really notice, not with the garage sitting this far back.”

   “I’d notice,” Pauline replied. “Just figure the cost of patching it, okay?”

   “Sure thing.” He scratched his chin and named a figure that unhinged her jaw and made it drop. “If I find more damage behind that soggy plasterboard, the cost will climb,” he cautioned.

   She groped for something positive to head off her mounting hysteria. “At least I can burn the wood.” Heating oil was expensive, but the big old house was blessed with working fireplaces in nearly every room.

   “Sorry, hon, but cottonwood burns too hot for an indoor fire,” he replied. “It wouldn’t be safe.”

   Muscles flexing in his arms and shoulders, he loaded the metal ladder onto the white truck that was parked in the long gravel driveway. Lindstrom Construction, it said on the door in plain black letters, followed by a local phone number.

   Already the sun had dried up the puddles she’d stepped over earlier.

   “Figures,” she grumbled, fiddling with her chunky beaded bracelet. This setback was only temporary, but she wouldn’t let it derail her plans.

   He closed the tailgate and walked around to the cab. “I gotta tell you up front that I don’t know when I can get to it.”

   When he opened the door of the truck, she noticed that the passenger seat was littered with papers. An empty coffee cup sat in the holder on the dash and a badly faded tassel from two years behind her own graduation dangled from the rearview mirror. “I’m slammed with work and I just lost my best guy to a builder in Bremerton,” he added.

   Anxiously Pauline scanned the horizon for signs of another storm moving in from the Strait. All she could see was an endless expanse of bright blue sky. But dark rain-swollen clouds could roll off the Olympics or blow down from Canada at any time, just as they had last night.

   Steve must have noticed the direction of her gaze. “I’ll send someone over to tarp the roof. Be sure to open the windows so the inside will dry out.”

   “I can’t thank you enough,” she said as he tossed the clipboard into the truck and got behind the wheel.

   She wondered whether he ever thought of Lily now that he was divorced. He never asked Pauline about her—not that she would have much to tell him if he did.

   “Either Brian or the new guy I hired will be over later,” he said through his open window.

   Brian was a gangly teenager who had mowed her lawn every summer until he’d graduated from the local high school and begun working full-time for Steve.

   He started the engine, then glanced around at the garage. “Don’t you worry about the money.” He flicked the point of his shirt collar with his finger. “Maybe you could monogram these for me in trade.”

   The idea of a monogram on the faded material made her smile. “I’d be happy to.” She glanced at her watch. “I’ve got a class in half an hour, so I’d better get going. Thanks so much for coming.”

   “No problem.” With a wave, he pulled out his cell phone as he went back down the driveway and turned onto the street.

   Pauline thrust aside her concerns and hurried across the gravel to her SUV. The last thing she needed was a group of cranky old blue-hairs clustered on the sidewalk in front of her shop, bad-mouthing her for her lack of punctuality.

   Wade Garrett had just driven straight up from San Francisco to Crescent Cove. Nearly swaying from fatigue, he was in no mood for jokes as he stared down at the short man with the bad comb-over who stood fidgeting in front of him.

   Wade fixed Kenton Wallingford with a look he’d been told was intimidating enough to make an enemy spy rat out his own mother. “What did you just say to me?” Wade asked softly.

   Wallingford took a step back as the toothpick in his mouth bobbed from one corner to the other. “I, uh, I said I can’t rent you the cabin after all.” The slack muscles in his wrinkled neck quivered visibly when he swallowed. “My sister showed up a couple of days ago with her two kids and a black eye,” he whined. “What was I supposed to do, send her back to that bum I warned her not to marry ten years ago, so’s he can knock her around some more?”

   Frustrated, Wade rubbed his temple where a headache had begun keeping time with the throbbing bass pouring out of a car stereo idling out on the street. He felt like marching over and ripping it out with his bare hands.

   “How long will they be here?” he asked with a longing glance at the cabin he’d leased over the Internet and where he’d planned on sleeping tonight. A kid’s tricycle was parked in the driveway next to a pair of tiny sneakers.

   Jeez, maybe he could rent a motel room for a few days.

   “Until my sister gets on her feet or that no-good husband of hers sweet-talks her into going back to him.” Wallingford lowered his voice. “Between you and me, I’m betting on the latter. Carol’s too damned lazy to support herself.”

   His dry chuckle made Wade want to haul him up by his greasy collar and shake him. It was probably a good thing Wade didn’t have the energy left for anything that strenuous.

   “Good luck finding a room anywhere around here, what with the Arts Festival this weekend.” Wallingford hitched up his sagging pants. “Busiest damn time of year, and I’m not collecting a dime in rent,” he added morosely.

   Wade couldn’t scare up a lick of sympathy for the little toad’s plight. All he wanted was to shower off the travel dust, fall into bed and sleep for fifteen hours. “Life isn’t fair,” he drawled.

   Suddenly he remembered the folded paper in his shirt pocket and his mood brightened. “Well, I’m sorry about your sister,” he said, fishing it out, “but you faxed me a signed copy of the lease. I sent back a deposit.”

   Wallingford’s smile turned crafty. “Read the fine print,” he replied around the toothpick as he jabbed a finger at the form. “Like I already said, it’s a family emergency.”

   Wade skimmed the lease. When he reached the cancellation clause at the bottom, he swore under his breath.

   It was uncharacteristic for him to ignore such important details, but he wasn’t used to dealing with such an annihilating defeat as he’d recently experienced. All he had wanted when he’d left California was to put the ruins of everything for which he had worked so hard behind him. Apparently he was paying the price for his haste.

   “Look, I’m not fussy.” The desperation and the resignation he could hear in his own voice made him wince. “Can’t you find me somewhere to bunk, at least for tonight?”

   Maybe Wallingford had a couch that pulled out or a damned lounge cushion on his back porch that Wade could borrow. At six-two, he was too damned tall to sleep in his car.

   “You can deduct it from what you owe me,” he added. Had Wallingford hoped Wade might forget about the healthy deposit he’d paid? Not a chance.

   The other man spread his hands in a gesture of helpless regret. “I’d put you up in the spare room for nothing, I swear, but my daughter’s home from Wazoo, over in Pullman.” He cleared his throat nervously. “Concerning the refund of your deposit—”

   “I know,” Wade cut in, smothering a yawn. “Read the fine print. Now you read my fine print and hand it over.”

   As soon as Wallingford pulled out his wallet and handed over a stack of bills, Wade jammed them and the useless rental agreement back into his pocket. He stalked back to his car, wondering if he should buy a sleeping bag and camp on the beach.

   He was about to open his car door when Wallingford called out to him. “There’s a garage apartment behind one of those old Victorians on Cedar, a couple of blocks over. I didn’t hear of it being rented out.” He pointed in the direction of a stand of tall firs. “The house is blue with purple trim and a big weeping willow tree in the front yard. You can’t miss it.”

   Wade felt a twinge of hope. “Have you got the address?”

   By the time Pauline had closed up her needlework shop on Harbor Avenue and driven back up the bluff to her house, her earlier anxiety had turned to dull resignation. She had no choice but to have the damage repaired as soon as Steve was available, no matter what the ultimate hit on her precious nest egg.

   Mayfield Manor had been in her family for three generations before she and her younger sister had inherited it. Even though Lily had obviously abandoned the family home as well as her only living relative, Pauline felt a deep obligation to maintain it. In addition to her strong affection for the old house, she still clung to her dream of someday replacing her female boarders with a family of her own.

   When she came around the corner of her street, she saw the bright-blue tarp covering the corner of the garage roof. Except for some sawdust and a few drag marks in the gravel of her driveway, all signs of the fallen limb were gone.

   As soon as she emerged from her Honda with her purse and her laptop, a dusty black car with out-of-state plates pulled into the driveway behind her. Her elderly boarder, Dolly Langley, was perched in the passenger seat next to an unfamiliar man wearing sunglasses.

   As Pauline waited, he got out from behind the wheel, moving with surprising stiffness for someone with such an athletic build. Nodding to Pauline, he circled the car and opened Dolly’s door. As spry as a little white-headed bird, she hopped out, holding on to his hand.

   “Pauline, wait till I tell you what happened,” she chirped in the British accent that all her years on this side of the pond had failed to eradicate. “I found this nice young man on my way home from the market.”

   Her satisfied smile stopped Pauline cold. Widowed a decade before, Dolly insisted that a woman of Pauline’s age could be neither happy nor complete without a man to share her life. Had Dolly brought him home for her, in the same way a cat might offer a dead mouse?

   “I appreciate the endorsement,” the stranger said in a husky voice as he bowed over Dolly’s hand, “especially from a lady as lovely as you.”

   Dolly’s wrinkled cheeks turned a delicate shade of pink, and she patted her tightly permed hair with her free hand while Pauline studied him with mixed wariness and curiosity. His black hair was cut short above his lean face. Even dressed as he was in a blue chambray shirt and jeans, stubble darkening his angular jaw, he would certainly be called a prize catch by most women.

   Still clinging to his hand, Dolly tugged him forward, her eyes twinkling behind her trifocals. “Come and meet my landlady. She’s the one I told you about.”

   Oh, Lord. Pauline’s mind reeled at the possibilities her chatty boarder could have disclosed.

   Maintaining an air of quiet dignity might have been easier if Pauline’s blouse hadn’t been streaked with dust from digging through freight, if her makeup hadn’t completely worn off and her hair hadn’t been restyled by the breeze blowing through her open car windows on her drive home.

   As the man slipped off his sunglasses and tucked them into his pocket, she met his gaze squarely. Without the tinted lenses, his eyes were a startling shade of silver that contrasted sharply with his dark lashes. The intensity of his expression sent a shiver of awareness through Pauline as unwelcome as it was startling.

   “This is Wade Garrett, fresh from San Francisco,” Dolly said, releasing his hand. “Wade, Pauline Mayfield, my landlady.”

   Despite the polite smile that transformed his expression from intimidating to innocuous, Pauline hesitated before offering her hand.

   She was being silly. As a member of the Waterfront Business Association and a candidate for the Crescent Cove city council, she had learned to cloak her shyness. Even so, his firm grip sent a jolt of reaction up her arm. Before she could identify the sensation, he released her.

   “It’s nice to meet you,” he said with no indication that he, too, had felt the momentary shock.

   “You, too,” she replied automatically, relieved that she could speak without stammering. “And it was kind of you to give Dolly a ride.”

   “I was walking back from the market, and the strap on my grocery bag broke,” Dolly interjected as he reached into his car, a luxury model beneath the road dust. “The oranges rolled right into the street, but he pulled over and chased every one of them down for me.”

   He held out the damaged bag to Pauline, who managed to take it without touching him again.

   Dolly patted his bronzed forearm. “Where are you staying?” she asked him. “I’ll bake you some nice banana bread. You aren’t allergic to nuts, are you?” She glanced at Pauline. “I wouldn’t want to be responsible for putting such a helpful person in the hospital.”

   “You don’t have to do that,” he protested, hooking one thumb into his wide leather belt. “I was actually on my way here when I stopped.”

   “Here to this house?” Dolly asked. “Well, isn’t that nice.”

   He must have spread the tarp earlier, Pauline realized, wondering how he’d transported a ladder. Perhaps he had a truck, too.

   “Let me show you the apartment above the garage,” she said, reaching into her purse for her keys. “I keep the door locked.”

   His thick brows shot upward. “Did Wallingford call you already?” he asked. “That was quick.”

   Perplexed, Pauline hesitated. “Kenton Wallingford?” If Wade was connected with that no-good scam artist, she wasn’t sure she wanted to have anything to do with him.

   Wallingford had a reputation for get-rich-quick schemes that inevitably failed, taking other people’s money in the process. “I don’t know how you heard about me,” she added, “but if you think the two of you can go around undercutting Steve Lindstrom’s prices, you’re sadly mistaken.”

   Wade held up his hands, palms outward as though to ward off a blow. “Whoa, hold on,” he exclaimed. “I don’t know about any damage and I have no idea who Steve might be—unless he’s trying to rent the apartment from you, too.”

   “Rent it!” she echoed, shaking her head in confusion. “Why would Steve want to rent from me when he’s got a perfectly nice house of his own? If you aren’t here to repair the damages to my garage, why are you here?”

   Dolly’s bemused gaze shifted back and forth between them as though she were watching a tennis match on the telly, as she called it.

   Wade narrowed his gaze. “My only connection to that slimy scum-sucking weasel, Wallingford, is that after he took my deposit money and then broke the lease I had with him, he said you might have a vacancy over your garage.”

   “What a wonderful idea,” Dolly exclaimed, clapping her hands. “That apartment has just been sitting empty.”

   “I’ll take it,” he replied, smoothing his hand over his close-cropped hair. “It’s been a long day and I’m so dam—darned tired that I’m about to pass out.”

   “You poor man,” Dolly exclaimed with an imploring glance at Pauline. “We just have to let him stay.”

   His fatigue was obvious and his situation unfortunate, but Pauline had no choice but to turn him down.

   “A tree limb fell on the garage roof during the storm last night,” she explained. “The apartment has a lot of water damage from the rain, especially the bathroom.”

   “How long will the repairs take?” he persisted.

   The intensity of his gaze sent a shiver of reaction through Pauline, like some low-level jolt of electricity. Ever since he had first climbed out of his car, she had been trying to ignore the tug of attraction. If Dolly sensed it, she would hound them both.

   “Steve hasn’t given me a schedule yet.” Pauline wished Wade would give up and go away so she could breathe normally.

   “Ah, him again.” Wade included Dolly in his half-hearted grin. “Wallingford warned me that every motel in town would be full because of some festival this weekend. Any suggestions of somewhere I could find a bed for tonight?”

   None Pauline was about to voice out loud.

   “Why don’t you rent him a room in the house?” Dolly suggested. “The master suite is empty.”

   “I’ll take anything,” Wade said quickly. “And I’ll be happy to provide references if you’d like.”

   “Oh, that’s not necessary,” Dolly replied breezily. “We know you’re trustworthy.”

   And we know that how? Pauline wondered. Just because he’d picked up a few oranges and hadn’t kept one for himself? “I don’t think—” she protested.

   “And you should give him a discount for that awful bedroom wallpaper,” Dolly added firmly. “It’s enough to give a monk nightmares.”

   Pauline liked the old-fashioned floral print, and Mr. Garrett didn’t look like any monk she’d ever seen, but Dolly was on a roll.

   “The suite does have a private bathroom with a claw-foot tub,” she told Wade, “and a nice little sitting area that gets the morning sun. There’s even a lovely desk and a matching chair, should you need a place to work.”

   “Sounds perfect.” He looked at Pauline expectantly. “I’ll risk the wallpaper. How much would you like up front?”

   “I can’t rent you the room,” Pauline said firmly. “I’m sorry, but I don’t take male boarders.”

   “You’re kidding!” His smile disappeared abruptly. Without it, his thoughts were hard to guess, hidden behind his laser-sharp gaze. What if he was a lawyer contemplating a sexual discrimination case against her?

   “Oh, Pauline, surely we owe him something,” Dolly chided in her best retired-teachers tone. “You could bend the rules this once.”

   * * *

   “Rules?” Wade echoed as suspicions began to form in his overtired brain.

   Wow, he had to hand it to old Mrs. Langley, who had fooled him completely. Despite her glasses, she must have the vision of an eagle to have spotted his California plates and dropped her grocery bag before he’d driven past her. Who would have thought the narrow, bumpy side street along the top of the bluff would be such a fertile hunting ground for desperate tourists in search of lodgings and con artists in search of victims?

   Her granddaughter, on the other hand, wasn’t nearly as good an actress. Her intentions were obvious—to express initial reluctance in order to wring as much rent money from him as possible.

   He was about to ask whether Wallingford was also in on their scheme when a huge yawn overtook him. He swayed on his feet. By the time he’d managed to clamp his jaw shut, he realized that he didn’t care what the room cost or how ugly its wallpaper was. If he didn’t get horizontal soon, he’d fall asleep where he stood.

   “But you’ll make an exception for me, right?” He took out his wallet. “How much?”

   Was that annoyance pleating her brow as she pushed her dark-blond hair off her forehead? Had he given in too quickly and ruined their little game?

   “I’m sorry, but it wouldn’t be fair to my other boarders,” she insisted, spreading her hands wide like a supplicant pleading for understanding. “They don’t expect to run into a half-dressed male in the upstairs hallway on their way down to breakfast.”

   “Which boarders might that be?” Dolly demanded, pushing her glasses up the bridge of her nose. “Not that tarted-up divorcée who’ll be renting the Rose Room. And not me. That only leaves you to be affected by half-naked men, my dear.” She parked her balled fists on her skinny hips. “Get over it.”

   Despite his exhaustion, Wade was amused—and rather touched—that she would champion him. Perhaps he had misinterpreted the situation entirely.

   “What if I promise to keep my clothes on when I’m not in my room?” he asked, only half joking.

   “It’s not that,” Pauline replied, ignoring his attempt at humor. “This is a small town.”

   He gaped at her. “And how is that a problem?”

   “You probably won’t understand.” Her fair complexion had turned rosy with color. “It just so happens that I’m running for city council, and the locals tend to be pretty conservative—except for the shed people, of course, and the summer crowd that does whatever it wants and then leaves again.”

   Shed people? He was beginning to feel as though he had crossed more than a state border when he’d traversed the bridge over the Columbia River from Portland. Perhaps he had also wandered into some weird parallel universe.

   “Fiddlesticks, it’s not like the two of you will be staying alone in the house. I’ll chaperone you,” Mrs. Langley offered.

   “There you go, Miss Pauline.” Wade struggled to keep from shaking his head in disbelief. “Your good name will remain intact. Just tell me how much.”

   “It’s not the money,” she said.

   As Wade groped for a way to change her mind, his glance swept past her SUV—an older model—to the house with its steeply pitched roof and ornate detailing. The light-blue exterior and purple trim were faded. The gravel driveway, although neatly edged and free of weeds, was rutted and uneven. Even the leaded windows in the double garage doors had two cracked panes.

   It struck him that a place like this must need constant attention.

   Without warning, Mrs. Langley reached up abruptly and squeezed his upper arm with her cold, bony fingers.

   Struggling to smother yet another yawn, Wade nearly bit the tip off his tongue as his jaws snapped shut.

   “What the hell are you doing?” he yelped, jerking away from her clutches.

   “He’s got some muscle there,” she observed. “Perhaps we could put him to work.”

   Pauline was already shaking her head. “Never mind, Dolly. It’s not a good idea.”

   “Balderdash!” Mrs. Langley exclaimed. “If you’re worried, lock your bedroom door.” She gave Wade a warm smile. “I can never remember to lock mine.”

   Good God, was the old gal flirting with him? As he stifled a chuckle, he realized where she was headed.

   “What if I were to do the repairs to your garage,” he asked, earning himself a wide grin from his elderly champion. “And I’ll move out there as soon as possible.” He’d worry about what he was actually getting into after he closed the deal.

   Pauline’s pretty hazel eyes widened. “Do you have remodeling experience?”

   “Absolutely,” he replied, his knotted muscles starting to loosen as he sensed her imminent capitulation. “I restored my first house in San Francisco.” No need to add that he’d contracted out the plumbing and electrical work. What he didn’t know, he’d find out.

   Pauline threw up her hands in obvious resignation. “All right, you’ve got a deal. Maybe no one will notice that you’re here.”

   Chapter Two

   Pauline led her very first male boarder up the curved staircase to the second floor of her house, his solid tread thudding on the steps behind her as he toted his luggage. She could practically feel his gaze on her back, right between her shoulder blades.

   If not lower.

   Silently she reminded herself that she was a worldly woman of thirty-four, not an impressionable teenager. Even so, she couldn’t remember the last time she had been so aware of a man’s presence.

   “That’s a beautiful window,” Wade said, glancing up when they reached the landing. “Is it original?”

   “As far as I know.” Pauline gazed fondly at one of her favorite features in the house, a round stained-glass image of a peacock. The jewel tones of the bird’s intricately worked tail feathers glowed softly in the dying light from the sun.

   Even though he had insisted that it wasn’t necessary, pride wouldn’t allow her to give him rooms that weren’t spotless. She had whirled through the master suite with a vacuum cleaner and a dust cloth while Dolly had fed him a bowl of stew.

   “You’ll be here at the end,” she said over her shoulder as they walked down the carpeted hallway. “There’s a private sitting area as well as the bathroom Dolly mentioned.”

   “Have you owned the house for very long?” he asked.

   Everyone in town knew Pauline’s history. “I’m the fourth generation to live here,” she explained, pausing. “My great-grandfather renamed it Mayfield Manor.”

   “It must be satisfying to have such a legacy,” he remarked.

   “I suppose. But growing up in a small town also has its disadvantages.” She opened the double doors and stepped aside.

   “Didn’t get away with much, huh?” he teased with a wink as he walked past her.

   “You could say that,” she murmured, following him inside.

   While she brushed a fleck of dust from the top of the tall dresser, he dropped his bags on the faded Persian rug next to the wide bed. Even though the burgundy draperies were open, she switched on the hanging teardrop lamp so the light shining through the blown-glass globe would add a rosy glow to the room.

   “Wow,” he said as he looked around. “I didn’t expect anything like this.”

   Pauline wasn’t entirely sure that his comment was positive. This had been her parents’ private sanctuary, and she liked the traditional way her mother had redecorated it in shades of burgundy, dark green and cream. The bold floral wallpaper was a dramatic backdrop for the mahogany furniture and cream satin comforter.

   Perhaps Wade preferred more modern decor, but this was an old house. With the exception of a few upgrades, it wore its age like a dowager who was well past her prime.

   Feeling like an innkeeper, Pauline removed a folding suitcase stand from the tall wardrobe and set it next to the wood-burning fireplace. Faced in Minton tile, the hearth was bare for the summer behind the brass screen.

   “Bathroom’s in there,” she indicated. “I hope you’ll be comfortable here.”

   If he expected maid service, too, he was headed for disappointment. This wasn’t a full-service rooming house, and she had neither the time nor the interest in pampering him.

   “Right now the carpet would probably seem comfortable,” he muttered, smothering a yawn.

   “I’ll bring you up some towels so you can get settled,” she said. She’d forgotten them earlier.

   His somber gaze softened into a smile, silver eyes crinkling slightly at the corners. His beard shadow gave him a rakish appearance. “Thanks again,” he said, dismissing her. “Perhaps we can talk more in the morning.”

   Pauline was already having major second thoughts about the situation, but it was too late now. She slid her hand into the pocket of her pants, her fingers touching the generous check he’d given her. The moment she had given in to her greed, he’d scrawled a rental agreement on the back of Wallingford’s worthless lease. Dolly, ever helpful, had offered to witness his and Pauline’s signatures.

   “I leave for work at nine,” she warned, aware of how small the bedroom seemed with both of them standing in it.

   “I’m sure I can manage to be up by then.” His grin displayed his even white teeth. If he had flaws, poor dental hygiene didn’t appear to be one of them.

   “Fine.” She was irritated to realize she had been staring for a millisecond too long—and that his smile had widened just enough for her to be sure he had noticed.

   Heat scorched her cheeks. “I’ll get those towels.”

   It had been several years since Wade had experienced the momentary disorientation from waking up in unfamiliar surroundings. The big difference this morning was that he was alone in the bed.

   He lay motionless, staring at the god-awful wallpaper with its blobs of color that reminded him all too clearly of a food fight back in his college frat house. Reality hit him with all the subtlety of the bright sunlight pouring through the drapes he’d forgotten to close before falling face-forward into bed. The last few months hadn’t been a bad dream after all.

   He was tempted to squeeze his eyes shut and pretend that he was back in his elegant condo, French doors open to the breeze from the bay and his wife cuddled up beside him.

   Ex-wife, he reminded himself, and good riddance to her. It was pointless to hang on to the fantasy of what his life had been; time instead to face the reality of what it had become.

   He sat up with a groan, squinting at the mirror-topped dresser on the other wall. “Toto, we’re not in San Francisco anymore,” he muttered wryly, rubbing a hand over his face. Automatically he reached for the expensive watch Sharon had given him, but then he remembered that he’d sold it to a friend for half its value.

   Flipping back the covers, he noticed an inexpensive clock radio next to a brass lamp with a fringed shade. If he was going to get downstairs before his landlady’s departure, he’d better get his butt in gear.

   He grabbed the shaving kit from his bag, stepped over his dirty clothes and stalked naked into the bathroom. Skidding to a stop, he stared at the old claw-foot monstrosity with disappointment. Tub baths were for kids and dogs.

   As he tossed his kit onto the sink counter, he noticed a roomy shower stall behind a glass-block wall.

   Hallelujah.

   After he allowed the spray head to pummel him awake, he showered and shaved in record time. When he was done, he dug old jeans and a CBGB T-shirt from his bag and shook out the wrinkles.

   Moments later he locked the door behind him as a clock from somewhere below chimed the quarter hour. Before he reached the landing, another door opened and out stepped Pauline, wearing a blue dress with a rounded neckline and matching sandals that showed off her long legs. Some kind of clip held back the top of her honey-blond hair, but the rest hung loose, barely brushing her shoulders. She carried a laptop and a purse.

   It occurred to Wade that he had no idea whether she worked as an attorney or a stripper. Even though he suspected that she had the body for the latter hidden beneath her outfit, the cut was too conservative and she was way too uptight.

   Like a neglected house or an outdated stock portfolio, she had potential, which always intrigued him. The day was looking brighter.

   “Good morning,” he called out cheerfully. “It seems that I’m right on time.”

   When she turned, the tiny gold hoops in her ears winked in the light. “Did you sleep well?” she asked with a smile that softened her stern expression and stubborn chin. The transformation made him blink.

   She had worked some female magic to play up her full lips and thick lashes. The scent of wildflowers—or what he imagined wildflowers would smell like—ensnared him.

   “Like I’d been shot in the head,” he replied.

   “That’s an image I’ll try to forget.” She gave an exaggerated shudder. “After all that rest, you’re probably ready to get started on my roof.”

   “I’m rarin’ to go,” he drawled, realizing that he was famished. He would have to buy breakfast somewhere and then find a grocery store. Assuming he had kitchen privileges, he knew enough about cooking to keep himself fed.

   “We can talk over breakfast, which Dolly usually fixes because she likes to cook,” Pauline explained over her shoulder. “Lunch is on your own and dinner is potluck, depending on who’s here and feels like fixing something. Or you can eat on your own, of course, if you’d rather.”

   “Sounds fine to me,” he replied. “I’ll be happy to kick in for groceries or go to the store. Just let me know.”

   “Don’t worry, I will,” she assured him.

   At the bottom of the stairs, she led the way through the archway into the dining room he’d seen last night. A chandelier hung from the high ceiling above a dark wood table surrounded by matching chairs.

   He followed her into the kitchen, which, like his bathroom, had obviously been modernized at some point, although the black-and-white-tiled floor looked original. The aromas of coffee and frying bacon made him realize how little he’d eaten in the last couple of days.

   His attention went straight to Mrs. Langley, standing at the stove in a flowered apron over her purple sweat suit. On her feet were athletic shoes with fluorescent stripes, but he didn’t care if she wore snowshoes as long as she fed him.

   Mouth watering, he echoed Pauline’s greeting.

   “Good morning, you two,” their cook responded gaily. “I hope you’re hungry, because I’m making sourdough pancakes.”

   “Mrs. Langley, you’ve found my weakness,” Wade replied, patting his empty stomach for emphasis. “I may just have to marry you.”

   With a girlish giggle, she waved him away with her spatula. “In that case, you’d better start calling me Dolly.”

   She opened the oven door, and Wade had to swallow hard in order to keep from drooling like a dog. “I’ll set the table if you tell me where things are,” he offered. Anything to hurry the process!

   “In that drawer and the cupboard above it.” Pauline pointed, then grabbed oven mitts. While he arranged the dishes and silver, she and Dolly brought over the food. He held out Dolly’s chair as Pauline seated herself.

   “If you wait, you lose,” Dolly warned him as she reached for the coffeepot. “Help yourself.”

   They passed the food and filled their plates, though Pauline skipped the bacon and only took one pancake. It was all Wade could do to not grab everything in sight and cram it into his mouth.

   “I must say, you look better than you did last night,” Dolly told him as she stirred sugar into her coffee.

   “I feel like a new man,” he replied after he had swallowed his first bite of the best pancakes he’d ever tasted. A few trendy restaurants in Frisco would have killed for the recipe.

   “These are fantastic,” he added, reloading his fork.

   “It’s the starter,” Pauline replied as she cut her pancake into neat, even pieces. “It was passed down from my grandmother.”

   “The what?” he asked blankly. Surely food that old couldn’t be good.

   “It’s a mixture of flour, water and yeast,” Dolly explained. “You keep adding to it so that it never runs out.”

   “I never knew that.” He attempted to appear captivated, but Pauline distracted him.

   In the light from the tall window, her hair was a mixture of shades from palest gold to rich, dark honey. He could almost feel it sifting through his fingers like warm silk.

   “Something wrong?” she asked with a frown.

   Feeling foolish for getting caught staring, he focused on his coffee. “I’m just enjoying the food and company.”

   “Will you be able to start on the repairs today?” she pressed.

   He hoped she wasn’t the type to stay on his back until the job was done, questioning every break he took and every penny he spent. “Absolutely,” he replied.

   When he saw the relief on her face, he felt a twinge of remorse. She had every right to be concerned about her roof. He remembered from vacation visits to his grandfather that this area was no stranger to summer rain.

   “A buddy of mine is bringing my stuff up in a rented truck this afternoon,” he added. “When I put it into storage, I’ll unpack my tools. I’ll write up a supply list after I buy groceries this morning.”

   Pauline actually grinned at him before glancing at her watch. “I’d better get going,” she said, pushing back her chair. “Thanks for breakfast, Dolly.”

   “Do you have an account somewhere?” Wade asked as he got to his feet. Seeing Pauline’s puzzled expression, he added, “So I can buy materials.”

   She nibbled on her full lower lip, sending a jolt of awareness through him. “I guess I could call the manager of the building-supply store and set it up,” she murmured while he speculated on the softness of her mouth. “Greg and I went to school together, so it shouldn’t be a problem.”

   “I’d better meet you there,” he suggested quickly. “When we’re through, I’ll buy you lunch.” Getting to know her better would be no hardship.

   From behind her back, Dolly gave him a thumbs-up.

   Pauline fiddled with a tendril of her hair. “Thank you, but that’s not necessary.” Her tone couldn’t have been any prissier if he’d suggested a make-out session in the building supply parking lot.

   Instinct warned him to proceed with caution. “I was just trying to avoid any delays,” he said innocently. “But I can probably manage on my own.”

   Pauline carried her dishes through the arch to the kitchen and deposited them on the counter. “I’ll give you my cell number,” she said as Wade did the same. “You can let me know when you’ve got the list together.” She opened her purse and handed him a card.

   Uncommon Threads was printed in purple script. Needlework supplies and classes, Pauline Mayfield, proprietor. In smaller print was an address on Harbor Avenue, followed by phone and fax numbers. On the last line was an e-mail address.

   He was impressed. “I’ll look forward to seeing your shop,” he said, tucking Pauline’s card into his pocket.

   Pauline finished her coffee at the sink, frowning at him over the rim of her mug. “Are you sure you know what you’re doing with my roof?”

   “I worked summers as a carpenter when I was in college,” he replied confidently.

   “Any questions before I leave?” she asked as she put her mug into the dishwasher. “I’ve got to finish getting ready for work.”

   “If anything comes up,” he replied, “we can discuss it at lunch.”

   She turned away without bothering to reply. A moment later he heard her footsteps on the stairs.

   “Don’t mind Pauline,” Dolly told him as the two of them began cleaning up the kitchen. “Besides the repairs to the garage and managing her business, she’s hoping to fill a vacated position on the city council.”

   “She’s got a lot of irons in the fire,” Wade replied thoughtfully as he loaded the dishwasher. “Breakfast was terrific. Since you cooked, I’ll clean up the kitchen.”

   Dolly glanced at the clock on the front of the stove. “You’ll do no such thing. I’ve got time before my soaps start, so you just go about your business and leave the kitchen to me.”

   “Okay, thanks.” Wade drained the last of his coffee. “Could you point me in the direction of the nearest grocery store?”

   After parking her SUV in its usual spot in a private lot behind one of Crescent Cove’s old hotels, Pauline deposited Wade’s rent check in the bank on the corner and then continued down the street to her shop.

   Uncommon Threads was tucked into the heart of the historic business district, which ran for several blocks along the waterfront. At one end was the ferry terminal. At the other, a small park with benches and a fishing dock that jutted into the bay.

   Even though Pauline had probably walked down Harbor Avenue thousands of times, the flavor of the bygone era never failed to draw her attention. She glanced up at the tall buildings with their elaborate architecture and blank upper-story windows. Today they failed to distract her, as did the colorful hanging planters suspended from the old-fashioned streetlights.

   Absently she waved at the city worker who watered the baskets and window boxes each morning, and at the meter cop who cruised by on her scooter. When the shops opened in less than an hour, the parking spaces along both sides of the street would all be taken. During theArts Festival this weekend, the sidewalks and streets would be jammed with tourists from Seattle and beyond, who came to visit the galleries, buy souvenirs and tour some of the restored Victorian homes along the top of the bluff.

   Pauline probably shouldn’t even consider meeting Wade when she had so much stock to unpack and put out, but getting him started on the roof before another storm front blew through was important, too.

   She paused in front of Uncommon Threads to admire the display of colorful pillows in the front window. Each one had been embroidered by a member of the local needlework guild using supplies from the shop. Because there was always room for improvement, she studied the grouping with a critical eye while she dug her keys from her shoulder bag.

   When she opened the door, the scent of peach potpourri welcomed her into the shop’s cozy interior. An old-fashioned glass display case and a service counter ran along one wall of the deep, narrow space that she had brightened with sunny yellow paint. On the other wall were shelves and pigeonholes full of fabric samples and threads from all over the globe. A row of circular display racks holding pattern charts and kits filled the middle of the main floor. Every bit of wall space was covered with a variety of finished projects: cross-stitched pictures, bell pulls, afghans, bookmarks and everything else that could be decorated with threads. Stairs led up to an overhead half loft she used for classes and extra storage.

   The solid wood floor and the high ceiling were original. The water pipes in back rattled like chains on Halloween. The furnace was cantankerous. Summer business was crazy, winter nearly dead, ordering the right stock a crapshoot and staying in the black an ongoing challenge. Despite everything, Pauline dreamed of expanding.

   After she put her purse and laptop in the tiny office tucked behind the staircase, she called Bertie Hemple-mann, an older woman who worked part-time in exchange for floss and fabric. Bertie agreed to fill in for a couple of hours so Pauline could leave.

   With that problem solved, she counted money into the register and finished unpacking a carton of British cross-stitch books. While she worked, she hummed a jingle that had lodged into her brain on the way to work.

   For the last five years, Uncommon Threads had been hers. She loved every square inch of space and each moment she spent here. With each sale she made and each month she turned a profit, she took another small step toward regaining her self-respect and putting the past further behind.

   At ten o’clock sharp she unlocked the front door and flipped the hanging sign from Closed to Open. When she wasn’t helping the customers who trickled in, she unpacked cartons of kits, restocked the swivel racks and opened her morning mail. Along with a stack of invoices and bills was a brochure from a big needlework show in the Midwest that made her salivate. Someday, she promised herself as the bell over the door jangled merrily, signaling a new arrival.

   “Hi, Paulie,” called out the tiny woman who owned the import shop next door. Lang, whose name meant “sweet potato” in Vietnamese, had elbowed open the door while she’d balanced a cardboard holder with two steaming lattes.

   “Is it that time already?” Pauline asked, startled. She and Lang had gotten into the habit of sharing their morning break while Lang’s husband, Dao, minded their shop next door.

   Pauline bit her lip. “I’m going to be gone later, so I shouldn’t take a break,” she said after she’d thanked Lang for the hot drink.

   “You want me to leave now?” Lang asked. “You need Howie to mind the store for you?” Howie was her American-born son who helped out in the family business part-time when he wasn’t in school.

   “No, stay,” Pauline replied, blowing on her coffee to cool it. “It’s okay. I called Bertie.”

   “You aren’t unwell, are you?” Lang asked, perching on the spare chair behind the counter. It seemed as though the only times she or her husband ever missed work were to see the doctor or, once in a while, to watch Howie play baseball for the local high school team, the Bobcats.

   Pauline was tempted to say she was going to see the insurance agent, since Lang knew about the damage to her garage roof. Instead she explained as briefly as she could about her new boarder.

   Lang tipped her head to the side like a bird, her black eyes twinkling with mischief. “And this Mr. Wade, is he handsome?” she teased.

   The heat that warmed Pauline’s cheeks had nothing to do with the steam from her latte. “Um, I suppose.” Her attempted nonchalance was ruined when she shrugged and almost spilled the contents of her cup onto her dress.

   “You didn’t notice?” Lang shook her head. “What am I going to do with you?” She refused to believe that Pauline enjoyed the independence of being single. For Lang, family was everything.

   Face flaming, Pauline ducked her head. “I noticed,” she admitted, annoyed at her inability to lie convincingly.

   She was—quite literally—saved by the bell when the front door opened to admit Harriet Tuttle, president of the needlework guild, matriarch of local society and self-appointed keeper of the town’s morals.

   Immediately Lang got to her feet. “Good morning, Harriet,” she said with a polite smile.

   Harriet acknowledged the Vietnamese woman with a chilly nod before switching her attention to Pauline. Behind Harriet’s back, Lang rolled her eyes.

   “I must get back,” Lang said.

   “See you later,” Pauline replied before meeting Harriet’s beady-eyed stare with her best shopkeeper’s smile. “What can I do for you today?”

   “I heard that a tree fell onto your carriage house during the storm,” Harriet said.

   “Bad news travels fast,” Pauline replied, wishing the phone would ring. Not only was the older woman one of the worst gossips in town, but her husband was one of the Crescent Cove city council members who would be vetting Pauline’s application. “Actually it was a limb that fell, not an entire tree.”

   Harriet sniffed as though she didn’t care to be corrected, even by the primary witness. “Who have you contracted to fix the damage?” she persisted as she glanced around. “Not that Steve Lindstrom, I hope?”

   For a moment, Pauline was puzzled by Harriet’s apparent hostility. Blond, blue-eyed native resident Steve should fall within her narrow parameters of who was an acceptable member of their community—even though he was divorced, which probably earned him a black mark in her book.

   Suddenly Pauline recalled hearing that one of Harriet’s sons had recently started his own construction business. Was that why she had stopped by—to drum up work for him?

   “The repairs are really pretty minor,” Pauline explained, fingers crossed behind her back. “My new boarder is actually going to do them.”

   Harriet’s bushy white brows arched above the silver frames of her glasses. Her upper lip curled with scorn, drawing attention to the thin mustache that adorned it.

   “You hired a female contractor?” As someone who prided herself on knowing everything that went on in the town, she was well aware that Pauline only rented her rooms to women.

   Until now, at least.

   Before Pauline could reply, Harriet made an irritating tsking sound. “My dear, despite popular opinion, there are certain tasks that women will never have the strength or the dexterity to perform as well as men.” She patted her own bony chest. “When I was younger, I certainly wouldn’t have been interested in using tools,” she continued as though the term were something obscene, “or climbing ladders like some sort of monkey from the jungle.”

   Pauline blinked away the disturbing image that came to mind of Harriet looking like a female Tarzan or wearing a hard hat and safety goggles as she cut through a sheet of plywood with a power saw. Although Pauline abhorred the notion of pounding people into narrow slots like wooden pegs, she couldn’t afford to alienate the old crone.

   Knowing Harriet would consider it a blemish on Pauline’s character if she were to hear the truth from another source, Pauline pretended a calmness she didn’t feel. She rearranged some of the thread cutters and clip-on lights in the display case while she debated her options.

   “Mr. Garrett is newly returned from California,” she finally admitted. “He needed a place to stay, so we worked an agreement.”

   “Garrett?” Harriet echoed with a frown. “I don’t recall that name.” She sniffed again. “I certainly hope you know what you’re about.”

   Pauline held on to her temper by reminding herself silently of just how much influence Harriet wielded in this town. Her family, the Barthropes, had been among the first settlers to the area—a fact she never let anyone forget.

   Pauline made a noncommittal sound in her throat that she hoped would satisfy the old bat.

   “How fortunate that you have the rooms over the carriage house,” Harriet continued. “A woman in your position must guard her reputation, especially after the unfortunate events in your past.”

   Pauline nearly choked. Was Harriet referring to her parents’ accident or her own broken engagement? Pauline could hardly be held accountable for either of the two most heartbreaking events of her life, but it was obvious that to Harriet they were merely blots on her reputation.

   Before Pauline could think of a suitable reply, Harriet leaned forward and tapped her arm. The touch of Harriet’s bony fingers sent a shiver up Pauline’s spine, but she resisted the urge to retreat.

   “If you were to attract any further negative attention,” the old woman said with a cool smile, “I would be forced to oppose your application to the city council. After all, a person who sets herself up as an example to others must conduct herself in a manner that is above reproach.”

   Chapter Three

   Bertie straightened her long green dress over her considerable girth. “Don’t look now,” she muttered under her breath as the front door opened and she grabbed Pauline’s arm to prevent her from turning around. “A major hottie just wandered in. Probably got lost looking for Archie’s Pub,” Bertie added in a loud whisper.

   Pauline had a pretty good idea who’d just arrived. She had summoned Bertie as soon as Wade had let her know he’d finished the supply list. Ignoring Pauline’s protests, he’d insisted on picking her up here rather than meeting her at Builders’ Supply.

   Even though Pauline told herself now that she had only given in to his macho demands for the sake of expediency, a knot of anticipation formed in her stomach as she extricated herself from Bertie’s loose grasp. What would he think of her little business?

   “That’s no hottie, it’s my new tenant,” Pauline replied drily before she pasted on her best welcoming smile. “Hello, Wade,” she said, ignoring Bertie’s gusty sigh. “I hope you didn’t have any trouble finding me.”

   He removed his sunglasses and hooked them into the neck of his shirt. “No problem. Downtown’s where it always was.”

   His smile stirred a visceral response in Pauline. Silently she agreed with Bertie’s comment. If his rangy build and lean, angular face weren’t enough to ensure him a spot on the all-time hottie list, the contrast between his black hair and light-gray eyes certainly was.

   Ruthlessly she pushed the thought aside as Bertie muffled her giggle behind her hand.

   “Bertie, this is Wade Garrett, my new boarder.” She stepped aside so the other woman couldn’t duck behind her. She knew that Bertie could be extremely shy around strangers because of her size.

   “Hi,” Bertie murmured, her gaze dropping to the floor.

   Instead of dismissing her with a glance, as sometimes happened, his smile widened and he stepped forward. When Bertie, who was barely five feet tall and nearly as wide, glanced back up, he held out his hand.

   “Thank you for stepping in so I can borrow your boss for a couple of hours,” he told her gravely as he enfolded her hand in both of his.

   Before Pauline could protest that their errand shouldn’t take that long, Bertie nodded her head like a Bobblehead doll. “She works way too hard.”

   Wade leaned closer, causing her dark eyes to widen with alarm. “Maybe we can fix that,” he said in a conspiratorial tone before releasing her hand. “I invited her to lunch.”

   Bertie’s answering smile transformed her round face. “That’s a good start.”

   “Hey,” Pauline protested, “you don’t need to talk about me as though I weren’t standing right here.”

   Wade and Bertie exchanged amused glances. “Testy,” he observed. “She definitely needs some fresh air.”

   “Take as long as you want,” Bertie said. “I can manage just fine.”

   Pauline knew she couldn’t win against both of them, so she grabbed her purse from behind the counter before they managed to embarrass her further.

   When she noticed how intently Wade was looking around, she was tempted to ask if he was a secret stitcher, as she thought of men who hid their needlework hobby. Somehow the image of Wade working a cross-stitch pattern wouldn’t quite gel in her mind.

   “I’ll be back as soon as I can,” she told Bertie, making her escape without bothering to see if he was following her.

   “Feel better now that you’ve asserted yourself?” he teased as he reached around her to open the front door.

   The amusement in his voice irked her further. “I’ll feel better if my garage roof gets repaired before the next storm,” she snapped as she headed outside, only to stop abruptly when she realized she had no idea where he’d parked.

   “So you’re going to be in a bad mood until it’s done?” he asked cheerfully as he led the way to his car, which was parked prominently in front of Lang’s shop.

   Pauline had been about to insist that she wasn’t in a bad mood, but then she took a deep breath and reconsidered.

   “I’m sorry,” she said quickly before getting into his car. “Could we go back and start over?”

   He stared down at her, obviously surprised by her abrupt reversal. What an unpleasant woman he must have decided her to be—and who could blame him?

   “If we go back, does that mean I’d have to give up this prime parking spot?” he asked.

   She was about to ask what he was talking about when she saw the humor lurking in his eyes. “No, not good enough,” she said in an equally serious tone. “I’m afraid that really starting over means you have to drive back to San Francisco.”

   To her surprise, a fleeting frown crossed his face before he smiled and gestured for her to get into his car. “Let’s just go on from here,” he suggested, leaning down to tuck in the edge of her skirt.

   When he shut the door, it occurred to her that she had no idea what he had done in California or why he’d left. Perhaps he couldn’t return.

   A string of possibilities marched through her mind. Was he on the run? A recently released ex-con, ashamed of his past? A grifter in search of his next victim? A car thief? A serial killer?

   Oblivious to her dark thoughts, Wade slid behind the wheel, donned his sunglasses and started the engine.

   “Which way?” he asked, glancing in his rearview mirror before pulling out.

   Reminding herself that Bertie knew where she had gone and with whom, Pauline relaxed against the luxurious leather seat. The instrument panel was made from some exotic wood—real, not some phony laminate—and the carpet beneath her feet was as thick as her neighbor Mrs. O’Connelly’s brogue. “Follow Harbor Avenue up the long hill,” she directed him. “When you get to the top, you’ll see the big sign on the right. Turn into the parking lot.”

   They rode slowly in silence while he braked for all the jaywalking pedestrians who stepped into the street without looking.

   “So you worked construction down in California?” she asked as they drove past the marina.

   “I was a partner in an investment firm,” he replied after an infinitesimal pause.

   She couldn’t have been more surprised if he had told her that he used to be an astronaut. Imagining him in a silver space suit was only slightly more difficult than a dress shirt and tie.

   “Do you plan to open an office here?” she asked. If a good profile was an indication of noble character, she had no worries. His was positively elegant.

   Wade stopped at a red light and glanced at her, but his shades hid his expression. “Don’t people in this town invest their money?” he asked. “Or do they just bury it, like pirate booty?”

   “For the most part, they work hard for it,” she cautioned. “They may not be eager to entrust it to a stranger.”

   “I’m not a total stranger,” he replied. “My grandfather, Morris Garrett, worked in the mill here. When I was a kid, I came up to see him a couple of times during summer vacation.” He accelerated when the light turned green. “I’ve been seriously considering a career change, though, so it may not matter.”

   “If you become a full-time handyman, you’ll have to trade your car in for a pickup truck with oversize tires and a toolbox in the back,” she teased, expecting him to deny the idea.

   His expression was unreadable. “I’ve learned that giving up material goods isn’t that difficult,” he said enigmatically before slowing for the turn into Builders’ Supply. “Is this place always so busy?”

   Even though his previous comment stirred her curiosity, she had no choice but to go along with the change of subject. To do otherwise would invite him to return the favor and question her about things she would rather not discuss.

   “Restoring the old Victorians has gotten quite popular,” she said as they drove down the row. “Some of them sell for over a million dollars.”

   “Have you ever considered selling your house?” he asked as he slid into an empty spot. “Maintaining a place like that must be a lot of work.” Perhaps he was thinking about going into real estate.

   “No, I would never consider selling Mayfield Manor,” she replied, unfastening her seat belt. “Someday I hope to finish the renovation that my mother started.”

   “A noble ambition,” he said as they walked together toward the entrance.

   As they passed the outdoor display of plant pots and barbecues, Pauline spotted a big man with shaggy blond hair coming straight toward them.

   “Hi, Steve,” she said. “I should have known you’d be hanging out here.”

   “Hey, doll,” he replied with a grin and a questioning glance at Wade. “Did the tarp hold okay?”

   “Yes, thanks.” She glanced back at Wade, who was hanging back. “Steve Lindstrom, Wade Garrett,” she recited with appropriate gestures.

   The two men exchanged wary nods, hands remaining firmly in their pockets.

   “Sorry I haven’t finished writing up your bid,” Steve told her. “Since the last storm, I’ve been slammed. The price of lumber’s shot up like a rocket, too, so I’ve had to recalculate everything.”

   “Wade’s going to do the repairs for me,” she replied.

   “Oh?” Steve’s gaze sharpened as he took the other man’s measure. “I haven’t seen you around, Garrett.”

   “Wade’s from California,” Pauline explained hastily. “He’s staying at the house, so we made a deal.”

   Steve’s eyebrows shot up. “I see,” he drawled knowingly.

   A muscle jumped in Wade’s cheek, but he remained silent. Pauline refused to justify herself in front of an audience, but she was beginning to feel as though she should have cards printed up.

   It’s just business.

   “Well, let me know if you need any help,” Steve said with a nod at Wade. “Garrett.”

   “Lindstrom,” Wade replied gravely.

   “Thanks, Steve,” Pauline said, marveling at the male protocol, so different from that of her own sex.

   “Steve’s the contractor I originally thought you worked for,” she explained once he was out of earshot.

   “Oh, the contractor,” Wade echoed, snapping his fingers. “I guess his attitude had me fooled.”

   “What do you mean?” she asked as she led the way into the store.

   “He seemed a little territorial,” he replied. “As in, personal relationship.”

   His comment caught her off guard and she didn’t even think about it being none of his business. “I’ve known him forever, but I don’t rob cradles,” she protested. “He was two years behind me in school and he dated my sister, so that makes him kind of a surrogate brother.” For some reason she didn’t fully understand, she wanted Wade to know that she wasn’t interested in Steve romantically.

   “Good to know,” Wade murmured.

   She didn’t bother to puzzle out his comment as she reached the door to the store manager’s office. “I’ll see about opening an account,” she said instead. “Where should I meet you?”

   He glanced around. “I’ll be over in roofing.”

   As Wade walked away from his landlady-slash-boss, he reminded himself that he wasn’t doing half bad after a shaky start with Wallingford and his damned lease. Wade had shelter and work to keep him occupied, while the truck with the rest of his stuff would be here this afternoon. So what was his problem?

   It certainly didn’t have anything to do with meeting Pauline’s friend, Steve-o, or the fact that he’d called her “doll,” as if they had something going despite her protest to the contrary. When had Wade become afraid of a little competition when it came to a woman who interested him?

   Perhaps it had begun with his castration back in Frisco. Apparently Sharon had cut off more than the obvious, but that was going to change.

   By the time Pauline caught up with Wade a little while later, he’d found everything on his supply list.

   “Sorry I took so long,” she said, slightly out of breath. “I ran into a customer from the shop who was here with her husband. They were picking out paint colors for their living room and I couldn’t get away from them.”

   “No problem,” he replied, amused by her obvious agitation. “I ordered everything I need to start the job. It will be delivered in the morning.”

   “That’s great.” Her face lost its anxious appearance. “Where’s the invoice?”

   The young clerk who had been helping Wade stepped forward. “I just printed it up for your husband, ma’ am. All I need is a signature.”

   Wade took the form. “Did you want to check it over first, sweetheart?” he asked Pauline with a lecherous grin.

   She batted her eyes at him coyly. “Why, yes, honey. I know how crazy you can get when it comes to remodeling projects.” She turned to the clerk, who looked distinctly uncomfortable. “You should see our garage,” she confided. “I swear the man owns every power tool on the market.”

   Wade rested his hand on her shoulder possessively. “Believe me, my tools don’t compare to her antique doorknob collection. I swear I should buy stock in eBay, for all the time and money the little woman spends there.”

   Pauline sent him a look that promised retribution. “I think we’ve wasted enough of this poor man’s time, sugar buns. If I could just peek at the invoice, we could all move on.”

   Wondering whether she intended to question each item, Wade handed it over. Quickly she skimmed the list before signing the bottom.

   “Thank you for keeping him from buying out the store,” Pauline told the young clerk. “Sometimes it’s like a sickness. He can’t seem to help himself.”

   “Yes, ma’am.” He was careful not to look at Wade, who was having trouble keeping a straight face. “Have a nice day, and good luck with your doorknobs.”

   Wade couldn’t resist leaning closer. “Come on, baby cakes,” he murmured, breath tickling her ear. “Let’s get some lunch.”

   Pauline had meant to insist that he take her straight back to the shop, but instead she found herself seated across from him at a small seafood place by the marina. It was barely more than a shack, but the food was good and the booths were comfortable.

   After they seated themselves, he removed his sunglasses and set them on the scarred table. “What’s good here?” he asked as he turned over the laminated card that served as a menu.

   Pauline didn’t bother looking at hers. “Everything,” she replied, realizing she was starved. “But my favorite is the fish chowder. It’s never the same, but it’s always delicious.”

   A young waitress she didn’t recognize came over to take their orders. She was wearing a pink uniform with a short skirt and thick-soled white shoes that squeaked when she walked.

   “What can I bring ya?” she asked, jaws working a wad of gum as she pulled a pencil and pad from her apron pocket. Her eyebrow was pierced with a small silver hoop and an elaborate tattoo circled one thin wrist in stark contrast to her outfit.

   “I’ll have a cup of the chowder, a Caesar side salad and iced tea,” Pauline replied.

   “Same here,” Wade chimed in. “But bring me a bowl of the chowder instead of a cup.”

   “A doorknob collection?” Pauline demanded after the waitress had left. “Couldn’t you come up with anything a little less nerdy? Antique snuffboxes or African art maybe.”

   He shrugged helplessly. “I saw a display behind you,” he said without a hint of apology. “Could have been worse.”

   “Yes, I’m fortunate that we weren’t standing in the plumbing department,” she agreed as the waitress brought their iced teas.

   Wade’s appreciative chuckle made her feel extremely clever.

   “Speaking of tools,” he said after he’d dumped two packets of sugar into his glass and stirred it energetically, “I’m meeting the guy with my stuff in front of the Safeway store at three, so I’ll be ready to start ripping off the old material in the morning.” He drank some tea. “Oh,” he added, “I ordered a Dumpster. It’ll be delivered this afternoon.”

   Pauline tore her gaze from his tanned throat. Carefully she picked the seeds from her lemon wedge before plopping it back into her glass. “Good idea. Did you rent a storage unit for your things?” He probably owned a lot of fancy furniture and sports equipment. Judging from the long, ropy muscles in his arms, he certainly didn’t look like someone who sat around playing video games on his computer and eating snack chips.

   “Sure did,” he replied. “That place by the courthouse seemed reasonable, and there’s decent security.”

   “So you’re planning to stay in Crescent Cove for a while?” she probed gently.

   “If things work out,” he said enigmatically.

   She doubted he was referring to the repairs to her roof, but she resisted the urge to ask. Experience had taught her that asking personal questions invited the same in return. He would hear the gossip soon enough.

   The waitress set down their salads, returning immediately with their chowder and a basket of individually wrapped crackers. “Anything else?” she asked, chewing her gum as though she were beating eggs.

   When they both shook their heads, she tore their check from her pad and slapped it down between them. “You can pay up front.”

   Pauline reached for the check, but Wade beat her. “My invitation, my treat,” he said, waving it triumphantly.

   “It’s not a date,” she protested, nipping it from his hand. “It’s just part of doing business.”

   He tipped his head to the side as he studied her, his perusal making her uncomfortable. Perhaps she should let him pay.

   “What would constitute a date in your estimation?” he asked, sprinkling pepper onto his salad.

   She considered the question carefully as she leaned forward to inhale the steam from her chowder. “A date is a social occasion that normally takes place between two people who want to get to know each other better.”

   Lord, she sounded as prissy as an old spinster reciting from a Victorian social guide for the corset-prone.

   “Hmm.” Wearing a thoughtful expression, Wade began eating.

   “What do you mean, hmm?” she demanded, unable to help herself.

   He chewed and swallowed with a maddening lack of haste, his gaze never wavering from her face. Finally, feeling self-conscious, she began picking at her salad.

   “Using your definition, are you dating anyone at the moment?” he asked.

   The unexpected question flustered her. “That’s rather personal, don’t you think?”

   Wade unwrapped a little packet of crackers. “I’m new around here, remember? I’m not prying. I’m trying to get to know the locals.”

   She had no idea how that related to her dating status, but the current dry spell in her social life was no dark secret. “No, I’m not seeing anyone at the moment,” she replied. “What about you? Will your family be joining you?”

   He shook his head. “I’m divorced, no kids.”

   She waited for him to continue, but he resumed eating.

   “I’m sorry,” she murmured, nearly stumbling on the lie. She was surprised that her nose didn’t grow like Pinocchio’s, but she would streak downtown naked before she would admit that his single status was good news. “Was it recent?” she ventured.

   His eyes seemed to ice over and a muscle twitched in his cheek, so she was surprised when he answered. “Nearly a year. Have you ever been married?”

   Turnabout was fair play, and it served her right for being nosy. “Not quite,” she admitted, dismayed that the subject could still tighten a knot in her stomach well over a decade after the fact. “I was engaged once, but it didn’t work out.” What an understatement! Carter Black had changed her life.

   “My turn to say sorry,” Wade said, distracting her from the past, “but I don’t think I’ll bother.”

   Still pushing aside the bad memories, she wasn’t sure what he meant, but she realized it was time for a change of subject.

   Before she could come up with something totally innocuous, he spoke again.

   “What’s it like to grow up in a small town with the same bunch of people?” he asked. “Is it boring or comfortable?”

   She took a sip of her iced tea. “A little of both, I guess,” she replied, exchanging waves with two men she knew slightly when they came into the café.

   Wade glanced over his shoulder before turning back to Pauline. “Is it true that you all know everyone else’s business?”

   Her smile felt forced. “People gossip, just like they do anywhere, but I don’t think it’s worse than anywhere else.” It’s only the scandals that people remember, she wanted to add, like when you catch your fiancé kissing another woman. “I take it you didn’t grow up in a small town?” she asked instead.

   He set aside his empty soup bowl. “Me? No, not unless you call Sacramento a small town. We moved around when I was a kid, but always in that same area.”

   “That must have been difficult,” she replied as she glanced at her watch, shocked to see how much time had passed since she’d left the shop. “Always being the new kid.”

   He ran a hand over his short hair. “No kidding. I’ll bet Steve was a jock, though. What did he play, football?”

   “What do you have against jocks?” she asked curiously. “You probably played sports in school.” Wade certainly looked athletic, with his rangy build and muscular arms.

   To her surprise, he chuckled, a nice, masculine sound. “I was a real geek in high school,” he admitted. “Member of the math club, president of the science club. But it was always the athletes who got the babes. You know, the guys with lettermen’s jackets and no necks.”

   An image flashed across Pauline’s mind of Lily and Steve on her prom night, a golden princess in a long pink dress on the arm of her broad-shouldered prince in his rented tux.

   Lily, what happened? She wondered silently. You seemed to be so much in love with each other.

   It sure as heck wasn’t the first time that Pauline had been totally wrong about that emotion, but she didn’t plan to make the same mistake again.

   “I can’t picture you as a geek,” she blurted.

   “I’ll take that as a compliment,” Wade drawled, his smile widening. “Back then, I was skinny and uncoordinated, with a tendency to stammer whenever I tried talking to girls, which wasn’t often. How about you? I’ll bet you were in the popular crowd.”

   “No, my sister was the pretty one.” Pauline fiddled with her straw. “I was a brain, a girl geek, I guess you could say.”

   The intensity of his gaze made her uncomfortable. “Your sister must be something if she’s prettier than you,” he said gallantly.

   She made a production of checking her watch again. “I really should get back to work.”

   “Yeah, me, too. I’ve got a couple of things to do before Frank gets up here with the truck.” He slid from the booth without even trying to wrestle the check from her and donned his sunglasses. “Thanks for lunch. I’ll wait for you outside.”

   “You all come back soon,” the waitress told Pauline after she had paid for their meal and added a generous tip. “Enjoy the afternoon.”

   Wade was leaning against his car, watching an older couple casting lines off their sailboat. When Pauline approached him, her footsteps crunching on the crushed shells of the parking lot, he straightened.

   “You look as though you’d like to join them,” she observed as he held open the passenger door for her. “Do you have a boat?”

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